As my friends know, I am pretty sure Josh Ritter is my celebrity soul mate. In my humble opinion, he is the best lyricist of my generation. He’s amazing and if you’ve never heard of him, definitely check him out.
A number of years ago now, when his album “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” was released, I read an interview in which the interviewer asked him if he worried about upsetting his fans by departing so drastically from his previous efforts. His response was something to the effect of this: If you’re an artist, you should be upsetting people.
I think what he meant was that artists aren’t trying to please everyone. They are trying to express their vision. If you try to please everyone, you end up in a Fahrenheit 451 world where everything is sanitized and simplified and boring. If you stay true to your vision, you might inspire strong emotions in people, which is what art is supposed to do. When some people feel strongly that a work of art is fantastic, others will undoubtedly dislike it.
Or at least, this is what I tell myself when my novels get bad reviews.
Novels, like any other art form, are subjective and personal. What one person likes will be off-putting to another. All you have to do to see objective proof of this is to look up your favorite book on GoodReads.
For instance, a book I enjoyed through and through is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I loved it from page one and have recommended it to all my book-loving friends. It has nearly 74,000 ratings, over 46,000 of them giving four or five stars. Obviously, a lot of people agree with me that it’s good. It has also gotten over 7400 one- or two-star ratings. 9% of people who read it didn’t like it. It is possible that some of the people I recommended it to will read it and wonder what the heck I liked so much.
In a more dramatic example, consider The Great Gatsby, one of the most beautiful novels of all time. Over 3,000,000 have rated it, and over 300,000 of those gave it one- or two-star ratings. The Great Gatsby!
Knowing all of this only makes it a marginally easier for a writer to read a bad review. It’s like overhearing someone bad-mouthing you. You go through life well aware that not everyone is going to like you, but it shakes your confidence when you actually hear someone put you down. And of course, in life, most people have the good grace not to be confrontational about their dislikes, but online, everyone is a critic and manners are nonexistent.
My wounded writerly ego often asks, “Why do people bother? Why be so mean?” And my logical brain responds, “Because it’s human nature to complain, and what is a critical review other than a socially acceptable complaint that gives a person a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction?” I doubt most snarky reviewers think about the person behind the book or mother’s advice that when you have nothing nice to say, it’s best to say nothing at all. Before I published my own books, I occasionally fell into this very sad trap. I’m happy to say I’ve reformed.
Reader reviews are a particular problem for indie authors, because unlike traditionally published authors who have publicists to manage PR, to keep tabs on their Amazon author pages and their GoodReads profiles, and solicit reviews from influential media sources and readers, indie authors handle their publicity and social media accounts. That means they have to work hard to ignore reader reviews.
Every time I login to my author dashboard on GoodReads, I see a tally of how reviews and ratings for my books, and seeing the number climb makes my heart flutter. Reviews sell books. More reviews mean more people sharing my books with their online friends. Please say something nice, I think, as I scroll through the page to see new reviews.
Perhaps the worst part of accumulating reviews is that all most people look at is the average star-rating. That I have a very respectable 3.97 average rating based on 1,156 ratings should not be a source of such distress, but in the indie book world, 3.97 doesn’t sell books. If you want to sell books, you need five stars. That’s how you get noticed by algorithms, that’s how you become discoverable.
The pressure to get five-star reviews has led some indie authors, among them a number of the best-selling darlings of the self-pub movement, to the odious decision to pay for reviews. I don’t mean paying someone to read and review his or her book. I mean paying a “book promotion” company a certain dollar amount for a certain number of top reviews. The “reviewers” had no obligation to read or actually like the book. As if self-publishing didn’t already raise suspicions about quality.
Let’s say a self-pubbed book has three hundred five-star reviews. A reader who wouldn’t usually bother with self-published books (due to somewhat justified literary snobbery) gives it a chance. It’s terrible. The formatting and proofreading are shoddy. The characters are flat. The story is unoriginal. All the reader’s biases against self-published books are confirmed, and they won’t take a chance on another. That reader’s bias against self-pubbed books has been confirmed.
Paying for reviews is a disgrace, but the desire to rack up reviews is completely understandable. Authors need to find an audience. They need to make their work as discoverable as possible to do so. But fake reviews are the wrong way to go. They do far more to damage the general reputation of indie authors than to build an audience
Some indie authors have also taken the childish approach of scolding and verbally attacking people who gave them bad reviews. Another great way to gain respect for self-publishing.
So what’s a writer to do?
I think the solution is by taking the long view. Are you in it for big sales or are you in it to tell great stories? Do you want to be a rising star in the world of self-publishing or do you want to be a writer?
If you want to tell great stories and be a writer, be a professional about it. Do your best writing, put it out there, and when you get a bad review, give yourself a few seconds for a pity-party and then get back to your writing.
Take the path of the artist: Work on your own terms in your own way and let work speak for itself.
To my fellow authors, I leave you with a word from Nathaniel Hawthorne (no stranger to the bad review):
When [the author] casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.
To amateur book reviewers, I leave you with a word from Yeats (also no stranger to criticism):
I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.