Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Trouble with ABNA

The time of year for the ABNA contest is once more fast approaching. On the whole, this contest is a great opportunity to obtain feedback on your work (and a chance at a prestigious prize) and I would recommend it if you have a book in a suitably edited condition. However, last year I had various problems with the contest and the book I entered (Pilgrennon’s Beacon, published through my own company) which I’m going to talk about in this post.

For anyone reading who doesn’t know, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is organised between big publisher Penguin, a magazine called Publishers ‘no apostrophe’ Weekly, big bookseller Amazon, and a company owned by Amazon called Createspace. Createspace is a subsidy publisher/ PoDer and distributor that describes itself using the somewhat oxymoronic term ‘self-publishing service’. The contest is for any novels in the categories Adult and Young Adult, with the specification that the entries must either be unpublished or published in such a way that the author controls the rights (i.e. self published). The winners in these two categories each win a publishing contract with Penguin.

All well and good so far. The books go through three rounds of reviews, and if you make it into the quarterfinals or higher, they post the reviews on an Amazon product page where members of the public can download an excerpt from the book in the Kindle format. This is where it gets problematic. Last year in the quarterfinals I found that the sample download replaced my book’s actual Kindle product in searches and on the paperback’s page. What was even worse was that in the UK people had to pay to download these ‘free’ samples. I sincerely hope nobody paid to download the contest sample of my book thinking it was the actual book. The other big problem was that comments from the reviews that appeared in the item description of this downloadable sample product overwrote the official publisher’s description of the book in all other formats. This meant that someone browsing the book in Amazon would see two abbreviated opinions about a sample in a contest rather than a tagline, description, and select reviews.

The bogus Kindle edition persisted until my entry was eliminated in the semifinals. The product description overwrite was stuck there for months and months, and I sent a string of complaints to Amazon asking them to restore the item descriptions to their publisher settings. I had various replies that ranged from them saying it had been done and the change would appear in the next 24 hours (which it didn’t) to them claiming it was impossible to remove from my own products because the review was sanctioned by Amazon. This culminated in Amazon closing the case and refusing to respond to my emails. About a month later, when I’d lost all hope of my book’s page not being a trainwreck resulting from a competition I’d entered, it inexplicably reverted back to the publisher’s description. This cost me a great deal of inconvenience and annoyance, and my sales in these months were lower than the earlier months when the correct item description had been shown.

Anyway, more about these reviews. At the second round, each entrant receives two reviews from Amazon customers (random Amazon customers who write prolific reviews and who’ve been invited and get some freebies for their time). Great! Opinions from Real Readers! If you get nice reviews, you might even consider adding them to your book’s description (below the publisher’s description, of course). The reviews are usually fair and objective, and when I’ve entered the contest I’ve (touch wood) so far not had a bad one, but keep in mind they are from random members of the public, some of whom may not be interested in books generally or the particular genre of any book they happen to get to review.

There's a big element of pot luck as you don’t know who is going to review your excerpt. One person told me on a private forum that in one of her reviews, the reviewer rubbished her entry and actually wrote that they were only doing the contest because they’d been offered free stuff. A writer-hating misanthrope with an axe to grind could be assigned to review your book, or it could be someone who is short for time and just doesn’t ‘get’ your genre. You could get someone who reviews Airfix models and doesn’t know anything about fiction and what it’s meant to be for. You could have written a book in British or Australian English and get someone who only knows the American version. Or it could be that your book just needs work and the reviewer is giving it a chance and trying to say so as tactfully as possible. This means you could end up with two reviews like this as your item description:

The word ‘color’ dos not contian the letter U.

The author is obviously an old age pensioner who lives with many cats…

Here’s a thread that includes some of the reviews from last year’s contest. If you want to see an example of a thoroughly unprofessional, spittle-flecked ad hominem attack, go to the second page and scroll down to Megan Bostic’s post. Megan Bostic explains that she has a book contract under another name and that she has entered the contest before with favourable results.

Will comments like this help sell your book? Probably not. They say more about the reviewers as ill-informed and judgemental than they do about the book (or even the author, which isn’t what a review worth its salt is about anyway). Should idiotic reviews like this be allowed? Sure. People are entitled to their opinions. And customers looking at the reviews are likely to be intelligent enough to tell the difference between reviews from people who justify why they don’t like a book and people who are being silly or vindictive. The problem is that the item description is not the place to put reviews like this.

On to the Publishers Weekly reviews for entry to the semifinalist round. These tend to be written like summaries with snide remarks inserted. Sometimes they do unprofessional things such as making generalisations about the book’s intended audience or criticise the author rather than the writing. There’s a list of Publishers Weekly reviews from the 2011 contests shared by their authors up here.

Most of these are probably not what you’d choose to have as your item description either, but you may like to snip a short, positive statement (if there is one) from this review to quote.

Suggestion: If your entry is self published, and quite probably even if it isn’t, you need to be aware of these problems. Amazon links products together for the purposes of reviews and sometimes even product descriptions, which is usually to the benefit of the products but which can occasionally lead to nonsensical reviews. An example of this is if someone were to buy an e-book with intrusive DRM, and this person then posted a one-star review advising others not to buy it for this reason. This review also shows up in the reviews of a paperback version, and obviously here it’s not a relevant or valid review of this format. In the case of ABNA, the contest reviews go so far as to overwrite the product description on the product pages of all formats of the book. These reviews might be inappropriate, unprofessional, misspelt, etc. The ‘free’ electronic sample also displaces the genuine Kindle version of your book and makes it invisible when viewed from the paperback’s main page.

Authors of unpublished entries take note: Even data entries from pages that have been deleted seem to be able to persist in Amazon’s system and interfere with the display of other products. This means that, should you later sell your book to a publisher and see it come out a year later, the publisher’s official description and any nice professional reviews they have included may get overwritten by these hidden data fields associated with your name and title. A small publisher that publishes some of my books recently had a problem with a book being maliciously tagged ‘incest’ that ultimately resulted in the publisher having to delete the book and all its reviews and tags and republish it on Amazon. Neither you nor your publisher are likely to be very happy if this happens.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and the best way I’ve come up with to avoid these problems is to enter your book using a dummy title. Most likely, when you were writing the book or came up with the idea, you considered a few titles and one of them stuck. Just choose one of the other ones and go with that. If your book does end up winning, you can always ask to use your preferred title when you get cracking on preparing it for publication with your new editor. I’ve checked the rules of the contest and been unable to find anything that says you must enter your book under the title it’s sold under.

If you’re worried about the publicity generated by the contest not getting directed to the book as a buyable product, don’t be. Contest entries in my experience don’t generate any publicity in the second round and quarterfinals, and I actually found I sold fewer books during the whole course of the contest because of the problems of the missing item description and the sample showing up ahead of the real Kindle edition in searches. Unless you want to waste a lot of time playing popularity games on the ABNA forum at Amazon (and I don’t — I could be spending time with my family, working, or — let’s see — perhaps even writing!) you’re not going to accrue a hoard of reviews (that will disappear at the end of the contest anyway) and you’re not going to turn a hoard of reviews into sales and a pile of money. If you do make it to the finals and manage to generate significant publicity, you can always explain that your book is sold under another title on your website.

ABNA contests opens January 23; see here for more details.

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