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Being Published 8: Reviews

This is the eighth in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here.

Longstanding book industry people and literary types will tell you that reviewing isn't what it used to be - which is true, of course, though no one's sure... correction, everyone's sure it's either worse, or better, and will argue furiously against the opposite opinion. Certainly the map has changed a lot in the last ten years or so - but writers haven't, so let's think first about the experience of being reviewed.

BEING REVIEWED

Remember the times you've adored a book, and a friend has said they found it a bit meh? Or vice versa? Reviewing is really just an embarrassingly public version of that - but unfortunately it's about your book.

It's one thing to have a piece torn to shreds (or have it feel that way) in a workshop - or to have someone in the family read your manuscript and say, "It was a bit boring. What's for supper?" And rejections by agents and publishers are no fun at all either - but until your book is out there in the world you do have some kind of reciprocal relationship with those who give opinions on your work. Even a publisher is looking for books, and at least thinks yours might interest them. Now anyone in the world can give an opinion, and many of then, often, break John Updike's Rules of Reviewing (though, by all accounts, so did he sometimes.) 

Which doesn't stop one wanting to do something about it, of course: to explain why you did the thing they say doesn't work; to correct misreadings or misperceptions; to argue that they're judging the book as something it was never trying to be; to tell them that "I haven't read it yet but the packaging was torn when it arrived so I'm giving it one star" will send your book's Amazon ranking plummeting without telling readers anything useful about the book.

So, how do you cope with reviews?

If you publish a book, then you are making it public - the clue is in the verb - and people have the right to say what they choose about it. No one has the right to go through life unoffended, and that includes you not being offended by reviews of your book. If you can't find ways to cope with that, don't publish a book.

Of course, good reviews are the absolute truth-from-on-high and you should glory in them. Above all, don't let your Inner Critic tell you that the good reviews are lies, or mistakes, and that really you're rubbish. Hold the IC off as long as you can. You've earned that good review, and you deserve it.

There is no shame in caring about reviews. It's called being human. There's a school of thought that you're not allowed to believe the good reviews, unless you're willing to believe the bad ones. I'm not convinced: both may be opportunities to learn, but creative people need to protect their sense that their creative work is worth it, and knowing that a reader has heard what you're doing, and responded positively makes that stronger. You're entitled to protect your creative self against things which say, more powerfully than you can handle, that your work isn't worth it.

There is no shame in not reading reviews. I rarely read Amazon reviews, and never Goodreads ones, and let my publisher wrangle any that are clearly malicious. I know of writers who don't read their print reviews either, but I'm not that strong-minded. The only way your interacting with reviews will affect your career is if you fight back against bad reviews - and I can guarantee the effect will not be one you want.

It is horribly easy to obsess about reviews, because when your book is out there, it's one of the few signals you get back that your message has been received, if not understood. It can be crack for procrastinators, too, or anyone else who's easily sucked into the Dark Playground. You could set up a Google Alert, which means you don't then have to keep trawling (trolling?) round all the places they might show up.

Remember that online reviewers may tag you in a review, without thinking about whether the review will sting or not. That is most likely to be just thoughtless or thick-skined, but don't forget that the bad things loom hugely to you, compared to the good things, and they may honestly think it's a good review you'll be pleased to see. Non-writer reviewers I get the feeling are particularly likely not to understand just how thin our skin is. So pour that gin before you click through.

I have a file on the computer, called "Cheerer-uppers", where I paste in the best bits of the best reviews: in the bad times, having that, and occasionally visiting it, helps me to remember that at least once, some people said such things about my writing, so it's not impossible that they will again.

And of course you are cherry-picking the best and putting them on your website. Don't let your Inner Critic get loose again while you're picking, and don't be shy - blow your own damn trumpet! You've earned the right.

I've borrowed my philosophy for coping with bad reviews from Somerset Maugham, who was a hugely successful playwright before he was a hugely successful writer of fiction. Asked if he was upset by bad reviews, he said, "Well, of course they spoil breakfast. But you'd be a fool to let them spoil lunch." I find this very wise: don't tell yourself you mustn't mind, because you do mind and that's OK. Pretending something doesn't really hurt actually perpetuates the pain, but if you acknowledge it, even sit with it over your elevenses, then you can move on from it, and enjoy your lunch.

