Thursday, April 5, 2012

You Are Not Your Book

There are actually three things you can't escape: death, taxes, and bad reviews.

We all receive negative reviews occasionally, and yes, they're pretty tough to handle. We authors pour so much of ourselves into our work that an unfavorable review feels like a slap in the face, a repudiation of our personal worth. Suddenly you wonder why you bother. You've slaved over your book, dedicated weeks, months, even years to the task of bringing it to fruition, and then someone labels it "shallow", or "boring", "cheesy" or "predictable". It's enough to ruin your life (not to mention those of your significant others).

Over time, you learn to cope with those feelings of rejection. First of all, you come to realize that you are not your book. Every individual has different tastes, so you can't please everyone. The fact that someone didn't like what you wrote does not reflect on your status as a human being.

Second, it's clear that the negativity of many reviews is a property of the reviewer - not the book. There are people who get a charge out of being snarky. For some reason, tearing apart someone else's work makes those reviewers feel better about themselves. Sad, isn't it? If you receive a poor review, check out other reviews by the same person. Often you'll find a pattern of criticism, which may in fact have nothing to do with reality. Some consistently negative reviewers may be authors trying to tarnish the reputation of their competition. Others, I think, are frustrated wannabee authors. Some are just people who for some reason enjoy being nasty.

However, with the advent of social networking and instant approval or disapproval - with the ridiculous competition for attention that authors face on Amazon and to a lesser extent other online book outlets - a negative review can definitely impact your sales. Book browsers don't necessarily even take the time to read reviews - they just check the number of stars a book has received. Personally I have a lot of trouble with the concept of reducing a book's quality to a single numeric rating, but it's a fact of life. So, if you receive a bad review from a reader, what should you do? What can you do?

In one of my author groups, members exhort each other to go online and "shout down" bad reviews, by labeling them as "unhelpful" or "disliking" them. I'm ambivalent about this practice.

If a review is deliberately destructive - and if it has no connection to the reality of the book - I can see this kind of mass disapproval might be appropriate. However, if a negative review appears to be an honest expression of the reviewer's opinions, as opposed to an ego trip designed to build the reviewer up by tearing someone else down, I'm definitely not comfortable labeling the review as spam or illegitimate. Sure, it might help sales, but I have to put myself in the reviewer's shoes. If I sincerely didn't like a book, and can say why, I don't want my assessment attacked simply because it's not positive - or even because someone else does not agree with me.

Because yes, I've written bad reviews myself. I review for several sites including Erotica Revealed and Erotica Readers and Writers Association. My books for ER are usually assigned rather than books I request (although I suppose I could object if I were sure I'd hate a book). As a reviewer, I've got to be honest, even if it might be painful for the author. (Heck, I know it will be painful.) I try my best to find something positive to say about a book I don't like, and I'm careful to emphasize that the review is merely my opinion. I'd hate to have somebody jumping on my reviews, though, calling them "unhelpful".

The trouble is that the publishing has become this nightmare world where quality hardly makes a difference. What matters is "buzz". How many people can you get to "like" your book? To mention it on Facebook or Tweet about it? Can you twist all your friends' arms into voting your book as "best", whether they've read it or not? Can you make yourself heard above the roar of the digital crowd?

You know, I hate getting bad reviews. But even more, I hate the way considerations totally divorced from the book itself now determine a book's success. Some of my colleagues tell me that I have to play the game if I want to be noticed. Sorry, but I really don't have the time, the energy, or the stomach for that. To me, that's not what it means to be a writer.


By the way, my BDSM short story collection Just a Spanking is free today and tomorrow at Amazon. If you haven't already got yourself a copy, hop over and snag one now!


heather said...

I don't like to write bad reviews and most of the time I don't write a review at all if I didn't like it. I could read a book and think it's boring and could guess everything that was about to happen then 50 people could read it and say they thought it was of the greatest books they have read this year. I also don't read reviews because I have read and liked a book that had more bad reviews than good.
I agree with you on bad reviews. They can be very helpful as long as they are honest. I think that the author or the site should be able to remove a bad review. For example: if a reviewer only writes 'I didn't like this book, it had to much swearing.' or If a reviewer read Just A Spanking and gave a bad review beacuse it was a BDSM. Well what did you expect from a BDSM!!!
Alright, I'm going to stop talking, I think you get my point lol.

Katie Hines said...

Unfortunately, bad reviews are a part of publishing today. When my book, Guardian, came out, the publicity team I hired sent out 10 copies of my book to review sites. There were decent reviews, but nothing to write home about. And, I found that only 5 of the sites reviewed the book: upon querying them, several never received the book for review. Of course, this is the marketing company's fault, but they told me they'd never worked with a kid's book before--after I signed a contract with them.

