Updated: July 14, 2012
Several days ago, I received a highly negative Kirkus Indie Review of my book, The Betrayed. Now, the review policy allows authors not to publish negative review, to save face, so to speak. Since I'm not a pussy and do not fear criticism, I decided to tell you all about it, every little detail. But there's more. I would like to elaborate on my experience with the review service so that if you ever need it, you give it a pass.
First, this article is ripe with drama, so if you only care for technical pieces, feel free to skip it. Second, it is important for me to convey the right message: so if you want the gist of it, scroll down to the conclusion section, or read the whole thing. Finally, if you are one of those people who dislike me or dislike this site for some reason, this is a great opportunity for you to lean back and enjoy the show. It's called how Dedoimedo Got Shafted.
The review background story
Anyhow, as a part of my book publication package, I was entitled to a review. Not free, but money is irrelevant here. The reason I wanted someone to review the book was to get an independent and hopefully unbiased opinion on the content. This was before I pitched the idea here, which resulted in a handsome feedback from readers, but we will get to that shortly.
The publisher, CreateSpace, works with two review bodies, one of which is Kirkus Indie Review. They send two copies of your work to the reviewer, who then provides their feedback in about 10 weeks. As an author, you are entitled to use snippets of the review on the book's backcover, Amazon page and other places, as this could help you increase sales or suchlike.
I thought this could be a good idea, so I went for it. End result, I am disappointed. Again, not by the review result, which is something like 0/5 or 1/5 stars. That's fine by me. Again, it is impossible to expect that everyone everywhere will like your work. However, when you send your book to a professional review body - not to mention the fee - you expect a professional review in return. Professional means an analysis of the plot, your characters and their growth, the predictability of events, the human story told in a fictional setting, and suchlike. What I got was an abusive, disrespectful rant that I could have gotten for free from any of my readers.
The review itself
Here's the review in all its glory. You can read the whole piece now, and then we will work through most of the points in the review. So here's the piece, written by a professional:
When a banished god sets out to destroy mankind's remaining deities, the nations of the Realms erupt into
In the beginning, according to Ljubuncic's first installment of a proposed Lost Words series, the original sin was murder, the result of a love triangle between the gods Damian, Simon and Elia. What followed was an age of brutality and strife, resulting in the exile of Damian's soul to the Abyss of Making. Under the guise of a new god named Feor, Damian uses General-Patriarch Davar, a Caytorean, as his mortal conduit to escalate the fighting between gods and men. Soon, Commander Mali, whose inferiors call her "sir" and the "male whore" who rises up to become "Adam, the Godless" are called to arms, while the cuckolded King Vlad the Fifth and his Parusite army, as well as Ayrton, a battle-scarred Outsider from the Territories, mobilize to protect the "the holy land." Into this war story glides Armin Wan'der Markssin, a polygamous detective with alopecia, from the island of Sirtai. Investigating the murders of eight high-profile Caytorean businessmen, Armin teams up with a "Special Child" named Ewan aboard the ship Tenacious to confront Feor on a desolate island. While Ljubuncic's descriptions of battle crackle with life, the intervening scenes plod along with little sense of direction. Clichéd characters (including a dwarf assassin) hail from various countries yet seem to have no major cultural differences or language barriers. Although Armin reads "ancient maps" marked with an "alien alphabet," there's little feeling of another time, another world or even a language other than not particularly sharp English. At one point, Lord Erik answers Adam, the Godless, with an oddly contemporary "Nothing major." Later, Adam calls King Vlad "a nutjob." Even the most remote realms of fantasy need some foundational logic and reality to remain believable. Toward the end of Ayrton's journey, though, the narrator says: "Another monumental difficulty in completing the holy mission was its logic. It lacked any." He could well be describing his own tale.
Graphic carnage and religious allegories might hold some readers, but many fantasy fans are likely to be unimpressed.
By reading the review, I came to a conclusion that the reviewer either did not read the book or didn't like it on a very personal level. Words that come to mind: rude, abusive. Now, let's see what we have here.
The first half of this review is the book's synopsis in a way. Not really helpful, as I know what the book is all about, and so do the readers, since they can read the back cover text. The second part is a sort of a review on some of the points raised, none of which elaborate on character development, twists, angles, emotions, or anything alike.
... Adam, the Godless ...
This is a typo. It's Adam the Godless, mister professional. No comma.
... while the cuckolded King Vlad ...
Completely irrelevant information that Vlad's wife might be cheating on him.
... detective with alopecia ... eight high-profile murders ...
