Recently, I had someone ask me why I gave a book one star. (Translation: "Why are you so MEAN?") The answer is because: two stars = "it was ok.” One star = “I did not like it.”
It was not ok. I did not like it. That is why I gave it one star.
A debate has been raging within the indie author community for some time about whether or not we should leave negative reviews on other authors. Obviously, I am in the camp who thinks we should. Negative reviews are actually helpful, for several reasons. Here are my dos centavos on the subject:
1. First and foremost, don't lie.
C'mon, kids. It's a basic ethical, moral, professional and even religious precept. Why say a work is well-done when you don't think it is? Who does that benefit? It does not help my credibility as a reviewer, it does not help the author grow as a writer, and it does not help other readers who are checking out reviews to gain some insight into the book they're considering for download/purchase.
2. "But if you can't say anything nice, isn't it better to not say anything at all?"
No. This is a business. If you're just reading for pleasure and don't want to finish a bad book, that's fine. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to leave feedback, negative or otherwise, that’s also fine. I'm a reviewer. Frequently, I have committed to finishing a book and giving my opinion on it. So I goddamn will. You are free to disagree with me.
It's nothing personal against the author. I'm an author too, and I know how much time and hard work goes into writing a novel. But, as an author, I'm also aware when a writer is inexperienced or cutting corners, and I'm not letting them slide by with that shit. They have created a product that they are asking people to buy. It’s as simple as that. If the product is not quality, it behooves both producer and consumer to be aware of its shortcomings.
3. Nothing but four- and five-star reviews looks suspicious.
Authors, that person that just left you that one- or two-star review? Actually just did you a favor. They’re letting all the other potential book buyers know that somebody besides your mom read your damn book.
When most of us click on a novel, especially an indie novel, and see that it’s gotten nothing but high ratings, it looks very fishy. We think that only the friends and family of the author have read it. Which is fine—we all have to start somewhere, and who better than the warm audience?
But worse than that, if people see a slew of high ratings, they might think the author has purchased them. It’s an unfortunate reality of the publishing world now that too many authors are willing to pay a marketing firm or a mercenary reviewer to flood their review section with praise.
Negative reviews give authors credibility. Period.
4. Give positive reviews when they are warranted, and be thorough about it.
I give positive reviews when I think they’re deserved, and I’m fucking exhaustive. (Some may say, “long-winded.”) The advantage to giving criticism along with the praise is that authors know that when I click five stars, I mean it. I’m not some desperate indie out there looking to join the circle jerk, hoping that if I give everybody five stars, they’ll give me five stars in return. Again, that’s not honest or helpful. To see a negative review on an author’s page proves that someone beyond the author’s intimate circle has not only read his work, but is thinking about it. It is provoking a response. The way I see it, that’s a good thing. That's what art is supposed to do-- provoke.
5. Reading reviews = smarter readers.
Yeah, I know, I know. I write reviews, so this sounds self-serving. But I’ve been reading reviews a hell of a lot longer than I’ve been writing them.
Reading reviews has taught me how to read with discernment, to examine my own preferences. I am continuously amazed by eagle-eyed reviewers who catch things that I don't, both good and bad, who give me a totally new perspective on a work that I might never have thought twice about.
Reviews also give readers insight into whether or not they would like it. For example, if I criticize an author for over-describing, you might read my review and say, “Hey, I like lots of description.”
Or if I say, “I don’t like stories about werewolves,” others might go, “But I love them!”
I know that I frequently disagree with reviews. People practically think it's a badge of honor to disdain the opinions of professional/famous reviewers. The point is not to blindly follow their (or my) advice, but to consider the work in question through the lens of their own experiences and predilections.
6. “Oh, yeah, Miss Smarty Pants? I bet you cry when you get bad reviews on your work.”
Not anymore. Have I had my share of negative reviews? Absolutely. I have been very fortunate, however, in that very few of my reviewers have been rude. (So far . . . Knock on wood.) Most of the criticisms I have received have been perfectly valid and helpful to me as a writer.
Throughout my life, I have had numerous teachers, editors, publishers, fellow writers and even friends and family, be very blunt with their feedback. Have I had my feelings hurt? Absolutely. But I learned to push past the initial sting to see if their comments had merit. I am grateful to all of them for making me better at what I do, and for helping me grow a thicker skin.
Writing, or any kind of art for that matter, is no business for pussies.
7. Negative reviews vs. bad reviews. There's a difference.
In my opinion, negative reviews demonstrate thoughtfulness on the part of the reader. Bad reviews are just that—bad. They say things like, “This book SUCKED!” or other hurtful/generally non-constructive things. Because sometimes people are bullies, or just straight-up assholes. Petty rivalries break out. The Internet is frequently a cold and unforgiving place.
Here's an extreme example of this. It should be noted, however, that there's been a great deal of outcry over this type of behavior, and responsible readers/reviewers are calling for an end to BULLYING, not constructive criticism. Because that shit is not acceptable.
But when something like this happens, you know what? Other readers get that. Really, we do. We’ll see bullying and bad reviews and just ignore them. We get that “it sucked” is not insightful commentary. Or, if your ex-girlfriend is telling us we shouldn’t buy your books because you’re a heartless, cheating bastard or whatever, we understand that that’s not necessarily a reflection of your writing.
8. Don’t get into flame wars.
It’s bad enough that we have good review circle jerks and people buying up five-star ratings. Then you have the other side of the coin—authors getting into flame wars with each other, trying to discredit each other, wreck each other’s ratings and ultimately drive down sales.
STOP IT. You’re not helping yourselves, and you’re not helping authors in general. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as an indie author without devolving into that kind of bullshit. If your work is good, people will figure it out. You don’t have to run down the competition.
You especially don’t have to run each other down if you’re writing genre books. Do you see how many romance titles are out there? How many mysteries? Sci-fi? Genre fans lap that shit up and are always looking for more. Promoting each other goes a hell of a lot further than denigrating.
9. No one gets five stars all the time. No one. Accept it.
Beloved classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Rings average just a four-star rating on Goodreads. More polarizing authors like Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer get less.
Do you know why? Because not everybody who's ever read To Kill a Mockingbird loved it. Some people maybe even . . . quite possibly . . . dare I say it? Actually disliked it.
Undoubtedly, there are people in this world, right now, this very moment, who are going, "Flannery O'Connor did it better," or “FUCK that Atticus Finch. Fuck him right in the ear! And Boo Radley, too.”
It’s not because it’s not a well-written book. It’s not because it’s not a compelling story. It’s because they just didn't like it. It didn't engage them. They can’t relate to the story. They can’t relate to the characters. They don’t like fiction. The writing style doesn’t speak to them.
There are a million reasons why readers might find fault with your work, no matter who you are. Ultimately, this is a subjective business. Get over it. Stop trying to please everybody.
Personally, I like the idea of readers disagreeing and getting into discussions over my work, with half of them hailing me as the second coming of Shakespeare, and the other half going, “Wait. Who the fuck still likes Shakespeare?”
This has not actually happened yet. I’ll keep you posted.
For a bonus: check out this hilarious compilation of author-on-author insults. Then come back and tell me about how harsh your readers are.
9. We can haz quality.
As an indie author, I think it’s more important for us to be honest with each other. Writing is the most democratic art form, and the cheapest to produce. If you are literate and own a word processor, then you can be a writer. All you have to do is pound something out and post it.
Hence, I think we have an obligation to advocate good work when it’s out there, but be realistic about it when it’s not. Because if we don’t, then who will?
My first novel was utter crap. So was my second. I have scads of early work that will never see the light of day. These works will never be posted on Amazon, and I certainly will never slap a price tag on them and try to sell them. As I said, anybody can write. But it takes hard work, dedication and practice to be any good at it, just like anything else. No one expects a JV athlete to win the Super Bowl. Why do we expect authors putting out their very first book to become instant best sellers and garner critical adulation?
Writing is both an art and a business. We are creating a product that we are asking people to not only buy, but to invest a significant amount of their time to read. We owe it to them to give them the best product possible. Don’t be shocked when people remark on poor quality. And don't get all butt-hurt when your work is, very simply, not their cup of tea.
I do everything I can to advocate indie authors. I want us to be taken seriously—as seriously as books that are released through major publishing houses. For that to happen, that means putting on our big-boy britches and taking some hits. A colleague of mine is fond of saying, "If you're not pissing people off, you're not doing anything."
So choose to do something. Then be ready for the backlash. Complacency is the death of art. Our art dies when we stop struggling to improve.
10. Remember why you’re doing this.
If you’re writing novels to get rich and famous—well, good for you. You and millions of other authors around the world. The reality is . . . well, there are no reliable numbers on what the average indie author makes in royalties. But I think it’s safe to assume that the average indie author will never make enough to quit their day job. Myself included. In fact, I consider it a good fucking month if I can take my royalty check and treat my husband to dinner at Applebee's. (That there, my friends, is what my dear old grandma would call, "Shittin' in tall cotton.")
So what does that leave?
Well, why did you start writing in the first place?
I started writing to please ME. I am writing the books that *I* want to read. Validation should come from the work itself, not other people’s opinions of it.
I’m old enough to remember the days when all submissions to magazines and publishers were done by snail mail. A single submission could take months or even years. Once, I received a rejected manuscript back from a publisher with the usual form letter, but worse than that, some arrogant prick had scrawled in big red letters across the front page of my manuscript, “WHY SHOULD I CARE?”
I shredded that page. And the rejection letter. Because fuck that.
But I walked away with a valuable lesson. If you can take that, you can take anything. If you're a writer, you will write. No matter what anybody else says. If you're a writer, you know it all the way down to your bones. At the end of the day, it's not money and it's not applause that drives us to create.
Remember Kurt Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout, a.k.a., the worst writer in the world? Be Kilgore Trout. He wrote over 117 novels and thousands of short stories and gave no fucks as to whether or not they even got read.
You write because words and ideas wake you up in the middle of the night and have you reaching for the notepad by the bed. You write because the characters are so vivid, you can see them looking over your shoulder in the mirror in the morning. You write because you have stories to tell, worlds to build, mysteries to unravel. You live for that moment where the rest of the world around you has vanished and the words flow from you. It's divine. It's sublime.
In the face of that, the rest doesn't even matter.