Elsie by Jessica Marie Holt

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

Elsie: Homecoming Series Book One by Jessica Marie Holt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

“I will wait,” he said… “But only if you do something for me.”
“Anything, George, name it.”
“Forgive me. And go on.

Elsie finally settled into contentment after becoming a widow. But now that her sons have convinced her to make a life change she never wanted, she comes to a pivotal crossroads in Elsie by author Jessica Marie Holt.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of short stories. I don’t place all the same expectations on them that I place on novels, as I prefer to appreciate short fiction for what it is, rather than what it’s not. Oftentimes, short reads give me a nice snack in between longer works.

However, when a story has a greater impact on me in twenty minutes of reading than many novels have on me in five to ten hours, it reminds me how amazing short fiction can be. A story like Elsie’s could easily be a quick shot of syrupy, dreary, shallow, or simplistic fare, something I’d fly through without taking too seriously. But this story is none of those things.

It’s beautifully written. Down-to-earth, yet intensely felt. Contemplative, poignant, and unafraid to do something outside of the predictable. Hey, it even gets disturbing. I sighed, smiled, or gasped here and there, cried “No!” out loud at least once, and found myself tearing up a good two and a half times besides.

Yeah. All that. In twenty minutes.

And without the unresolved, jarring halt of a cliffhanger, this story’s touching conclusion indicates that there’s more to come. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next story in the Homecoming series.

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The Homecoming Series

  

 

The Kindness of Critical Book Reviews (Part Two)

I’m jumping right in to continue my thoughts on this subject, so be sure to read Part One first.

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Sure, critical reviews posted in the open can sting an author’s emotions sometimes. I know from experience! But that comes with the territory of this kind of work. Once an author releases their writing into the public, it’s subject to public opinion. That’s part of what it means to publish.

Just because a writer writes doesn’t mean the writer has to become a published author. Writers can keep their writing to themselves if they wish, or only share their writing with people in their personal circles. Taking the added step of releasing one’s writing to the masses is a conscious decision. A choice. If an author can’t handle what comes along with that choice, both public praise and public criticism, then publishing is the wrong business for that author.

Now, I understand and appreciate the courtesy that some readers extend to contact authors privately with critiques of their books. That can be helpful especially to independent authors if there’s an immediate issue an author can fix on their own, like if a reader finds a typo or two the author’s editor missed. (If the author’s book is from a traditional publisher, though, there may or may not be anything the author can do about the typos. The publisher’s website may let you know how to report errors you find in their books.)

Of course, contacting an author privately is indeed a courtesy on a reader’s part, not at all an obligation. Also, readers who wish to directly contact authors with critiques should be advised that different authors react differently to such a gesture. Some authors will be grateful and take note of the critiques. Other authors will answer with something like, “Thanks, but I didn’t ask you to come tell me how to write. If you’re such an expert and you want perfect books, write your own.”

Not saying it’s cool when that happens, but it does happen.

Nevertheless, even if you do privately contact authors with constructive criticism at times, that’s not a substitute for balanced reviews. Again, your book reviews are for other readers, and those reviews will paint a skewed picture if you have points of criticism in mind but you never mention them.

Besides, the rise of independent publishing in recent years has brought about significant changes to the book industry. In some respects, that’s awesome. Traditional publishers only have so much time, interest, staff, and finance to publish what they can. And they’ll often leave only so much room to take certain risks, particularly when it comes to debut or unknown authors. Because even quality manuscripts get regular rejections in the publishing world, independent publishing provides an avenue to get a wider selection of quality books into readers’ hands.

However, the opening of this avenue also comes with drawbacks. For a long time, traditional publishers have widely been the judges of quality and the gatekeepers controlling the access between authors and readers. Now that more independent authors no longer need those gatekeepers to grant them entry into publishing, there’s no one stopping authors who publish poor or clearly unprofessional work.

With so many more books streaming into the market, honest book reviews have become all the more important. Yes, potential readers should get an idea of other readers’ subjective likes and dislikes. But in addition to that, book reviews (especially at retail sites) can inform others about the quality of the publishers.

No book on earth is perfect, no matter how it was published, and no book is going to suit every reader out there. Still, no method of publishing should be a free-for-all for shoddy work. Many authors, traditionally and independently published alike, are putting out high-quality books, and honest reviews play a part in helping to maintain high standards for publishing across the board.

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“Okay… But, still, though. I was always taught that if I don’t have something nice to say, I should say nothing…and now I feel weird about this.”

