Monday, September 27, 2010

Bad Reviews: The Price of Admission

I'm not sure exactly why, but it seems that in the past couple of weeks my fellow authors (and myself) have been hyper-aware of reviews. Comments have been flying around Twitter in the vein of "Egad, some mean person hated my book!" And much commiseration hastily ensues, because romance writers stick together.

Authors, for the most part, are sensitive creatures. Most creative types are. I find it hard to imagine writing an entire book, struggling to get it published, and not taking it personally if a reader or reviewer slams it. Publicly. What I do find a bit puzzling is the surprise factor.

Of course somebody won't like it!

Has a movie ever been made that pleased every single person who watched it? (I'm not talking about The Shawshank Redemption here of course, as that movie is perfect.) And what about songs? Albums? Works of art? Hell, individual people? And that last one, I think that may be the crux of the issue. After we sweat and suffer and churn out a book we're proud of, convince someone to buy it, wait for it to release and gnaw our nails off, it does feel like some unseen stranger is jabbing hot pokers into our bodies (or perhaps our children) when they lambaste it on the interwebs. Two minutes' worth of snark can suddenly tumble out of some anonymous keyboard owner's fingertips and belittle months of our hard work. Yeah, that fucking stings.

I don't fault anyone for having their feelings hurt when that happens. It'd be odd if they didn't. And I don't fault readers and reviewers for writing criticism and sharing their opinions…unless it's vapid and petty. Anyhow, a "This book sucked! I won't bother articulating why but it totally did!" criticism is never taken seriously—it discredits the person who wrote it far more than the author.

But I'd like writers to take this to heart: bad reviews are the price of admission you pay if you want to play in the deep end of the author pool. You can't please everyone, and I'll suggest that hearing the worst is a tiny fee to tender for a chance to do what you love at a professional level. So your book got slammed. Congratulations! You're an author now, my child.

Writers on the cusp of a first release, I promise you, you will get slammed. You want to get slammed. Hopefully your skins got thickened by all the rejection letters en route to published status, but even if they didn't, revel in this new pain when it inevitably arrives. Like a ninja punching the bark off trees to strengthen his fists, this pain sucks ass, but think of it as training. Not for punching reviewers, mind you—for recognizing the pain and knowing it won't kill you, knowing it will pass and that each time you get through it, you're growing more well-adjusted about this ridiculous, masochistic job.

My erotica-writing alter ego received her first high-profile review this past weekend, on the romance review blog Dear Author. DA is notoriously tough, one of the "mean girl" snarky review sites, as many scorned authors would call it in confidence—a hulking Nelson Muntz point-and-laugh-at-your-hard-work digital bully. I wouldn't elevate or demonize it quite so grandly, but I lived in understandable fear of such an eventuality. But the hazing had to happen sooner or later, plus it meant I'd cleared another hurdle in my little career. I was pleased to come away with a B- grade and a very thoughtful write-up, an overall highly positive experience. And damn, it didn't hurt my Analytics traffic.

What was tough, however, was the odd sensation of being talked about by others. I don't follow Dear Author normally, but luckily Google Alerts tipped me off and I was able to be the first commenter, doing my authorly etiquette duty and thanking the reviewer for her time and kind words. I was in the conversation, but I nevertheless felt very…separate. Like I'd walked into the lunchroom in 1997 in my combat boots and army jacket to discover all the cheerleaders were talking about me. Nothing nasty, even, but I felt exposed. It was the same sensation I get when I do a guest appearance on someone's blog and the post goes live, but on a far grander scale. Standing naked on the end of a high-dive board. But at the same time, it was rather fun. Like many writers, I crave both anonymity and attention. Writers are performers of a highly passive breed.

I hadn't seen this review coming. I knew the reviewer had read my book, because I'd spotted her kind write-up on Goodreads. It was flattering that she decided to feature it on Dear Author. But I also know from Goodreads that she deeply disliked another of my books. Whether she decides to take that to the blog remains to be seen, but I sort of hope she does…even terrible reviews are good PR, if as an author you handle them with grace and good humor. Which I trust I would.

If a nasty review happens to you, take these tips to heart. Don't apologize for sucking (you don't, just ask your mom), just thank the reviewer for their time, and if appropriate, clarify (non-defensively) anything that befuddled them about the story. Don't denigrate their opinion. Don't act wounded. Don't act righteous, either. Just be honest and gracious. "I'm sad the book wasn't to your taste, but thanks so much for taking the time to read and analyze it." For the love of God, don't go on the attack, or recruit your friends to act as your pit bulls. We've all seen those horror show chains of scathing comments. A bad, high-profile review is a great chance to show readers how well-adjusted and, frankly, mentally stable you are. Don't let angry brain chemicals send you into fight mode and blow your chance. Or your professional reputation.

Also, once you're done licking your wounds, contemplate what the reader or reviewer had to say with as much detachment as you can muster. It may be a case of your book or style simply not being their cup of tea, but if it goes beyond that into a question of your skill as a writer (uh, ouch), is there something in their analysis that you agree with, something that can help you become a more effective storyteller? Well-written criticism isn't about You Suck or You Rock, it's about analyzing what you did well and what you perhaps didn't do so well. It may be too late to fix flaws in the published book, but take to heart any negative comments that ring true for you, and let them make you a stronger writer going forward.

I suppose that's about it, except to add, don't forget to savor the highs that come from the good reviews, which are also blissfully inevitable. They won't preclude negative criticism, but they might take the edge off. Enjoy them as they come. And remember that every bad review is a new callous on your writerly fists, easing the blow of the next one. Keep on punching those trees, ninjas.


  1. *hugs* Better a well-reasoned lukewarm review than a raving five stars from an illiterate fangurl, I always say! As for the truly bad reviews, I agree that the philosophical approach is best. It's all part of the job. And when you stop whimpering to yourself about it, you can almost always find some grain of useful information in those reviews (except for the ones that just say you suck without saying why, those you just have to shrug off).

    Of course this is also why it's important to have sympathetic writer friends to stroke your ego. So you can have that balance. You know some of us will always wax lyrical over your filthy, filthy smut!

  2. Loving this post. I should print this and slap it up on the wall where I can see it as I write. Plus, I like the idea of being a writing ninja....

  3. Excellent post, Meg, and very timely for me. I definitely need to print it out. I agree with you and said the same to a friend recently - getting bad reviews is almost like a badge saying you've arrived as a writer. ;)

  4. "Like a ninja punching the bark off trees to strengthen his fists, this pain sucks ass, but think of it as training. Not for punching reviewers, mind you—"

    LOL! Wait until you get two bad reviews from the same snarky person on Christmas! You'll feel like punching something!

  5. An author needs to develop the hide of a rhinocerus or our stay in Writerland will be painful and brief. And even the worst reviews often have at least one quotable line!

    Only my DH loves everything I write, though I suspect the man thinks he has to if he wants to continue to sleep with me. LOL.

  6. I have to agree with Delphine, no matter how bad reviews ruffle our feathers, they almost always have a grain of truth in them, something we can take with us to make our writing better. It's part of the game.