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Monday, 26 September 2016

10 Reasons to Write Honest Book Reviews

If you peruse a selection of the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads you will find that they are largely positive—as in 4 or 5 star ratings. Considering that it is now, due to print on demand, possible for anyone to self-publish with no upfront costs, can it really be that the majority of books are “really liked” or “loved” by most readers? Or is it that society is gradually conditioning us to avoid confrontation or negativity in favour of a more positive and uplifting approach?

As an evangelical Christian I am obviously in favour of encouragement and of trying to see the good side of things. But shouldn’t we also be honest and say what we really think about something? What value is it if we say that things are good when they are not? What will happen to the quality of our literature if we follow each other in enthusing about books that we actually found dull and monotonous in order to fit in? Is that what is happening or is it that we’ve lost the ability to think critically, having been instructed from an early age that we need to build a person’s self-esteem through affirmation?

Hopefully, you can now appreciate why this is an important issue worth writing about. This is my list of reasons for writing honest book reviews.

1.     Maintaining a good standard of quality literature. This is particularly important with the massive rise in self-publishing in recent years. If readers were honest, those poor quality books that are badly edited or just not worth reading would be banished forever.

2.      Time is valuable. How many times have you downloaded a book or picked one up cheaply in a charity/thrift store only to read the first few chapters and abandon it? How many books do you have waiting in your “to read” pile? How many other ways are you wasting time due to not really knowing whether or not a book is worth reading due to the lack of honest reviews?

3.     Money is scarce. E-books and the ability to “Look Inside” a book partly negate this issue as you can “try before you buy.” But there are still some over-priced e-books out there. And what of those who prefer paperbacks or who aren’t internet savvy? Honest reviews prevent people wasting their hard-earned cash on something that will inevitably disappoint.

4.    Offensive content. Standards are lowering across the globe as people depart from biblical values. What was offensive twenty years ago is now considered acceptable. I appreciate that readers will have different opinions on what is and isn’t offensive. Wouldn’t it be useful to know in advance if there is bad language, blasphemy, sex, violence or drug-taking in a book? There are various Christian websites that evaluate movies but none that I am aware of for books. Readers rely on reviews yet I rarely see comments about this type of content issue.

5.      Authors want them! Most serious authors want to know how they can improve their writing. They want to know about content or editing issues. Changes are easier to make now than ever. The pain of receiving a 1 or 2 star rating is somewhat negated with an explanation as to why the reader didn’t enjoy the book. Sometimes it will be unavoidable or a mismatched genre preference—I have had non-Christians offended by the Christian focus of my books. But most authors want to know anyway. One author contacted me after I left a relatively negative review on Amazon to ask me to be a BETA reader for her. She told me that I had raised all of the issues that she had felt uncomfortable with when she had published the book.

6.     Encourage critical thinking. An honest and thought-provoking review may cause others to re-examine their own position on an issue. My most popular review to date was of the best-selling Christian book The Shack. Wincing at the numerous 4 and 5 star reviews, I gave it 1 star due to the bad language and erroneous theology. My review generated a great deal of discussion on Goodreads which led to someone recommending a Youtube documentary examining the book in light of Scripture. Surely it is good for all of us to be challenged in this way.

7.       Fostering reliability. Readers still look at reviews when deciding what to read, but how many are being put off by the grossly inflated statistics? If a book is rated 5 stars it should be something exceptional, but many are not. This has come about partly due to review swaps between authors who then cannot bring themselves to be honest for fear of damaging their own chances of success. This also occurs due to authors paying for reviews—yes, this does happen despite big companies like Amazon clamping down. But I would suggest that readers could easily over-ride these misleading and in some cases fraudulent stats by simply being honest in their own reviews.

8.     Increased success for indies. Good self-published authors can be lost in the tide of drivel. Readers become reluctant to buy indie books after a few disastrous purchases. If only they could rely on the reader reviews they might take a chance on a new author.

9.     Bucking the trend. Okay, maybe this is just me, but there’s definitely something satisfying about drawing attention to a little known author after a great reading experience; or, conversely, departing from the acceptable path of popular opinion by slating a “classic.” A word of caution here—only do this if it is what you really think. Ulterior motives tend to expose themselves in the end.

10.    It’s biblical! I had to of course mention the most important point. We should be “speaking the truth in love.” At times, that might involve contacting an author and offering feedback privately rather than a public review. It might also involve explaining publicly why a book is offensive or theologically inaccurate to steer others away from it. It doesn’t generally involve remaining silent and it definitely doesn’t involve giving an untruthful opinion about something to please an author, blend in with the crowd, or to avoid being controversial.

