The Five Step Program for Book Review Etiquette

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Yes, I know.

I know you’ve slaved for the past three years on that project. I know that your agent had you revise the damned thing about five times before it was even close to being good enough for submission to publishers. I know that once you got the book deal, your editor made you revise it a further three times and then once more for good measure. I know that you have a day job and that you’ve got bills to pay, kids to raise, a life to lead with all its ups and downs. I know that you’ve been sleep deprived for three years running now and your book, having just been released, well now you’ve got to squeeze in the time to promote it in every way possible. I know that your earnings from writing total about five cents/hour from the time you conceived the book to the time you saw it for sale on Amazon or at your local big box store.

Or maybe you decided to self publish a book. You had to do all the work of an agent, an editor, a cover art designer .. you did everything everything EVERYTHING!

And then you saw your beloved novel eviscerated by some reviewers on Goodreads or on Amazon or possibly even a blog. The kind of evisceration that you’d never see on the pages of a newspaper because the reviewer would have to use their real name instead of an online persona. Your book is showing up on Goodreads bookshelves with names like “authors I’d like to torch with a flamethrower”or “WTF” or “Burn in a Lake of Fire”.

Crushing. Soul destroying. You’re battered, bruised, angry and hurt. And of course you want to lash out. But before you do, take a deep breath. Go for a walk or slap in a Tae Bo DVD and burn off your frustration because should you actually say something publicly, you’re going to be social media dog food … the cheap, non-name brand of dog food. The can that sells for thirty cents at the dollar store with a best before date of 1997.

It’s a deeply personal thing, writing a book. I get that. No author wants to see their work get slammed but that’s the price of admission when you want to be published. You took that on when you decided to make some moolah from your writing efforts. And over the past year or two, authors have been melting down with alarming regularity. Here’s a list.  I see daily Tweets about author meltdowns. I see links on my Facebook page. I hear about it from bloggers. I even did a little animated gif montage a while back so there’s nothing new here.  So what is the point of today’s blog post? I don’t know … all the author meltdown stuff is becoming like bad background noise because we’re hearing so much about it. How do you deal? Well, here’s a small guide to book review etiquette for authors who’ve just been published.

1) Suck It Up Sunshine

The Interweb is all about snark. It’s the currency of communication in social media these days. If you’re going to get a book published then dammit, someone is going to post a snarky review. So before you type off a please go fuck yourself letter to the blogger, take a deep breath and ask yourself a simple question: did you actually think you WEREN’T going to get a shitty review? Seriously? In this day and age where social media provides a daily smorgasbord of humans behaving badly? Come on … you have to be living underneath a rock not to expect someone to post a bad review featuring the this animated gif:

2: Smile and Nod Your Head:

Assuming you’ve read the crummy review, you have a choice to make at this point. Smile and nod your head and move on with your day or post something stupid on Twitter. Me? I vote for smiling and nodding your head because you’ve got no control over how others interpret your book. You can’t expect a reader to *see* what’s in your head in terms of your vision for the book. You can’t expect anything more than good reviews, bad reviews, and mediocre reviews.

3: Ask Yourself: Why Do I Write Books?

Nearly every person I’ve met who is trying to get published gives the stock answer as to their motivations for getting published: they want to hold a book they wrote in their hands or they want to see something they wrote on a shelf at their local big box bookstore. You can interpret this as either vanity or the book itself being a symbol of accomplishment because it’s so damned hard to get published. Jeebus, you have a better shot at winning the lottery than you do at getting published! And it’s because of the “against all odds” aspect of becoming published that shitty reviews can hurt like hell. So before you write a poison-filled blog post about a blogger who shit canned your book, take a damned good hard look in the mirror and ask why you write? For me, yeah there’s a vanity aspect. But in truth, the reason I write is because the very act of writing helps me deal with very deeply personal challenges that have shaped my life. That’s my motivation. For me, the act of creating a story helps me exorcise demons from my past, it helps me create a light at the end of the tunnel for myself. It gives me something to hope for. Look,  if you’re writing because you want universal affirmation that you don’t suck, my strong recommendation is to take up pottery because odds are that someone is going to flame your epic tome.