Irrelevant details that are counted as words in order to flesh out the review. Does it matter that a character has no body hair? Does it matter how many murders he's investigating? What does it tell anyone reading the review? That you used a word in Latin describing a rare skin condition? What if there had been seven high-profile murders, would that make any difference?
a "Special Child" named Ewan
There are no quotes for this term in the book itself, so this is probably a typo. The way the reviewer put it makes it sounds as if Ewan is special in an unpaired chromosomes kind of way. No, not that kind of special, I'm afraid.
... While Ljubuncic's descriptions of battle crackle with life, the intervening scenes plod along with little sense of direction ...
First, the battle scenes are not that many, really.
... Clichéd characters (including a dwarf assassin) hail from various countries yet seem to have no major cultural differences or language barriers ...
What other cliched characters OTHER than dwarfs? By the way, I do not recall reading about dwarf assassins in any of the fantasy books I own, a collection of almost 1,000 books. Speaking of cliches, let me think, can anyone think of a very popular book series turned into a TV series where a dwarf is one of the lead characters?
As to no major cultural differences and language barriers - the entire territory of the land depicted in the book is much less than territorial USA, and for some reason people at the West Coast and East Coast do not seem to have much trouble talking to one another, so why they should in my book? Speaking of cliches ... Yes, I should have made "unique" cultures where all men have this or that hairstyles and women all do this or that. Right.
In fact, looking back to our medieval time, everyone spoke French at the court. And peasants in the feudal system were pretty much the same everywhere. They were ugly and poor and worked hard. Why should my work aim for an artificial cultural distinction? Would that not be a cliche unto cliches?
... Although Armin reads "ancient maps" marked with an "alien alphabet," there's little feeling of another time, another world or even a language other than not particularly sharp English ...
Alien alphabet? Can you read ancient Greek? So why wouldn't an investigator be able to handle an ancient language? Anyhow, the Hebrew bible is written in a pretty olden language, and yet, it's perfectly easy to read nowadays. I also remember once poring over an 11th century example of a New Testament bible in a museum, from a purely atheistic perspective, and had no difficulty at all grasping everything, despite the 1,000-year gap between me and whoever wrote it. So I don't see why people in another, fictional world should not be able to do the same thing. As to the feeling of another time, well, that's quite subjective, and he might have a point.
... not particularly sharp English ...
Is this a reference to how characters perceive the language in the book or my own English? If the first, should I have used aulde English perhaps? Would that make things better? Prithee, canst thou send me thy review? Something like that? If the second, then I wonder how many languages can the reviewer speak? I'm splendid in three, and that's not even counting C, Perl and BASH. A hint of disdain maybe?
... with an oddly contemporary "Nothing major." Later, Adam calls King Vlad "a nutjob." ...
Oh, cliches again, not from me, but the reviewer! I didn't know there were rules to what language I should use. Again, I'm going back to my Shakespearean example from before. Is that what I should have used? Perhaps replace every modern word with a 15th century version? Would that make things better?
... Even the most remote realms of fantasy need some foundational logic and reality ...
Do they? So you set the rules how my imagination should work?
Why the review sucks
Let's first define what good and bad reviews are.
A good review is one filled with constructive criticism. If I may use my own example, it would be the recent review of the Cisco Communications Manager software, one of several book reviews I've been doing lately. Not only is my review much longer and more detailed, i.e. I have actually bothered to read the whole thing carefully, I did point out negative stuff. And here's how I did it:
However, I do lament the sore lack of the command line and the rather Windows approach, where you remember the location of buttons and drop-down menus in the GUI rather than fully understanding the core functionality of commands that do all that in the background. And for experts, the ability to put everything into a single shell, Perl or Python script is all the magic, especially on UNIX-like devices. I am particularly concerned about bulk user administration, patching and security, as running these through a wizard feels extremely tedious.
I think this information allows the author to go back and revisit his work if necessary and make changes. Moreover, I avoided any personal references.
A bad review is a review that has no actionable items for the author. If after having read the review, you do not know what you need to improve, it is a bad one, regardless of the content. In this context, my Cisco review, written in the same tone like The Betrayed Kirkus Indie Review, would have read:
The author is a noob and cannot use the command line.
See the difference?
Good reviews to counter the abuse
Now, this negative review needs to be taken in context with all other reviews currently available. At the moment, there are nine Amazon reviews, some even written by Dedoimedo contest winners themselves. The book currently has a 4.2/5 rating from these reviews. Some excerpts, barring the two perfect 5/5 marks, as it's too easy to get hung up on praise. Still, you're welcome to read them all in detail:
So here's a typical one, with some of the bad stuff seen by the reader.
