Amazon reconsiders reviews?
Posted Dec 1, 2013, 8:32 AM by B. Morris AllenAmazon has been so successful is the product reviews that its customers generate for free. Lately, though, it seems like Amazon has focused more on preventing reviews than encouraging them.
I started using Amazon in 1998. Not exactly from its very inception, but only three years after they started selling books. I've been pretty happy with them as both a reader and a writer. I rated the (hundreds of) books I bought, but only occasionally posted reviews, mostly of albums by the best rock band ever.
In 2012, I joined Goodreads - then an independent, crowdsourced book review site. I liked it, and I started writing and posting reviews. Since I was writing the reviews anyway, I posted on Amazon as well.
I recently read the three books of a trilogy in moderately rapid succession. I posted to Amazon the review of Book 1. The Book 2. When I tried to post Book 3, however, things got a little weird. Amazon told me I had already reviewed the book. Since I had just finished reading it for the first time about ten minutes before, that seemed pretty unlikely. I tried again, with the same result. Mystified, I searched through some pages of reviews for Book 3. I found instead my review of Book 1. Mystery solved - somehow, the system had misattributed the review, and I wrote to Amazon to have them fix it.
Some time later, I got a response. Amazon said, essentially, "It's not a bug, it's a feature." They said that they deliberately link reviews from earlier books as an aid to customers. -- [Why they think that a review of book 1 would help someone shopping for book 3, I can't say. What I want from a review is guidance about books I haven't read. When I buy book 3 of something, it's generally because I've already read books 1 and 2; I have my own opinion of them, and I don't need a review to tell me whether they were good.] -- This seemed downright bizarre. Amazon seemed not to have thought through the fact that, as in my case, linking to earlier books would prevent reviews of later books. In other words, there will be lots of reviews of books 1 and 2, and very few of book 3.
I wrote to Amazon a couple more times. No answer. I don't go to the top right away, but I had just recently read an article about Jeff Bezos receiving direct complaints, and assigning them to troubleshooters. So, I wrote to him, and (politely) told him what a dumb policy this was.
It took a couple of days, but I did in fact get a response from a troubleshooter, who agreed that the policy existed, that it was dumb, and saying that she had recommended a change. Of course, there's a difference between "We'll look into that" and "We'll fix that right away."
Amazon has had problems with its review system before. The best known issue (related to potential 'fake' reviews), I understood better. This, new one, however, is just a bad decision through and through. So, for the time being, I've stopped posting reviews on Amazon. When they fix the system, I'll reconsider. Until then, I'll stick with Goodreads.
Puff, the Magic ... Darn It!
Posted Nov 23, 2013, 12:47 PM by B. Morris Allen
or, stuff that happens while you're falling asleepPuff, the Magic Dragon", by Peter, Paul, and Mary. If you remember, it's all about how Puff and his friend Jackie Paper go sailing, scare pirates, and generally have a good time, until Jackie grows up and stops coming around. Puff, broken hearted, just lies in his cave and doesn't frolic any more. It's very sad.
A few months ago, I was belatedly reading the anthology George R.R. Martin put together as a tribute to Jack Vance. I'm not generally a fan of fan fiction, but if any SF writer ever deserved a tribute, it was Vance. Some of the stories were good, some average. As I neared the end, reading the story by Martin himself, I was thinking about the difficulties and benefits of writing in someone else's universe. I recall thinking that, like most of the authors in the anthology, even if I wrote in Vance's world, I would never try to write like him. I love his writing, but I just don't think I could pull it off, and a bad copy is worse than an original tribute.
As far as I can recall, my mind went straight from there to "I should write a story about what happened to Puff." I don't know why. There are no dragons in the Dying Earth. I don't think there are any true dragons in Vance's work at all. Maybe "Puff'" had just been playing on the stereo earlier in the day - it's on shuffle at all times, so anything may come up.
In any case, I went to bed, thinking about Puff and what I could write about his life after the song ended. I thought, "Well, I'd have to contact Peter or Paul, to get their permission." I'm sure there's a transformative use argument to be made under copyright law, but I like these guys. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that I was surely not the only person who loved that song, and who'd be interested to read or write about it. I could edit a whole anthology of Puff stories!