One place where my book was reviewed had a disclaimer on the review: a husband & wife reviewed books, but the husband, who reviewed kids books was ill, so the wife reviewed it. You can guess that it didn't get an ideal rating, so why didn't the reviewer have it wait until the husband was up to snuff?

Grrr. All told, my book fell into the good category, but not great, and I noticed NO increase in sales for all my efforts.

Unknown said...

I have been known to mark a review on Amazon as "unhelpful", but those are usually ones that are written based on unrealistic expectations. Many times, if someone reads the sample, they'll know what type of writing to expect, but when someone reads a sweet western and then complains because there weren't any sex scenes, that's too ridiculous for me. I respect everyone's right to their opinions, but there are appropriate ways to review a book and there are ways that are totally inappropriate. To rate a book a "one" and give a flimsy excuse for said rating does nothing to help the author learn nor does it help readers decide whether or not to make a purchase. I'm sure we've all been told that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all, but in the case of reviews, you can intersperse your negative comments in with the good, because there has to be some redeeming quality about the author's work or they wouldn't have been published. Sadly, self-publishing is causing a rise in complaints about editing and amateur writing faux pas, but if the book comes through a legitimate publishing house, you can bet it's been through the rigors of editing and proofing. Still, I don't think there are eyes enough in the world to catch every single mistake. I've yet to see that flawless book. *lol* Boy....did I ramble or what?

Pat Brown said...

A lot of current knowledge about the effect of social networking to sell books is that all this blogging, good/bad reviews, putting out excerpts does next to nothing for sales. The only way to get big is word of mouth. And there's no magic formula to get that going.

Readers have just as bad a time as writers. How do they find good books among all the millions now out there. Obviously knowing the author from other books, but for an author who doesn't have previous books that were best sellers, they look for friend's recommendations and in many cases public libraries. I know that's where I go if I hear of an author.

As authors we're expected to promote. So we do, but don't get buried in doing that so much it impacts your writing. In the end that's what's going to grow your book sales.

Personally, I tend to avoid looking at my sales rankings. I'll look through reviews but I don't let the bad ones bother me. Of course, I've been lucky and never had a review that was vicious or snarky. Even then, no matter how much I hate it, I would still make myself ignore it. Any kind of public reaction on my part makes me look like a prima donna.

Jean Roberta said...

Lisabet, those who read your reviews know you have integrity, and it definitely seems to be needed! I agree about authors who respond to their reviews in public, though I don't see anything wrong with a private message to a reviewer. As a reviewer, I've received those (more positive than negative). If everyone can stay polite, a conversation about a book can be enlightening for everyone involved. That's what book clubs are for.

Lisabet Sarai said...


So you don't pay any attention to reviews at all? I wonder how typical you are of most readers.

I personally think that a reviewer is justified in saying that s/he didn't like the language in a book. That's a personal opinion. But I do just shake my head at reviews where the reviewer doesn't like the genre as a whole, but decides to review the book anyway! I mean, why bother?

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Katie,

Well, at least the review site came right out and stated that the regular children's book reviewer was not responsible.

If I were you, I'd go back to look at your contract with that publicity firm. It seems to me that they should have been responsible for following up on the copies they sent (because it sounds like the books were physical, print books, right?)

As they say - live and learn...

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Ginger,

Yes, I'd mark that "not enough sex" review as "not helpful" too! I mean, duh...!

You're right about self-publishing. The bar to publishing has now been set so low - average quality has gone down the toilet. And to be honest, I think Amazon encourages this. They don't care what they're offering - on every sale, they get their cut.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Pat,

Your point about readers is something I hadn't thought of - but you're so right! They must really be suffering.

I spend most of my promo time on blogging and trying to establish relationships with individual readers. Because as you say, the best promo is word of mouth.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Jean,

As a reviewer, I'm always happy to hear from an author I've reviewed - even if he or she isn't really happy with the result.

And as an author - for sites or blogs that allow it, I always try to thank a reviewer for his or her time, even if a review isn't stellar. As you know (being a fellow reviewer), writing a balanced review takes work.

Remittance Girl said...

I haven't had a lot of reviews, but of those I've had, I have to say that most were pretty fair. Often people come with expectations of a happier ending than I deliver. I think that's fair - but it's their expectations that are at fault, not my plotting.

I did, once, respond to a review on Amazon, because it was just everything I ever hoped for in a reaction to what I'd written. Not the positive or the negative, but the conflict of emotions. The reviewer was sort of disturbed that she had felt so... disturbed.

The one bad review that really stands out in my mind was one I got for my piece in The Sweetest Kiss. The reviewer criticized it being depressing. Fair enough. It was depressing.

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