Fear of the bad review

The biggest fear of any author is that people will hate their work. All authors suffer with this anxiety to a greater or lesser extent; whether they have a history of success or are just starting out; whether they are traditionally published or self-published. In fact, the fear is greater for a self-published author because they don’t necessarily have the sense of validation that winning and agent and a publishing contract provides (not that this is any salve for anxious traditionally published authors). To publish you need to overcome this fear but sadly, for many, they never do. You need to be a special kind of masochist to become a writer.

I’ve spoken in previous posts about how you cannot write something that everybody likes. It’s impossible. Why? Because the things that makes a book interesting and engaging are different for different people. Some people love flowery prose, others detest it. Some like their action loud, with explosions; others prefer the explosions to remain on the inside. The best, most revered books receive one-star reviews, as this wonderful post by Heather Hill explains, so at some point in your career you should expect to receive a bad review (or two).

Even if you have written a wonderful novel and it has reached the right kind of reader, there is another factor that could lead to a bad review. Let me explain.

Like most of you who have self-published, the first people to buy Second Chance were family, friends and acquaintances. This was both a good and a bad thing. The good part was that my book charted, giving me visibility and the sales boost that provides. The bad news was that I knew a lot of people who had bought my book, and the urge to ask them their opinion was almost overwhelming.

Here’s a tip: people you know who bought your book, read it and liked it, will tell you without you having to ask. This is a wonderful feeling. Those that don’t approach you? The chances are the book wasn’t their kind of thing but they’re too polite to say.

Of course, being a newly published author, I didn’t know this. So I asked. Most still hadn’t read my book but one or two had. One particularly good friend owned up said she didn’t like my book. She had tried to read it but she couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t the type of thing she normally read (you will hear this a lot if you’re a genre writer) and it just wasn’t her thing. I took it on the chin, mainly because she hadn’t said I was a terrible writer (my biggest fear) but that the style and genre wasn’t to her liking.

Six months or so later this same friend published a glowing review of Second Chance on Facebook, telling all her friends to buy it, even those that “don’t normally read sci-fi because it really is that good.” She even provided a link. I was obviously delighted (especially with the resultant sales spike) but also a little surprised. The next time I saw her I asked why the change of mind? Her answer got me thinking. She told me that what had changed was her frame of mind. The first time she attempted to read my book there were a number of distractions going on in her life that meant when she did get a chance to read, she couldn’t fully concentrate on what I’d written. It was only once she was on holiday that she could give my book the proper attention. Once she had the right mindset, she really enjoyed my book.

It was one of those eureka moments but one I should have recognised because there are a couple books on my Pay it Forward reading list with which I’ve also struggled. I’ve tried to read them both, more than once, but have been unable to get into them. Not because they are poorly written (quite the contrary), or that the stories aren’t interesting, but because they are aimed at a younger audience and I’ve been unable to make the mental switch from the type of adult fiction I write and usually read to appreciate them properly. It would have been easy just to write them off but the problem isn’t with the books themselves, but with me. And it is something we should all recognise. For example, how many of you have tried to read a book and failed, only to come back to it later and love it? I have. Lots of times. So these books remain on my reading list until I’m ready to give them the justice they deserve.

So what are the books you either hated on the first read, or failed to get on with, only to love on a subsequent attempt? I’d love to hear from you.

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30 thoughts on “Fear of the bad review

  1. What concerns me the most about reviews is the disingenuous nature of this side of the industry. I can pay for positive reviews. I can coerce people with promises of reciprocity, free books, or help at a trade show – you name it. I can engage a service to find professional reviewers – my guess is they are other indie writers trying to make a buck or two, or bartering for other services. Occasionally you may get one that is unsolicited, but the grammar can be bad, or the review just odd. So far, we haven’t even arrived at the issue of positive or negative. Using reviews as a means of ranking is on par with making political decisions based on polls – not very reliable either pro our con. I don’t have an alternative, unfortunately, but then the entire independent publishing industry is beginning struggling to redefine the nature of promotion and selling in the face of the big sellers’ methodologies. I expect this to be an on-going discussion – hopefully someone smarter than I will experiment with some options.