I usually fall asleep right away. This night, though I didn't sleep until I had a whole plan mapped out. I'd get Peter's (or Paul's) permission. I got out of my warm bed to look up the actual author - who turned out to be both Peter (Yarrow) and Lenny Lipton.
I went back to bed, but kept thinking about it. There'd be at least one anthology. If there were enough interest, there'd be three - Puff, Paper, and Honalee respectively. I developed rules for the writers - they'd have to respect the events described in the song, but otherwise there'd be no continuity or consistency requirement. Writers would not have to respect the children's book based on the song, whose text was the lyrics, but whose illustrations introduced a young girl at the end. I pondered whether to recommend that stories be upbeat, whether to reject drug-focused stories. I decided to drop those criteria. The selection committee (me, Yarrow, Lipton) would just select the stories we liked.
I wondered whether there would be enough variation in the stories. Were there enough possibilities for Puff's post-Jackie life? I decided to write my own story as a test case, to see how hard it would be to write about Puff, and as a tool to get publishers (or maybe Yarrow and Lipton) interested.
I thought about how to entice writers,which ones I'd invite, how we'd get other submissions. I thought about how to sell the book to a major publisher. In case that didn't work, I mapped out a Kickstarter campaign, including what the levels and giveaways would be. I planned how Yarrow, Lipton, and I would donate any profits to charity (mine was the Oregon Humane Society) - unless they wanted to keep their share.
In short, I got excited, and I thought other people would be too. I got up in the morning and dug up contact information. I spent free time during the day drafting polite, professional e-mails explaining how I loved the song, laying out the plan, explaining how it could work. In Yarrow's case, I went through his agent (very friendly). I sent them.
It turned out there was one small defect in the entire detailed plan - Yarrow and Lipton didn't answer. Not yes, not "Great idea, but no.", not "Who the hell are you to mess with our song?". Nothing. I realized that Yarrow and Lipton would have to talk with each other, so I waited. And maybe get their lawyers' advice. I waited some more. After a couple of months, I wrote again, using different destination e-mail addresses. No answer.
I'm not sure why they wouldn't be excited about an idea from a literary unknown - whose main book to date is a grim story about violence and despair - who proposes to take their best-known song and have people write fairy tales about it for charity. It sounds like a sure winner to me. But apparently they weren't persuaded.
I still think this is a great idea. I'd still love to do it. I still have a complete story called "Autumn Mist" in which Puff finds happiness, eventually. But without Yarrow and Lipton's buy-in, there's no more to this; it's their song.
So there you have it - the story of how one more great idea never got off the ground, and in fact really never got past the design stage. If you'd love to see an anthology (or three), let me know. Better yet, write to your favorite big name publisher instead. Get them interested. Who knows? Maybe they'll include my story too.
For the curious - my list of writers to invite included: Julie Czerneda, Robin Hobb, Katie Waitman, Phyllis Eisenstein, Samuel R. Delany, George R.R. Martin, Sheri S. Tepper, Patricia McKillip, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Lyndon Hardy, M.J. Engh, M.K. Wren, Steven Brust, A.A. Attanasio, Richard Adams, Martha Wells, Jim Aikin, Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and a host of others, including a list of newer writers you may not have heard from yet (but will soon). I think it would have been a hell of a book.
What is your favorite free SFF site?
Posted Nov 23, 2013, 6:14 AM by B. Morris Allen
Posted Nov 23, 2013, 6:14 AM by B. Morris Allen
This blog post first appeared at Amazing Stories
"When I first began obsessively reading science fiction, at about the age of ten, all sf writers were as gods to me. Some, however, were bigger gods than others, my holiest trinity being Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D." Frederik Pohl
When I was growing up (a little later than Mr. Pohl), the Grandmasters of science fiction were clear - Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. There were others, of course, and the actual SFWA Grandmaster award didn't go to Clarke and Asimov for quite some years. But these where the Big Three - every SF fan knew it.
