C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

The very nearly here, not quite yet, Post-review World

Once upon a time an author named Hale stalked a book reviewer, wrote about it in The Guardian and…well, things got crazy. I haven’t weighed in on this because you’ve no doubt read plenty about this debacle. Besides, I didn’t have anything new to say. I still don’t have anything new to say about that particular incident. It was a bad idea to respond to a negative review and there’s no need to pile on.

I do understand the urge. Oh, yes, every writer knows that urge to respond and demand an apology or…something. Instead, I stay indoors, never go anywhere, and write scary, funny books. It’s a better use of my time and the right thing to do.

So let’s talk about reviews more generally.

We all want them. We can’t promote our books effectively without a minimum number of happy reviews. But there are problems:

1. If you get a lot of happy reviews, someone who didn’t like your book will accuse you of having lots of friends and family shilling for you. Ha! I wish! It’s very difficult to get any reviews on anything and I don’t speak to my family. The point is, some people (I have no idea how many) think five-star reviews shouldn’t be trusted. However, if you didn’t have any five-star reviews, those same people would slay you for it. Crazy, huh?

2. Some people can’t help themselves. They condemn authors for their books and pedophiles for their despicable actions with nigh equal vehemence. Well…I assume so, anyway. I mean, I’ve read some vitriolic reviews where, once you dial it up to eleven, there’s no place to go, is there? But (silver lining) no one really takes one-star reviews seriously anymore, either. They are, with few exceptions, troglodytic. We read them for sick entertainment value, not for direction as to what to read.

3. Some people put spoilers in reviews without warning. That’s not a review anymore. That’s a spoiler and it’s a shitty thing to do. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean others won’t and spoiling a work that was years in the making in one ill-considered paragraph? Yes, that’s bad. What’s worse is Amazon lets it happen and allows those spoilers to remain posted without warning.

4. Likewise, authors have been libelled in reviews. Once again, Amazon does nothing if you complain. Unacceptable, and yet we are, at the moment, powerless. It’s the Internet. We’re supposed to shrug and hope the happy reviews drown out the unhappy ones (and eventually, mostly, they do.)

There’s a study somewhere that shows how unreliable reviews can be in an odd way. If the first review that goes up is negative, ensuing reviews tend to be more negative than they would have been otherwise. That’s less about the book, I suppose, and more piling on, hoping to be seen in agreement with whoever spoke up first. Weird.

5. Here’s where it gets weirder: Authors shouldn’t respond to reviews. Goodreads doesn’t even want authors to thank anyone for a nice review. That strikes me as forcing authors to be rude, but it’s their site policy so I abide by it.

Pretty much everyone accepts the No Response to a Bad Review Policy as a given, but no one knows who established this all-encompassing edict. Other industries routinely respond to reviews, hoping to ease their unsatisfied customers’ fury. We don’t. The argument goes that reviews aren’t for authors (true) but we aren’t even supposed to respond when reviews are misleading. We’re supposed to, as Hugh Howey so aptly put it once, “enjoy the burn.”

But wait. If we’re writers who should be thick-skinned and stoic since we put something out in the world…aren’t reviewers putting stuff out in the world, too? How come their writing is exempt from criticism but mine isn’t? Hm. No. Stop thinking about it. Nothing good can come from following the logical conclusion of that reasoning.

I am not arguing for responding to reviews.

The system is broken when reviews allow spoilers, libel authors or when so many people seem to distrust reviews.

Someone at The Passive Voice recommended we tell people, “If you liked it, please tell a friend,” in lieu of reviews. I kind of like that, but that’s what reviews were supposed to be anyway, right? Telling people what you liked so they can share the experience of an interesting, entertaining or enlightening book. I encourage people happy with my books to review them on Amazon. A review anywhere else (except perhaps a busy book blog) doesn’t really get more people to my books.

When I worked in magazines, we rarely gave negative book reviews (or the negative reviews were significantly shorter) because the point was to direct readers to the good stuff. The prevailing opinion was, the good stuff is too hard to find to waste time talking about the stuff we don’t like. I feel the same way. I may find commonality with reviews that tell me what they liked and why. What they dislike often seems more idiosyncratic (and some reviewers can’t seem to bring themselves to like much of anything.)

