Well, it was bound to happen.
After 37 straight five-star reviews on Amazon in nearly four months of publication, and a string of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, Baby Grand got its first clunker. A two-star review. Basically, the dude thought that my book was boring, smelly, ugly, totally gross, and that its mother dressed it funny. (I’m paraphrasing.) No, seriously, it just wasn’t for him.
Hey, it happens. I knew my good fortune would come to an end eventually — it’s just the nature of criticism. My daughter, who was reading the review over my shoulder, asked, “Are you okay?” Surprisingly, I was. Stung, of course, but okay. My reaction reminded me of when I was in grad school and I had been getting straight As class after class — something you can certainly get used to — and a professor finally gave me a B+, breaking my streak. I remember thinking for a moment, Oh, darn. But then life went on. I thought that perhaps, being a professional writer, I’ve gotten used to rejection — editors not liking queries or articles, editors requesting changes. After all, Baby Grand was rejected some ten times last year by traditional publishing editors before I decided to self-publish and make a go of it on my own in January. Writing can be a very humbling profession.
But I think it’s just that I know, deep down, that bad reviews happen. Here are three things that I try to keep in mind when I get them:
1. Even universally beloved books –from the classics to contemporary favorites — have bad reviews. Author Ellen Meister, whose new novel Farewell, Dorothy Parker will be published in February, and I discussed this when she came out to East Hampton to appear on The Writer’s Dream recently. Pick a book, any book, that you absolutely loved. Find it on Amazon, and I guarantee you that there will be bad reviews for it. So if Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami and Stephen King can deal with it, so can you.
2. Not all reviews are created equal. I have a system when I rate books on Goodreads:
- 5: I absolutely loved the book. Couldn’t put it down. Were there some problems with it? Maybe, but overall when I finished the book, I thought, Wow.
- 4: I liked it. Didn’t love it. There were some issues, but overall a good read.
- 3: It was okay. Fair. Some good, some bad. Didn’t leave me feeling anything in particular.
- 2: The book really wasn’t for me.
- 1: I truly did not like this book.
That’s my system. But, guess what? Not everyone rates books the way I do. Just yesterday, a Goodreads friend gave a book three stars, and when I commented that I was sorry to hear she didn’t like it all that much, she responded by saying, “Did I come across wrong? I LOVED the book.” Sure enough, I read her review, and she had loved the book. It just goes to show that not only are our tastes in books very subjective but how we review those books is subjective too.
Plus — and perhaps this should be a separate bullet, but — I think reviews often are based (unfairly) on expectation. My fifteen-year-old son reminded me of this recently when I was reading Tana French’s In the Woods.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I expected it to be more of a page-turner, thriller type book,” I said.
“Mom, you can’t judge a book based on what you thought it was going to be like.”
It was a good reminder, and I don’t think many people remember that when they rate/review books. Yes, reviews are by their very nature subjective, but it’s unfair to give a poor rating to a book just because you expected a different book, or because it is filled with profanity and you don’t normally read books with profanity, etc. I know that you can’t help but bring your life and opinions and expectations to a review, but try to keep them in check and keep an open mind. A fiction review should be based on how effectively the author has told his or her story.
3. Success is not measured by customer reviews alone. The book that comes to mind here is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which — however you felt about it (I gave it three stars on Goodreads) — is a bona fide success story. A best seller that resonated with a lot of people. How many of us have said, “If only one person truly enjoys our book, or if our book makes a difference in one person’s life, it’s worth it.” Well, this one certainly qualifies.
There’s been so much talk lately about reviews. This morning, I read about how best-selling crime writer RJ Ellory had been caught not only faking his own glowing reviews, but bashing his fellow crime authors with the same pseudonyms — a story that comes on the heels of the New York Times article, The Best Reviews Money Can Buy, about authors, most of them self-published, who were found to have paid for favorable reviews. And as I was putting the finishing touches on this post a few minutes ago, Jody Hedlund’s latest post arrived in my inbox: What to do when people don’t get your story.
Yes, reviews are important. And the bad ones hurt. But they’re not everything. Take pride in the good ones, and try to learn a little something from the inevitable bad ones. And if you can’t learn something, well, then just remember that we can’t win ‘em all, nor should we try to.
Have you gotten a bad review for your book? How did you deal with it?