As I noted in Part 1 of this topic, writers need a thick skin in order to handle the inevitable rejection that occurs as they submit their writing for publication.
Here, in Part 2, I want to discuss the entirely opposite reason that we need thick skin — dealing with the results of being accepted for publication: the inevitable reviews.
(The following is excerpted from my book Pathway to Publication, now available from Amazon.)
Be prepared for negative reviews
I’m going to burst your bubble, but only a little bit. I’m going to warn you about the perils of publication. Granted, this was your goal. But I want to make sure you’re prepared with a thick skin for the reviews of your book—maybe not in major publications, but everywhere that readers go. On blogs. On book reviewing websites. On Goodreads. On Amazon. And even when you write articles or blogs, be ready for folks to chime in wherever they can.
When your book is published, folks will read it and give their opinions. You may receive some five-star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. You may receive some one-star reviews. Some readers will say yours is one of the best books they’ve ever read. Others will say your book wasted their time, and they didn’t finish reading it.
Be ready for both types of reviews. Take them at face value, realizing that never has any book pleased everyone. It always amazes me—the vast variety of comments and how a book can resonate with some people and be completely disliked by others.
I’ve started going to the Goodreads site online every time I finish a book, first to put it on my virtual shelves to keep track of what I’ve read, then to settle in and look for one-star reviews. Sometimes I have to scroll a bit, and sometimes they are waiting for me on the first page. I want to understand what makes people dislike a book. Sometimes the reviews help me pinpoint a niggling concern I had as I was reading—something I couldn’t quite put into words. Other times, it seems that readers are looking for something to complain about.
Some authors say that you shouldn’t read your reviews at all, for those very reasons.
But, let’s face it. You will.
When you see these reviews, you can’t do anything. These aren’t critique readers or your editor commenting. You can’t make changes. These are readers of your published work putting their opinions out in the world for all to see.
Take everything in stride. Remember that you can’t please everyone. Don’t take the one-star reviews so deeply to heart that you decide never to write again because you’re a failure. But, at the same time, don’t take the five-star reviews so deeply to heart that you decide never to write again because you can’t possibly do another book that would be as good. And if you do get many five-star reviews, stay humble.
Reviews are reviews. When you get hit with a one-star review (and you most likely will), don’t engage, go to battle, or try to change their mind. They read it, they didn’t like it, end of story. Move on. Some people just won’t get what you were trying to say or do in your book.
The problem is that no matter how many encouraging four- or five-star reviews you may get, it is those one- or two-star reviews that will keep you up at night, doubting yourself.
To make yourself feel better, choose a couple of favorite books you’ve read recently (choose some that are fairly new—not a classic from the 1800s).
Go to Goodreads or Amazon. Type in the title, find the book, and read the reviews. Read some five-star reviews (yay! They agree with you!). Now read some one- or two-star reviews (boo! They hated the writing, the metaphors, the characters, the plot, whatever).
Now realize that if your favorite book has such a variety of reviews, surely you are in good company.
Your best defense is to keep marketing your book and engaging with the folks who liked it—they are your audience, and they surely know others who will also like the book. And don’t be ashamed to ask for a positive review from them.
But don’t ASK for trouble
Here is where I get concerned and want to offer a warning. What you don’t want to happen is for your book to get legitimate negative reviews. What I mean is don’t be in such a hurry to self-publish (for instance) that you don’t have your book edited or proofread. If reviewers comment on typos and poor writing, that’s on you. Another issue would be rushing a book to press without fact checking or consideration of truthfulness. Seems obvious, right? Well, here is my plea to be careful and not to count on your editors to catch everything.
I never really thought about this until I finished reading Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. From the cover, it sounded like a lovely read about a man seeking to make a difference in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s by building schools in remote villages. It topped The New York Times bestseller list for three years, so it must be good, right?
Well, not so much. It was an okay read. I didn’t love it, although I found it inspiring.
I finished the book, went to Goodreads to do my thing, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading review after review, which led me to article after article. The reviews, many of them glowing at first about the topic of the book (although many didn’t like the writing) turned negative after flaws and inconsistencies in the book began to be pointed out. Then in 2011, the 60 Minutes TV show did an exposé about parts of the book that had been allegedly fabricated, along with alleged mismanagement of funds by Mortensen’s nonprofit. Some articles and blogs vilified the book and the authors. Others pointed out the great work Mortensen had done in the region in spite of those lapses in judgment.
All that to say, sadly, the hard work of the book has given rise to questions and lawsuits. What was the motivation for the material that was not factual—such as the story of getting lost coming down from a failed attempt to summit K2 and crossing a bridge to a village (a bridge that did not exist at the time)? This story in the book’s opening provides the impetus for the remainder of the book. So, having that story’s facts on the first pages challenged called into question the rest of the book.
The author recounts another story of visiting Mother Teresa’s charity just after her death and his thoughts as he was able to sit quietly with her body. Problem is, the author says he was there in 2000, but Mother Teresa died in 1997 (not difficult to fact check). And none of the book’s editors caught it.
Mortensen said in interviews that various details had to be conflated to get the millions of original words down to the workable and publishable amount. Perhaps it was just faulty memory, or editing gone awry, or running stories together to keep the narrative moving. I don’t know. I just know that as I read beyond the whiny reviews by people who didn’t like the writing style and got to these very problematic issues that took down the author’s reputation, I felt terribly sad.
Be cautious with what you put into the world
This is merely a cautionary tale. In your rush to get your book out there, don’t skip the important steps because, trust me, you won’t get away with it. Don’t publish a book that hasn’t been vetted, edited, copyedited, fact-checked, and proofread. Make sure it is truthful and represents writing you’re proud of.
Then, when the inevitable nay-sayers don’t like your book, their reasons will be from their own particular tastes versus legitimate concerns. But in the process, you can stand behind your work with no apologies or backtracking.
The experience of getting published is like nothing else! But as you trek along the pathway to publication, take your time, be careful, do it right. Your moment at the mountaintop will be the better for it.
Copy taken from Linda K. Taylor, Pathway to Publication (Friendswood, TX: Bold Vision Books), March 24, 2023, pp. 211-215.