Why don’t we rewrite the stars…. Like, seriously?

What happens to indie writers when they don’t get 5 stars on their Amazon reviews? What happens when they get a 3 or 3.5 star? If you don’t have a publishing house paying for your advertisements (not that they do an even decent job of book promotion that I’ve observed / you could probably do better yourself), what does it mean to have 5 stars… or even less?

These 5 guys turn out to be important, they’re given weight by buyers with stars in their eyes, but there’s no telling how many of our readers actually stop to check the quality of reviews as they do so. Reviews are a bit of a crystal ball, it turns out. Or they can be.

Not all reviews are created equal. I’m pulling on some stats that came from a really brilliant Amazon data review in 2013 (A Statistical Analysis of 1.2 Million Amazon Reviews) but there are newer — though somewhat less openly accessible numbers — to rely on for you mad-statisticians to math with!

Max Woolf, a data scientist with credentials reaching into Buzzfeed and back to Apple, is responsible for some of my insights here. The rest of the supposition (and whinging)? That’s all me.

Astronomy vs. Astrology

People who run the numbers on Amazon and other book sales sites are looking at solid market behaviour. I consider them astronomers — star-gazers who have real data and can make and test hypotheses. They can project ahead, sort of like the Data Guy does. This separates them from the rest of us muddlers who engage in, to some degree, the astrology of stargazing. Oddly, Amazon reviews — all reviews, really — work the exact same way. There are helpful and unhelpful reviewers, according to Amazon’s metrics, but it may be more truthful to say is that some reviews carry more weight than others.

“All the longer reviews have high helpfulness; there are very, very few unhelpful reviews that are also long.”

Max Woolf

Reviews are opinions, of course, but Amazon won’t let you come in and write a review that consists entirely of ‘U suck’, or ‘Great book’! There’s a minimum character requirement. Which means there’s an effort that must be made. That, alone, weeds out a lot of casual trolls and haters. A 100 character + minimum? Too much work! Also, Amazon’s helpful/unhelpful rating of reviews can be used to weed out personal attacks, and junk reviews, foisted on authors (we’ve seen this with even top-sellers, a la ‘It’s x because she’s Mormon’). But authors aren’t allowed to sculpt, or even delete reviews the way you might on, say, Fanfiction.net. This is good, because as a consumer, you see peoples’ honest opinions and not a statistical skew, and bad, because, in a massive machine like Amazon, it’s nigh impossible to contest a review no matter how it might attempt to blackball, or even gaslight.

‘Light ’em up, up, up. I’m on fiiiii-yah!’ Courtesy of Fall-Out Boy. Ahem. Okay. No more singing. Gotcha.

It may be wise to be wary, even when a 3-star comes up. I’ve gotten glowing reviews before ‘I loved the book!’ that were 3-star. Not all people agree on what the star ratings in Amazon really mean, but we still base book purchases off of them.

Truthfully, there’s nothing tying star ratings to any specific type of review. They’re essentially the next galaxy over from their associated review text. One, in no way, has to reflect the real content of the other. Now: Is this bad?

Your fate is written in the stars… or is it?

Yes. Sort of. Also no.

I’ve seen blogs purporting the doom of whole genres due to 5 star reviews, and, I admit, a book with 5 stars across hundreds or thousands of readers is a rare thing. It’s a benchmark, J.K. Rowling, ‘era-founding’ thing. But I think readers usually are being honest, even when they have no idea how to write an actual, book-oriented review, and this is despite the spat of paid-reviews from Fiverr that has Amazon totally discounting the reviews of indie writers on any other book (why not throw the baby out with the bathwater, Amazon — it’s just a baby, right?). As writers, I doubt we have any place extolling the idea that reviewers should be assholes instead of fans: be tougher, be critical, be x, y, z, ‘You’re not being honest enough!‘ (yes, I’ve seen it). Writers probably have zero business in their own reviews — or so I’ve learned. It’s reader-response driven, and reviews really do have the power to bring out a writer’s dark-side. (I’ve been there – reviews can be a bit like alcohol, you gotta cut yourself off before you have a capital-P Problem).

