You’ve written your first book, you’ve published your first book, and now you need to market your first book. And the very first thing of paramount importance, which you’ll read in so many advice blogs and ‘on writing’ books, until the word is painfully tattooed on your forehead, is that you must find a way of getting your precious baby some reviews to enable it to leave home, go into the world, and to stand on its own rather shaky two feet – because it’s all alone now. You can’t look after it any more, your nurturing phase is over, and your memoir, non-fiction book, or novel has to now make its own way in the world, hopefully to make you proud that you gave birth to it in the first place. And because you’ve decided that you must give it the best possible start in life, you conscientiously set about trying to get some first favourable reviews to act as references for an auspicious beginning, and then you continue to keep plugging away. We all know that these days it’s reputed to be a numbers game that helps make your book more prominent, with the arcane mysteries of Amazon working its magic for your baby, so the more reviews the better, and yet, it can’t be denied that it’s the good reviews that people are more likely to be influenced by to make a purchase. So numbers of reviews aside, it’s the good reviews that really count.
And so the rollercoaster journey begins, with the tussle of head and heart competing for mastery of your vulnerable self. And you are vulnerable, because you’ve just laid your work bare for close scrutiny, and the pleasure of achievement and relief in getting it out into the world is soon superseded by the sudden awareness that people you know in person, as your very first readers are most likely to be, are right now reading your book and you are being judged. Yes, I know, it’s the work that is being judged, but really, how can you make the distinction? You wrote it and undoubtedly used parts of your inner self, passions and experiences to bring it alive, to make it have meaning for you, the writer, and hopefully for the reader. This is the gamble we have to be willing to make when we become an author. This vulnerability of personal investment is probably most acute for your first book because the whole publishing experience is so new to you. All these efforts to cast your net wide to catch reviews like plump fish, only to then have then jumping and flapping into your lap to prompt responses akin to clutching them to your bosom or holding at arm’s length before throwing them back into the ocean, is a challenging business indeed, and is all beyond your control. So this is where you have to learn how to handle reviews for the very first time – the good, the bad and ugly therein, not in the actual ratings or the text content necessarily, but within yourself – your joyful feelings, your upset feelings, all the grey areas in-between, and the ugly nature of having to pursue reviews at all, because we all know we must.
It’s been over six months now since I published ‘On Turtle Beach’ and I’ve had to learn and revise my responses to reviews quite a few times. After my own experiences of tingling pleasure at reading the lovely ones where the reader has responded just as I hoped they would and interpreted themes just as I intended and have said they so enjoyed the read, to my physical flush feelings of horror at the more critical ones, where a burning pang tries to inject me with self doubt (yes, that old chestnut) and from reading other writers ups and downs on the review rollercoaster, I’ve come to the fervent conclusion we must use our heads and not our hearts when dealing with reviews. We must arm ourselves with maintaining a constructive perspective and the use of psychological approaches. These responses soften the ride of travelling high on 5 star reviews so you think you can tackle anything, to the bumpy lows of 2 stars or worse, where you ask yourself what on earth you were thinking in assuming that anyone could relate to what has come from inside little old you, why anyone would like the rather eccentric, but very close to your heart, characters who you came up with to build a whole novel around. Ironically, I got my very first 2 star review today on Amazon. Did my newly learned psychological techniques using head over heart work? Well, I got just a tiny flush of horror with my heart immediately responding, as hearts tend to get in there first, but then I caught it with my mind, calmed it and engaged my perspective – job soon done. So I’m calling that a success – at least for now!
Before I take a look at how to interpret reviews from a psychological angle which helps to maintain perspective, I have to address the whole issue of getting people to read your book and leave a review in the first place. Like pulling teeth springs to mind, and it wasn’t until I read what other writers have experienced of friends and family, that I realised what I was finding was very common. So here goes with the ugly first, because this was the toughest aspect of all to handle.
Most writers seem to begin with friends and family, by making them aware of the opus in question and inviting them to give it a try, and if so, please leave a review afterwards. This is where you are most hopeful, while still feeling most vulnerable. You wait and wait – a few precious people who you 99% trust to somehow like your novel in many ways, no matter what, come up trumps – hurrah! And you really need them to – make no mistake about this. It feels so vital to begin this journey in as good a place as possible, because there will be knocks and a bumpy ride to come.
