Reviews. Love them, hate them, one thing is certain: as soon as you become a published author, they will become part of your life.
I can still recall, with clinical precision, the mixture of anticipation and dread I felt when I saw that I had my first review. Even now, six months on and counting, I hold my breath when I notice there’s a new one up on Amazon.
The main problem with reviews is that, no matter how many amazing ones you get, it’ll be the bad ones that stand out. You’ll forget the ones that praise the quality of the writing, the gripping plot or the the way the reader was touched by the characters’ dilemmas. Instead, the dismissive or just plain mean words of a one-star diatribe will flash like a neon billboard, telling you – and the whole world – that you can’t write, will never be able to write and should probably give up now, before everyone else realises what a great big fraud you really are.
There are ways, though, of keeping reviews in perspective, and even finding ways to utilise them as writing tools. It’s all about perspective.
The first thing is to make a resolution, way before publication date, to not obsess about them. Easier said than done, especially in the early weeks, but try not to check every day. Or every hour… Goodreads is known as a particularly harsh place for writers, partly because it’s a readers’ area. Avoid it unless you have the hide of a rhino. One writer I know gets her husband to check the overall ratings every now and then. Several never look. Some find them funny.
Share your hurt with a supportive group of fellow writers. Keeping a harsh review to yourself really encourages the poison to intensify. The words build up in a toxic cloud, and you feel that they are the only ones that are real, that this is how all of your readers actually feel. But everyone gets reviews like this, even top-rated, best-selling superstars. Even Shakespeare and Jane Austen. So stop thinking that the world hates you, share your hurt in a safe writers’ group, and enjoy the salve of everyone joining in with their own pet horrors. I’m part of the Prime Writers (https://theprimewriters.com), and some of our most enjoyable threads have been about one star reviews. So much so that, when I got my first one star, it was a moment of triumph. I’d joined the real writers, I had something to add to the discussion!
Bear in mind that it’s fine if someone doesn't like your book. I know it’s your baby, and you've poured your being into it, but do you like every book, in every genre? If I see a book that has nothing but five star, glowing responses, I'm a bit suspicious. I was actually glad to have a bit of a mix, it proves that it’s not just friends and family saying nice things to please you. And there’s nothing worse than listening to someone on Facebook moaning about a three-star review as if it’s a personal affront. The star system is a blunt tool at the best of times, but do try and keep in mind that three stars means ‘OK’.
If you've done your pre-publication groundwork, you’ll have sent proof copies to lots of bloggers, and to fellow writers. You may have reviews in newspapers or magazines, or a blog tour running as part of your publication build up. Keep a note of these reviews to look at on days when your confidence is low. I've got a page on my website with links to such sites. They help you remember that more people are positive than negative.
Never, ever engage with bad reviews. I'm not even sure that it’s the best idea to respond to good ones on forums such as Amazon and Goodreads. A thank you and a share if someone has posted a review on Facebook or Twitter is an absolute must, but as a reader, I don’t want to feel that the author is looking over my shoulder at every word I write. And you don’t ever want to be the person whose rant at how the world just doesn't understand them goes viral. Not cool. Not cool at all.
And finally, how to use reviews as a writing aid. If you've been involved in peer group reviewing during the writing process, you’ll know that, whilst you can ignore a criticism if it’s just one voice, it’s better to sit up and take notice if everyone is questioning the same plot point or character trait. I'm currently midway through writing my second novel. At a certain point in the plotting process, I had a read-through of reviews from both Amazon and Goodreads to see if there were comments and reactions I could take note of, in a positive way. On the whole, I ignored the ones about liking/not liking the characters, as they were all pretty subjective. But there was a common thread, which cropped up in the higher rated reviews as well as the more critical ones, saying the the opening pace was slow. A couple of readers were really put off by it, and a number said they stuck with it in spite of the slow pace but were glad they had. I'm not changing my whole writing style as a response to this, but I am bearing it in mind. Because why wouldn't I want to make my writing more readable?
Most of all, I'm grateful for the readers who take the time to review: it really makes a difference as I plug away at reaching my daily word count target. I'm thinking of starting up a campaign to get my local charity shops to put up a sign next to their ‘buy three books for a pound’ offers suggesting that a review would be a nice thing to follow up their purchase with. Because every little helps, after all.
Sarah Jasmon lives on a boat on the Leeds/Liverpool canal. She always knew she was going to be a writer but life got in the way until, just before her 40th birthday, she started an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Shortly after graduating she landed a two book deal with Transworld, and her debut novel The Summer of Secrets was published in August. She is currently working on book number two which, among other things, will feature a canal boat chase scene. Follow her on twitter here.