Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Salt in Wound, or Grain of Salt?

by Chris F. Holm

I'd love to tell you I don't read my own reviews, but alas, that ship has sailed. Just last post, I referenced an Amazon reviewer who called my debut novel "dreadful." (He actually called it "fairly dreadful" and gave it two stars, which I suppose is slightly better than all-the-way dreadful, but I digress.) So yeah, I'll cop to reading my reviews.

Now that my books have been out a while I've mellowed some, but early on I read them compulsively. When DEAD HARVEST first came out, I'd google daily for new reviews, and lurk on Amazon and Goodreads too, so desperate was I to find out whether folks enjoyed it. I was fortunate; most did. To this day (knocks wood, makes sign of cross, spins around three times and spits) I've not gotten a single negative review from a reputable publication, and my batting average with regard to reader reviews ain't half bad, either. But, as the kids these days almost certainly don't actually say, haters gonna hate, and occasionally, one of 'em would drop an internet bomb on my fragile good cheer. I'd skulk around for days, cursing up a blue streak and muttering random snippets of the offending nastygram to myself while I shook my head in disbelief.

Did I want to comment? To argue? To sic my friends and family on them until they crawled back under whatever bridge they had emerged from, poison pen in hand? Hell yes, I did. Until, that is, I learned two tried-and-true methods for beating back the urge. And because I like you all so much, dear readers, I will share those methods with you today.

Method the First

Think back on the last great book you read. Remember how it made your heart soar? Your pulse pound? How it restored your faith in humanity and sparked anew your love for the written word? Good. Now:

  1. Go to Goodreads. Don't worry; you don't need an account.
  2. Search for the book in question.
  3. Hover over "filter," and click on "1-star."
  4. Read, fume, and realize there are people out there who will hate anything. Then tell yourself the idiot who slagged your book probably would have done the same to this one, had they read it. (Is it true? Who knows? Who cares?)

Method the Second

I know I keep bringing up Amazon and Goodreads, the reason being they account for the vast majority of the reader reviews on the internet. But this method can just as easily be adapted to any reviewer, whether amateur or professional.

  1. Open the offending review in your web browser of choice. (If it's a print review, you can still play along, but you'll need back issues of the publication in question. I'll leave you to figure out the details.)
  2. Is the reviewer's name hyperlinked? If so, click on it. If not, you'll have to resort to Google.
  3. Read through their reviews until you find something that demonstrates their execrable taste and makes you feel better.

This one sounds wishy-washy, I know, but I assure you, it works. For one, people who take the time to write a bad review tend to review tons of stuff. For two, your work is brilliant (right?), so clearly, they must be no-taste-having troglodytes who wouldn't know a decent book if you beat them about the head and neck with it. Don't believe me? Here's a couple real-life examples:

The author of DEAD HARVEST's sole one-star Amazon review doled out a rare five-star review for the Farrelly brothers' new Three Stooges flick. If that's his benchmark for perfection, no wonder I missed by a mile.

My most virulent Goodreads detractor also gave one star to, amongst other things, ROMEO AND JULIET and ENDER'S GAME. WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and (I shit you not) THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK fared slightly better at two stars. (Aside: what kind of soulless monster gives THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK two stars?!)

Reading all this, you might ask yourself, "If you need elaborate coping mechanisms to deal with bad reviews, why bother reading reviews at all?" To which I say this: every once and a while, you come across a review from someone who doesn't just love your book, they really, truly get it, too.

It's those ones, not the bad reviews, I comment on: a quick email or a tweet by way of thanks. Because letting someone you've never met inside your head only to have them feel instantly at home is a rare sort of magic indeed. Believe me when I tell you, it's worth every howler sent your way.


Kristopher said...

I completely agree Chris.

As a reviewer, when I am writing a review, I KNOW if I really connected with a book or just enjoyed it.

That connection (really getting in to the author's mind) is rare, but when it happens it is magic.

When I started my blog, I decided right from the get-go that I would not post negative reviews. For me, I think that EVERY book has a reader out there and I am just not in the business of steering people away from a book they might love.

Like my Mother always said (most of our Mothers I suspect), if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all.

There are plenty of books that I don't enjoy, but I just don't mention them on the blog.