Hey, now. Even with all this information about reviews, if you’re struggling, and if writing a critical review for a book will make you feel like a truly horrible human being, don’t do it. I wouldn’t encourage someone to violate their conscience. Maybe one day you’ll feel differently about book reviews. ❤

Nonetheless, praise and criticism play crucial roles in the world of arts and entertainment. For literature to thrive, for authors and reviewers to maintain credibility, and for the integrity of reviewing as a whole, there has to be a free flow of open honesty.

If too many reviewers shy away from ever voicing criticism about books because the reviewers are just trying to “be nice,” it ultimately does a disservice to fellow readers as well as to authors. You can be tactful and gracious while being sincere. If you’re a reviewer who genuinely cares about authors and fellow readers, then respect them enough to be honest with them.

 

The Kindness of Critical Book Reviews (Part One)

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I appreciate the spirit of this well-known adage, which encourages kindness, appropriateness, and respect for others’ feelings.

Yet, human beings are human, and even good intentions sometimes miss or misapply a principle.

Let’s say you go to a symphony hall to hear an oratorio from a group on tour. The choir’s pitch is too sharp, and they fall out of sync with the orchestra several times during the performance. Your friend, who couldn’t attend this evening of the tour, plans to buy tickets for tomorrow night. But you don’t mention the choir’s issues to your friend. You think, “If I say something, word about the choir’s poor singing might get around to everyone, and I don’t want to hurt the choir members’ feelings. After all, performing in an oratorio is no easy task.”

Hmm…

Yes, I’m a believer in the “If you don’t have something nice to say” adage, but well-intentioned people can misapply it sometimes.

And the adage is sometimes misapplied to the practice of book reviewing.

Reviews of books at retail sites are meant to help other readers/customers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s word-of-mouth happening online. (And, yes, reviews can inform a potential reader without giving away plot spoilers!) Book reviews on sites like Goodreads and book blogs are also word-of-mouth, meant to give people an idea of what books they might want to check out. Many times, those reviews also spark social interaction and book discussions, as they should.

But how balanced and meaningful would those discussions be if readers only mentioned what they liked about the books they’ve read, never what they disliked? How can customers make informed decisions about the books they buy if the retail reviews never mention a book’s errors or weaknesses? If no reviewers ever speak up to say that a book wasn’t for them, how honest is that?

Some readers feel uncomfortable about posting reviews for books they didn’t like. “I don’t want to hurt the author by saying something negative, so maybe I’ll write a nice review and leave out the bad stuff…or I won’t review the book at all. Besides, it’s just my opinion. Other people might love the book.”

Well, now. Art, literature, and their related reviews are subjective. Even when you think a book is wonderful and you give it a good review, that’s also just your opinion. The fact that you love a book doesn’t mean or guarantee that other people will love it, too. But even though others might not enjoy the book you praised, it didn’t stop you from sharing your opinion about that book anyway, right?

I understand having the desire not to hurt authors. However, your book reviews are first and foremost for other readers, to let them know what effect(s) a book had on you. Any benefits to the authors are secondary, and many authors actually prefer to steer clear of reading reviews of their books. Some authors write as they wish and aren’t incredibly concerned about readers’ opinions either way, and other authors are good with the critiques their books receive during the writing and revising process, so they’ve already gotten all the feedback they’re looking for.

Besides, not all book reviews (which are primarily for other readers) have to be flattering to authors. But they’re all supposed to be honest, whether the reviewers liked the books or not.

Did you know there are readers who won’t purchase a book by an author they’ve never read before if the author’s books only have glowing reviews? The readers suspect it’s just the author’s friends and/or superfans posting biased praise. So having some reviews from people who weren’t wild about an author’s books lends credibility to the author.

Also, critical reviews can help to sell books when one reader’s “dislike” is another reader’s “like.” For instance, someone may write in a review, “This mystery novel had way too much romance for my taste.” Then other readers who love healthy helpings of romance in mysteries see that point as a plus.

For me as a reader, critical book reviews, not glowing ones, are what finally sell me on books a lot of times. And by no means am I the only reader who sees that happen.

As for the possibility of critical reviews or comments hurting an author’s feelings… Well.

As an author who chooses to read reviews of her books, I wouldn’t want reviewers to only issue compliments and to avoid mentioning points of criticism at all costs, as if to coddle me. That would be like false respect.

Writing and publishing is serious business. I’m passionate about what I do, and I work incredibly hard in hopes of making a real difference. But I won’t know what real difference I’m making—won’t know how I’m truly affecting the audience I’m writing for—if readers aren’t honest. If they liked a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why. If they didn’t like a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why.

