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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

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22 thoughts on “Reviews – The Sequel

  1. It must be so frustrating to get a bad star rating because someone hasn’t understood that the book not being delivered has nothing to do with the book itself. I struggle, as a blogger, when I’ve not enjoyed a book but I always try to be fair about what did and didn’t work for me as a reader. It makes me cringe when I see reviews that are not constructive in any way as I just feel for the author. It must be so disheartening when someone says they didn’t like your book but doesn’t expand on that. I admire anyone who has the guts to put their work out there in the world knowing that lots of people will have an opinion about it, and that there are so many spaces online for opinions to be stated and shared.

    1. What a supportive and considered response Hayley, thank you! Yes, I got over the ALL CAPS review (I read an interview with Rowan Coleman who said she got them too – ‘This item arrived damaged’! so that helped) and I suppose it taught me a lesson. Like you said, reviews that offer zero constructive criticism are more like someone venting than really responding to the book. It must be conflicting at times as a reviewer, but I think you’ve got the ideal approach; outlining what did and didn’t work, and as an author, you can’t ask for fairer than that. I actually had one review where the reader said she would have liked if a particular plot thread could have been expanded upon and I was like, ‘Damn, that’s a really good idea!’ So it can be really insightful when someone takes the time to say what they liked and what they didn’t.

  2. There is hardly a line between creating a child, a piece of art or a book; how can one disengage one’s personal feelings of pride in what has come from one’s own efforts? Any attack on that is bound to hurt, however, it’s also realistic to acknowledge that our work will always be far from perfect. Although it helps to be thick skinned I believe pain is an inevitable part of the process of growth in any arena. Not easy to embrace but never regretted in hindsight!

    1. Sorry Liberty – I missed this somehow! As always, so eloquently put 🙂 Yes, I often hear people talk about ‘giving birth’ to creative projects and I suppose everything we create is a little (or big!) part of ourselves and so it’s natural to take things personally. But I think the only way to survive the criticism that will inevitably follow is to believe in our offspring – that she can take the rough with the smooth and still retain her value and sense of worth. Either that or you’ll never write another book again! And yes, maybe trying to avoid pain altogether is a little naive, so seeing it as part of the growth process is much more enlightened 🙂

  3. I get the whole “do not engage” thing, and I’ve been fortunate to not have troll go after me, but if they ever did… I’d totally want to engage.

    It’ll be interesting to see what I do if/when it finally happens.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Dan 🙂 That’s such a coincidence, someone on Facebook was just talking to me about trolls on Netgalley, leaving 1 star and a one word review, ‘Bad’. Can you imagine? Paying all that money to get your book on that site and you end up with reviews like that? I think I’d strongly consider breaking the golden rule too if that happened to me! I just don’t see what they gain from it.

      1. My understanding is they (A) want a response because they’re bully-types, (B) can’t write so they trash others, or (C) are jealous competitors.

        I’ve actually posted a bad review on my blog and Facebook page saying “See? My reviews aren’t all written by my friends!”

  4. Increasingly, after 25 years in the business, I’ve started thinking it’s not a big deal either way. People make too much of ‘rules’ in the book trade. Don’t engage, engage, it should be up to the individual author. It’s their book, not anyone else’s, so no one should tell them how to behave when they see something about their baby that bugs them. In general, I ignore crappy reviews. But I do sometimes comment when it’s something ludicrous. But I tend to do it mockingly, not angrily. Like, really? REALLY??? You bought a romcom, then complained it was ‘lightweight’? What were you expecting, War and bloody Peace? Ah, get over yourself.

    Nothing happens when you engage. The sky doesn’t fall. And if one time it goes a bit viral, hey, you’ll probably make more sales. Enough with rules and advice, that’s what I say. Let’s do what our hearts tell us is right.

    1. Great to hear from someone who’s been doing this for 25 years! Congratulations!! And you know what, you’re right, each and every author has to make up their own rules. I stick to the ‘do not engage’ one because I can only see myself making it worse – FOR ME! But I like your positive spin on things and I’ll remember that the sky won’t fall in next time I get into a bit of a scrape online 😉 Thanks!

  5. I write book reviews for readers, and yet I do hope the author gets around to seeing it. Last week, I was extremely gratified that the author, Lisa Carey, dropped me a line for the review I posted on Goodreads for her 5th novel, The Stolen Child. I’ve been a fan of each of Lisa Carey’s books, ever since I discovered we were living on the west coast of Ireland at the same time, though our paths never crossed. That she took the time to comment on my review meant the world to me, and it occurs to me I should do the same! Further, I’ve enjoyed discovering your blog and agree with your ethos of showing up, doing the work, then turning it over to the hands of fate! Writers are in it for the love of the task, after all! Slainte! So nice to find you! You have a new follower in me!

