Friday, March 11, 2011

A slave to Amazon-- or, Kill. Me. Now.

So, some readers may have noticed that I haven't been posting quite as many book reviews for the past couple of weeks.  There's a reason for that; I've been devoting my reading time towards serving as an "expert reviewer" for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, or ABNA, as it is generally known.

This is the second time I've served as an ABNA reviewer in the contest's four-year history.  The first time was two years ago.  A few weeks ago, I was delighted to be asked to do it again.  What was I thinking?

No, there is something undeniably cool about being a part of this massive talent search.  The contest starts with a staggering 10,000 contestants in two categories: adult fiction and young adult fiction.  There are 5,000 contestants in each category.  Those 5,000 are pared down to 1,000 in each category in the first elimination, which is based solely on the 300 word "pitch" that each contestant submits about their novel.  That round is judged by Amazon staff.

My round is next.  One hundred "top" Amazon reviewers are asked to read and review 3,000 - 5,000 word excerpts (usually 15-20 pages) of 40 of the remaining 2,000 entries.  Those of you doing math in your head have calculated that each excerpt is read, rated, and reviewed by two of us.  We are asked to write 75-300 word responses to each of three questions:
  • What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
  • What aspect needs the most work?
  • What is your overall opinion of this work?
Then we are asked to assign a one- to five-star rating on these four areas:
  • Overall strength of excerpt
  • Plot/hook (would you want to read more)
  • Prose/style
  • Originality of idea
You might be surprised by how long it takes to complete each excerpt.  Obviously, you want to give each and every contestant their proper due.  I read each excerpt carefully, taking notes, noting quotations, and thinking hard about what kind of constructive feedback I can offer.  The ABNA contestants never seem to be satisfied with the feedback and reviews we provide, but God knows that I give it my all.  In fact, I sit down with each excerpt and look at it as if it were one of my editorial jobs.  Ironically, several bestselling authors value my feedback, but ABNA contestants - not so much.  (Of course, that's a generalization.  It's anonymous on both sides, so while there's a general level of dissatisfaction, maybe my contestants are thrilled with the pearls of wisdom I've bestowed.)

It's really hard.  You see work ranging from dreadful to brilliant and everything in between.  I often compare it to open auditions for American Idol.  Some people seem to be just as "tone deaf" towards their writing, so it's a mixed bag.  There's a lot to enjoy, and one of the hardest parts is starting some of these stories, falling in love with them, and knowing you'll never get to read further.  Most of the submissions have strengths and weaknesses, and those are the easiest to review.  Some are nearly impossible to praise and for others, I've got nothing constructive to offer.  They're fantastic.  (I'm guessing the ones who get nothing but praise will forgive me.)

There have been several "innovations" this year that have made the reviewing more odious than I remember from two years ago.  Back then, there were YA submissions mixed in with all the other genre entries, but they were in the minority.  Now they're fully half of the contest.  Now, I've got absolutely nothing against reading a good YA novel, but if I read another first-person tale of teen romance that opens with the female protagonist in her high-school classroom, I won't be responsible for what I do to myself or others.  And, please, no more fantasy!  Excerpts seem to be assigned completely at random, and rather than half adult and half YA, I've had three-quarters YA excerpts so far.  There really is so much sameness to them that I just crave the diversity of the adult submissions.

Well, I've still got quite a few to read.  Hopefully the balance will change.  It has to, right?  It's going to be a long weekend for me.  I don't mean to procrastinate, but the aforementioned innovations have hindered my ability to review efficiently.  Last time I had all 40 excerpts assigned from the first day.  I could look at my list and pick a title that sounded intriguing.  And I could print out ten excerpts at a time and take them away from my computer to read, ruminate on, and review.  Now, I can only see one excerpt at a time, and I can't get at the next one until I've finalized my review of the prior one.  It's really a pain, and I'm glued to the laptop for hours on end.  On the bright side, I've become a regular at the coffee shop across from my apartment.  It's a sit-com-like establishment, and it smells really good over there.

I've got until midnight on Sunday.  It will take me that long.  Please send encouraging comments to the blog.  It's a marathon, people.


  1. Good luck! That sounds like it can be both a pleasure and a pain!

  2. You do love a challenge, don't you? I know you're up to it. We need to talk, btw.

  3. Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! I feel the same about YA fiction - a few is nice but if you read too much of them, it's... all the same!

    Good luck, hope you get it done in time!