Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “The New York Times”

The Changing Significance of Book Reviews

With three epic fantasy novels coming out over a period of 18 months (they were written over the previous three years before you ask), I have become very interested in the issue of reviews and wrote about it a couple of months ago.

I have come to believe that reviews left on a book’s Amazon page are crucial for sales. While you do see the cover on line, it is less visual than in your hand. There is no salesperson vaunting how great the book is, no positioning next to A-list authors, and no cardboard display in the window. On the other hand, when a potential reader looks at your book page on Amazon, there are virtually no distractions: not hundreds of other books surrounding it, or bumping into someone you might know etc.

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So what so you have to look at to help you buy a book? The reviews. 

In response to last week’s post of the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon.com, a friend suggested that I should be excited that Goodreads members would be putting their reviews up on Amazon, because they are true bookworms and leave considerably more thoughtful reviews.

A person recently gave me a 5-star review for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and I tweeted to see if I could find them to thank them. I was curious because it was short and not well constructed. I discovered (via the father) that it was a young teenager who had read the book and felt moved to write what was, in his mind, a strong recommendation. I was thrilled because so far I am only hearing from adults who have read my novels, despite seeing the Young Adult as my target audience. 

Vancouver-based publishing consultant, Thad McIlroy, summed it up in a Forbes article. When it comes to: “what do I read next, Amazon has become almost the only show in town:

“Despite that Amazon said it would keep Goodreads independent (like IMDB, Zappos and several other Amazon acquisitions), most in the industry will look at it as just Amazon now. Providing that service is a chief concern for booksellers who want to make it as easy as possible for readers to discover their next book purchase. Now, Amazon is the undisputed No. 1 when it comes to book recommendations. Ebook retail sites, like start-up Bookish, have long claimed that readers need a better way than Amazon for finding new books. Those claims now have little teeth; Amazon pretty much has it all right now when it comes to recommendation.”

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What excited me most is that Goodreads will add credibility to a system rocked with controversy of false or paid for reviews. Leslie Kaufman wrote in The New York Times: “Amazon has been wrestling with review fraud in the past year. Because book reviews on Goodreads are identifiable (tied to a social profile), they are harder to manipulate. This may add a new and more credible review source to Amazon’s internal reviews.”

The price for this new credibility (for authors) is a more thorough critique of our books. Goodreads members leave lower average book review scores and deeper in-depth discussion.

While these reviews, undoubtedly more useful to readers, might feel threatening to the author, it reinforces what should be obvious from the start: that the keystone of success is to produce the best possible book in terms of every aspect of our craft. Are you up for the challenge?

Finally, if you have got this far into the post and have read any of my books – fantasy and other – please take a moment to leave a short review on the book you read: an honest critique worthy of Goodreads.  

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Have a great weekend.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

Heroes Slipping Thru The Net

Mentioning my latest book, Unwanted Heroes, at Xmas holiday parties last month seemed to strike a resistant chord with a number of people, none of whom were war veterans, but often had a close family member or friend with a difficult story. 

The issue that a homeless person who does not take advantage of the benefits offered also touched a nerve. The now-famous story of the NYPD officer who bought a pair of boots for a seemingly homeless guy sitting outside a shoe store barefoot in winter has been overshadowed by the fact that this man actually has a room provided by the VA and social services. He also has shoes but chooses not to wear them or live in his apartment.imgresThere are many people who vigorously defend the VA and, correctly, cite the vast improvements seen in the last decade or so. But I remain unconvinced that we are doing enough. 

President Obama said in a Veterans Day speech: “No veteran should have to wait months or years for the benefits that you’ve earned … so we will continue to attack the claims backlog. We won’t let up. We will not let up.”

The New York Times ran an article in late November, “that the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the long slog through its own paperwork, is in some ways marching backward.”

In fact, during the first half of the year, two-thirds of claims for disability and pension were still pending more than four months after being filed. This is in spite of the VA having strict timelines for claims. This lag gets even worse when a rejected claim is appealed, with the average duration to resolution being two and a half years.

There are two important points to take into consideration:

1) Many of those who need help are challenged to deal with bureaucracy – any bureaucracy. Most everyday citizen has challenges with personal documentation filing, understanding procedure or dealing with a labyrinth of organizational structure. How much more difficult can this be for someone with trauma and mental instability?

It seemed to me that many of the people who complimented the VA system were people who were well-organized (or had a partner who was) and able to work with the system.

2) The Department of Veteran Affairs is reeling from an avalanche of people stepping forward in need of help. The New York Times article cited that the number of claims has doubled in the last decade, reaching 1.3 million in 2011.

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In addition, almost half of the veterans seeking help are coming with more than a dozen medical issues, far higher than anything seen after World War II and Vietnam. Again from the New York Times: “Many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are returning with severe injuries requiring elaborate and complicated care. The population of Vietnam-era veterans is older and sicker than ever. And the list of ailments for which the department is giving compensation — like heart disease, leukemia and Parkinson’s, from exposure to Agent Orange — is growing.”

This suggests that we should not be criticizing the VA, rather providing the infrastructure necessary to deal with this explosive growth in need. Steps are being taken to move records to an intranet, but the department simply needs more hands and a simpler process.

