Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest Post: Four Ways to Handle Negative Reviews by L. Joseph Shosty

Four Reasons Why You Shouldn't Let Yourself Get Ruffled Up By Bad Reviews

Indie published Author L. Joseph Shosty opens up about his experience with negative reviews, how he's learned to handle them and the advice he would give to fellow authors.

More advice exists for coping with and combatting rejection than probably any other subject concerning the craft of writing.  Once, articles with titles such as “Ten Ways to Survive That Rejection Letter” or “How to Write Characters That Defy Rejection!” were prevalent in industry magazines.  Other topics, such as how to write or even how to edit, were overshadowed by what can really only be called a subculture, one that was about accepting and overcoming being told no.  Why?  Because, statistically speaking, the sheer number of would-be writers out there who never saw print, and would eventually give up, were far in excess of those who would eventually be published.

Today, things are different.  Print-on-demand, self-publishing, and e-publishing have opened up dozens of new doors.  More people are seeing print than ever before.  The ratio of the eternally rejected to published authors is more balanced.  Virtually anyone can see print, in fact.  It’s not so much a question of if you’ll get published, it’s a matter of when and in what form you’ll do it.

This, however, presents a brand new problem for writers.  The Internet, which has been the driving force behind the new wave of publishing, has also bridged the gap between author and reader so keenly that virtually no distance between the two remains.  Feedback now comes at the speed of light, and readers are obliged to become critics.  Online booksellers encourage readers to rate and review books on their websites, in fact.  Bloggers regularly review books as part of their routine.  Some sites, in fact, are totally devoted to book reviews.  And of course, you have online book lover communities, like Shelfari and Goodreads, which use social media to connect readers like never before.  This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it’s not.  So, where, do you ask, is the problem?

The problem exists with the writer.  Most of the advice out there, as I’ve said, is about how to handle rejection.  Little is said, however, about what happens after you’ve punched through the editorial wall and gotten your work out there for public consumption.  What happens when you get a bad review?  What does getting a bad review mean?  How do you cope?  This article will hopefully answer some of those questions. 

It’s better to be professional and demonstrate an ethical backbone.  A critic has just raked your book over the proverbial coals.  You’ve gotten three one-star ratings on Goodreads with absolutely no explanation from those who rated you.  You’re upset and frustrated.  You’ve poured everything into this book, and now people are practically wiping their backsides with whole chapters.  When this happens, you’ve got to keep your cool.  I’d like to be like other writers and tell you a bad review is not personal, but we both know better.  Your book is an extension of you.  Every writer puts a little of himself in the things he writes.  There’s a reason why we refer to our stories as babies.  We create them, we nurture them, and we send them out into the world.  If someone doesn’t like our baby, we take offense.  I’m not saying don’t get angry or upset.  That would be telling you to go against human nature itself.  No, I’m saying stay professional.

Professionalism is like currency for writers, currency that can win them both fans and the esteem of others in the industry.  Editors and publishers whisper amongst themselves, talking about who is impressing them and who is an utter crackpot.  They also look carefully at a writer’s public persona and weigh it when considering whether or not to publish that writer’s work.  Will the writer treat people with respect and dignity, thus bolstering the publisher’s image in the process, or will the writer engage in online flame wars and otherwise stir up trouble?  Though a writer’s personality and sense of dignity are indeed small factors compared to skill and execution, with such things being equal, the smart money will always fall with the writer who can keep his cool and represent both himself and his publishing house in a positive fashion.

What does this mean?  It means don’t lash out at the critic.  Don’t stalk them or send angry emails.  If the review is posted to a site like Goodreads or Amazon, don’t get your friends or family to write glowing reviews to counterbalance the bad.  Similarly, don’t get others to rate your books.  Don’t ghost review or rate your own, either.  You should never be doing this, anyway; it’s highly unethical.  Such things skew results artificially in your favor and it looks tacky.  Personally, if I see a writer has rated his own book, I don’t buy anything he’s written.  Check out a few online discussion groups, and you’ll see I’m not the only one.

There’s no such thing as bad press.  A review, good or bad, gets your name out there.  It gets a discussion rolling.  The more press your book gets, the longer its shelf life.  It also doesn’t hurt to have good and bad reviews for a book.  It shows that people are reading and really thinking about what you’ve written.  Tons of positive-only reviews start to feel like a marketing strategy and can turn off some readers.  On the other hand, online arguments between two people with conflicting viewpoints are pure gold.  The point is that every time you are mentioned by anyone else, in either a good way or a bad way, you have just gained the chance to move another copy and perhaps create a new fan.  I know by now its a tired cliché, but take the Twilight books as an example.  The people who hate these books are legion, yet Stephanie Meyer continues to laugh all the way to the bank.  Why?  Because what the people who hate the books (and who subsequently wish they would magically go away) don’t understand is, every time they utter “I hate sparkly vampires” or some such, they are keeping the conversation alive.  You’re probably no Stephanie Meyer in terms of book sales, but the same rules apply to your body of work.