Stop reading them and they’ll go awaaaaaay. (A.k.a. No they won’t, but fewer therapist bills may follow. 😀)

A large number of 5-stars can, in fact, look suspicious in big number sets. But I doubt it’s as damning as to sink the entire enterprise of indie authorship (as I’ve also read in blogs). Amazon Prime TV series can have 4.5 and 5 reviews across huge numbers of people and survive. So can indie books. We’re not magic fairies, after all. I’d like for some blogger to sweep in and and tell those reviewers ‘You aren’t being honest enough‘. Riiight. Because we have the authority to police our readers. What horse-poop.

Light ’em up, up, up! Light ’em – OKAY! Jeeze.

With 510, 434 separate reviewers out of 1.2 million reviews, the sample set is large, but not… what some people might expect. Those 500, 000 odd reviewers must be motivated though. Motivated people tend to be passionate. Passionate people may write longer and more positive reviews (they can also be livid and write more negative ones, btw). The numbers demonstrated that the average star-score is also rising over time — an indication that reviewers are learning the system, and, perhaps, thinning out as reviews become more normalized and less faddish (again this last bit is review-astrology).

Point is, the numbers point at what I call a passion-trend in reviews.

Skyview coordinates + star numerology

More than half of the reviews give a 5-star rating. Aside from perfect reviews, most reviewers give 4-star or 1-star ratings, with very few giving 2-stars or 3-stars relatively.

Max Woolf

I can’t know the mind of reviewers, but this was useful data to me! What does this 1.2 million review data-set find re. how consumers comprehend star ratings? Basically, this is what I take from the statistics:

  • If people went through the trouble to write a review a lot of them are passionate enough about the subject to either give it:
    • a 5SO worthwhile!
    • or a 1Die in fire, product!
  • If they gave it a 4-star that’s a strong recommendation. Rejoice!
  • 2 and 3 stars are neutral / may not exist / a phenomenon I call Schrödinger’s review.
  • 1 star reviews deserve a read to see if the person is fair in their criticism. Are they:
    • Furious about the product for legitimate reasons?!
    • Attacking unrelated elements like shipping, the condition of the box, packaging, or angry that the post does X?
    • Unfairly attacking the writer (passive-aggressively or otherwise) him- or herself?

Basically, I saw an inverted Bell Curve with a skew to the direction of higher numbers. Customers appear to be feeling-out (or averaging out) consensus on what the star-rating system at Amazon means. Maybe readers are going back to books and writers that reward their interests? Maybe Amazon’s categories and keywords are becoming more refined? I’m not sure, but, for me, the numbers shed some light on the matter!

How about you?


The romance and mystery of Cardinal Machines

Cardinal Machines is available on Amazon as an e-book, or paperback, at last! I tackled this book a little differently than I’ve written any other novel, let me tell you, and — maybe as a consequence — it was a blast.

For starters, the mega-powerful Cardinal family, with their young sleuth in the wings, was an old idea I’d researched in the past, but rejected. It seemed to be missing something, and that was saying a lot, considering how attached I became to Zoey, who forged ahead even while the repeated shells of loss blew holes in her life. She was brave, tough, and bleeding, even if she was healing. I thought this was perfect fodder for a Young Adult gumshoe. But something was off, so I set it on the back burner.

It took me a while to understand what was missing was a reason for Zoey to hope again. More specifically, I needed someone to come in under her radar and create grounds for her to let down her defenses. The well-defended fortress had to open herself up to potential joy — and, thereby, potential pain — again. But she was too far gone to let down the drawbridge for anyone. So, what could I do about that?

I could write a near-future science fiction. That’s what.

Enter the C001-Oisín, whose Irish name I Americanized into Ocean — or so I imagined it would be pronounced (it’s actually ‘Ohsheen’ — means deer). The Ocean android is a service unit, not a person, and he ends up in the creaky, old, Victorian Zoey inherited from her uncle, almost by accident. True to his name, Ocean’s stealthy and beautiful. He’s also very good at his work — law enforcement. Sort of. Being that he’s an android, he isn’t granted true legitimacy. But Zoey soon discovers he’s the perfect partner for an up-and-coming Private Investigator.