Here are a few knocks and bumps. I am laying myself open a bit here, but I feel strongly about this, and as other writers have reported similar scenarios, I feel confident about describing this :-
1. Friends and acquaintances promise to read your book and leave a review (you never asked them to promise this, but they did anyway). You wait. Weeks become months. Nothing happens. They simply don’t get around to it. You think – what? They sounded so sure! Why haven’t they done it? And since you’re the kind of person who fulfils promises, who wants to support these kind of endeavours if the shoe was on the other foot, you can’t quite believe what’s happening. Yet again perhaps, your faith in human nature takes a battering and you have to decide how to respond emotionally to this turn of events. How do you feel about these ‘friends’ now? So you harden yourself, and do oblique tangent post reminders that kind of draw attention to the novel in a different way, without tackling the ‘offenders’ directly. You nudge their conscience. But still nothing happens. So you have to move on, having learnt that some people’s words don’t count for much. Lesson learned.
2. Chasing reviews can turn you into a different kind of creature – a yearning, pleading, disgusted, delighted cartoon character who keeps morphing from being confident to being cringing. That word ‘review’ tattooed on your forehead, fuelled by repeated social media exposure to the needs, the musts, and the visual promoting of other’s writers reviews, prods your mutable form to make the most of every window of opportunity to engineer a review. And it’s all about the timing. You’re having coffee with someone you know has said they’re reading your book. If they haven’t said anything about it, you might ask how they are getting on. They’re still in the middle of it, they say, but so far, so good. So you happily let it drop. BUT later on when you find out they’ve finished it, and it might be weeks later, that ‘ever so vital to your writer’s existence’ question is insisting in your marketing mind to be asked. ‘Do you think you could do a review – just a line would do?’ You head says ‘Ask, go on, all these others writers would, it’ll be too late later on, it has to be now’, and when you do ask, your heart says, ‘For crying out loud. You’re getting obsessed! Look what this is doing to you! You can’t think of anything else.’ You’ve conscientiously developed your marketing mind, because you’re very aware marketing isn’t in your comfort zone. You’re being a good little indie author, doing your best for your book because no one else can promote it for you. Yet before you know it, this kind of thing can happen: – someone is telling you they’ve been having a bad time at work, or they’ve been dealing with a family emergency, or their husband has just left them, or perhaps they’ve just being diagnosed with a terminal illness. So where are you with all this when you know they’ve finished your book and by the sound of it you’ll not be seeing them again for some time? Well, you might well be sitting there, looking and feeling sympathetic, while on the tip of your tongue and burning a hole in it, in fact, is the question you still feel compelled by your marketing mind to ask: ‘Yes, but if you’ve read the book, could you do a review, just a line would do.’
So beware of becoming this paradoxical precocious cringing creature!
3. Here is an interesting article which really clarified some of the above problems for me beautifully, a post by author, T. R. Robinson, in which she addresses the possible reasons why readers don’t write a review.
Fear of not being competent enough
Fear of telling how they really feel and causing offence to the writer
Laziness and apathy, a kind of can’t be bothered feeling
Educational insecurity – we writers tend to assume ease of writing, don’t we?
Lack of respect- a kind of unwillingness to acknowledge the work put in by the writer
And here’s one of mine: we writers love reading, and assume that everyone else does too. Someone may well have bought your book, but they’ve just not made time to read it. This has happened to me with a family member, so I know this one. Also people might be slow readers, and somehow they just don’t finish your book. Do we want these people to read our book and do a review out of guilt at not having gotten around to it? Well, no, I don’t think so. We want them to enjoy it, not simply do their duty.
So when you get all wrapped up in your marketing mind, you can be blinkered to thinking out of the box like this. And here we have the use of very head-orientated practical reasons for reluctance to read and review, as well as using the psychology of human nature at work to explain it.
