Thursday, January 31, 2013

Don't Read Your Reviews

by Michelle Gagnon

As part of Thrillerfest one year, they gave a special award (if a piece of fossilized poop can be considered an award) to our very own John Gilstrap (even though he's no longer officially part of this blog, he'll always be the Friday guy to me). The award was for the Worst Amazon Review, and he won for this little nugget (no pun intended): "The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap's torpid prose."

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here's my advice: don't read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here's the thing. As we all know, a reader's opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended--and they're all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn't. I'm always startled when I get feedback from beta readers--everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt.

The same applies to reviewers, naturally. Maybe Marilyn Stasio ate a bad oyster before reading your book, and the nausea she felt skewed her experience. Maybe the Kirkus reviewer was going through a divorce, so the way that you depicted a couple falling apart resonated too strongly with him (or not strongly enough). I know that for my last book, several reviewers felt the plot was tremendous, but the character development was weak. Others loved the characters, but the story left them cold. When writing a review, even when you loved the book, there's an irresistible inclination to find something to pick at. That's what many of us were taught to do in school; otherwise it doesn't feel like we've done the review justice.

As writers, we already have enough voices in our heads. Resist the temptation to let new ones in. This is particularly critical if you're writing a series; if one reader hated your protagonist, do you really want that small seed of doubt planted in your head? Do you want to be swayed by Merlin57 if he declares that you should be the next winner of the fossilized poop award? 

Even when a review is entirely positive, there are drawbacks. Say a particular reader took a shine to a relatively minor character, and hopes to see more of her in the next installment. Should that be factored into your writing process? I say no, not if that wasn't part of your initial vision for the narrative.

It's a challenge not to dive into the fray--especially since, with all the blogs out there, there are potentially dozens of opinions on your prose just waiting to be perused. But avoid the temptation; don't dive into the rabbit hole. If your book is amassing lots of great reviews and accolades, you'll hear about it from your editor, agent, and friends. But knowing precisely what's being said can be detrimental.

*side note: I'd also advise against doing a Google Search for fossilized poop. Trust me on this one.

22 comments:

  1. oh man, great advice, Michelle. First, even the so-called professional reviewers can't be trusted. Kirkus used to be just crabby but now they are suspect (they sell some reviews). Publishers Weekly and Library Journal are still okay last I heard (ie can't be bought). Marilyn Stacio gives you only plot summaries. And until Amazon comes up with some way to verify the reviewer actually BOUGHT the book, why should we listen? There are maybe 3 reviewers whose opinion I trust anymore, so yeah, I will listen to them. And I love getting emails from fans because if they take the time to find me via my website they are usually straight with me. But everything else? You're right...the heck with it.

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  2. Good advice. I do read my reviews, but in a I'll-get-around-to-it thing. I often go months without looking at what's being said about my books on Amazon and that gives me some breathing room to be able to deal with them.

    And as you say, reviews are weird. There's a review of one of my Derek Stillwater novels that gives it a 2-star and says something along the lines of, "I guess it's pretty good, but I really wanted it to be like a Harlan Coben novel."

    Well, Harlan's a good guy and a good writer, but what our books have in common is they're thrillers. And that's about it (well, we like a fast pace). But Harlan typically writes about average suburban people caught in very weird, terrifying situations. I write a series about a former Special Forces op with a PhD in biochemistry and microbiology who works for either the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department (or even the CIA if you read any of the novellas) and is a specialist in bio and chem terrorism.

    It really is like comparing apples to oranges.

    Ah, you can see this annoys me. Which is why you shouldn't read reviews.

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  3. Easier said then done. I feel ecstatic about good reviews and depressed over bad ones. But I like to read them to see what appeals to my fans. This does influence my writing as I seek to satisfy reader expectations. Reader opinions may even determine if I continue a series or not. If enough voices clamor for a sequel, well then...I am more likely to write one. Bad reviews, on the other hand, drain away my confidence. Fortunately the two often balance out.

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  4. Great advice, Michelle. Reviews can drive you batty, especially when one person gives you 5 stars and the next review is 1 star. One of my favorite reviews went something like this: "Mr. Moore, I hated your book, right through to the very end!" My reaction was "thank you for reading right through to the very end."

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  5. Michelle, As usual you've brought a ray of sunshine to my day. Not only do I agree with you about not reading (or at least, not paying attention to) reviews, but I've never gotten one so bad as to be rewarded with a piece of fossilized dog poop.
    By the way, how did you come by a picture of such an unusual reward? Hope it wasn't because you were a previous recipient.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  6. I always figure, "consider the source" when reading reviews. If a famously great, renowned, respected writer reads my book and thinks it's crap, that carries a lot more weight with me than some anonymous doorknob who thinks he is God's gift to the literary world, but couldn't properly fill out a McDonald's job application,thinks my book is crap. I wouldn't lose sleep on either of those reviews, but maybe I'd learn something valuable from the great writer that can help me write a better story tomorrow.

