One of the first things you learn when you begin to publish is that you’re largely responsible for your own promotion. Most writers aren’t even sure what the promotion means in this context when they first attempt it. In publishing, promotion means dozens of things; all of which boil down to letting people know you have a book to sell and why they should buy it. One of the better ways to do this is to get reviewed.
Notice I said “better” not “best.” Reviews don’t always work. I’ve gotten a number of really terrific reviews, which have not caused even the slightest blip in my sales. And, I’ve gotten some really negative reviews that made no difference whatsoever. In fact, one of my most successful ventures into self-publishing is a story called Coffee Clutch. It sold vastly more than any of my other stories or books. On Amazon it had two stars – and some very mean reviews.
Of course, you should try get reviewed. Especially in the professional and semi-professional worlds. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but you do have to keep your expectations in line. Good reviews can help. They give you something to talk about; something to quote on your Amazon page. The best reviews are from sites and reviewers who have a following that fits your work. I have seen sales from certain reviewers and I go back to them again and again.
So, since you have to do it…how do you emotionally deal with reviews? It’s definitely an acquired skill. Some writers try not to read reviews at all. However, when you’re doing your own promotion – as most of us are – that’s pretty impossible. Other writers only avoid “social” reviews like those on Goodreads – and certainly those can be harsh. I do have a couple of suggestions short of avoiding reviews all together.
One of the things I’ve noticed about reviews on Amazon is that the meanest, nastiest, “don’t waste your money” reviews are typically from people who have reviewed one or two other items and then rarely review again. I get these on my self-published work and almost never on work I’ve done with publishers. Maybe these are people who were so moved by the awfulness of my work to do a one-time review; more likely they’re trolls looking to undermine self-publishers for whatever reason. Typically, they don’t put enough details in their one-line, one-star reviews to be certain they’ve actually read the ebook. They also love to complain about length – even though my short stories are clearly marked as such. Those comments remind me of a very old joke about a resort in the Catskills. After dinner one of the patrons complains, “The food here is terrible. And such small portions.” It’s hard to take them seriously.
Goodreads is a slightly different story. I think there are fewer trolls waiting to bash you. But, I do think reviewers there are more likely to judge your work on their personal taste rather than quality of writing. I get this a lot. Most of my books are published with romance publishers even though I am not a romance writer. On Goodreads, I find that my one and two star reviews are usually from readers who just love romance and, with some justification, are pissed that I don’t conform to those preferences. Which leads me to a piece of advice; when you get a bad review on Goodreads (and to a certain extant Amazon) check out what the reader does like. Very often, I look at their positive reviews and find books I abhor. If a reader hates my work but loves 50 Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I’m thrilled. (full disclosure, I’ve only read part of one of those books, but they all have a reputation for being badly written despite their popularity.) This can, of course, backfire when a reader actually has taste and seems to understand what good writing is. Then its more a matter of licking my wounds and moving on.
It’s also important to remember that a reader values different things than a writer. I tend to get a lot of 3 star reviews that say something along the lines of “it was well-written but it just didn’t…” The thing that’s confusing to writers is that well-written is about the best compliment you can get. And yet to readers it has little value. Readers are often looking for a particular emotional response. There are so many factors that go into this it’s very easy to run afoul. First, you may not even be trying to create the type of response they’re looking for – so a readers understanding of what genre you’re writing is crucial. If you don’t deliver what they expect it doesn’t matter how great a writer you are. Second, the reader may not be connecting to you work through no fault of your own. I’ve started books and dropped them because I was bored only to go back years later and love them. A review is often as much about the reviewer as it is about the writer. Unfortunately, a certain percentage of reviews will actually have nothing to do with what you wrote.
After you begin to get reviewed, you have to ask yourself how seriously should I take these things? One good rule of thumb is to remind yourself to take the bad reviews as seriously as the good ones; which is to say not very. It’s best to approach both good and bad reviews with a grain of salt. There are two exceptions to this. First, if a review is badly written I don’t take it seriously whether it’s positive or negative. In fact, it’s almost annoying to get a badly written positive review since the writer is impeaching themselves even as you read the review. Second, you should pay attention to a review you agree with. This is the most horrible review to receive. It’s the review that hits on all the flaws in your story you were trying to fix, or hide, or banish during editing. Learning that all of those problems are still there is not fun. But, you do have to take it seriously and examine your editing process.
Is there anything to do in response to a review? Generally, no. I do sometimes mumble ‘fuck you’ at my computer screen but that’s about as far as you should go. One time a reader on Goodreads complained that there were no condoms used in the first Boystown book. I did go ahead and explain that the book predated safe sex by several years and it would have been historically inaccurate for the characters to use condoms, although I probably shouldn’t have done that and wouldn’t do it today. On Goodreads in particular, it seems that readers would rather think of authors as obnoxious rich people living idle lives of luxury who deserve to occasionally be used as punching bags rather than real people with feelings just like them. It’s best not engage with them.
The good news about reviews is that it does get easier. One star reviews don’t bother me much anymore, particularly when I look a reader’s taste and see that they were probably never going to like my book anyway, or when I realize what they’ve written is much more about them than it is about me. It’s an opinion, at a particular moment in time, which may end up being useful to you, either in promotion or how you approach your next book, or may not be useful to you all.
Great article! Really loved it, Marshall.
It’s interesting to learn about reviews from an author’s point of view! I’ll be more conscientious about writing reviews in the future but I’m sometimes too lazy to write reviews even for books I love (guess that’s why you write and I read). I try not to be too personal or mean when writing a negative review… usually I will only review books I like… but sometimes you come across something so awful which has been given a lot of good reviews and I feel the need to set them straight! I love all of your books, Thornton!
@Tom – Since I’ve begun publishing I only write negative reviews of books from big publishers. For one thing it won’t actually hurt the writer much. For another, there’s this idea that there books are supposed to be “better” and they so often are not.
Marshall, you said all the things that I’ve been feeling. I’m six months into my first publishing experience. I’ve written a gay mystery called Imogene in New Orleans, featuring a feisty woman named Imogene who speaks in Southern slang.
I have been judged on several things that I was not even attempting to do in my book (and that I will probably never attempt to do in my books). As you said, because I’m doing the promotion for my books, it’s impossible to avoid these reviews.
And the fact is, I cannot change my voice or my style. It’s just what I do, whether people connect with it or not. I’m writing other books and they’re written the same way. I like them enough to keep going, but learning how to “process” these reviews has been quite an educational experience. I appreciate your article and I hope your writing is going well this summer!