Maybe hoping for organic discovery through old-fashioned social networks is the way to go. But not quite yet. The apparatus for book discovery is broken. I still need happy reviews to get a Bookbub promotion going. That’s one of the few book promotion services that seems to have muscle and mojo behind it. I also suspect people don’t talk about books enough. I’m unwilling to rely on chats over fences with neighbors to spread word of my literary heights efficiently. Podcasts might be a better answer.

So what to do?

Stop stressing about reviews. Beat up a punching bag. (Reminder from Mom: human beings are not punching bags.)

If necessary, stop reading reviews. Read more books. Write more reviews.

Keep asking for reviews because, hey, that’s all we can do for now.

Don’t stalk book bloggers or book reviewers. Do not go near their homes or places of employment. And if you do (which you definitely shouldn’t!) don’t tell anyone. Jeez!

Cry quietly and not in public.

Treasure the many good reviewers who don’t mistake snark and disrespect for intelligence.

Read your four and five-star reviews obsessively to get your energy and esteem up. Read the negative reviews once, if you feel you’ll have something to gain from them (a murder plot, perhaps?) But never read them twice. That’s just masochism and revenge fantasies.

But there’s a better reason not to respond to negative reviews:

It takes time and energy that you could use to write your next book. And frankly, if someone hates your book, they won’t change their mind. If you try to use your best politician’s smile and the it’s-all-part-of-the-game clap on the shoulder, they won’t buy it. They know. You hate them. They hate your book and therefore they hate you. People will tell you this is wrong. Shit’s about to get real.

Yes, you’ll read lots of crap about how writers should separate themselves from their books. It’s a book, not a baby. Except it is. It’s the product of your mind and anyone who hates the book is calling you feeble in the brain. Be real. People tell you to be thick-skinned, but nobody really is. Many of the most successful writers, actors and entertainers on the planet confess that they remember every word of every bad review. You’d have to be a robot sociopath to be so far above the fray when someone criticizes something you put so much of yourself into.

However…when you write more books and get some success, it does hurt less. You become less invested in each book because you know you will write many. Just like having children, if you make enough of them, a few start to look expendable. (It’s a joke, for Thor’s sake. Relax.) 

Anyway, when the happy reviews drown out the negative reviews, that one-star review starts to look silly. You can also take some solace in knowing that if a reviewer hates you enough, they won’t feel the need to come back for more and you’ll be rid of them…if they actually read books before they review them, of course. Oh, yeah. There’s another reason so many people don’t trust reviews anymore. Sigh.

So, to sum up:

Write books and pretend you don’t bleed.

Don’t be a dick. Be nice. Play nice. Pretend you’re nice. Fake it and kill offenders in your next book. (I did.) Cover your tracks so they’ll never recognize themselves.

Pretend you’re happy all the time, especially when you’re not. Rant to a friend if you must. (Mental note: get a friend.)

Try to keep some perspective. You won’t, but it’s true that a review is merely one person’s opinion. It is not a scary diagnosis from a stone-faced internist.

We’re in the entertainment business. Entertain. Seek out entertainment. Don’t be so damn serious.

Remember that no matter how good your book is, someone will say they don’t like it. Don’t let them discourage you from following your star and writing, though. If that happened, then a bad review would really matter.

Until a new way to discover genius books is found, this is the way we live now.

Keep having fun. Don’t forget, this is supposed to be fun.

~ I forget sometimes.

 

 

Filed under: reviews, web reviews, Writers, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writers: Was this post helpful to you?

I bought a book today by an author previously unknown to me. At six bucks plus, it was the most expensive ebook I’ve purchased in a long time. (Usually my ebook purchases are from indies, not trad publishers.) I bought this ebook because of one of its reviews. I did not buy because the review raved. The book caught my attention because the review’s tone was so damnably condescending, I had to make the purchase. This wasn’t a case of pitying the author. There were good reviews, too. Also, it helped that I suspected this was a book I would enjoy. It sounded smart and sure and people who liked it said it elevated and challenged its genre.