4: Social Media Sees All and Knows All

In an era where big brother is watching you … no, not the Orwellian big brother … I’m talking about the all-seeing eye of social media, you need to recognize that publishing a book is a public act in world that is linked to each other in ways that would make Marshall McLuhan’s head explode. Most of us are on social media in some capacity, so every word you write. Every inane thought you Tweet is subject to public scrutiny. And the power of social media … for an old guy like me, it’s truly staggering. Case in point: the terrible flooding in my hometown of Calgary. The power of social media has given a very human face to a disaster that is still currently unfolding. People live Tweet what they’re seeing, as it happens and holy mother of Moses, that’s just mind blowing to me. Given that social media is an unyielding juggernaut that can make you or break you, wouldn’t you rather it make you?

5: Go Write Another Book

See, that’s the best way to manage your feelings over a shitty review. You don’t know the person who wrote that review in the first place and writing a response is going to do what precisely? You honestly can’t expect to win that argument, can you? The reviewer is the dealer and they hold all the cards because like it or not, that review was their interpretation of your book. And yeah, I know there are reviews that make you go “did they even read the freaking book?” Whatever. Move on. Write something else. And if the review was a one-star e-arc snark special, of course you know that your publisher prrrrobably isn’t going to send that reviewer any other books written by you or anyone at that publishing house ever again, so chill. Relax. Have a cup of green tea with honey. Dig into your outline and write something that is freaking brilliant. Take your anger at the shitty review out on your protagonist … that’s what I do. Just write the damned book and get on with your life because twenty bucks says that reviewer has gotten on with their life the moment they clicked submit on Goodreads.

So there you have it. My five hard and fast rules for dealing with crummy reviews. You could swear off reviews all together and refuse to read them. I know authors who say they never read reviews and that’s cool. For me, I know that reviews are part of the package when you decide to see if you can get published. I know that what I write isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even though some of the reviews made me want to punch the reviewer’s lights out, I didn’t melt down. I did something else … I wrote another book.  Oh .. and one final thought. Most of your market isn’t on Goodreads. It isn’t blogging. It’s probably on Facebook and it might be on Twitter. It’s not part of the global book review community. It’s entirely possible that your shitty one-star review won’t be noticed by the vast majority of humanity because the vast majority of humanity still likes to go to the book store and browse before they buy. That might change in years to come and to date, I haven’t seen any empirical evidence that Amazon reviews are influencing book buyers. I could be wrong.

Keep writing, dammit!

PS – Be thankful you’re not George Lucas. Now THAT’S a guy who has been through the bad review meat grinder from hell.

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10 thoughts on “The Five Step Program for Book Review Etiquette

  1. This is charming, witty, funny, real, and most of all SENSIBLE. Thank you for writing this. Those bad reviews still hurt like hell, but dwelling on them serves no purpose except to make me doubt myself.

  2. jess

    All this is great. Good advice. I like to go to some of the books I love and read the one star reviews on there. That’s when I realize that people are stupid. I got a two star review yesterday and I’m still trying not to slit my wrists though. But that’s just me, I’m messed up.

      • jess

        It is. The price might be too high for me, however. You don’t know how these things are going to affect you until you do them and my health is suffering since I put my book up for sale. I wish I was the type of person who can handle it, and I thought I was but apparently I’m not. Most of my reviews have been great, but I’m considering taking the book down. Fighting a mental illness and dealing with everything that comes with the book at the same time has been excruciating, even though a lot of it has been wonderful and people have mostly loved it. I may have to take it down. It sucks.

  3. Brenda T

    I haven’t received a bad review- YET. And this may sound like I’m some kind of sick masochist, but I’m kind of looking forward to the day I get one. After all, aren’t artists and authors suppose to experience naysayers and such in order to grow????

    In all seriousness, though, THANK YOU. This was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve read to date.

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