And hopefully they can say it without spoilers, or they can at least caution fellow readers with spoiler alerts first. 😉

It isn’t mean not to like something. (My personal love of green beans isn’t kind and considerate any more than my dislike of lima beans is cruel and heartless.) Being completely honest in a book review doesn’t mean you have to be ungracious. You can tell the truth and be sincere without being a jerk or attacking the author as a person.

This post continues in Part Two.

 

Oh, For the Good Ol’ Days: An (Indie) Author’s Thoughts on Publishing

I’ve been traditionally published once before. Since then, I’ve published all of my books independently.

Whether traditionally published, hybrid, or independently published, plenty of authors, myself included, are working hard to navigate this new and changing era in publishing. Yes, there are factors in the era that concern, discourage, or even anger us at times. After conversations with other authors in the midst of the grind, I’ve picked up on the tendency and temptation for some of us to look back on the good ol’ days of publishing with nostalgic eyes.

Nostalgia is natural. And back before we got into publishing for ourselves, all or most of us likely had wonderful imaginings about what our author careers might be like.

Oh, for the former days when an author could focus on creating literary masterpieces, and the publisher would take over the labor from there. Proofreading, designing, marketing—the whole bit.

The author wouldn’t have to lift a finger again until the publisher would send them on an all-expenses-paid book tour, where the author’s job would be to stay at choice hotels, to eat in fine restaurants, to make a string of bookstore and book festival appearances, and to sign copies of their books for lines of their adoring readers.

While royalties and fan mail would continue to flow in, the author would receive the comfortable advance for their next masterpiece, and they’d focus on finishing it, whenever inspiration would move them to do so.

Ahhh. The life.

But how many of us were imagining our future careers like those of the midlist authors who, even in the good ol’ days, numbered far more than the few bestselling authors in the spotlight? We may or may not have known that many of the authors managing to land publishing contracts didn’t get to quit their day jobs. And perhaps we weren’t thinking so much about the one-hit, half-hit, and no-hit authors who never got another contract after their first book.

We weren’t thinking about the authors without the sales or leverage to justify big advances or higher royalty rates than a dollar and some change. We weren’t thinking about the very limited shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores and the stores’ regular returns of books that didn’t sell. Or the many authors who never got a book tour. Or the books that went out of print after only one print run. Or the uncounted authors, even famous ones among them, with additional book ideas or manuscripts they loved and believed in—manuscripts collecting dust, stuffed in drawers, or thrown away—because their publishers wouldn’t touch them.

“Those aren’t the kind of books our readers want from you. If you bring us anything too different from what we’ve accepted from you thus far, we’re not going to publish that here.”

Ahhh. The…life?

As we authors grind away in the present-day world of publishing, I wonder: how much is the nostalgia for the good ol’ days based on the common realities of those days, and how much of it is only based on imagined, fairytale scenarios?

Yes, it may have been more likely for some readers to spend fifteen bucks on a new release at one time, when now they’d rather get three or more ebooks for that amount. Sure, various publishers are tightening up and taking even fewer chances on new ideas and unknown authors. Yeah, in an era when more authors can publish themselves without the say-so, restrictions, or dismissals of publishing house gatekeepers, the market is filling with too many low-quality books.

Still, would an author like me want to go back to the former days of publishing? Well, not so much.

An untold number of passionate, dedicated, and conscientious authors, myself included, are getting our books out there and finding an audience when, less than a generation ago, it might not have happened for us. Most publishers reject far more manuscripts than they accept, and it’s not always because the manuscripts are no good. I could go on about the different reasons for publisher rejections, but that would take another blog post.

Personally, I just wouldn’t want to be another writer back in the past, pining and dreaming about glorious book tours and literary stardom, while my rejected manuscripts sat in a drawer or in a box at home, waiting. And waiting. Read, enjoyed, and appreciated by no one but me, with no guarantees that one publisher or another would finally say “yes” and agree with my vision for the finished products.

As much as I want traditional publishing to live on, and though it might be nice to get another contract someday, no, I don’t want to go back in time to an industry that was more exclusionary and inaccessible as a whole. Where I likely might have watched some, most, or even all of my books go out of print at some point, if they ever made it into print in the first place.

Whether an author goes the traditional, hybrid, or independent route, publishing isn’t for the faint of heart. My present-day grind as an independent author isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. And every single human being who now gets the chance to read the books I work mega-hard to produce is worth FAR more than any glittery or fairytale “good ol’ day” daydreams.

As for the important part up there about publishing gatekeepers, I speak to that a bit more in a two-part post. 🙂