And even if a review is good, be prepared to be a bit de-railed by it, creatively speaking: your work's been shown to you from the outside, and it's horribly easy, when you climb back into it, to find yourself making writing decisions in terms of getting (or avoiding) that kind of comment, for the new book. But that's like plonking magnets on the outside of your creative compass, so do your best to wrench them off again. Better still, take the day off and come back tomorrow.

As a debut author, I would say, you'd be unlucky to get a trulypoisonous review in a newspaper or magazine, because what's the point of a mag telling readers that a writer they've never heard of isn't worth reading? But it does happen - and there's not much you can do, although if a print or online magazine is really poisonous your publisher may be able to do something. On Amazon or Goodreads it's hard for a publisher to get anything taken down - though I hear Amazon are rather more helpful with self-publishing writers, Only if the review is libellous or threatening, or clearly offensive, or blantantly promoting another book, will they take notice of your complaint and maybe, eventually, do something about it.

Whether and how to respond to reviews.

I've asked a wide range of author and publishing industry friends about this, and the universal advice is: just don't.

Should you thank for good reviews? It used to be considered unprofessional, as it looks as if the reviewer is doing you a favour as a friend, not bringing their professional judgement on a book. FWIW, my instinct is still not to thank a reviewer publicly, though if I met them I might - or conceivably I'd email privately. But with the rise of blogs, forums and social media, the "community" of readers and writers have, to some extent, merged, so you might find it natural to respond to a review which feels more like part of the round of interaction with fellow writerly-readerly types.

But it still raises the spectre that the reviewer has pulled their punches because they know you, and that's never a good image for a writer. So, I would say, if in doubt still don't - although one writer friend suggests that thanking for the review (regardless of good or bad), and saying you're glad they enjoyed it if they did, can be a way to build connections with other writer-reviewers, provided you trust yourself to play nice in that arena.

Plot spoilers are an endlessly contentious issue, because you can argue that they'll deter readers from buying, now they know the end - or you can say that refusing to say anything that gives away the story creates a culture of blandness, and defend the reviewer's right to analyse and evoke a book fully, which may include giving things away. Online it's possible to get plot-spoilers taken down - print obviously not.

Fighting back at bad reviews never works out well: the chances of you coming over as anything other than one or other kind of unprofessional - whingy and defensive, or aggressive and defensive, or solipsistic and ignorant - are almost nil. Plus, all it does is perpetuate the visibility of the bad review. There really is no option except to pour the gin and rise above it. The review that is; staying under the surface of the gin is an option.

Factual corrections just might be different. I might respond, just possibly - in a letter to the editor or in the comments - to a review which took my book to task for not mentioning the Battle of Waterloo, when in fact the last third is set at the Battle of Waterloo. But let's face it: those of us who relish the Letters page of the TLS are enjoying a blood sport - and most of us don't fancy being the fox.

So even if a response seems actively necessary - which is very rare, in fiction at least - it's a wiser strategy to get someone else to tackle these things, especially when the error is less basic and straightforward. In one anecdote writer friend A has told me, there was a hugely unfair review of a book by writer B on Amazon; the origin of the hostility seemed to be a known personal antagonism between B and the reviewer C. Amazon wouldn't of course take it down for that reason, but my friend A proved to Amazon that the reviewer C couldn't actually have read the book, and they did take it down. 

If you do want to learn from reviews, I suggest treating them like any other feedback; even when something's said in print, you're wholly entitled to chose whether to accept, adapt, or ignore it. I can't say I've ever changed a word of my writing because of a reviewer, though, and I don't know many published writers who would said they have - though in the long term you might use the totality of review responses as a steer in what projects to tackle or avoid in future.

Remember that a large part of the uses of a review for you is plucking out quotes for your website, social media, and the cover and "prelims" - before-the-text-starts pages - of the paperback; there are very often some useful soundbites even in an otherwise unenthusiastic review. Though it's very frustrating in reverse, when a lovely review has no snappy phrases you can easily pick out.

Remember that we are, most of us, super-thin-skinned. When the opening paragraphs of a review are unpromising, I tend to go blind to the positives that follow, and log it in my head as a bad review; I'm then startled when people say it was a good one. So: deep breaths, gin, and read it again next week.

Remember that reviewers are human: professional reviewers these days are very badly paid, and the serious non-professional ones still have the pressures of getting a review up on their blog every damn' day: to err is human, but if you can forgive, that's divine.

How do you cope with not getting reviews?

