The Book Review: Going on a Blind Date

beagle review

Let’s face it; reading a book is like going on a blind date. You’ve met oh-so briefly because the cover and synopsis looks intriguing, and now you’re going to see how well you get along. The first few chapters are akin to going to a bar to see if it’s worth it to invest in dinner and a movie. Then comes the inevitable question from your friends, “So…how was your date?”

How do you choose to respond? Hence…the review.

I look at book reviews with a bland eye…yes, even on my own books. Especially my own books. Then again, I learned from the school of hard knocks, and I’m grateful for the experience, oddly enough.

I’d asked a woman I’d long respected to read my book, believing that a huzzah from her – a well-known woman whose field is closely related to the topic of my novel – would give my book a lovely boost.

She hated it. No, that’s too kind. She LOATHED it. She detested everything about my plot, my characters, my dialog, probably the air I breathe, and the space I occupy.

To say that I was stunned is a gross understatement.But something really strange happened. When I wiped my chocolate-encrusted maw and sobered up, I took stock of my book and found that I still believed in it. As much as her rudeness stung, I had to ask myself if I thought it was a good book, and was her criticism valid. Hell yes, I did, and hell no, I did not.

And here’s why. Opinions are like the proverbial belly button – everybody has one, and no two are alike. Everyone reads with their own filters locked and loaded, so it only goes to reason that reviews take on different personalities.

A Throwaway Review

My reason for dismissing this woman’s opinion was that she didn’t give me anything concrete upon which I could improve. To simply say, “I hated your book and the very paper it was written on” is a throwaway statement because there’s no investment into the whys and hows. What was wrong with the plot? What was it about my characters that she hated? What was it about my dialog that she found objectionable? Does she just not like reading fiction? Gah!

Of course, she owed me no explanation, but they invariably accompany such strong opinions. When they don’t, then what can an author make of such a review other than to fold themselves into the fetal position and suck their gin-soaked thumb?

Best advice; dismiss it because there’s no useful information. The reader didn’t like it so unfold yourself, clean off your thumb, and move on.

Ulterior Motive Review

The thing about reviews is that they come in all colors and sometimes have all sorts of ulterior motives. The internet has afforded us the ability to say all kinds of terrible things under the guise of anonymity – things those same people wouldn’t have the guts to utter face to face.

  • I’ve seen horrible reviews of books because the reviewer has it in for the publisher, not the book.
  • I’ve also seen reviewers smash a book because they don’t like the author. Yes, this is your seventh grade nyah nyah review.
  • And I’ve seen scathing reviews from those who simply didn’t like the message. Controversial subjects collect these kinds of reviews all the time.

In all of these cases, the book is sort of the innocent bystander who got in the way of the bullet. It’s not about the book, per se, but some other element.

For example, one of our books received a few ulterior motive reviews because the subject matter was highly controversial, which is exactly what I loved about the book. But it brought out the haters. Since they didn’t like the issue, they were going to shoot the messenger – which really had zip to do with the book.

The telling thing about ulterior motive reviews is that few are fooled or convinced by them. Shrug your shoulders, move on, and hope the reviewer ups his meds or receives therapy very soon.

Book Review for Sport

We’ve all seen reviews that are written for sport. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re brilliantly written and take great delight in cutting the author and book down to bantha fodder, yet giving no real concern for helping. It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s all make fun of the crippled guy.” It’s shooting fish in a barrel, mean, nasty, and not at all meant to help, but to ridicule. In these cases, the reviewer is more in love with his own writing and aggrandizement than offering a valid, constructive review.

Use these reviews for bird cage liner.

The Constructive Review

Ah, in a perfect world, we get reviews that carefully analyze the good and not-so-good parts in a constructive manner that will give the author insight on how to improve as a writer. If they like or don’t like something, they give reasons as to why. These are written by thoughtful readers who don’t let their own prejudices get in the way of analyzing a book’s quality.

Years after publishing my book, I still remember a review that ferreted out some elements of my writing that I still apply today. And that’s what constructive reviews do. They make us better writers PROVIDED our egos are turned off and our ears and hearts are open. You live for those kinds of reviews. Embrace them – even when they point out the negatives. That’s how we learn, and there are no better teachers than our readers.

How to React

So we have all kinds of reviews, so how do we react to them? My advice? Don’t. Just. Don’t.

I’ve talked to many authors who, upon receiving a bad review, have blood-letting on their minds, and I always urge them to back away from the scimitar because they’ll only make themselves look foolish. We’ve all seen a few of the messy war of words between reviewers and well-known authors, and they make me wince.

Someone didn’t like your book. Big freaking deal. Yes, it stings, but that’s no reason to sacrifice your dignity. After reading the scathing review from my idol, I gulped down a huge breath of air, blew the smoke off my singed monitor, then grew a brass pair to write her back, thanking her for her time. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth, but it was the right thing to do. To invite her to make merry with a barnyard animal would have taken me to a new low, and I felt crappy enough.

Snapping back because you’re hurt will only damage your credibility, and it’s hard to get that back. You smile bravely, hold your head up, and grit your teeth. Your reader went on a blind date with your book, and didn’t get past the bar scene. It’s ok.

We can’t expect to please 100% of our readers, and if you encounter a less than stellar review, you’re better off taking a deep breath and  asking yourself whether you’re going to let it destroy you. Only you give yourself that permission, and it isn’t useful at all.

Here is one certainty; you will get a bad review or two. If you did, how did you react? Did it devastate you? What kind of a review was it? More importantly, what did you learn from the experience?

6 Responses to The Book Review: Going on a Blind Date

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I’ve read all of your information on your blog and appreciate your point of view in everything you write because it is honest and straightforward! Very much needed in the world today. Thanks again.

  2. John Allan says:

    Great advice! Particularly from an editor/publisher who is also an author. Reassuring to know that no one can escape a bad, or even a scathing – and unconstructive – review.

  3. If you want scathing reviews, write humor. Gah-d, did I have to thicken my skin fast. Humor is subjective, but if you don’t laugh at something, you don’t say, “well, it’s not my kind of humor.” You say, “I didn’t laugh, so it wasn’t funny.” Ergo, you’re not funny, you Big Loser Writer.

    Am I tempted to respond? Yes. Do I? No. The only time I’ve responded is a very positive review of one of my mysteries, that nitpicked at one little aspect of the story. It seems, for this reviewer, my 50-year old character and her boyfriend had just Too Much Sex. I responded that I agreed, but I couldn’t seem to stop them in the last book. I also promised to try to get the couple to dial it down for future books.

    On the other hand, I get comments from readers who say I need to add MORE sex. Perhaps I should release two versions, PG, and R-rated.

  4. Gayle, as always, you crack me up. I think it’s important for readers to critique thoughtfully. Being an ass gets an author nowhere, and doesn’t help readers decide whether to plunk down their scratch for the book.

    This is why editors drink heavily. And often.

  5. ericjbaker says:

    I did a post the other day about some writers who lost their motivation after taking a beating in a writer’s group. I asked, “How would you feel if you showed your novel to 100 people and only one person wanted a copy?” You’d be hurt.

    But what if that ratio stayed consistent, no matter how large the sample? In the United States alone, you could sell three million copies! In other words, focus on the people who like it, not the ones who don’t.

    As for the writers reaction to the bad review… you always win when you take the high road. People would rather like you than not, so stay classy and give them a reason.

  6. Excellent observations about a really touchy subject! Tweeted out.
    I was especially in agreement about the Sport Reviewer. They should all go for the longgg one…

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