Let’s be honest in our reviews so that we can all enjoy our reading experiences.

Ephesians 4 vs 15
 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ

Proverbs 16 vs 13
 Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.
Ephesians 4 vs 25
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Offence of Christian Evangelism

In Western society, people are increasingly concerned about what is and isn’t offensive. You will hear the words tolerance, openness, inclusivity and diversity in almost every speech. Aspiring political leaders vie to offer a greater demonstration of these values.  But what do these words really mean? Is it even possible to apply them in a society that we expect to actually function? 

A previous post asked the question “What is truth?” Some would say that people with a definite answer to that question are offending others who hold a different view. If I answer that truth is found in the Bible, I am offending those who believe that it is found elsewhere, or those who believe that truth is relative. But for the moment, due to freedom of speech, “offending” someone is still okay.

What about those who, after Brexit, decided to express their suppressed prejudices through racism, xenophobia or other criminal acts? They believed that the vote legitimised their illegal expression. I think we can all agree that these activities are unacceptable and that such people should be punished in accordance with the law. But what about the views that led to the actions--should people be allowed to hold those views in the first place? How can they be prevented from forming and holding convictions that the vast majority find offensive?

The whole debate is really nonsense as it is totally subjective. Who decides what is and isn’t offensive? If free speech is enshrined in law, then we have to accept that sometimes we will not agree with each other and may therefore be offended by someone else’s viewpoint. The alternative is a society where everyone thinks, speaks and acts in an identical manner to avoid offending another person. Individuality, creativity and intelligent thought are dead—slain on the altar of political correctness. Do we really want to end up living in the utopia’s of 1984, Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451

That sets the context for my narrower subject which is the “offence” of Christian evangelism. I thought it would be helpful for those who do not appreciate Christians’ efforts to “convert” them to hear a different perspective. From conversations over the years, I’ve surmised that a lot of atheists, agnostics and people of other faiths believe that Christians evangelise for one or all of the following reasons:

     To prove that they are right and everyone else is wrong
     To gain numbers for the church/their own personal “soul count”
     To earn their way to heaven by gaining favour with God
     To impress others with their good deeds
     Because their church leader/denomination tells them to

It’s no wonder, then, that most people resist these evangelistic efforts and may even get irritated when they see the evangelist coming. The common denominator in this list is “self-focus.” Unfortunately, many of us have fallen into the trap of making evangelism about ourselves and our churches instead of about God.

So what should be the motivator for Christian evangelism? I once read a short story about a Christian man who was staying for three weeks with a friend that he had not seen for a very long time. At the end of the period, when he was about to leave, he was rebuked by a series of questions; 

“Tell me, you are a Christian are you not?” 

 “Yes sir, I am”

 “Does Christianity then dry up all the milk of human kindness and compassion, rendering it obsolete?”

 “Whatever do you mean?”

 “Here you have been staying under my roof for three whole weeks. We have been eating together, conversing and spending much time in each other’s company. And yet not once have you placed your hand on my shoulder and sought to tell me how I might save my own soul from an eternity in hell. That is where you believe I am heading, is it not?”

I cannot recall the source and the exact dialogue between the two men, but that was the gist of their conversation and it has stayed with me through the years. The salient point is obviously that the non-believer was expecting the believer to share his faith with him. He saw the failure as evidence of a lack of love and care for him as a friend. It should be the natural, innate desire of a Christian to share the Good News with those that cross their path.

Society tells Christians to pipe down—that espousing their views is offensive. Christians begin to conform and to ask one another whether they even need to tell others what they believe. Maybe they can have a private faith and keep it all in house. Maybe it is more loving and less offensive in a free society—live and let live!

But the Gospel is an offence and God tells us to share it with others. It is an offence to tell someone that unless they believe that Jesus died on the cross in their place and for their sin, they are going to hell forever. We don’t need to be offensive in the way that we deliver the message. But if it is the message itself that offends, then so be it, if we really believe the truth of our own message. Maybe that is the bigger issue….

Sadly, we may never have the chance to hear those fateful words “But why didn’t you tell me?” Our friends, neighbours and colleagues who either didn’t hear or didn’t believe the Gospel will already be spending an eternity in hell. In heaven, we will not have the chance to empathise with them in their predicament because there is no sadness, mourning or crying. It will be too late.

Today is the day of salvation. Time is short. Let’s remember that this world with its values and ideas about what is and isn’t offensive is passing away. There will be no platform for political correctness on judgement day. Let’s not be hampered by those who seek to silence us for the perceived public good. Let’s steer clear of church politics, soul counting and other similarly damaging practices. Let’s instead reach out to those around us with the right motivation—love for them and concern for their eternal souls.

