What writers don’t want to hear…on October 24th, 2011 at 9:44 PM
…but need to listen to.
As a follow-up to Scott’s discussion last week, I’m going to use a real example. In one of the chat groups I belong to, author X complained about getting yet another 1-star review for a self-published novel. The author took some consolation that the 5-star reviews currently outweighed the 1-stars (of 18 reviews: 14 were 5-star, 4 were 1-star, with no reviews in between).
I decided to investigate the book further. Two 1-star reviews mentioned bad writing and bad editing; three of them couldn’t understand why the book got 5-star reviews (family and friends?). After reading the 5-star reviews, it was difficult for me to believe they were talking about the same novel. Just so you know, this was a 99 cent e-book, a romance novel and not something remotely controversial that could raise the ire of readers for its content.
I downloaded the sample to check out the writing for myself. Not surprisingly, I found grammar and punctuation errors on every page. I posted what I considered a tactful reply to the author, basically saying that the disparity in review ratings was probably saying something that should be listened to. Not long after my post, the entire discussion thread vanished.
My motivation in replying was to help this author improve, not to trash the work. No author wants to hear anything negative. We often get defensive at negative reviews instead of asking whether they have any merit. Readers’ tastes vary. I don’t like every book recommended by my friends, and I don’t always like highly praised, award-winning novels, although most of the time I can understand the reasons for the praise.
Neither are all readers highly critical of what they read. We shouldn’t take blockbuster sales to mean that a book is necessarily well written. Some readers simply read for the story, and unless the grammar and spelling errors are so numerous that they distract, most readers move past them. Until a couple of years ago, nearly all books that found their way into the hands of readers were published by the big publishers and went through a stiff selection (that rejected good books, too) and editing process.
With the surge in self-published books, authors who are clueless of their weak or poor writing are in for a real shock. Readers who formerly took the quality of published books for granted are seeing the differences. Some are willing to overlook a few more errors than they’ve been accustomed to as long as they enjoy the story, and particularly when they pay only a dollar or two for the e-book. After all, many traditionally published books have errors in them, too. I should add that even those authors often dismissed bad reviews. “How dare some reviewer criticize me! I’ve been published. ” Sadly, I’ve seen a few reviews of 99-cent books say that the 99 cents was a waste of money, although I suspect the readers were more upset over the time wasted reading it than over the money.
One lesson my dad taught me was that anything worth doing was worth doing well. To that I’ll add, “all good things take time” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Writing a good book takes time, and most books go through multiple drafts before they’re ready to be published. Far too many new authors fail to understand this. Empowered by easy self-publishing, they rush their work out the door long before it’s ready. They fail to solicit honest, outside opinions or, if they do, they ignore those they don’t want to hear.
If you don’t believe me, read Joe Konrath’s blog. The overriding piece of advice he gives as a prerequisite for publishing success is: “Write a damn good novel.” You’ll see proper editing not far behind that in his advice.
I found it interesting that as I was composing this article, another author friend posted a blog along similar lines. Check it out.
I’ll repeat one thought we’ve mentioned before and that echoes the main theme of this blog: Write well and you’ll sell. The first work of yours that readers see will color their opinions of your writing from that point on. Write well, and readers will come back for more and will recommend you to their friends. Write poorly, and readers will likely never buy one of your works again and may tell their friends to avoid your books. There are some exceptions out there, but your chances of being one of them are not great.
Pay close attention to those reader comments you’d rather not hear, particularly if two or more reviewers echo the same things. Any book should expect to garner a range of reviews, simply based on reader tastes. The better the book, the more the reviews should skew toward higher-star ratings.
If you’re seeing reviews only at opposite ends of the spectrum or spread widely and evenly over a one- to five- star range, then you have some issues with your book. In those cases, you should analyze all the reviews and seek outside advice to help to discover what’s really wrong and to help you fix it. The nice thing about self-publishing is that you can repair the problems and re-publish. If I found myself in this position, I’d let my potential new readers know that I took their advice and made changes to improve the work.
Or you can ignore the bad reviews, put on your rose-colored glasses, and tell yourself that everything is fine.