Once I had fit these two pieces together, the story, long dammed up, and now enhanced with androids and futurism, poured out in a couple of weeks. I was overjoyed and remain that way, adoring these characters.

Yes. Zoey is haunted and injured by her past, but she doesn’t know the meaning of quit. And, certainly, Ocean is an artificial lifeform, but he’s hopeful, headstrong, and often, sadly, ‘the only adult in the room. So, I hope you join me for these mysteries and the unlikely love story threaded through them!


Zoey Collins, as she prefers to call herself, is actually Katherine Zoey Cardinal of a famed Artificial Intelligence company called ‘Cardinal Machines’. Along with her breathtaking Ocean unit, Zoey tackles the mystery of a dead man in a seaside park, and all the popular-kid pool-parties the investigation throws at them.

Dat Cover, folks.

You’ve written a book and, proofed it, read it through more than once for problems, including once aloud. Now… about that cover.

Covers are tricky beasts. I have one friend who wants to make the cover himself. He’s – pardon the irony here – dead set on it. A talented plotter and writer, he wants to use generic Hubble photos with some tweaks. And there’s no dissuading him either. I’ve tried. But just because there’s no way to sway him, doesn’t mean there’s no way to warn others: Covers can be considered your single best piece of advertisement for your book. So it’s best to give them time, and consideration. Art is not incidental and shouldn’t be arbitrary. The cover won’t be ignored.

So, let’s get this out of the way: the content of your books are judged by the cover. Really, that’s the first hint that a reader has about who is in the book and what’s going on inside, so it’s impossible to judge them harshly here. In fact, many readers make a rainbow out of their bookshelves, it’s a whole meme, the cover’s so important (part of what I don’t like about CreateSpace is the inability to dress up the spine of a book, for example). That means, if your cover is a kid’s disproportional and unprofessional drawing, your book could easily be considered amateurish. Likewise, if you use a tonne of different fonts, glaringly bad colour choices, boxy photos from google searches (which could get you in real trouble if the image belongs to someone) … in short, if you wander into these pitfalls, including covers that have little to nothing to do with the book, and doing the design yourself, you could adversely impact your book.

Wow Im Toast
Said the woman who used a pic of a smiling unicorn holding a bouquet of lug-wrenches, because it was the first thing that showed up in Search for ‘roadside miracles’. Don’t be that woman… even though she’s got really good hair. (I mean, damn!)

So what do you do?

You pay a professional designer / artist, is what. And, though you can have discussions and make lots of suggestions… don’t argue with the artist. The amount of disagreement you do usually reduces with the amount of experience they have. Make sure you look at their work first, and then… trust them. You chose them for a reason, and you can be explicit about what you’re paying for: these folks know what they’re doing. Your final product may need a few tweaks in Photoshop or Pixlr (ahem, the latter is free), but you will have accomplished the one thing many writers take too much for granted: you will have made a great advertisement for your work!

Me? I’m an artist. I have a strong image of what I want in my head when I think of a cover. So what do I do? I realize I’m not a designer. I’m not a book-cover designer. That’s why I work with those types. These cover designers are artists in their own right, often trained in the type of technologies you just don’t want to mess with. Work with them, and don’t discount the importance of your cover. After all, what readers see is the first thing anyone will know about your book.

Make the first impression count!

Making artwork for another writer….

There are few things more challenging, I swear, than the work of an artist on Commission! If you know one, be kind with their time and hear them out, if you are one, hats off to you — may you get paid often and commissioned well! Myself? I volunteered to work with another writer to work on the concept of her cover.

It’s just my luck (and, boy, did I luck out!) that she happens to be a veteran of commissioning artists properly, you know, with the proper money saved-up, a good relationship with the artist, and the ability to listen and cooperate well. (I’ve certainly heard horror stories of pay withheld, and customers deriding artists and calling them selfish for charging a fee! But experienced none of these.) From her keen ideas for the book — something of a fairytale retelling, all about a healer — I came up with a watercolour painting that highlighted the healer’s critical role as community medicine woman.

