Quantity vs. Quality

Is it better to produce a large number of mediocre books or a small number of well-written ones? The answer, surprisingly, depends primarily on the author’s goal. If the goal is money, then quantity is the way to go. Book series can entice people to continue to purchase an author’s works. It also helps to write in multiple genres and to target underserved genres. If, on the other hand, the goal is to be considered a great author, it’s probably better to prioritize quality and hope you get recognized.

One thing that had puzzled me was how some indie authors are able to be so prolific. I recently heard one brag that he had written an entire trilogy in twelve weeks. Was he lying? No, but he was being somewhat deceptive. It’s common practice for some authors to write a normal length book and then break it into several parts. They are either published simultaneously or in rapid succession, and each is touted as a separate book. The first “book” is generally either free or 99 cents, while the others are priced higher. This is a clever technique to generate more revenue. It also helps to explain the insane number of self-published books. The only real downside is the necessity of creating more covers.

After realizing this, I wondered if I should do something similar. I could pull Audrey of Farmerton, break it into three chunks, commission more covers, and then proudly publish it as a trilogy. And just like that, I’ve written three books instead of one! And I’ve nearly got three more done! Hurray! Before long I’ll be able to produce a single poorly-written “book” in less than a month!

Joking aside, I am not going to go down the quantity path. My goal isn’t to become rich off of writing. I want my books to be the best I can make them, and I want them to actually be books. That means a low production rate, but I’m fine with that.

My thoughts on Grammarly

For those who don’t want to read a long review, here’s the brief summary: The free version of Grammarly is a useful utility for writers, but only if they already have a good knowledge of English grammar.

Grammarly is an English language grammar checker. It is available as a browser extension, an MS Word add-on, or as a standalone application. It is seemingly free but promptly starts urging you to upgrade to the premium (subscription) version. They offer a 7-day money-back guarantee on subscriptions, but I found so many people complaining about it not being honored (and poor customer service in general) that I opted to only test the free version.

I installed the macOS version. To test it, I employed the text from my 160,000+ word first novel. I pasted each scene individually into Grammarly, and it then proceeded to analyze the text and flag issues. The issues are divided into critical and advanced categories, with the advanced requiring the premium version. Critical issues are flagged to the right of the line of text where they were found. There are options to accept (and apply) the recommended change, to view more information, or to simply ignore it. An example issue is to flag “afterwards” and suggest a change to “afterward”.

So how did Grammarly do? It did an excellent job of spotting repeated words and mistakes such as writing “though” when you meant “through”. These kinds of errors are the ones that our brains often skip right over without us even noticing. It also did a good job of recognizing when commas were either omitted or unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the complete list of things Grammarly does well.

Grammarly will often recommend changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa. It is occasionally correct, but often wrong. It will also make suggestions when it thinks you have typed the wrong word by mistake, but most of these are wildly wrong. For example, it repeatedly suggested replacing “robe” with “role”. This is the kind of mistake no human proofreader would ever make.

I also experienced problems employing the Grammarly application. Sometimes when I pasted in new text it would fail to scan it, forcing me to start a new document. Sometimes the scan would get stuck and never complete. To me, this feels more like beta software than a finished application.

Would the premium version of Grammarly have performed better on the so-called critical issues? I have no idea, but I rather doubt it. Automated checking of English grammar is incredibly difficult. In my opinion, it’s going to take a large company employing advanced AI to really crack the problem.

I did look for other reviews of Grammarly and found them mixed. Disturbingly, many of the positive ones end with buy links for Grammarly, suggesting that they may be biased or even paid for. The best reviews were those that looked at several different grammar-checkers and compared their performance to a human’s.

In summary, the free version of Grammarly can be a useful aid for finding some types of simple grammar issues. It caught typos that have been in my book for ages without anyone noticing. On the other hand, blindly following its suggestions would have wrecked my book, filling it with bizarre and ungrammatical sentences. So don’t even think of using Grammarly unless you already have a good knowledge of proper English grammar.

Five Star Blog Post!

On sites that sell books (and other things), reviews are usually accompanied by a star rating, typically ranging from one (worst) to five (best). But if you start looking at the distribution of star ratings, it often looks odd. This, I think, is what led Netflix to announce that they are abandoning star ratings for simpler “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” feedback.

Star ratings tend to cluster at the two extremes for a variety of reasons. Some books are polarizing, resulting in readers who either love it or hate it. Reviews are more likely to be written by people with strong opinions that they want to share. The end result is an odd distribution of ratings, typically with relatively few lower than four stars. If you think about it, this makes sense. People rarely buy books blindly. They may be buying because they are already familiar with (and like) the author. Or it may have been recommended by a trusted friend. Or perhaps they read an excerpt first before committing to the purchase. In any event, most books are purchased with the expectation that the reader will enjoy them.

In an ideal world, the ratings would be objective and the reviews fair. Only great works of literature would receive five star ratings. In reality, star ratings represent people’s opinions and biases. Five stars means they really liked it, and probably not that it’s one of the best books ever written. One star might indicate a badly-written book, or it might simply indicate that the reader didn’t like the style of writing or hated the ending. Or maybe they’re just a troll. 🙂

And never start a sentence with a conjunction!

A good friend of mine was actually taught in school that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. In other words, a sentence shouldn’t be started with “And”, “Or”, “But”, etc. And she’s not the only one. Many people have been taught this, even though it is complete nonsense. Even today, you will find idiots on the internet claiming that this is the proper way.

The reality is that the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence has been part of the English language for centuries. In general, about ten percent of sentences start that way. Never starting with a conjunction can also lead to confusing run-on sentences that may annoy or confuse readers. Sometimes it’s simply better to break a compound sentence into two separate ones, even if the second one starts with a conjunction.

So do begin sentences with conjunctions when there is a need, but not all the time.

Amazon’s Braindead Review Policy

In October of 2016, Amazon reacted to accusations of posting biased reviews by making a significant change to their review policy. The goal was to eliminate reviews that were incentivized in some manner, particularly those provided in exchange for receiving a free or discounted item. And this included book reviews. The way that Amazon implemented this change was to summarily remove any review that contained a disclaimer indicating possible bias, and then to ban the reviewer. If this approach seems reasonable to you, then think again. Allow me to illustrate that the new policy not only doesn’t work, but has actually made things worse.

Consider two buyers—Alpha and Beta. Both receive a free item (which might simply be an ebook) in exchange for agreeing to post a review. Note that they have not promised to write a favorable review. Alpha is honest, and includes a disclaimer with the posted review. Beta simply posts a review without revealing the possible bias. In the past, Amazon would have left both reviews up. Now, they key on disclaimers, so Alpha’s review would be removed, while Beta’s less honest review remains. In other words, Amazon’s reviews are now, on average, less trustworthy, because dishonesty is rewarded while honesty results in punishment. The incentivized reviews are still there, but they are now impossible to recognize.

I ended up being caught out by this. I had just self-published my first book and had asked friends and family to post reviews. Because I am an honest person, I suggested that they might include a disclaimer that they knew the author. The ones that did had their reviews summarily deleted by Amazon.

So learn from my mistake. Tell your reviewers to be dishonest, because that allows Amazon to feel better about itself. 🙂