My Kingdom For a 1 Star Review
I mean, I seriously fucking adore them. One and two stars both. I get stressed until they start to show up, and then when they do I’m uneasy if they don’t seem “real.” I feel almost proud of the ones who are lone rangers on a book so many other people enjoy. I love when they leave a reason why it didn’t work. Sometimes I learn something by reading the review, but usually it’s just a reminder you can’t please everyone and no book is perfect. Reading and getting those lower-starred and even negative reviews feels like some kind of etch on the book’s authenticity, its Persian flaw. Three stars make me a little nuts, even though I know a lot of people use it as a marker as “good, just not the best ever,” which is fine but always makes me feel like they said, “meh,” which is my nightmare. But the one and two stars? The ones where someone read it and just didn’t connect with me at all? I don’t know why, but I’ve always dug them. In fact, my husband will testify that I angst a little bit until the one and two stars show up. To me, the book isn’t real until those occur.
So when on Twitter today I saw this*, there was a lot of arguing with my monitor. I’ve already written a post about why authors should never trash readers, and my opinions there still stand. (Side note: I found that post in my archive by searching for “Smart Bitch on a cracker,” which is now my favorite part of today.) Today though I want to talk specifically about low reviews and why they are awesome, and why the approach of the author linked above is not a good idea.
I mean, there’s the obvious bit where yelling at a reader on a public forum isn’t smart, and digging in your heels and behaving as if the entirety of one’s career can be made or broken on one random reader’s remark on a social media site is a sign of being broken already. But there’s so much more than that. Especially since Cait’s review was actually pretty good. Better would have been if she said why she didn’t like it exactly, what parts she found wordy and pretentious and what put her off. She has no obligation to do this, because she’s a reader, not a professional reviewer, and Goodreads is for readers, not authors. But honestly even if she’d been caustic and snarky as she explained in detail what she didn’t like, she’d be a HUGE help to this author.
How? Because one person’s poison is another person’s pleasure. I know several authors who cheer when a review says, “I hated this. It was nothing but sex,” because they’ve found over and over again their sales go up when that kind of remark goes into the feed. Their readers, the ones who will buy their entire backlist, see that as an affirmation the book is going to be exactly what they want it to be: steamy and full of sexytimes. This kind of backward marketing isn’t limited to sex. In Cait’s review itself—calling the book wordy and pretentious—she’s now put an alert for people who will translate it immediately to detailed and erudite and get excited because that’s exactly what they want. Of course now they have to also be eager for an author who will go apeshit on any reader who dares to review his book in a way he dislikes, which is a much, much narrower field.
Readers are actually fantastically smart about getting the books they want, largely because they’ve had to develop that muscle. It’s impossible now to passively absorb books through a filter. We all need our own filters, and each one of us has worked out a system to sift for books worth reading. So someone will see Cait’s review, note it’s not positive, and then go look at her shelf. What else has she read? If a reader hates everything on her shelf, her dislike of this particular book might become an endorsement on that point alone. Or if she consistently dislikes books another reader loves, now she’s part of their filter, because what she doesn’t like falls into their lap as a treasured find, and what she scoops up is something well-avoided.
Also vital to bear in mind is that most readers are not at some kind of über-hub social nexus where everything they say goes out to a zillion other potential readers, and even those who are very popular are not exerting mind control over their lambs. Yes, it’s true: Goodreads reviews are seen all over the place. They become part of one’s author page. But so are all the other reviews. See the above: readers are not idiots. They’re very, very smart. When they browse our author pages on Goodreads or comb through our websites or read posts on blog tours, they’re filtering us to see if we are worth their time and money. And even if you’re still obsessed with the idea that a reader’s terrible review is now attached to you, engaging with them and calling them names or harping in any way is now also part of your page.
At the end of the day, authors need to post a reminder above their monitors that not everyone will like all of our books, and that’s okay. It’s okay if they are public about it. It will not ruin you, and if it does, you had much bigger problems to begin with. If your work and your brand is so fragile this one remark requires your full attention to remove it from Earth, if your ego is so unstable you cannot tolerate being dismissed by a total stranger whose influential reach is minimal? You are in the wrong business. You should stop now before you destroy yourself and make yourself more unhappy than you already are.
Or, less dramatically, if social media, including Goodreads, upset you? Don’t go there. You don’t HAVE to have an author profile, and you don’t have to link it to your website and vice-versa. Yes, that will mean people will say things about you and they might be mean and you’d rather they didn’t say anything at all. If you ever get even the most minor kind of success, this will happen to you regardless. Part of leveling up as an author is having people feel more and more that they must tell you and you must listen to why they dislike you and why and how you are wrong. Other authors specifically will harbor hate and jealousy, nurturing the monster in hope they may some day use it to eat you and become you—that’s also a great time. But part of our culture is that readers will feel, the more successful you are, the more license they have to dismiss you, probably in public. It’s not a reality you have the power to change, but you can, at any level of public persona, limit how much you engage with it.
Joss Whedon just left Twitter because the negative comments and sometimes outright harassment proved too much of an emotional and professional drag for him. This is a legitimate and healthy way to behave. It’s not as if he needs Twitter to be a success, or even to be Joss Whedon in any form. Even if Twitter were in some way an important tool for him, if the cost was too high, it was smart to let it go. You can let go too. You can not engage in Goodreads. You can not engage in any medium that doesn’t serve you, and in fact you should disengage with any social media which costs you more than it gives you back.
For my part, I will continue to toast my low-star reviews, and I will read them and embrace my books’ full humanity. I’ll probably still have angst over the three stars, but that’s my own mental nonsense, not my readers’. I’ll keep working on embracing those too. I encourage authors struggling with fear of one star reviews to either look away or view them as a mark of pride, or at least the cost of doing business.
Readers, I just want you to keep reading. If you leave a review of any kind anywhere, especially on Goodreads and Amazon, yes you really do help me, even if it’s a lower star. But what you do most for me is read. You buy the book or check it out from your library or download it on Scribd/Oyster/etc. So long as you didn’t steal it, you’ve completed your part of the deal. I write you a story, you obtained it legally, and you read it. The exchange is over. Anything else you give me at this point is frosting on the cake, and I am grateful for it. Even if what you give me is a one-star review.
Thanks in advance.
*On the off chance the review or comments get taken down, here are screenshots of the first bit of it to give you an idea, shot 1 and shot 2. It only gets worse from there, for the record, though it’s mostly recycling and “how very dare you!”