One of the questions I’m often asked is “How do you deal with reviews?” And the answer is, “I try not to read them,” but that’s actually a little facile. I read the professional reviews–print and online–but the drive-by reviews on Amazon and some of the other internet sites, no. I rarely get any useful feedback from them that I can use to improve my writing and I can’t quote them for PR purposes, so why go there and get depressed because some sadist has decided to improve his or her shining hour by trashing my work? You don’t have to read everything everybody says about your book.
But the ones that you can quote for PR purposes, you have to read. So how do you read your reviews with a minimum of stress? [Note: Because I got tired of typing “him or her” and there’ll be snowcones in hell before I use “they” as a singular pronoun, for the purposes of this essay the reviewer will now be a “she.” Because, that’s why.]
Where was I? Right, how do you survive your reviews?
You follow Crusie’s Four Steps to Reading Your Reviews:
1. Take a deep breath and chant the mantra.
The mantra is, “This is one person’s opinion.” Because it comes with the weight of Publisher’s Weekly or the Washington Post, it feels as though all of publishing or all of Washington wrote the review, but actually, it’s just one person. You don’t know this person. You don’t know if this person likes the kind of book you write. You don’t know if this person is even reading the book you wrote; if he or she likes mystery and you wrote a caper book, that reviewer may be looking for things that aren’t in your book and saying, “This fails because the mystery is never solved,” even though it’s not a mystery. Or the reviewer could be somebody with so little imagination and understanding that you wouldn’t have lunch with her. The reviewer could be the kind of person who kicks puppies. You don’t know. What you do know is that everybody in publishing did not write the Kirkus review. Just one person. Probably not God. Don’t invest that review with more power than it has. It’s One Person’s Opinion.
2. Ask yourself “What can we learn from this, Dorothy?”
Read the review to see if the reviewer understood the book, if she is reviewing the book you wrote, and then if that’s the case, look at what she is saying closely. A well-written, thoughtful review can improve your writing by pointing out things that people who love your work can’t see because they don’t have the distance. A good reviewer is worth her weight in gold so pay attention when you find one, even if she’s saying your baby is ugly. It’s never too late to learn since there’s always another book to write.
3. Find the quote.
The first rule about pulling quotes is that you have to play fair. If the review says, “This tried hard but in the end it wasn’t a fun read,” you can’t put “A Fun Read!” on the cover. You can put “Tried Hard!” but somehow, it’s not the same. The second rule is that you have to pull the quotes that sell the book. While “a fast-paced mystery” is not a bad quote, if the reviewer misread the book and it’s not a mystery, you’re going to want to stay with just “fast-paced” on that one. And since “fast-paced” is not always a good thing, you might want to think about that one, too. You want the quote to evoke the book you wrote so that the right reader picks it up.
4. Do not, under any circumstances, write the reviewer.
Never, no matter what the reviewer said, respond to a review. Even if you’re pacing the floor and muttering, tell it to the cat, not the review publication. Even if you’re really, really justified, even if the reviewer is clearly out to lunch, DO NOT WRITE BACK. You cannot win, the reviewer is not going to re-publish a review that says, “My God, i was completely wrong but now I have seen the light!” and you will look like a whiner. Don’t do it.
So as an example of the four steps
1. This is only one reviewer. Deep breath. Read the review:
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes
Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer and Anne Stuart. St. Martin’s, $7.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-312-94098-0
For years, the three orphaned Fortune sisters, each endowed with a different magical ability, have been on the run from their evil aunt Xan. Dee, the oldest, is their shape-shifting protector; sullen middle child Lizzie has transmutative abilities (her latest aim is turning straw into gold); and self-satisfied Mare can move things with her mind. Aunt Xan, up to old tricks, uses a spell to send each girl her one true love-but if the sisters fall for these paramours, Xan will get her hands on their powers. What Xan doesn’t count on is that the girls are wise to the plot and determined to beat their aunt at her own game. Unfortunately, the three novellas that spring from this solid premise are hobbled by too many characters (three sisters, three love interests, one freaky aunt) and too little space. As a result, exposition crowds out the story, giving each a rushed feel and a jarring conclusion. Despite the book’s faults, it makes an enjoyable read; one hopes the authors’ next collaboration will be on a single, full-length novel-or better yet, three of them. (July)
2. What can I learn from this, Dorothy?
Not a whole lot. Seven characters is actually a small cast for me (I usually end up with about seventeen). As for exposition, I’m rabid about cutting it, so that’s no help. Okay so . . .
3. What can I quote?
“An enjoyable read.” Except I’m not sure that’s even legit because . . .
Wait a minute. Let me get that fourth one in place.
4. Do not write Publishers Weekly, do not write Publishers Weekly, do not write Publishers Weekly . . .
I think the “enjoyable read” may be false advertising since I do not see how the reviewer could have read the novel and still think it was three separate novellas. Those of you who’ve been following along on The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes blog know it’s a collaborative novel, those of you who’ve read the first chapter over there can clearly see that it’s a novel, and while I’m trying to give this reviewer the benefit of the doubt, I really can’t see how she came to the conclusion that UMF was a novella anthology. Even skimming, she’d have noticed that it was a novel, don’t you think?
But I will not write Publishers Weekly and say, “I don’t think your reviewer read the novel.” That would be dumb, even though SMP has gone crazy trying to get across the message that three names on the cover does not automatically mean that the book is an anthology, I will not write PW. Even though . . .
This kind of blows my whole “How To Read Your Reviews Without Stress” premise, doesn’t it? Even so, I will not write the publication that printed this review because I will only seem like a whiner. Even if I’m clearly in the right, I will seem petty. There are other people who can handle errors, I will stay out of it.
I might blog about it, though.
Reviews. You start to care about them, they’ll make you crazy.
Postscript: For those of you who haven’t seen the cover, here it is. Please note the subhead “A Novel” under the title.
Latest Update: PW has agreed to print a correction that it’s a novel, not a novella. On their website.
Which doesn’t strike me as enough.