1 Corinthians 1 vs 18
 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Acts 4 vs 12
 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Acts 4 vs 19-20
 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

2 Corinthians 6 vs 2
Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Reflections of an Amateur Christian Author

I have always had an interest in writing, but more so in reading. I devoured books as a child. I sometimes even wrote stories that tended to be spin-offs from the movie I’d just watched. It was obvious these didn’t really contain any unique material or ideas! Since my stories often featured drawings as well, it wasn’t long before I realised that my skills in the latter were non-existent. This realisation usually came through the not-so-well masked facial expressions of various adults. Hence, my writings became text-only. 

As a Christian missionary on Logos Hope from 2011-2013, I spent a day every two months composing my newsletters for my supporters. I tried to make sure they were thorough, colourful (with photos,) detailed and interesting. They seemed to be enthusiastically received. But I suppose that was to be expected as I’d been given training in how to write them. One point that stuck in my mind during the training was about what not to do rather than what to do. Maybe that says something about my personality, but I won’t dwell on that here…

It was mentioned in passing that we shouldn’t spend too much time detailing our personal spiritual experiences. These tend to put people off since often the reader can’t relate to them. That struck on immediate chord with me--the monotony of reading page after page of someone else’s vague encounters with God and their subsequent attempts to analyse them. I determined from the outset to try to connect with my readers by making my content as relevant as possible. I thought about what I would want to hear about if I was at home, the things I would be interested in, and, conversely, the things that would bore me or that I would skip through. 

People do want to know that their missionaries are trusting God and learning through their experiences on the field. But they don’t need the spiritual lessons spelled out for them in tedious detail. These lessons are easily evidenced through the way missionaries deal with everyday events. A Bible verse at the top of the page or a list of prayer points typically suffice. Lessons learned don’t need to be proved via lengthy spiritually-sounding explanations that risk sending even the most faithful supporters off into a deep snooze. 

Why do some missionaries suddenly lapse into church or “God-speak” in their newsletters? Words that long ago ceased to be used in everyday conversation suddenly make a reappearance. I’ve also noticed how missionaries seem to forget their sense of humour. Cross-cultural missions create some of the most amusing situations that exist on earth. It’s inevitable with the clash of people groups. And that’s before we consider bringing a new and potentially threatening religion into the mix! Maybe some people raised their eyebrows at the presence of my “Humour/Cultural” box. But many enjoyed it, making comments to the effect that it really helped them understand some of the dynamics I faced on a daily basis. 

It wasn’t until mid-2014 that I seriously considered writing anything more substantial for a wider readership. It came about purely because I wanted to raise awareness of a ministry situation and realised that a book might be the best method of doing so. I wrote They’re Rugby Boys, Don’t You Know? to highlight the plight of teenage street boys in the Philippines addicted to a solvent called “rugby.”

I wrote in narrative form as if I was verbally telling the story. Some readers that knew me said they could hear me speaking as they read. The vast majority of the feedback was positive and I generously received a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews. But there were critics too. People pointed out that I wasn’t a professional author, that the narrative was rambling in places, that there were a few typos, and that it could do with a proper edit to improve the flow. Personally, I think the latter group were more astute and the former were just being kind as they desired to help in the mission work!

For Rugby Boys, I did a lot of self-promotion around my mission work—not that I wanted to or particularly enjoyed doing it, but because I had picked up from a few articles that it was essential. I decided to self-publish through a print on demand company,, largely due to their royalty rates. I emailed the blurb about my book to all of the independent Christian book shops in England. I submitted the e-book to all of the big websites: Amazon, Nook, Itunes, etc. And I waited. There was not a lot of movement. 

I sold a hundred or so copies to friends and family. I joined Goodreads and other social networks to promote my book. I started a blog. I moved from Lulu to Createspace. I read reams of information about how to increase visibility as an author and tried various tricks and ideas. Still there was not a lot of movement. I joined social network groups and gave my e-book away for free to generate reviews. The reviews trickled in but with no real impact on sales. My analysis was that people who actually read the book seemed to enjoy it and that low sales were still because of a visibility issue.

Then came Planet Police. I had held off writing about my police work. I believed that I needed a spiritual purpose in writing and couldn’t just write something for entertainment. In the end I realised that if I included my personal testimony, it could be an effective evangelistic tool in the hands of the right people. Concerned that some of the content might be considered inflammatory, I approached my former police force and asked for their comments on my draft manuscript.  