And for indie authors who have to do most of their promoting by themselves, I recommend you look for sites that post reviews not only to multiple sites, but also look for the ones that publish honest reviews.  No matter what these critics might say, the fact they’re circulating your name and your book will help you immeasurably.

Critics are both human and busy.  Most critics only read a book once before writing a review.  That means most of the subsequent analysis is based on a visceral reaction to the book’s content.  Much of the subtler elements, like metaphor, allusion, and parallelism, are often lost on an overworked, harried, and otherwise very human critic.  It’s hard for anyone to pick up on or even care that your steampunk novel makes frequent reference to Ivanhoe, especially when there’s a deadline to meet, a sick child to drive to the doctor, dinner to cook, and laundry to fold.  Many critics, especially those with websites like TeAmNeRd ReViEwS, are inundated with books to read, and they must analyze as many as possible, as quickly as possible, all the while keeping their personal lives afloat.  It’s impossible for them to give you the kind of in-depth look that you might want.  That sort of analysis falls to scholars who may one day write papers about you.  Critics have another job, and that’s to tell people what they think about a book, not fuss over its minutiae.  Cut them some slack, and if in missing your central point they also misunderstand your book and give it bad marks, remember that they’re only human.  You would want that kind of consideration if the roles were reversed, right?  Right.

Bad reviews can be helpful.  On the occasions that you receive a detailed accounting of what a person found was at a fault in your work, don’t dismiss them out of hand.  That does you no good.  This person has taken the time to fully critique your work.  Do them the same courtesy and read what they’ve written with an eye toward improving your technique.
I’ll give you an example from my own experience.  I recently had a story appear in a themed anthology about doomed love.  Following some initial glowing reviews, two followed which broke down the anthology story by story.  Mine received a similar criticism each time, which was that my story ended too abruptly and lacked a proper plot arc.  I was a little upset for being singled out for criticism.  The hurt stayed with me until an editor who I greatly respect sent me a request for a rewrite.  In the request he told me the end of the story felt rushed, saying that the final two pages read like Walter Winchell narrating a rapid-fire denouement after Elliot Ness and his Untouchables had taken out the gangster of the week.

I might have simply fixed the problem with the manuscript and sent it back to my editor without giving it another thought, but the two previous reviews had stuck with me.  If the arc problem had occurred in two stories, I reasoned, it might have occurred in others as well.  I went back through my work and found no less than six other stories with the same problem, and fixed them.  If I hadn’t been paying attention to my critics, however, there is a good chance I would not have noticed.

I stand by these four ideas, and they’ve served me well in my career.  They keep me out of trouble, they keep me focused and forgiving, and they make me mindful towards improving as a writer.  If I could add anything else, it would be deep, cleansing breaths.  A bad review is still going to get your goat, from time to time.  When that happens, take a step back, breathe, and get over it.  Remember that the storyteller is one of the oldest and most venerated roles in society.  Without distraction, without clever turns of phrase to make us dream, mankind would never have accomplished what it has.  You are doing what our ancestors have done for millennia, and you’re getting paid to do it, no less.  It’s difficult for me to get angry when I remember that I’m making money telling lies.  Once you’ve got that kind of perspective, the wind doesn’t blow so fiercely anymore.  I hope you’ll come to the same conclusion.  And if you still don’t like folks having bad things to say about what you’ve written, try deafening silence.  Let your latest masterpiece hit the shelves to total critical indifference, and, after a few weeks, you will go looking for people who hate you with the desperate hope that they’ll hurl rotten vegetables at your head and chase you with pitchforks and torches.

About the Author: L. Joseph Shosty was born in Texas City, Texas to working-class parents who divorced when he was still an infant. He spent the better part of his childhood moving from place to place, living in various parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee before finally settling in Winnie, Texas, a farming community seventy miles from Houston. He wrote his first story when he was three, but it wasn't until he was in teens that he realized his passion for storytelling could ever become a profession. He sold his first short story in 1998, and soon began amassing a following on the Internet. When his first story collection, Hoodwinks on a Crumbling Fence, was a disaster, he quit writing, intending never to publish another word again. He made good on this promise until the birth of his son, William, in 2008 prompted him to give it another try.

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