I think that more and more readers are looking for review sources OTHER than Amazon and Goodreads for just that reason - trying to avoid negative feedback that might not be critical/honest feedback. But as you say, those still account for the vast majority of reader reviews, so we need to get back to teaching people manners.

Chris said...

Thanks for the comment, Kristopher!

It should be said that a thoughtful, respectful negative review from a trusted source has saved many a reader/viewer/listener from spending time and money on lousy entertainment. But that's a world away from folks who tear down stuff for sport. As Harry Truman once asked, "Why is it only sons of bitches know how to lick a stamp?"

Steve Weddle said...

You can also use Google image search to find awful pictures of the reviewer. This also works, I've found, on authors who have signed huge deals or landed movie contracts or whatever.

Also, if it's an Amazon review, click on the reviewer and check out his/her Wish List On Amazon. These are hilarious.

"You slagged my book but you've put this atrocious SPANISH CHEESE GRATER on your wish list? You are a horrible and pathetic person and your opinion no longer matters."

Chris said...

You kid, Steve, but one of my lousy Amazon reviews came from a guy who'd only reviewed three things, all poorly: my short collection, a coffee maker, and The Iliad.

Kristopher said...

I agree that a thoughtful negative review that has constructive criticism can be beneficial to an author willing to learn and grow.

For me, that is still better handled one on one or via e-mail with an author and not really in a full negative review.

Negative comments in a mostly positive review are another matter. That's fair game I think and perfectly acceptable, assuming they are coming from an honest place (not personal bias or jealousy).

Bill Cameron said...

Well, Chris, I think we all know the truth about The Iliad. (Someone, please, tell me the truth about The Iliad.)

I've gotten pretty good about not reading reviews anymore. Still, sometimes I stumble across one by accident, and then there's usually a lot of weeping and the devouring of ice cream, usually in a dark room with Evanescence playing at high volume.

My favorites are the 1 star reviews by people who obviously haven't read the book but are trying to sound like they did. One Amazon reviewer said of Chasing Smoke, "This guy hasn't a clue to PDX's underworld." While that statement is technically true, it's irrelevant. CS which isn't about Portland's underworld. LULz for me.

Yesterday, by chance, I happened to notice my three favorite all time reviews of my own stuff, and it turns out they were at the top of the MOST HELPFUL list of reviews at BN for the work in question. You can see a screenie of them here:


Chris said...

That's the funny thing about reader reviews, Bill: they're allowed to bring any baggage they want, up to and including having never read your book because the title, subject matter, and/or price-point bugged 'em. And who in this day and age has the hubris to think anyone gives a crap how much they liked an ancient epic poem?

Reece said...

Great post, Chris. One of the first reviews I got on Amazon was a one-star from someone who didn't seem to like anything. Because I didn't have many nice reviews yet to balance it out, I had a momentary first-time-author freakout. Sounds like the same guy or one of his trollish cousins.

Chris said...

Thanks, Reece! Yeah, you touched on the real secret to getting over bad reviews: getting good ones. When those first early reviews come rolling in, they seem outsized in their importance, simply because there are so few of them.

David Cranmer said...

A myopic dimwit gave 1-star to BEAT to a PULP: Hardboiled 2 because he didn’t like the cover. He declared he was boycotting the feminist offering (hadn’t read it!) and invited others to join in. I spent a solid week on Twitter/Blogger mentioning I was being boycotted and it helped with sales. Maybe I should send him a thank you. No. I like to bring attention to the bad reviews but I won't go mano a mano with the lame brain reviewer. Many writers who do find out quick you can’t have a meaningful dialogue with a rock and it can, kinda sorta, make you look desperate. Though, that being said, I enjoy when Todd Robinson flattens a bug.

Chris said...

That's ridiculous, David! Glad his crap review backfired. I've been lobbying for years to get my work banned so I can boost my sales, but so far, no dice.

Kristopher said...

Which brings us to the question of:

What is the value of a starred rating system?

I much prefer (and thus, write) reviews that contain an analysis of the book, comments about the strengths in the book, and advice on what type of reader might enjoy the book.

4 stars vs. 2 stars just doesn't really tell me anything concrete.

(I suspect if those 1 star reviewers on Amazon actually had to write something concrete in their review, they might be less inclined to start the process.)