What this girl is training to do is not neat and tidy, not the fluffy dress and slow dance of a fairytale — she’ll get to that, I’m sure — but it’s powerful and mystical just the same. Believe me! 🙂 I’m eager to see what she will choose for the final cover!


Watercolour — erm, watercolor if you’re in the USA — by me! I read the book and came to this image! The book is actually quite good, and I ended up rooting for the heroine!





#MeToo destroys movie writing?

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Show
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JANUARY 07: In this handout photo provided by NBCUniversal, Presenters Natalie Portman and Ron Howard speak onstage during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images). Feel the burn, folks!

Did ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ shake its finger at the #MeToo movement, yesterday? Its article, titled ‘How the #MeToo Movement Could Kill Some Sexy Hollywood Movies’ described a cooling off in the Hollywood movie-making industry regarding sexually explicit material (as if the massive flip-side of the film industry there, the porn industry, has skipped a beat – pardon the pun).

The article quotes one entertainment attorney cum producer, Marc Simon, as saying “There may be a concern in this zero tolerance climate that creativity and creative opportunity could be restrained because individuals may become unwilg to put themselves in situations that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued in the creative process.”

If #MeToo sounds a death knell, maybe we should be asking ourselves for whom the bell tolls? We can expect that, among other responses, a soft-core resistance to #MeToo will rear its head in the media and among those who feel persecuted by this cultural change. I won’t claim that the Hollywood Reporter article, which is more of a laying out of facts regarding Hollywood filmmakers’ intuitions about what will hit and miss in the movie market, is quite the same thing, but… it may be a reporting of just that. Claiming there is a viewership change in taste away from more racy and graphic movies toward more ‘chaste’ offerings due to #MeToo, or that the film industry is suffering #MeToo ‘casualties’ (movies unmade, rather than women violated), does implicate the people behind #MeToo of stifling creativity and even censorship. It clearly defines the victims as – you guessed it – the movie studios.

Charming as this is, it’s very false. Sex-appeal isn’t dying out in the American movie-making, it’s evolving. The change ushered in by #MeToo is as much a revelation as a condemnation. The truth is coming out, and with it there’s a clear indictment of what’s been called ‘Male Gaze’ and its dominance over American public life. All those Directors who looked uncomfortable when black-clad Golden Globes presenter Natalie Portman pointed out not a single nominee for Best Director was a woman? They’re used to telling only one female story from only one female perspective – that of men interpreting women. They should feel uncomfortable. With such a statistical skew, it’s weird up in there. Maybe they understand that. And if they do, they should come straight out and admit it. Now is the time for that sort of unburdening!

Actress Natalie Portman lights up as she drops a verbal bomb cyclone on the Golden Globes audience. Reactions ranged from discomfort to disgust to open admiration. Ron Howard stood beside Portman and seemed highly amused by the startled reactions among his fellow directors.

The roles of women in movies have been morphing. No longer the simpleton side-shows, secondary box-office draws, sex-positions, and bit-part players they’ve been presented as in the past – and IRL on the casting couch, as it turns out – they are now slowly becoming… women. One wonders if the old guard can keep up with the revolution in sex-appeal from one-sided, to, we can hope, well-rounded.

Look. The long and short of it is Lee Pace is not going to stop being sexy any time soon. Neither are folks like Daisy Ridley, Zoe Saldana, or any of our favourite Hollywood-luminaries. Chemistry still works. And if the new sexy now includes a more realistic woman, writers can still write it just fine. Rather than to throw shade at a vital purging like #MeToo, maybe studios need to trust that the writing can accommodate the change in American life that art imitates, and still bring the heat.

Maybe we all need to remember that not all change is bad. 😊




The Dead Set is now a paperback!


It’s true! You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/TheDeadSetPaperback!