    1. Thanks Claire, just read your blog too and am delighted to meet someone of the same mind! You’re so right, as writers we need to remind each other why we started doing this in the first place and what our goals were at the outset. I suppose it’s impossible not to get caught up in the industry side of things, but it’s important to come back to the purpose behind all of this, which is to create. I have had one or two authors thank me for a review also and it’s really a lovely connection – sometimes I’m not sure if I should do the same, in case I’m stomping in on someone’s space uninvited! But as Jenny said, we should do what our hearts tell us is right. Lovely to meet you and Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit, for the week that’s in it 😉

      1. Exactly! And now that I’m hanging around until my next book is out, I see very clearly what it’s all about. It seems to me whether one is traditionally or self published, it’s all the same dynamic, and it often times seems like a big push towards selling! I’ve decided to quit thinking about this side of it and get back to art for art’s sake. I want to retain the purity in the joy of creating and leave it at that! So says I, fully cognizant that this time next year, I’ll be CONSUMED with obligations of promoting my 3rd book! And now to get online and translate La Fheile Padraig Sona Duit- I think God bless you? I hope! Laughing now!

      2. That’s the challenge of working in the arts – morphing from an artist into a salesman and back again! It’s not easy, but I suppose all we can do is our best 🙂 Haha, it’s Happy Saint Patrick’s Day by the way!

  6. I agonised recently over the review I wrote for a book, because it was well written by a skilled and successful author and though I had never read anything by her before the book is groaning under the weight of five star reviews. I expected to love it. However, it just wasn’t my ‘thing’. I couldn’t like any of the characters and their over-privileged lives. I couldn’t enjoy it.
    I finally wrote the review detailing all the good points but being honest, it was a bad choice for me and why.
    Whenever I read one of those, ‘Rubbish’ ‘Don’t waste your time’ type reviews I think it reflects badly on the reviewer rather than the author. A detailed and balanced review might put me off buying because the story doesn’t appeal but I would never judge a book by one of those rude, one liners.

    Love your blog, by the way! 😊

    1. Thank you Wendy, love having new visitors 🙂 It can be challenging sometimes, especially when a book is receiving nothing but glowing reviews. You start to think, ‘Why don’t I like this as much as everyone else?’ I’ve had that experience too and found myself hesitating, but an honest review like that isn’t hurtful to the author (well, not for me anyway) because it’s only rational that not every book will suit every reader and I appreciate someone taking the time to explain why. But yes, those ‘hit and runs’ as I like to call them, can sting a bit. Even though there’s no detail in there, it feels (weirdly) more personal. Good to know other readers don’t take them seriously 😉

  7. You know I have a lot to say about this because I wrote that post about book blogger bashing, and I’ve always stood up for a reader’s right to write a bad review without getting hassle for it. I agree – they’re for readers, not writers. A few years back I published a post about authors reviewing authors, in which I called out the writers who give each other 5* regardless of the what the book was like, and all variations on the review swap, whether official or unofficial. I made the point that they’re actually being dishonest, recommending a mediocre work to the buying public as outstanding, and asked whether they would say a hotel was brilliant, on Trip Advisior, if it was awful. Many of the people who agreed with me on the comments were the very same who gave 100% 5* reviews. I agree with all you say about 3*, btw!

    The hard one, when reviewing, is how to say that someone just isn’t a very good writer. That it’s not about whether the book suits me or not, but the fact that the writer has little skill at what he/she is trying to do. And you find that those who have very little basic talent are always the ones who will blame their bad reviews on ‘trolls’ (definition: anyone who gives them 1/2*), the proofreader, the bloggers, the weather, anything. The worse the writer, the less the self-awareness, I usually find. I suspect the two are linked… 😉

    1. I never like to get involved in a review exchange with other authors, it makes it impossible to be honest. I’ve read a couple of books by Twitter friends, but only told them after the fact (so if I didn’t enjoy them, they’d be none the wiser!) Telling someone they’re not a good writer? Ouch!! This only happened to me once and I kind of bottled it – just focussed on the lovely setting and the great cover! :p

      1. Ha ha, yes, I do that with books I’m committed to reviewing with the review team sometimes. God, no, review swaps are ghastly, I’ve never contemplated such a thing. Once, I had a well-reviewed author ask me if I fancied doing a 5* swap without reading the books. I told him what I thought of him, and never RTd him again, as I could only assume that most of his other 5* were achieved this way.

        I do exactly what you do – I look at books from people I talk to on Twitter all the time, but only let them know if I’ve liked them. Learned by experience – when I first started this I would announce that I’d just bought the book, then wonder how the hell I was going to tell them I didn’t want to read it. As for the ‘just not a good writer’ thing, it’s kind of the taboo subject, isn’t it? In this culture of encouragement, no one dares say, ‘Um, this person can’t write for shit’. Instead, we have to talk about not having developed the characters properly, finding ways to make the dialogue more realistic, etc etc. And it’s the thing that no one ever wants to think about themselves: perhaps I don’t get the reviews I’d like and my books don’t sell because they’re not very good.

      2. It is taboo, and (I’m sure you feel similarly) as a writer, you know the amount of work and dedication that goes into writing a novel in the first place, (even if it is bad!) So it’s a difficult situation, but if the talent isn’t there, I guess it becomes clear over time anyway, in the sales figures. Still, I think the publisher should be the one to ‘have the conversation’. (yes, it was a trad published book)

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