Must You Finish a Book to Have an Opinion on it?

The excellent Mysterious Matters blog this week talks about the 50/100 page rule. That’s the number of pages that a reader will read, waiting for a book to “grab” them. Of course, some throw the book down on page ten, and others must finish it, either because “hope springs eternal,” as Agatho at MM says, or because of a neurosis. I used to compulsively finish the book. I remember the first one I quit that I actively disliked, a bio of Houdini that concentrated on his Oedipal complex rather than his act, and seemed indignant that escape artists hide keys and use trickery instead of superhuman powers. I loathed that book. But I gave it well over 100 pages, and I damn sure wrote an Amazon review excoriating it.

If that were my book and the reviewer slammed it, I’ll be honest, it would annoy me. I wouldn’t go on a tantrum and rend my garments and call attention to it, but I would likely be upset about it.

And I would be wrong.

You see, the reader owes me nothing. They have bought my book, and I am thankful. They do not owe me a review, good or bad. They do not owe me a ‘like’ or a retweet, or word of mouth. Of course, if they like the book, I would be exponentially appreciative if they told their friends about it, or reviewed it. But they don’t owe it. They don’t owe me anything.

I owe them.

You earn the reader with every line. Now, some readers skim; I try to write like Elmore Leonard said, and skip what most readers skim. (I stand corrected- Harry Crews said this, and Mr. Leonard repeated it. –ed.) We can justify it all we like, when we lose a reader. They had hemorrhoids, they have bad taste, they were tweeting and not paying attention. But in the end, we can’t really blame them. We have to do our best to write the best book we can, and if a reader doesn’t like it, they have the right to say so. Their “didn’t finish it, it was boring, it sucked” is just as valid as the equally vague “OMG I loved this book, I finished it in one sitting.” It doesn’t say why the book’s so great. We don’t even know if they paid much attention. But we don’t complain about these reviews, even if finishing the book in one sitting is unlikely because of the length.

We don’t like those “didn’t finish” reviews, but they’re the equivalent of walking out of the theater. They didn’t like the movie. They paid for their ticket and decided the next hour or two of their lives were better spent elsewhere. The same with a book. They walked out. Their review may not hold the same weight as Pauline Kael’s, but it’s as honest as any. Move on, and let it go.

But to quote the Dude, that’s just like my opinion, man. And the bad review is theirs.

What’s yours? Do you think it is okay to review a book you couldn’t bear to finish? Would you say page 50 or 100 was enough? Ten pages? One?

You can’t say no to those eyes…

I entered the foray of self-publishing this year, sort of. I published Lost Children: A Charity Anthology, edited with my friends Fiona Johnson and Ron Earl Phillips, with stories by 30 writers. And all the cash is going to two causes: PROTECT and Children 1st. One reason I did it was of course, to raise money for these organizations. Another reason was to learn the ropes and see the results, to decide if self-publishing is for me. To see what kind of sales I could generate, and how much work goes into it.

You have to set goals for yourself. My goals were:

Sell 100 copies in the first month (succeeded)
Sell at least one copy per day after that (succeeded, in the long run)

Now I wanted to sell 100 per month, but it didn’t happen. We’re at 148 sales right now, and I’d be happy to make 150 sales by the end of the year.

According to Dean Wesley Smith, these are excellent sales for a first book. The sales really pile in once you have 4-5 items for sale, because you get repeat business. I never expected this anthology, with a handful of known crime and literary writers and many first-timers, to sell very well. Fiona and I donated $600 of our own cash for the original fiction challenge, and we wanted to generate more for the causes. The project has been a great success in that regard- the royalties aren’t in yet, but we’re looking at around $350 in two months, and the book will be on sale for three years.

But let me tell you, it’s a lot of work. I’m still not sure if self-publishing is the way to go, for me. I don’t want to start that debate. It works for a lot of people. Traditional works for others. Dean Wesley Smith says use both to your advantage, and to me, that seems the wisest choice. Of course, you need to talk softly and carry a big lawyer, if you plan on self-publishing and pursuing a contract with a major publisher. Many contracts include non-compete clauses that would keep you from self-publishing, even if you’ve been doing it prior to the contract. Let the writer beware. But enough about that.

It was an exciting endeavor and now that I’ve learned it, would I do it again? You bet I would.

But I want two more sales. Really bad. The next two buyers- print or e-book- who email me the receipt (use the “contact me” form on the upper right) will get a copy of Heart Transplant by Andrew Vachss donated to the library of their choice.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck