The relationship between the length of your career as a writer is inversely proportional to the extent a negative review will upset you. When you’ve just started, readers’ reviews seem to stick around in your mind a little longer and provoke a stronger emotional reaction.
Let’s get one thing straight first as far as indie writers are concerned. When I talk of reader reviews, I’m assuming the book in question is technically sound and has been professionally edited and proofread at, or exceeding, the standard of a reputable publishing house.
With that in mind, most of the negative reviews my debut novel, Terminal Rage, has garnered seem to be equally subjective as they are passionate, critiquing aspects of the narrative that are clearly a factor of personal taste, like too much or too little of anything, with sex and violence typically topping that list.
Often, low ratings emanate from rogue readers who’ve stumbled upon your work out of their usual genre by chance or in a conscious effort to take a risk. Other times, it’s because they’ve misconstrued your book for something it wasn’t, due to ambiguous packaging or marketing on your part. If you want to avoid the wrath of the reading public, take the time to present and classify your work appropriately.
Not all negative reviews are created equal
The most scathing, low-starred reviews are often as amusing as they are hurtful. For someone to completely loathe the work to the extent that they mobilize a part of their day to rubbish you in public suggests you’ve done an outstanding job to get under their skin, which is no minor achievement.
I am especially in awe of rabid feedback from readers who’ve inferred a writer’s political or moral inclinations only to find them the polar opposites of their own sensibilities. As an artist, invoking strong positive or negative emotions in a reader is the ultimate payload and is far more desirable than being ignored. In a world of limited attention spans and seemingly unlimited sources of information and entertainment competing for airspace, I am grateful for any review, good or bad. Give me one-star vitriolic feedback that calls for my tar-and-feathering in a public square over that cold, black hole of nothingness.
Oddly, it’s the nuanced four-star reader reviews that seem to sting more than the hysterical mudslingers. A four-star review suggests the reader was, by-and-large, satisfied with the read, but somehow never fully embraced it as one of the best books they’ve read. Remember that hollow feeling of looking at a B grade having been certain you had aced the term paper? When you score a D or an F, there are usually no surprises there, while being so close to the peak but not quite touching it is uniquely frustrating.
I’ve learned it’s important to allow yourself a full emotional reaction to any feedback you get, be it from readers or members of your tribe. Bask in the praise and wallow in the insults, then, when you’re done, practice putting your ego back in its cage and accepting with little doubt that good or bad, reviews aren’t personal and should not have any bearing on you as a writer.
Veil of separation between writer and reader
Recently, a reviewer stated as a matter-of-fact that I must have had a thesaurus at hand to dig up complex words to appear more intelligent. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an immediate desire to write back to show exactly how clever I was with words—especially ones constrained to four letters. After all, writers are human and this reader had accused me of not one, but two failings—ignorance and vanity. I took a deep breath and allowed the initial indignation to subside, then I moved on. I can never repeat this enough: under no circumstance should a writer interact with readers over reviews. Fiction is an odd profession that requires a veil of separation between writers and readers for it to work best. If you start defending the choices you’ve made as a writer, you begin to undermine the intrinsic value of your work, exposing it more as a product rather than a work of art.
The way I see it, a positive review will no more spur you to write prolifically than a negative review can dent your confidence or force you into writer’s block. Sooner or later you discover that reviews are nothing more than one reader’s personal interpretation of your work, rather than your work’s absolute literary worthiness. That is not to say that some of these reviews will not at times raise valid points, sometimes even ones that a writer should pay attention to if they choose to. But when you publish a book, you’ve somehow earned the basic right to break a few rules on the way, even commit a few mistakes if the overall ends justify the means.
Reviews don’t necessarily sell books
So what does this all mean in the larger context of writing books and selling?
I happen to think that reviews per se are not the most important factor in book-buying decisions. As a reader, I find I make a snap, impulsive decision on whether I am going to like the book based on gut reaction to the summary, any literary reviews by reputable trade publications (like Foreword Reviews), and the artwork. Then I take that snap decision and go hunt for positive or negative reader reviews that may validate it.
Compared to literary reviews by professional critics, readers’ reviews probably mean less as individual indices of quality. Their value, however, lies in their overall volume being a good indicator of commercial success rather than pure literary excellence.
When you’ve been writing long enough, you eventually understand that being appreciated and acknowledged by your readers is a wonderful bonus, while being criticized and torn apart is an inevitable, even important part of the territory. You will never be everything to everyone at all times. Learn to be grateful when you score a good review, rather than feel entitled to it, but be fully prepared with the thickest possible skin for the bad ones. Only then will you be able to focus on pandering to your most important critic: yourself.
A. M. Khalifa is a novelist based in Rome. You can follow him on Twitter @amkwriter.