For those of you who have tried to get reviews for your ebooks, only to have attempts rebuffed by readers who only review physical books, you can meet them half-way! Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has added a new wrinkle — now you can more easily make your ebook into a print book! If you check your KDP Bookshelf, you should see the ‘Create new title’ section divided into Kindle ebook and paperback.

For existing books, you should find that there is now a ‘+ Create paperback’ button. The wizard behind this button still needs work, it’s true, but it’s already very simple to use, if a little inflexible around cover design (I could add neither ASCII nor Unicode characters to the spine, and a picture for your LLC is not possible; likewise there is no room for graphics except an author graphic on the back cover — which I replaced with a cover swirl).

This is very like a connection or bridge between CreateSpace and KDP, but it is very easy to use for ebookers, and very encouraging! One thing I should like to note is that your manuscript, in Kindle form, is unlikely to be formatted to book size, nor is it likely to have alternating page numbers for printing.


In Word:

  1. Open a copy of your manuscript and click the Layout tab.
  2. Click ‘Size’ in the [Page Setup] section > More paper sizes.
  3. Set the width to 6′ and the height to 9′.
  4. Check every page of your book for blank pages. It will save you time.


If you need to start your page numbers on another page than the first or second page, and you need to alternate page numbers outside to outside for printing, here’s what you do in Word 2016.

  1. Remove any page breaks between, say, your TOC and your Prologue or first chapter. (Anywhere in Word where you clicked Control+Alt+Enter to jump, say, a new chapter heading to a new page).
  2. Put your cursor between the end of the TOC and the beginning of the Prologue or Chapter 1 (you may need to go to Home > Style > Normal to have a normal-sized cursor).
  3. In Word, go to the Layout tab > Breaks > Next Page.
  4. Go to the page where you want to put the first number.
  5. Click the Insert tab > Page Number [Header & Footer section] > Bottom of page > Plain Number 3.
  6. If you still see numbers on the copyright page and the TOC, enter the footers and remove them by selecting them and clicking delete. If the ‘New Page’ break is working, this deletion won’t change the rest of the document’s numbering at all.
  7. Once you are sure the page numbering is as expected, set ‘Different Odd & Even Pages’ in Header and Footer tools.
  8. Insert > Page number > 2 on the second page.
  9. Return to the TOC and make sure it has no number. If it has a number, go to chosen page two and remove it’s ‘Link to Previous’ by clicking Same as Previous on the footer and unchecking ‘Link to Previous’ as it appears in the Navigation section of the Ribbon.

You should be done!

Publishing ‘The Reliquary’ | arting the art


It’s a constant source of amusement for me — and always has been — that people expect one another to be Just One Thing! Where does that expectation begin, I wonder? Surely, I think, it must have to do with that dreaded question so common of child- and young-adulthood:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

Adults seem obsessed with this question. I had it so many times, even in early childhood I felt like leveling with these people – ‘Look. I’m five. Ask a better question.’

Maybe this expectation problem comes from the fact many of us have had no answer to this for years, apart from ‘Who knows?’ That might be why, when we magically transform into taxpaying adults we seem to expect one answer to this question.

When I wrote fan-fiction — a wind-up to / practice for / writing my first fiction books — I wrote Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries. I wrote this character as a polyglot and multi-disciplinary maestro with bona fides in chemistry and… music. During one book I wrote that featured his trademark insouciance and fits of energy at Cambridge University, I was told that no one could graduated a British Uni with a degree in two things, let alone two disparate things. Why, they put you on a path and you only do one thing! This was news to me. I had done something not dissimilar and refused to believe that legions of British people somehow couldn’t accomplish something I could manage. That was a bridge too far.

But people will expect one answer to the question ‘What do you want to do?’, until, after hearing an answer, we all learn to ask ‘And what do you want to do next?’


This is why, for example, writers ‘art’. And artists write. 🙂 And it’s part of why I’m especially proud that this writer and artist is publishing her second book, The Reliquary (Book 2 in The Dead Set ghost-hunting series), tonight.

And for those of you pinned down in the crossfire of your own dreams? There are no rules. So go forth and do next.