Everyone’s a Critic: Things My Book Haters Love
Some people drop 1-star reviews like tiny little bombs, blowing up author careers right and left, then give 5 stars to surprising things.
On my corkboard hanging over my desk, one of the For the Birds (my current novel in progress) related items I’ve pinned to it is an illustrated version of a 1-star Yelp review for Joshua Trees National Park that says the following:
“The only thing to do here is walk around the desert.”
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The fact that people review national parks is incredibly funny. Like a review for Sequoia National Park (“There are bugs and they will bite your face.”), or Yosemite National Park (“Trees block view and there are to many gray rocks.”), or Yellowstone National Park (“Save yourself some money and boil some water at home.”).
The image I have of Joshua Tree’s infamous bad review is the work of Amber Share, an artist who scrolled reviews from Yelp, Trip Adviser, and other review sites, and made illustrated versions of these reviews, which you can now purchase in the form of postcards, art pieces, stickers and more.
I’m thinking of reviews today thanks to “This American Life,” my latest obsession in podcasts. This week’s topic was “Everyone’s a Critic”, starting with an author who was obsessed with his reviews. He was caught in a vicious cycle of checking his reviews constantly, refreshing the page, and then checking again. And when a bad review hit, it was impossible to not take it personally.
After a long time of personalizing the negative reviews, the author received some advice to check out what else these critics liked or disliked. It became this eye opening experience where the author learned more about who his audience was (and who were not part of his audience), and he also gained some perspective when it came to reviews….
You’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
I can relate to that temptation to personalize bad reviews. I don’t check as much as I used to, but when I was a new author, it was a sickness. I’d check my reviews, click away, then click back, then refresh. Each good review was an ego boost. But the bad reviews? Oh man, those are harsh. I could receive a bunch of great reviews and just one bad one. Guess which review was the only one I saw?
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When I published my first book, I wasn’t a newbie to public critiques. I worked for a newspaper and wrote a column on parenting — two places where trolls live in the comments section. I knew how horrible people could be, and had developed a somewhat thick skin over it. Don’t get me wrong, it never feels good when someone publicly blasts your parenting decisions or even your children. You just have to keep reminding yourself that trolls feed on creating a reaction. Delete, and move on.
It’s different with reviews, though.
First off, you can’t delete reviews. This is maddening when it’s a 1-star review, especially when you realize they’re just dropping 1-star reviews like tiny little bombs, blowing up author careers right and left. (All right, these 1-star reviews don’t actually do much damage, but dang does it feel like it when you’re desperate to receive 5-star reviews on your books!)
Second, reviews are an author’s livelihood. Often, the reviews are what helps an author gain more readers. Books with more reviews get more traction on Amazon and other online sites, and they also offer a level of trust to potential readers. If a reviewer loves a book and shares why, it could inspire another reader to purchase it. But if there are no reviews, or a bunch of bad reviews….the shelf life of that book is limited.
There’s a third reason, too, and that’s the fact that negative reviewers aren’t always trolls. Yes, there are some. But when you’re not a huge name author, most of your reviews are genuine. With an open mind and a willing heart, you can find things in reviews that offer sincere critiques that will help you become a better writer.
Still, it always baffles me when someone doesn’t think my books are 5-star reads. I mean, my books are quality! Everyone’s cup of tea!
Wait, maybe not….
This reviewer says: “Not my cup of tea. First of all, I did not finish this book, I don’t like seeing the “F” word and it was sprinkled around the first 4 chapters. The “ghost” also had no redeeming personality, I just didn’t like her. The spiritual theme was also wrong for me- if you are a Christian you will not be comfortable with this version of the “afterlife”.
Side note: The first F word appeared in Chapter 7, and was completely necessary. There were actually just 5 instances of the word “fuck.” What this reviewer should have been more appalled at was the premarital sex happening in the very first chapter. But I digress….
This was actually my very first bad review about my very first book, and it was a gut punch. Why this person thought this was a Christian book, I don’t know, but it made me question whether I should every put swear words or bad words in my books. I mean, what would my mother think? My grandmother think? I actually contemplated going back through it and editing it so that it was a “clean” read.
Thankfully, I moved on — from this reviewer, and from future reviewers. I’ve learned that my books aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay! I don’t like every book I read, either.
Since then, some of my favorite reviews have been less than 4 stars. There was one reviewer who pointed out things that didn’t work for her in my book, Numbered, but then went on to state how strong she found my characters and how much she loved my writing. A reviewer for Loving the Wind said, “I think of all the retellings of Peter Pan this one is the best. I wouldn’t say favorite but better than the other two I’ve read so far.”
Another thing that cracked me up was taking these reviews one step further. Like the author on “This American Life,” I was curious about what these bad reviewers actually liked. If someone felt strongly enough about my books to leave a negative review, what were the things they gave 5 stars to?
Note: I admit this felt a little stalkerish and obsessive. It is. But it’s also public information, so….
I checked out the cup of tea lady first. According to her rave reviews, she loves gardening, items for her rabbit, lunch boxes, and family games. She also gave 5 stars to turntable bearings, considering them sturdy enough to help with her lazy susan. Another reviewer who gave me 2 stars doled out 5-star reviews to the TV show “Suits,” but she also gave a 1-star review to the Kindle user manual because learning about her Kindle Fire while reading a manual on her Kindle Fire was not a viable solution. And still another reviewer loved Stephen King books, and probably expected some gore in the ghostly love story I wrote. She did give one Stephen King book a 1-star review, though, so I guess I’m in good company.
My point is, reviews are not something to take personally. Some people will love my books, some won’t. Some prefer their rabbits and lunchboxes over my books, or consider my books on par with the Kindle user manual. My job isn’t to write for everyone, but for those who want more of what I write.
My other point is, if you love a book you’ve read, give it a glowing review. Let the author know that their efforts gave you some joy.
Here are 4 reasons why authors need your review on their books:
- It gives social proof that this is a good book.
Your review could be the words that urge someone else to purchase this book, which ends up supporting the author.
- They make the book more visible.
More reviews, and Amazon or other online retailers will favor that item. Think about it. If there was a book with 2 reviews, and a similar one with 356 reviews, which one would you buy? More reviews help a product become more visible.
- They expand the conversation around the book.
When I buy books, I always look to the reviews. Reviewers often share things that are missed in the marketing remarks, and will cinch whether I want to invest my time or money. If you love a book, share the reasons why in a review so that other readers will want to experience the story.
- Reviews help the author promote their book through certain services.
There are some email lists that are vital to boosting the popularity of a book, but they won’t even look at books below a certain number of reviews. Your review helps the author gain the traction they need to further their marketing efforts.
And if you leave a review for any of my books, thank you. It’s a big deal. I read every one of them, and cherish them — even the bad ones. Kind of.