    • I can understand your concern about the validity of some reviews but the way I look at it is that it’s beyond my control and therefore I can’t let it distract me from my primary goal, which is to write and publish books. What other writers do or not as far as buying or bartering for reviews has no direct impact on me. If a person places a poorly written or negative review on my page, there is nothing I can do about it. The people who do have a stake in this are the owners of the site (in my case, Amazon). They have a strong incentive to ensure all reviews are genuine and have acted swiftly to prevent astrotufing (as it’s known) in the past.
      My recommendation to writers is to stay clear of these practices, by all means ask people for an honest review (as I do at the end of my book) but never try to cheat the system as the consequences, both on your sales and reputation, can be severe.

      • I used to feel uncomfortable asking for reviews at the end of my books. Then I discovered that most non-authors don’t realise how big a difference having even a few reviews makes to visibility, so they tell their friends but don’t think of posting the same thoughts on Amazon &c.

  2. I struggle sometimes to read young adult fiction. The writing may be wonderful and the story great, but as your friend said, it’s just not my thing. I still haven’t read The Hunger Games for this reason (though I’ve enjoyed the movies with my kids). Everyone tells me I should read it, and I know I probably should. But something else always comes along…

    • I like to think I can read most things but I have to be in the right mood. I’ve read the Hunger Games (and the two sequels) and found them to be OK. I can see why they proved to be so popular with the YA audience, especially the first book. I read a great article the other day that said that if it was released today, To Kill a Mockingbird would be classified as YA. I’m glad it wasn’t as many adults would have been put off reading a classic.

  3. Hi Dylan. Your friend’s comment rings a lot of bells with me – and especially with Second Chance. I am coming out of the mist now, and just beginning to start enjoying reading again (got a few to read by favourite authors to get me back into the swing of things first), then I’ll settle into your book.

      • You’re very kind, Dylan – as ever. Good to be showing my face (so to speak) again. The writing is coming, but the reading is often the way into it for me. You’ll know when I start. I have my #AMWRITING sitting there ready to tweet!

  4. I will try to read many styles and genres — only if it’s poorly written will I give up, though I do try to give most things the benefit of the doubt. Largely I’ve found that the classics and set works I tried or had forced on me at school nearly always surprise me when I try them at my advanced age, and that often in a pleasant way: I’m now more able to appreciate descriptive passages, subtle characterisation, plotting and above all big ideas than I was as a teenager. So far, however, I’ve resisted Hardy, as my heart sinks whenever I think I ought to give him another go.

    So yes, so many different factors affect one’s readiness to enjoy a novel, but the crucial thing is does the writing encourage respect at one or more levels, even if you’re not in the mood for it at any given time?

    • A good point, Chris. You are right that there are books that no matter how often I attempt to read them, they never engage me. With the two books I mentioned, both were engaging but I’ve so far been unable to make the mental switch to a style aimed at a younger audience. That’s why I haven’t given up, just placed them to one side until the right time.

  5. I’ve always heard you’re not suppose to even read your own reviews, at least ones on amazon, because they’re made for the people that might want to read your book and not for the author. It makes some sense I guess since you can’t exactly rewrite a whole book once it’s out there. Putting energy into a newer work might help if bad reviews get us down to…

    • I’ve heard that advice too, usually followed by “but it’s difficult not to.” 🙂 If written constructively, there is a lot to learn from both good and bad reviews. One of my favourite authors, Joe Abercrombie, tells the story of a one-star review which complained about the lack of female characters in his books. It wasn’t a deliberate choice but it made him realise there was no reason for him not to include strong, female characters and he changed this in his subsequent books.

  6. I can’t think of any books I originally struggled with then loved. Closest match is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: the first time I picked it up I read just over a chapter and then gave up; I tried again last year, and – while I didn’t love it – I took some enjoyment from it.

    As I read a large amount of Russian sci-fi in the intervening period, my theory is that my trope/style boundaries had moved enough that the noticeable differences between modern Western and classic Russian literature were less distancing.