Dealing with the bad, using head psychology
1. The upset feelings come from your book being criticised in a review. It’s the words, not necessarily the ratings that hurt. Sometimes we can learn from these words if, in our deepest self, we know they have made a fair point, and that is what constructive criticism is all about. But that said, we writers choose our words so carefully, and when we do a review for another writer, I suspect we find something positive to say, even if we really didn’t take to the book in question at all. We don’t slate, we can’t do that to someone, so we muse, we consider. (When we want to rave, we rave!) But the general public probably don’t have the time or the inclination to consider. They just trot out the words that we can take so much to heart – those words that we then analyse or mull over for too long. So just remember, words are just words, it’s the person using them that may be the issue.
2. And in that vein, everyone has a right to an opinion. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that there cannot possibly be a book yet written that can appeal to everyone, so why do we writers seem to forget this when it comes to irksome reviews? Answer – because we want as many different types of people as possible to enjoy our book. Because we want the validation. But just how realistic is this mass appeal? Personally, I consider myself really fussy about what I read, the genres, the kinds of plots. There is so much I wouldn’t read, just as there is so much that I would, and I’ve opened up my tastes to include far more variety these days simply because I’m a writer and I love to read different approaches and styles. The general public don’t have this kind of investment in their reading. They want to be taken on a narrative journey, and the more compulsive a ‘page turner’, the better their enjoyment – this seems to be largely what they want out of a good read these days, when people don’t have much leisure time, and the compliment you get for this is quite simply ‘I couldn’t put it down’. And then I think, What? Really? Wow!
3. A good tactic to use when sorting out your head and heart in response to criticism is to have a look on Amazon or Goodreads and see what kinds of books and genres your critic reads. What do they like? What don’t they like? If they like action-packed plots, there’re not going to take to my more literary fiction style plot, that’s for sure! What are the average ratings they give? If they rate high most of the time and have rated yours low, then that’s more significant than if they rate low to middling on a regular basis, and yours just happens to be one of their regular lows. I’ve found this psychological tool very useful.
4. One of the points that has cropped up a good deal on the writers facegroup groups I’m in, is writers getting justifiably upset by ignorant, more abusive reviews which Amazon allow to sit there for the world to see. Even if they are milder in their scourging, but still ill-considered and blatantly judgmental, where they say they haven’t even finished the book, then how is the writer to respond? My take on this is that a review of this nature is revealing the character of the writer of the review more than anything else, and certainly may have little or no bearing on the book at all. They are literally showing themselves up for who they are. On a milder note still, always be aware that the reviewer may be revealing their character between the lines in more subtle ways – they may be a tad too conventional, or too rebellious, too fixed in their life views and values, too moral, too immoral…you get the idea. Everyone reveals something of themselves when they write down their opinions. We, of all people, should remember this, and use it to deal with negative reviews that bring us down little, while being determined to take on board any more helpful criticism.
Which leads me nicely to dealing with the good feelings!
1. Your faith in human nature can be wonderfully restored by the people who take the time to read your book, and then take more time to compose a favourable review. This faith can be boosted more by those on social media who support you, who may invite you to do interviews and talk about your book. Some people will stun you with their generosity and with the perceptions they seem to have gleaned from your book, where they may see in it far more than you ever imagined they would. Some will delight you by loving the language that you lavished such great care over. And when you feel the nature of the review shows the person who wrote it found the exact same wavelength you were on when you were writing the book and were happy to stay there with you through the narrative to the end, then that is such a special thing.
2. All these good feelings are wonderful and full of validation which we writers crave. So why shouldn’t we respond with our hearts here? Why shouldn’t we bounce around with delight? Well, if we have to take the criticism using logic, I think we have to apply the same to the praise, because people simply vary in how they respond to anything, some are full of enthusiasm and passion, some aren’t, and that too has to be taken into account. But mostly it’s because of the need for validation that we should temper our highs, because we really need to get used to trusting ourselves first and foremost, not giving all the validating power to the reader – we have to survive the marketing using our head and keep our hearts for pouring into our writing.
These approaches of dealing with the good, the bad, and the ugly of inviting reviews for your first book are now standing me in good stead, and I’m hoping the next ride with the second novel will be a smoother one. Wishing you all the very same. And remember the most important thing is to relish your writing or any creative pursuit, with the door shut as Stephen Kings would say, because it is simply who you are and what you do.
(pic courtesy of pixabay)