    And of course, Michelle, the first thing I did after reading your post was to Google "fossilized poop." :-(

    At least googling my name turned up about 4 times as many results (and I don't even have a very common name. :-)

    Chris

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  7. And here I have coprolite bookends. Pretty!

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  8. I think this is great advice, but it's very hard for a new author not to get caught up in the excitement of seeing reviews for a debut book. It gets easier over time to either pull yourself away from reading the reviews or have more sangfroid if you do read them.

    The one thing to keep in perspective is that most books that sell extremely well also have very polarized reviews. Just look at The DaVinci Code, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Gone Girl. They all have tons of one-star reviews to go with the five-star reviews. The opposite of love isn't hate, it's apathy. People will buy books they love or hate just to see what the fuss is, but books they could take or leave? They usually leave them.

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  9. Michelle, your post made me realize that I haven't been reading my reviews for a long time, except on rare occasions. It's mostly because of ROI (return on investment). I just don't see the return for time spent there.

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    1. Love this. Since I stopped reading them, I have way more time to write.

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  10. I like to treat reviews much like I treat my IT customer's annual "IT Support Customer Satisfaction Survey". In other words, I like to read them, good or bad, because they do bring up any recurring issues. For instance, through the frequency with which formatting errors were mentioned in the reviews I discovered a very simple mistake in the layout that was causing my books to come out center justified and with duplicate chapter headings on some readers devices.

    As far as the ratings themselves, as long as they are fairly evening distributed over all titles I don't make much fuss over them whether they're 5 stars or 1 stars as that is totally subjective.

    My all time favourite amongst my book reviews thus far came from a reader in the UK for "65 BELOW":

    Despite its implausible scenarios, unbelieveable and usually unlikeable characters, and incessant xenophobic flag-waving post 9/11 patriotism, it's still, oddly, a page-turner.

    Uh...okay...I'll accept that judgement. Uh..thanks?

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    1. "Oddly"?

      WTF does "oddly a page-tuner" even mean? Geez.

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  11. The trouble with reviews is that some of the sites use large numbers of reviews as criteria for book promotion. I've gotten better about ignoring the content (I got a 1 star review on Amazon because the book wasn't available in digital format, and there are groups at B&N that use review sites to carry on conversations). Opinions are varied, and so are the reviewing 'credentials' of people who leave them. When I was coordinating a contest, the rules stated that the low score would be dropped. Why? Maybe it was the high score that was out of line with the quality of the writing. Same goes for reviews.
    PJ, I'm glad to see PW is still respected; makes my starred review from them meaningful!

    Terry
    Terry's Place


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  12. Thanks, Michelle! In a rampantly selfish way, I love hearing people say to ignore reviews, since it's always the bad ones that stick with me. I like your advice to find a friend to check reviews for you and report on them. I can trust the hubby to use the appropriate expletives when describing the anonymous haters who compare my intelligence (unfavorably) to that of a gnat. Yep, that actually happened.

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  13. Thanks for your advice, Michelle. One of my Kindle books had 24 reviews one day, 22 5-stars and 2 4-stars. The next day, some idiot wrote a nasty 2-star review. So now I had 24 excellent reviews and one negative one. So what did Amazon do? They highlighted the negative one, which NOBODY had found "helpful," alongside a 5-star one that 15 people had found helpful! And they called it "The most helpful negative review"! How does NO yeses for "helpful" qualify it as "most helpful"?! So as you can see, I really need to follow your advice! (And stop ranting!) LOL :-)

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  14. I just realized today that you can comment on Amazon reviews. I got a really nice review today on our new Kindle book but the woman noted all the typos (sigh, she's right...we're going back in and fix em). So I said, what the heck, I'll leave a comment to her. She commented back saying she can't believe the number of typos in ebooks. We had a very pleasant exchange!

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  15. Great advice. I keep a folder of good reviews and fan mail just in case I need a morale boost after encountering something negative. No matter how many people like your stuff, sooner or later you're going to run into someone who hates it!

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  16. Ever fly into Phoenix? I looked down and freaked out. Talk about coprolite! It looks like the dinosaurs' playground.

    My books are coming out soon and I can only hope-after maybe a good review or two-that someone will just be apoplectic about 'em. There is that. Yunno?

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  17. Yep...good advise that most of us won't follow. I belong to a writers group and everyone has an opinion. I love them, but sometimes they are just coming from left field. Would I give them up? Nope...I read everything they write about my writing...but will I read Tom, Dick, or Harry's reviews? Who can say, will I be tempted? Yes. Will I cry over the bad reviews? Yes...and jump up and down over the good ones too!

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  18. Good advice that I should have known earlier because all reviews, the good, the bad and the ugly, always seem to worm their way into your soul and ferment.

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  19. Great advice! I mustmustmust remember and not fail with this one and I'm looking up the poop!

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