    • A good example for me is Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. I bought the book on a recommendation but just couldn’t get into it. At the time I was reading a lot of the more traditional, heroic fantasy and I struggled with the darker tone. I went back to it a couple of years later after broadening my reading material and I loved the book, so much so that I bought the following 11, 900 page plus sequels.

  7. Great post, and interesting that you posted it just after having received a(nother) really great review!

    I’ve not published yet, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but my gut feeling is that with the volume of self-published work increasing exponentially, it will become harder and harder to ‘manipulate’ ratings with non-genuine or paid-for reviews. Good writing will ultimately float to the top, backed by genuine feedback from genuine readers. And other marketing strategies will need to work alongside reviews.

    All we can do is write as well as we can and market ourselves with integrity. As for asking for reviews, why shouldn’t we seek the opinions of our readers, including friends and associates? Those close to us are perhaps more likely to give a positive review, which will always help and encourage, and that’s nice. But unless we have a limitless supply of friends and rellies, the majority of reviews will be from people who don’t know us – and they are bound to be a mixed bag.

    Just as those of us who have attempted to gain the attentions of a literary agent have learned to develop a thick skin against all those rejections, so we must learn to live with negative reviews. It’s one hell of a ride, this writing business, isn’t it?

    • It really is one hell of a ride. I don’t see an issue in letting a reader know the importance of reviews to an author and asking for 5 minutes of their time too leave an honest review. The key there being an honest review. I do have a problem if an author asks people to leave a four- or five-star review. That’s gaming the system and the author will be found out eventually.
      Saying that, people will leave a review if they understand the value of them. As David said in an earlier comment, most people don’t understand that reviews help an author to get noticed in a very crowded marketplace. I’ve found the number of reviews for my book has increased significantly since putting a notice in the back.

  8. Great post, Dylan. I’ve instructed all my friends to tell me that Future Perfect ‘wasn’t their thing’ if they hated it but am deliberately not asking 😉 Like you say, you can’t write something everyone likes, but I can enjoy most things unless they’re badly written. One of the most enjoyable aspects for me about following your ‘Pay it forward’ example is that it’s forced me to read outside my preferred genres and I’ve found it a rewarding experience. And most books reward the reader’s persistence. I recently started Karen Joy Fowler’s “We are all completely beside ourselves, at the start of a holiday, gave up at 20% because nothing seemed to be happening, picked it up again at the end of the holiday because I was running out of things to read, and was soon completely hooked!

    You also make a good point about leaving four/five star reviews. I wouldn’t leave a review for anyone who asked this of me.

    • I’m with you on reading outside my preferred genres. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, there are many really good indie authors around, writing in a wide variety of genres, who deserve greater exposure. The whole ‘pay it forward’ experience has been an absolute pleasure. My only regret is not having the time to read even more of them.

    • I’m so glad you said you came to love Lord of the Rings at the end otherwise you and me would be having some SERIOUS words 😉
      Lord of the Rings is an interesting example because it is so beloved of people but it was written 70 years ago. I first read it when I was a young boy just before the explosion of fantasy in the mid-80s. There weren’t many other options around so I accepted it for what it was. Coming to Lord of the Rings having been brought up on books written in a modern style, it must have been quite a shock.

  9. I generally don’t write reviews for books if I can’t give more than 3 stars. As an author myself, I understand the hard work that goes into writing, so assuming it wasn’t riddled with grammatical errors that any half-assed editor should have corrected, I accept that the book wasn’t my cup of tea and move on.

    Think of it this way: bad reviews suck, for sure, but they prove to readers that someone other than your mom is reading your book(s).

    • Hi Beth, I’m the same as you with reviews. I have no issue with others giving the full scale of reviews and book bloggers especially are a great service to us indie authors, but like you I’d rather just move on.
      I do, however, promote books I’ve enjoyed through my recommended reads reviews, hopefully giving more exposure and sales to works I believe deserve the recognition.

  10. Pingback: Recommended Reads: Along Came a Wolf by Adam Dreece | Suffolk Scribblings

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