First, long before the book comes out, update and manage your expectations, both in terms of where reviewing happens these days, and in terms of the numbers of books trying to get a place in them

When the book has joined the party and no one, it seems, has even seen it walk into the room, try to remember that you are not alone and need not take this personally.... imagine yourself in a large bookshop, and see just how many books there are on the front tables, relative to just how many books there are on the Books page of a magazine or newspaper read by your readership. It's not cheering to find oneself one of the overlooked crowd but it doesn't mean you've written a bad book. Really it doesn't.

Remember that although the traditional reviewing places have shrunk drastically, the online outlets are infinitely expandable, and may be worth pursuing even later on, as part of the community of readers rather than the endless mainstream media "Ooh, look, squirrel" mentality that chases after each new thing.

This might be time to up your involvement with the reading/reviewing circuits on social media. Try to be

  • out and about in lots of booky-writerly places
  • re-tweet, re-blog, post tasty stuff as part of being involved. 
  • be chatty (not pushy) about your writing only at decent intervals among being chatty about others' writing. One of yours to 10 of others' is a good ratioL it's all about interaction, not one-way broadcasting
  • offer to write articles and blog-posts in and around your book's themes and topics.
  • pounce on anniversaries, news topics and other conversations, as reasons for those, and join in the conversations. Again: 10:1 is a good ratio.

How reviewing works

I talked in Being Published 5 about how a publicist goes about getting reviews using physical books and NetGalley, so I won't go on about the mechanics here. But one of the things which has definitely changed, since your granny was startled to see the Times Literary Supplement actually naming its reviewers, is how many places may now publish opinions about your book for the world to read. So here's a very quick run-down:

Newspapers: Increasingly books come under the general arts editor who herself has fewer and fewer pages to play with. By the time they've reviewed the big books by the big names, it's very difficult to squeeze in anyone else and your best hope is probably in the weekly or monthly round-up of debut fiction, or books in a certain genre. 

Online newspapers: there's more space online than in physical paper, and my impression (I'm not a media guru so could be wrong) is that increasingly even the major physical newspapers treat their Online twin as a separate entity. Equally, it should be said, if your book is reviewed in, say, the paper's Saturday magazine, it may not be online at all, as This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin was reviewed in the Mail on Sunday's listings mag Event. The MoS has a huge circulation, but the mag isn't online; all we could do is take a snap, and make the most of it on my website, social media, and Amazon pages.

Newstand Magazines: All of these will have a ruthlessly clear notion of what their readership wants, and also what the mix of each issue will be, so it's always chancey, however shrewd you or your publicist is in their targetting them. But the figures can be to die for: I have a vague memory that Good Housekeeping, which is Britain's biggest-selling glossy, reckons to average three readers for each of the 450,000 copies it definitely sells. By comparison, the weekly Grazia is 100,000, I see and The Spectator is similar.

Literary Magazines: the behemoths of this category include the TLS and London Review of Books, plus monthlies such as The Literary Review as well as a flock of smaller magazines and some oriented towards writers, such as Mslexia. The website may well have some of the reviews in full - hooray if yours is one - though the print version will have the full set.

E-zines: in the nature of things these are more fluid and hard-to-pin-down, but anything, anywhere, that wants readers must decide what readers it wants, and go for them ruthlessly, without blurring the message of what it offers. Be ruthless in your turn about researching who to target.

Book blogs: the big book blogs command huge readerships, and their owners are hugely experienced reviewers, unconstrained by space and without an editor breathing down their neck. Many have a policy that they won't post a review if they basically didn't like a book; some will be careful to say whether they were sent a copy for review or bought it, as a measure of their independence. Best place to find them is hanging out on social media, following up followers, and looking at the "blog-rolls" on the blog for where they link to. 

NetGalley: where books are posted pre-publication, for reviewers to download. It is important, but let your publisher wrangle it.

Amazon: the fundamental online place. Amazon sell products, which happen to be books, but we can no more do without it than hotels can do without Trip Advisor. Don't Go There is popular advice among writers.

Goodreads: looks a bit like Amazon - and is owned by it - but there's a strong sense among its users that it's for readers, not writers. Readers want to kick back, talk and opine without feeling that an author is looking over their shoulder, and they can take very badly indeed to an author who potters in, however innocently, and tries to join in the conversation. And heaven help you if you try to fight back against bad reviews!

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