Are Amazon’s Five-Star Reviews the Road to Success?

I have a friend whose grown daughter teaches drama for preschoolers in DC.  I asked how she ended up doing that when all we’d ever heard about Casey for years was how she was going to be an actress. (She was gorgeous, sang, danced, went to Tisch at NYU, performed at Disney World every summer, and made it to off-off Broadway.) Her mother said Casey came to the point where she finally knew her big break probably wasn’t going to happen. (She was at the point where “ingénue” didn’t fit any more and she was now skating very close to the point where the go-be-a-wife-and-mother option was almost off the table, too.) So she bailed. Her mother said: “Casey never had that fire in her belly that you need to make it in a very competitive business. She didn’t have that stab-your-bestfriend, sleep-with-whomever, step-on-whomever, do-whatever you-need-to-do-to-make-it-happen mindset.” I think about Casey sometimes when I’m looking at some young, fresh faced actress (who isn’t related to someone famous.) I wonder how nice they are or did they have to kill someone to get their present measure of fame?

I bring this up because there is a thing that we authors believe (probably accurately) will help us in our quest to bestsellerdom (or at least a consistent fifty books sold a month). That is the Five-Star Amazon Review.

First, it’s amazing to me that we are still trying to directly control our sales numbers. We’re still trying to do the three-steps-to-amazing-book-sales thing because the alternative: writing the next awesome book while we’re waiting for success to happen doesn’t feel like it’s directly addressing the problem of low book sales. The key here is the word “direct.” Going back to the keyboard for another three months of labor isn’t directly affecting your book sales. It’s a slow, down-the-road kind of process. But we are a people who “want it NOW.” The idea that the best way to sell books is to write a great book in the first place and then turn around and write another one (all the while praying for one of them to “hit”) is just too passive to be believed, let alone lived.

We still want to believe we have direct control over obtaining book sales success. It’s just another demonstration of the fact that we can’t accept there’s not something we can do to ensure our success will happen. We’ve seen so many Disney movies, so we know how it all works out and if we have to help it along a little, like maybe lie or misrepresent the truth, well, since the happy ending is what we’re all aiming for, what does it matter?

When you’ve been fed a constant diet of “you can do it” and combine it with a national tendency not to put too many restraints on our desires or wants (witness our national obesity problem), you have a situation where cheating or lying can be justified in the process of achieving the Big Dream.

I know writing up a bunch of fake reviews for your pals to post on your books on Amazon isn’t treason or Sin with a capital “S,” but I do think it’s a little shameful. I know you can justify writing a glowing five-star review for yourself by thinking “if they would only give it a try I’m sure they’ll love it!” Plus, you know a lot of other writers are doing it, too, so it’s not unlike when you were in high school working your butt off to get A’s while the C students were cheating and pulling down the very same GPA. It wasn’t fair but climbing down into the hog pen with them wasn’t the solution then and it isn’t now.

I say, be passionate. Absolutely use that fire in your belly to write until the wee hours, push past exhaustion to make those deadlines, buck yourself up in the face of a few bad reviews, smile when your friends and family are condescending to you about being a writer—do what you can to keep your dream alive and keep your keyboard smoking. But have some self-restraint for pity’s sake. (And think about it: if you’re really asking your friends to do this, maybe there’s a reason why they don’t take you seriously as a “writer.”)

As Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, said in an article in the November 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent:

“The currency of a five-star review is becoming devalued day by day…Focus on making your books as good as they can possibly be, in every way—better than they have to be, in fact (a part of the publishing process, over which, incidentally, you have 100% total control). Do that and the praise will be genuine and will come naturally. But, more important, your book will benefit from priceless word of mouth, which will build an enduring demand for the title. And that’s something the author of a mediocre book who’s resorted to fraudulent reviews can never hope to enjoy. For when real reviewers and real readers really read the real book, and speak the real truth, the jig’s up.”

Amen!

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.