The New York Times article suggests that the VA be more realistic in predicting how long a process will take to allow these men and women to plan accordingly.

I side with President Obama on this issue. When the United States called for it’s citizens to take up arms to defend the values intrinsic to our society, the people didn’t answer by giving a vague date when they might turn up.

Waiting two-and-a-half-years to receive what is rightfully yours after sacrificing so much for your country is simply unacceptable. There are too many Unwanted Heroes slipping through the net.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Amazon Challenges Publishers Pt.1

Friday today and another story from the publishing world. Amazon.com continue to redefine the publishing world. Earlier this month they released a new line of kindles, the handheld reading devices. At the bottom end, the basic no-frills model comes at the lowest price yet of $79, while at the upper end, the Kindle Fire has color and can be used to stream movies, surf the Internet, play games and host a vast amount of apps. Apple junkies are quick to point out that it lacks many features of the iPad, but with the Fire at half the price, it has to take a bite out of iPad sales (do we have an iPad 3 coming out soon?).

But Amazon are taking other steps to dominate the book world. The features of the new Flame has techie junkies claiming that Amazon are about to launch a “Netflix for books.They already have their own self-publishing platform (Createspace) and even created a streamlined publishing platform that is solely digital based.

Now Amazon are busy signing up authors for their own imprint. I have already featured authors who have learned to use the system to amazing results including J.A. Konrath and young-adult author Amanda Hocking — who made more than two million dollars by publishing her own books via the Kindle marketplace before signing a $2-million deal with a traditional publisher earlier this year.

Now there is an interesting new addition. Thriller writer Barry Eisler, a former CIA operative turned author, made his name as a self-publishing success story. However, when his sales garnered the publishing industry’s attention in a big way, he turned down a $500,000 advance for two books with St. Martin’s Press in March, and announced he would self-publish his new novel instead.

Eisler wants his independence and the most efficient model

In an NPR interview, Eisler — who has several New York Times  bestsellers which were published  traditionally — says he has come to the conclusion “that mainstream publishers simply aren’t as efficient or as useful to authors as they used to be, now that there are other options.”

“To say that publishers really care passionately about books as though they are concerned about what’s better for the world … I’m sure when they look in the mirror they feel that way. But in fact, what they care about is preserving their own position, perks and profit — that’s just what establishment players come to do over time.”

I’m not sure that this is a fair comment. The publishing houses have a right to chase profits and both publishers and agents that I have approached or been approached by, were very honest about this. If an author is going to get offended (and I’m not claiming Eisler is) when a publisher asks more about your marketing model and target audience rather than focus on the quality of your story or the message behind it, then the author also might need to look in the mirror.

Eisler was more direct, I think, in the New York Observer, when he says that one of the reasons he decided to decline the St. Martin’s deal was that the publisher was simply too slow in meeting its obligations. St. Martin’s, for example, took more than four months just to send a draft contract, “and during that time, the landscape of the industry had changed to the point where many of the terms were no longer acceptable — in part because of the explosion of e-books and self-publishing.”

Eisler also criticized legacy publishers who deliberately slow down the process of publishing a book, to earn interest on the money they would otherwise have to pay to authors. “By contrast, he said, Amazon was willing to sign a deal immediately and then guarantee to have the e-book version and the paperback version of his new books on the market long before a traditional publisher could.”

“What I care about is readers, because without readers I can’t make a living [and] I want people to read a lot. To that end, if I can find a way to get readers books that cost less and are delivered better and faster, I want that.”

Eisler’s frustrations, long expounded by authors, were heard by a opportunist giant in the book world, who is willing to listen to its authors and readers and adapt. More tomorrow.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

I HAVEN’T died on schedule.

I’ve been holding off on this one for a while, primarily because of my close friend, Rebecca, who passed away 10 days ago. But she, like so many, defied the doctors and statistics, to go on living far beyond what was expected of her.

“I haven’t died on schedule.” So begins a beautiful article by Mark Trautwein from San Francisco in The New York Times.

Mark Trautwein

I have now met a couple of people who have lasted longer than they thought, or rather than they were told by their doctors. My grandmother lasted several years more than anyone expected. Anyone, that is but her. She announced that she would see all her grandchildren have their barmitzvahs. Mine was still several years in the future and some in the family raised eyebrows. She passed away shortly after my barmitzvah – when she was ready, people said.

How do you live under such a cloud, a death sentence, really? Where do these people find the strength not just to survive, but live. My friend, Rebecca, lived her life in full until the end, helping people as she had all her life.

My heart is full of admiration for those people who live in such conditions. They seem so brave, so strong. I think how much the rest of us can learn from their example. Please take a moment to read the article. You can also follow Mark’s blog.

It has occurred to me that unless we are living under the same roof as that person, it is really difficult to keep their struggle in our minds or to normalize it. Probably, we only see them when they are feeling good, certainly not when they are having treatment or lying awake in the middle of the night. Often, they don’t want to dwell on their struggle when you visit, preferring to hear about your life (don’t your problems seem so insignificant at that moment?) or discuss what they crave for – normalcy.

Do you know someone who is fighting a life-threatening disease, illness etc.? Maybe it’s time to go round, hang out with them, be in the picture. If you can’t, give them a call. It’s Labor Day weekend coming up. You have time, not that you can measure time. Ask these people.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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