Sussex Police suggested a few things be removed. They also advised that I not publish it for my own sake! I complied with the former and thought and prayed a lot about the latter. They mentioned that I might offend people of other faiths with my Christian views. They warned that my story might receive interest in a national tabloid and my personal life might be ripped to pieces. Finally, I decided to seek the legal protection of a publisher. 

Stumbling upon the only Christian publisher in England that accepted unsolicited manuscripts online in mid-2015, Onwards and Upwards, I submitted the document to them. I then forgot about it, knowing that all publishers receive thousands of manuscripts and that it had really just been a shot in the dark. Therefore, I was somewhat astonished to receive an email a couple of days later from the managing director stating that he had read my story, enjoyed it and that they wanted it! I needed to buy 200 copies of the book myself and they would do the rest. Planet Police was published in late 2015 and to date there has been no backlash, although initial sales are slow.

I still saw writing as something of a hobby but began to take it a bit more seriously in 2016. A friend mentioned that he was praying about what to write in his blog. I thought that was a bit crazy—praying about a blog post!? Did God care about things like that? But then I realised that he had been right. Any Christian putting material into the public domain should ensure they are representing Jesus at all times. My blog had to that point been quite random. I had updated it regularly with what I was doing on the field and what I was learning, hopefully in an exciting format. But it was time to make some changes--to take my writing more seriously, and to pray about it first.

Do I now see myself as a serious author? In some respects, not really. But I definitely take my writing more seriously and ensure there is a purpose in the things that I write. I am a Christian missionary and am currently between fields so I have time to spend online, writing books and updating my blog. There will come a time when I will probably not be able to prioritise these things as I will be involved in more practical field work. I am hoping to publish The Logos Life and a sequel to Rugby Boys this year or next. But early feedback suggests the drafts need some further work!

All this to say, I want to share with you here some of the practical things I’ve learned during my first few years as an amateur author. 

1.       Self-promotion irritates people, will make you feel uncomfortable and doesn’t make much difference in terms of sales. You need to get your book in front of readers that will then promote it for you. Consider offering it free for a period on Amazon Kindle. Carry out giveaways on Goodreads and LibraryThing for visibility.

2.       The more books you write, the more you will sell. This is logical. In a market saturated with self-published books, you should focus on writing what could turn out to be the next best-seller rather than spending hours advertising/promoting your first work.

3.       Choose a short snappy title for your book (no more than four words) and include a word that tells the reader immediately what it is about. I didn’t do this with my first book preferring to use a catchy phrase from the narrative. It’s too late to change it now. But I would if I could as it’s caused all sorts of confusion with readers thinking the book is about rugby, the sport. Even Amazon still have it in their rugby union category!

4.       Get it properly proofed and edited. My book had been edited, but you’d be amazed at the number of grammar Nazis out there. They will definitely comment on it in your review for all the world to see forever.

5.       A well designed cover is essential. Make sure that you are happy with it. You don’t want to be making excuses or feeling like it could’ve been better when promoting your book.

6.       Don’t stress about sales. Unless you get “lucky” or God decides He wants to use your work in a spectacular way, sales will be slow, maybe virtually non-existent, at first. Your author profile builds over time, so don’t expect dramatic results. Try to enjoy writing your stories. Don’t worry too much about the outcome sales wise.

7.       Don’t pay for advertising. The only real success I’ve heard about is through Bookbub, but it’s expensive and the path for acceptance is paved with rejections! There are lots of sites where you can submit your book for free. I got over a thousand downloads through Reading Deals but haven’t had much success elsewhere. Even that didn’t generate reviews. You can add your book to searchable book databases to ensure it is available online.

8.       Listen to your readers and read the reviews. Implement suggestions for change. Don’t react angrily or take it personally if someone doesn’t like your book. We have diverse opinions and should be free to express them. Consider thanking the reviewer for their honesty and if they haven’t been specific, ask them how you could improve your writing.

9.       Become an avid reader. Offer to review other people’s books and offer honest feedback in your reviews. Objective critique is what all authors need, but it is sadly lacking. People prefer to avoid confrontation using phrases like “It was good” or saying that it was “nice.” Be more specific and say what you really mean.

10.   Most of us are not professional authors and have other jobs, as some readers have not so tactfully reminded me in their reviews. But in all seriousness, we need to remember that and not expect to make a living out of our writing. There are very few who will be gifted enough to be able to do that, but it is not a realistic goal for most. Instead, let’s focus on our spiritual purpose in writing and ensure our faith remains central.

I hope this post encourages you in your writing for Christ and gives you some ideas for further reflection. Let’s pray that our Christian readers will be challenged and encouraged. And let’s pray that those who are not yet saved will be convicted and realise their need of a Saviour.

 Colossians 3 vs 23

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men"