The various plot lines progress rapidly, and the author skips between them at a pace that sometimes left me with a feeling of insufficient depth to the characters and the story, however this wears off towards the end of the book, as the plot lines become entwined. This, of course, is not necessary an issue and depends more on the personal taste of the reader; while some prefer the plot to unravel slowly, and engulf the reader with all the tiny details of the universe in which the story occurs, others will enjoy fast paced tales, such as this one.
And another one:
I won't make any spoilers here, just mentioning that there are more than a few of characters which are followed
by the narrator in parallel, some of them starting together, other crossing each others paths, sometimes on a
collision path. Their motives and actions are not always fully explained and their self introspection can
sometimes raise more questions then answers, but towards the end, many pieces of the puzzles will be in place.
Still, the end is more or less open, just like a short break before what will definitely follow in the second
At last, few words about the audience for the book, which IMO should be mature only. There are several sexual allusions mentioned during the story, as well as (sometimes too explicit) gore and violence brought by the war and city destruction. Keep this book away from children!
The book revolves around the characters, and perhaps some more attention could have been put into describing the history of the nations, the various gods and folklore. I can only hope that maybe all of these are coming in the next books in the series.
And here's another:
Fantasy is a difficult genre to write about. Its books are easy prey for stereotypes like heroes, awoken evils,
worlds in peril and happy endings. "The Betrayed" is a fresh breeze in this crowded genre. The world described by
the author is dark and violent, pretty realistic despite the Fantasy label.
There are about 3-4 plots that proceed at the same time. Combine these two things and you have a fragmented story which is not easy to follow.
Anyway, i had a great fun reading this book. It has a lot of action, very fast paced and it's one of the few fantasy books that is grim, dark and realistic. Not a masterpiece, but a good start for a saga that i hope will continue.
I purposefully picked the less positive bits, to highlight bad stuff. As you can see, ordinary people, who are not professional reviewers, provide useful, constructive criticism that actually helps me flesh out the upcoming sequel and work out the tiny details that bother my fans. Moreover, I even received some extra feedback in emails, and again, all of those are far more useful and polite than the would-be professional review.
And from readers and fans emails:
I think there is too much sex in the book. I am not going to be prude, but some of the sex-related scenes or episodes could be easily removed from the book without affecting the plot.
And this one too:
However I felt like the complete story about Parusians was unnecessary.
Constructive feedback is the key. I got my homework. I know what to do.
Now, there's more. Some comments from my book's official page:
Chapter 1 (which I think should be named as 'Power and Beauty', but I have only read the sample chapters so I may be wrong too) has a superb ending and makes me want to buy and read the whole book this instant. Keep up the good work.
Congratulations on publishing The Betrayed. If the rest of the book carries the same tone as the sample chapters you posted here, then it looks like you might have a winner on your hands.
And here's what the book's editor, the person proofing the text, had to say. This is not an official review, so don't quote me on that, but this is the accompanying text I received from her:
Overview - This is an outstanding fantasy story, which is already very clean and well written. I focused my
efforts on correct and consistent spelling, grammar, and style, as well as overall clarity and smooth flow. Per
the author's questionnaire, I paid particular attention to missing or incorrect articles, as well as the correct
and consistent use of capitals and italics, addressed below.
Characterization - There is an intriguing variety of characters who are all well fleshed out and consistent throughout the text. The cast includes a good mix of male and female, young and old, and they are all wonderfully human'in both good and bad ways, which makes them relatable to readers, even though it is a fantasy story.
Plot flow - The plot moves at a fast and smooth pace, which is important to keep readers hooked. The transitions between different scenes and characters are smooth and clear. Even though there is a lot of action (battle scenes, personal altercations, and the like), there is also a lot of inner reflection on the part of the characters. Not only does this help the reader get to know the characters, it gives the plot points more impact, as the motivations of the characters and consequences of the events are clear. Also, very importantly, this story is not predictable.
And then, there's more on structure, tone and style, grammar, all of which are quite okay, with some minor fixes needed. Anyhow, at the moment, it seems the positive reviews outweigh the bad one significantly. In statistics, this is called the outliers. Discard and forget and move on. That's how it's done.