Whatever the book’s merits will be, the key component for the purchase was that the reviewer was too much of a jerk. What is it about bad reviews that so often reveal more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed? I emailed the author to tell him I bought his book. It sounded interesting and I wished him success with it. I look forward to reading it, but what can the rest of us take from this?

Take this post as a small salve to authors’ bruised egos.

People will love your work and others will hate it, but I want you to know that readers are generally intelligent people. They often see through the reviewer’s veil more than you might think. Readers divine intent when they read over-the-top malice and subtract value from a nasty review. Yea or nay, readers like thoughtful reviews. They get it when a reviewer sounds disrespectful or less than literate. Good readers (people who buy a lot of books!) aren’t easily impressed by cheap shots and snarky remarks. When a review is especially egregious, you might even get a sale out of it. 

I’m not saying bad reviews are better than happy ones, but don’t take the bad ones too much to heart. Also, when you spot a really nasty one that goes at the author personally instead of the book? Be sure to click “No” beside the question, “Was this review helpful to you?”

Filed under: reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

TOP 10: People (who are not fans)

Old marketing decreed:

Get everybody! Your sales quota must include all sentient species with a credit card in the known universe!

New world marketing responds:

Nope. Establish a base of just a bunch.

But the bunch has to be rabid and slavering for your next masterpiece, book, song, film, poem, service, comic, or sex toy.

In short, you need fans (as in fanatics.)

For self-publishers, everybody in your fan base starts out as a reader, but they won’t all join you on your journey and buy in to your revolution. A lot of people can’t even be bothered to cross the street to spit on you. Something I learned a long time ago was that I am not everyone’s cup of pee. (Note to non-fans: that’s a joke and a point, not a typo.) I learned that to build successful businesses or loving followings, I had to focus on the people who appreciate me and ignore the rest. Oddly, everyone knows the 80-20 Rule, but how many apply it to their lives?

Critics will sap you of time and energy if you pay them too much attention. A fellow writer got one bad review recently. All his reviews were overwhelmingly positive except for that one. That burned like a cigarette in the eye. That’s the key to understanding the dark side of Internet marketing. Yes, you can spread the word faster about a good thing. However, negative reviews can get a lot of attention, too, mostly from the author who serves as the critic’s target. In fact, several authors have observed a bandwagon effect among some reviewers and book bloggers. One bad review can lead to more bad reviews. Ironically, as Reena Jacobs observed recently, it may be worse not to be reviewed at all than to receive negative reviews. If readers love or hate your book, at least you’ve spurred a reaction. If you ignite no fire at all, that may be a bad sign.

Here’s what to keep in mind when you read something negative about your work:

1. People (who are not fans) are nastier on the net than they would ever dare in person. They aren’t talking to you as a person with feelings and aspirations. They’re having a conversation in their heads with the idiot they imagine you are. Cyberspace allows distance, anonymity and depersonalization. Your nice neighbour, that little old lady who gets your mail for you while you’re on vacation and bakes cookies at Christmas? If her favorite author kills off a regular series character, the old dear’s mind can curdle into that of a serial killer when she writes an Amazon review.

2. People (who are not fans) mistake your work for you and judge you along with the work. If one of your books, blog posts, comics etc.,… is not as good as the others (and inevitably that will be so) critics will make assumptions about you and your mental state. Don’t you mistake all of your work for you though. They’ll make it personal, but don’t fall for that trap. Unfortunately, because we wrap up the author’s persona with his or her book to sell it, we foster an absurd inseparability in people’s minds. For instance, when Deepak Chopra was on the road selling a natural health book and had the temerity to drink coffee (OH-MY-STARS-AND-GARTERS!) a reader tried to shame him for it. That little old lady was pissed.

3. People (who are not fans) are more likely to write something negative than positive. Look at all those letters to the editor in the newspaper. Not so many saying, “Good job!” are there? Now think of the five best books you’ve ever read. Go to Amazon. See those negative reviews of the books that changed your life? Are you starting to see the weight you should give negative reviews yet? This is a subjective business. Repeat that until it sinks in. (I’m still repeating it, too.)

