Reviews – The Sequel

criticism

My previous post about reviews (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) was all about garnering reviews without annoying people or driving yourself crazy. However, I think this subject deserves a sequel, because asking for something and getting it are two entirely different things.  I recently received a 1 star review on Amazon which read like this:

THIS ITEM HAS NOT ARRIVED ON MY KINDLE, ALTHOUGH THE MONEY HAS BEEN TAKEN FROM MY ACCOUNT !!!!

*deep breaths*  Now I know that I have been a part of the movement which encourages readers to leave reviews, so I guess this was some kind of Amazonian karma, but I was kind of hoping for reader reviews.  Seeing my ratings go down because of a technical glitch in the downloading process suddenly brought it home to me; my book is now a product. It’s no longer the organic, living, breathing story that I painstakingly translated to paper (well, screen). It has now become something that shoppers add to their cart, along with a whole pile of other miscellaneous items.  All you have to do is look at the person’s buying history to see that your book entered their lives somewhere between an eyeshadow palette and an inflatable swimming pool. So when they leave a review, they are reviewing a product, just like any other. And lets face it, most people are motivated to leave a review when they’re either really happy with something or really unhappy. All of those in-betweeners tend not to leave reviews at all.

Yet, while Amazon is a marketplace, Goodreads is a platform purely for readers, or as they put it themselves, ‘a free website for booklovers’.  None of your brow wow palettes or Avery address labels here!  Goodreads is a place for people to share their reading lists, so despite the constant battle to feed the hungry Amazon algorithms with more reviews, I really appreciate the ratings from Goodreads readers, which can offer a more balanced picture of how my books are being received.  I have 125 ratings on GR which average out to 4 stars, so whenever I get a scathing review, I just remind myself of that and get on with my day.

In my last post I spoke about book bloggers who sometimes felt harassed by authors when it came to writing honest reviews of their books, especially if those reviews were negative.  It would appear that some authors think it’s best practice to pester someone into reading their book and then argue with them if they didn’t like it.  Not exactly the way to ingratiate yourself to the book blogging community! It’s an unusual relationship because, for the most part, authors don’t usually get the opportunity to engage with their readers and to be honest, this is probably a good thing. Unless someone is contacting you specifically to say how much they enjoyed your book (which is a magical moment and one to be savoured) the golden rule is simple; DO NOT ENGAGE! However, when you send your book to a blogger for review, there is a teeny tiny connection there and for some, it’s enough to make some authors disregard the golden rule.

But the fact is, not everyone (and by everyone I mean even people you’ve given a free book to) is going to love your book. Believe me, I know how it feels to have spent years working on something, only to have some randomer trash it as though it were nothing. All of that effort, slaving over every sentence, every decision… it hurts. But this is all a part of it. The life cycle of a book includes having readers that just won’t get it. And as an author, you have got to make peace with that.  *keep breathing!*  What does strike me as odd though is the amount of authors who see 3 Stars as a negative.  To me, 3 Stars says average, which, in the grand scheme of things is quite good actually.  On Goodreads, 3 Stars means ‘I liked it’.  Great!  I’m happy with that.  To be honest, as a reader myself, I give a lot of books 3 Stars and only edge up to 4 when I’ve been really moved by the story.  5 is for pure perfection.

In the week that saw book blogger bashing become an online sport, lots of people made some interesting contributions to the whole discussion around reviews.  I read one comment that suggested authors need to ‘disengage’ with their book once it has been published and let readers have their opinions. Another said that if you can’t handle negative reviews, don’t publish your book and just give it to your mother to read!  It is difficult to switch off from your work and at times, it’s hard not to take the criticism personally.  But they’re right – if you’re trying to avoid criticism, you’re in the wrong profession.  Using your voice, however you choose to express it, is more important than making people like you.  They might not like your book, but that’s not your business.  Your business is to write.

Conversely, you cannot remain blind to constructive criticism that can actually help you grow and improve as a writer.  There is a MAJOR difference between critical reviews and just plain bad reviews. And as an author, you can feel it. When someone reviews your book criticially, pointing out weaker sections or parts that didn’t work, you find yourself reluctantly nodding along and thinking, ‘Yep, I need to work on that.’ When you read a bad review, you just feel like shit. Reviews like, ‘This book is crap’, I mean really, where do you go with that? Nowhere – fast! I’m learning to let these kinds of review go. There’s a radio DJ here in Ireland called Larry Gogan who has been running the ‘Just a minute quiz’ for millennia. When a contestant is diabolically useless at the quiz and gets all the answers wrong, he has a catchphrase. ‘They didn’t suit you,‘ he’d say, with all of the kindness of an understanding grandparent. That’s how I try to see bad reviews now – my book didn’t suit them, and they didn’t suit my book.

When you publish your books, they go on a journey and will find their way to the right audience as well as a few wrong ones along the way.  I’ve been able to form this new outlook because of all of the positive reviews I’ve had from readers who have really connected with the characters and enjoyed the story. So I know my books suits a lot of people, but they don’t suit everybody and that’s got to be okay. As authors, the most important lesson we were never taught at author school was that, once you hit publish, your book becomes a product that people either like or don’t like. Like a vaccuum cleaner on amazon, people will have opinions about it that have nothing to do with you – it’s their experience of the book.  And you have to respect their right to express their opinions, whether you agree with them or not.

Joanne Harris, my go-to author on all things… authory, created the hashtag #TenThingsAboutReviews.  If you’re looking for ways to deal with bad reviews, I would strongly recommend you check it out.  And remember, negative reviews aren’t always bad.  For one thing, it means your book is selling and sometimes, it can offer you a valuable insight into what readers want more of (or less of, as the case may be!).  Use it as market research for your next book, but if there is nothing to take away from a review, leave it behind.

*Update*  Since writing this post, I’ve come to another conclusion: Reviews are for readers, not for authors.  Perhaps what people write in their reviews is simply none of our business because it’s not directed at us.  Think about it, when you review a book, you consider your audience to be other readers – potential readers of the book and those that have already read it.  I wouldn’t imagine for one second that the author is ever going to read my opinion of their book, or that it would matter to them one jot.  So maybe we shouldn’t be reading them at all!  I know there are authors who don’t, so at least this gives us an alternative to ‘start growing elephant skin and stop moaning!’  

You can check out my books (and my lovely reviews!) on Amazon