Finally, this super-dramatic monstrosity posted on the book's fan page:
Well, I didn't finish reading this book ... yet. I read about two thirds. As a fellow earthman, as a human being I should warn you, dear readers, whoever you are reading this book, it might color your day in black and darker black. Reading this violent, blood-flesh-bones-throwing-all-over book consequently day after day will bring violence into your life and feeling that hope is not for you. If you want to feel the joy of a simple things like sunshine, air and knowing that there are people around you who do not wish you dead by suffocation and blood spilling, just read the book for a while (start where you'd like) and then close it and look around, take a deep breath. It will be like reincarnation, but you will be remembering you were dead for a while. The book is evil, mostly because of the combination of a good story, which makes you want to read further, and unspeakable violence and cruelty - beware, it's a trap!
You reap what you sow, biatch!
Yes, this is a valid point. My software reviews are often harsh. I am a curmudgeon extraordinaire. However, there are some notable differences. First, I am doing my various reviews without pretending to be a professional. Second, my reviews revolve around products - programs, operating systems, etc - things that people need to rely for their work and daily use. Third, while my tone is usually spicy, it is riddled with humor, if you can relate to it, that is, and examples why things are bad and how they can be fixed. Remember, actionable items. Saying something does not work is not enough, you need to offer a resolution too. That's the whole difference.
Finally, all of my snarky remarks come from love. It's like the child you bear to show them you care. Linux is my hobby, my passion, my work. I breathe Linux and want to make it succeed. So my efforts are focused on highlighting good and bad stuff so that we can enjoy an improved product as a whole.
I have no problem with criticism, truth
Honest, miss, I haven't! Some of you may perceive that I am writing this from the corner of my room, sitting in a heap of tissues and crying a river. Not really. I am writing this from the standpoint of a dissatisfied customer who expected a high-quality end result and got a finger in return. Forever Alone.
My friendly abuse relation with the Linux world is well established. For example, please read the first comment of the DarkDuck review, both on the original and reposted page. I have no problem with that. People don't like my work, fine. That's absolutely expected. Only it does not come under a false pretext of professionalism.
Another stellar example is the Crunchbang forums, where they had a lengthy discussion on how sucky I am. Moreover, someone even flattered me with an ultra funny and supposedly slightly insulting meme of my own, honest. I will gladly post that, if the original creator has no problem with that. Bad words, downright curses, it's all well and good, when it comes free, GPL and from actual people who happen to live the reality. But I would not expect anything of that sort from someone claiming to be a respected member of a respected organization doing software reviews or products. Unless you're Linus, then you are allowed.
Why I am right
Well, some would think I'm just spewing nonsense. But I have two examples, at least, that highlight the opposite. My findings are always accurate. The first one would be the Google Panda algorithm change, where I complained about how my traffic got hurt. I even started a few threads at the official forums and got all kinds of "expert" recommendations to rework all of my material, remove non-related stuff, etc. Six months later, Google fixed the algorithm back to the original, and my traffic went back to normal, and even doubled. I didn't make even a single change. Dedoimedo wins. The other example is the lack of the Power off button in Gnome 3. And lookie, lookie, one year later, the button is coming back in Gnome 3.6. Again, Dedoimedo wins. Oh, we will be talking about Gnome 3 when the button officially hits the market. So what I'm trying to say? Wait and see.
It is important for me to highlight why I wrote this article. I welcome feedback on my work, especially The Betrayed. This is the reason why I'm posting this. I could have hidden the review away from public light, but nope! In fact, I welcome reviews. Good or bad, it gets spotlight. No tricks. Besides, any publicity is good publicity! And now, following my recent free book giveaway, which resulted in The Betrayed peaking at #7 spot for a whole day and even touching spot #3 no less for a short while in the Epic Fantasy category on Amazon.com, and almost 1,000 book downloads, I am bound to get some praise and flak.
Second thing, quite as important: my own experience tells me that if you ever decide to publish a book, you should consider not using the Kirkus Indie Review service. You will get a few paragraphs hastily written, half summary, half nitpicking on useless details. No focus on the plot, character growth, the ending, or anything else. Instead, you will get remarks on some language barriers and the use of this or that word. "Nutjob" and "nothing major", three contemporary words out of some 110,000. Just so you get things in perspective. I considered posting the review on Amazon, in the author's section, but that would be interpreted as if I am somehow endorsing this unprofessional piece, which I will not do, but it goes into the Review section on the official page. Kirkus Indie Review is not a recommended service, both regardless and because of the price they charge for their work.
On the positive side, I need not now edit my book with changes, i.e. no second edition yet.
BTW, turns out I'm not the only one; just search for similar stories on the Web and you will see.
So there you go, the story of how Dedoimedo got gently shafted. I hope you liked.
And finally, here's a rather interesting piece on one star reviews.