4. People (who are not fans) say things for their own reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with you. Maybe they made a bad day and want to export it. Maybe junior high was tough and the Internet is where they get even with strangers. Review the beginning of the movie Wanted. Remember the “I’d feel sorry for you if you weren’t such a bitch, Janet” speech? Repeat as necessary. (If you’ve ever worked in a cubicle farm, that scene alone will make you leap off the couch and spill your Cheetos all over the floor.)

5. Maybe you gave the person (who is not a fan) a negative review and it’s payback time. Yes, this happens. Maybe you friended them on Facebook, but you weren’t fast enough about getting that friend confirmation done and they took offence. Who knows? Everyone take everything personally because we are all the stars of our own movies. This has nothing to do with your work, but your work gives an opportunity for nasty people to say something shitty. Some authors don’t read reviews at all because, they argue, “If I believe the good ones, I’d have to believe the bad ones, too.” These are very mature people I can’t relate to. I don’t personally know anyone with that much self-control. I envy their sagacity.

6. Negative reviews are easier to write than positive reviews. Snark is easy. Snark is even funny sometimes, but mean’s no good. And if you’re going to be at all mean, you better be twice as smart as you are mean. For instance, I enjoy listening to Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast….but sometimes I wonder, “Do these people ever like anything?” People (who are not fans) enjoy being clever at your expense. That does not necessarily equal constructive criticism. Maybe it’s just bitchy. Or stupid or wrong. Or all three. In this part of the equation, it’s not about you or your work. It’s that some people’s only creative outlet is criticism. Some fleas think they are driving the dog.

7. People (who are not fans) hope you’ll fail so they can feel better about their failures…or that they failed to try at all. Doing nothing at all is a great way to avoid criticism. Except for that pesky self-loathing and the long darkness before dawn when the demons come to torture your dreams and stifle your soul’s breath. (Yes, I’m saying that being a loser is like sleep apnea and all the implied dangers of heart disease but without the medical attention and sympathy from friends and family.)

8. People (who are not fans) don’t have enough going on in their lives, but they’ve got lots of time to focus on you. Otherwise, why the hyperbole about how bad your book is? I love books, but it’s just a book review, not the Nuremberg trial. The way some reviewers go on, you’d think trying and failing to entertain or educate or pass the time was a hanging offence. Another friend got a bad review recently. The ebook she gave out was free. The level of criticism did not match the critic’s financial and emotional investment. This author was wise enough to ignore the naysayer because she knew the guy wasn’t in her fan base and never would be. So what? There are plenty of readers out there to be converted to your peculiar brand of evil jocularity.

9. People (who are not fans) may be right. Maybe you do suck. But you can’t think that and succeed. You can only try to do better. Forgive yourself. You are a work in progress. “Books are never finished,” Oscar Wilde said. “they are merely abandoned.” Only listen to the people you trust. There are too many variables in the skulls of strangers who are not your fans. Write to please yourself first and don’t listen to input from writers too much. To write is to do your thing. That’s one reason so many people keep writing despite insufficient recompense, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and their parents’ bitter disappointment. (On the other hand, if every review is negative except the one from Mom, rethink.)

10. People (who are not fans) can be fickle. Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Body, observed that a fan base has two extremes. At the top are the people who will follow you down the mouth of a cannon. At the bottom are haters who want to fire you out of said cannon. Ferris feels that the people at the extremes can switch places. Do something too different and some former fanatics will resist the new direction and even become haters. Be unexpectedly nice to your enemies and a few may come around to decide you are a worthy human being after all.

Or you could say “Screw ’em!”,

focus on the people who do get you

and move along briskly.

If you read all the way to here and hated the post, why did you read this far? It was too long a post for that nonsense. I will never understand that about haters. Don’t they have shit to do?

If you loved this post and it came at just the right time and you couldn’t have done without it…thank you. I love you for a selfish and stupid reason: You love something I wrote.

Filed under: publishing, Rant, Rejection, reviews, self-publishing, web reviews, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

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