I liked them all. Asimov was fun and clever. Heinlein had a can-do attitude and the aphorisms of Lazarus Long. Clarke's Imperial Earth was my first encounter with three-dimensional SF characters with genuine emotions. I loved the Foundation trilogy, The Past Through Tomorrow, and one of my favorite books is still Rendezvous with Rama (though it took my non-SF father to point out the obvious - that it should be a trilogy).
That's not to say there weren't other greats. Frank Herbert was a recognized genius, not just for Dune, but for The Dosadi Experiment, The God Makers, and others. Jack Vance was a cult favorite. Roger Zelazny was one of SFF's prime prose poets. For that matter, Frederik Pohl's Gateway series was pretty darn good. But the Big Three were the Big Three.
I don't see a similar grouping today. That's probably a good thing. In my view, it means we have so much great talent available, and such a big audience for it, that it's hard to pick favorites. I can easily pick Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny as my top two, both for their astounding skill with language. Below that, it's a crowded pool, and it gets more crowded every day.
Who are your all-time favorite SFF authors? Who are your new finds?
Posted Nov 23, 2013, 6:14 AM by B. Morris Allen
This blog post first appeared at Amazing Stories
1. Do I recognize the authors?,
2. If so, are these new stories or stories I'm likely to get some other way?,
3. Do I know the editor or publisher?, and
4. Is it good value for money? (lots of stories, cheap).
So, with an anthology, I'm mostly buying new stories from tested authors, which limits the scope for exploration. With magazines, you're almost guaranteed a brand new story, and there's a good chance it's by someone you've never heard of. In both cases, hitting the jackpot means finding a great new author to track down and read voraciously.
You could get that, to some extent, in bookstores - back when bookstores were physical places, like WaldenBooks and B. Dalton. My girlfriend always knew that going to one of these was going to be a long experience, as I combed their shelves (meager or bursting) for new finds. And going to a place like Powell's, in Portland? I'd be there for hours, checking every single book, looking at covers, reading blurbs, opening at random pages (knowing that authors worked hard on the first few, but did it hold up?). It got trickier as my collection grew, and I have re-bought books a couple of times. But my method worked pretty well, and most of the stuff I bought was very good. Every now and then, a real stinker would slip in. I had so much faith in my book picking skills that even as a teenager, I would occasionally re-read one of the bad ones, thinking there must be in it somewhere. Sometimes there was, but usually not. I recall reading one slim volume by an acclaimed author several times, before deciding it really was just a bad book.
There aren't as many physical bookstores these days, but I still go to discount warehouses, and to Powell's. Airport bookstores still don't have much SFF, but I still try, and I still find it difficult to leave without checking whatever SFF shelves they have. I'm a fan of progress, and I think ebooks (despite their weaknesses) are a great thing. But despite their best efforts, online bookstores haven't solved the browsing problem. I very rarely discover exciting new e-books, and you can't check random pages anymore, let alone sit and read for a while before deciding to buy.
Online stores have compensated, of course. You can download entire books for free or for cheap. You don't technically own them, of course, and some of them are in proprietary formats. The free classics are often poor quality. Storing and reading them on the device you choose can be a hassle. But it's discovery that has really suffered. I don't spend hours at Amazon, flipping through new titles. I go, I download, I leave.
Goodreads, LibraryThing, and others have tried to fill this gap, and I have picked up some good things that way, including, for example, Romanian works that I might not have found otherwise. But it's a process that needs work. Some months back, I started hearing about a self-published SF phenomenon. I read reviews, got intrigued, found a free copy, and set in. It was good, but not great, and I started to wonder whether lemmingism had set in.
When a work has few reviews, and they're all good, I usually suspect that all the author's friends have given their five stars. When there are lots of reviews, and they're all good, I suspect a blind mass of faddists. That, ironically, leaves books with mixed reviews as the most reliable. I start with the bad ones, and if they're not all about poor punctuation and grammar, I go up from there.
Review sites try to take the guesswork out of it for you, but are they likely to help you find those quirky but good books you might have found in a bookstore? I'm not sure.
How do you find new authors?