Judgment Days: Five Things I Learned About Having Your Book Reviewed
It’s not like I can’t take criticism. I can, of course, take criticism. You can’t publish a book without learning how to accept comments on your work, and while sometimes critiques can still elicit an emotional first reaction (like wanting to punch something or curl into a ball and cry), writers figure out a way to cope or they have to give up. We can’t get better without listening to feedback.
But reviews of a finished book are different. They’re not feedback, not really, not in the sense that we can take that information and use it to improve the work. The work is done. The book is bound and covered and out on bookstore shelves so there is no going back to make changes. Reviews are more like judgment. If there is consistent criticism, you may be able to apply it to future projects, but whatever is said about a book already published is not a suggestion, it’s a verdict, and the scale can tip either way. It’s nerve-racking.
I am by no means an expert on being reviewed, but here are five things I’ve learned so far.
People will like your book! (If you’ve gotten this far, they already have.)
I was so worried that no one would like my book. When the first review from a stranger showed up on Goodreads and started with the line, “I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to describe how much this book moved me,” I teared up. And five stars to boot? I wanted to hug the reviewer. Such relief! I had touched one person. But my self-doubt quickly convinced me it was fluke. I scoured the internet for mentions of my book, spent the days before an industry or publication review was expected to run constantly worried about all the horrible things they could say. I made myself miserable with fear that everyone would hate my debut, but I had forgotten that some very important people already liked my book—loved it, in fact: my agent, my editor, the publishing house that was investing its time and money.
So remember this: If your book is being published, someone has already liked it. Many someones. More people will like it, too. I promise.
Some people will not like your book. (Sometimes for reasons unrelated to the actual book.)
There is no way around this. No book can please all people in all ways, so there will be some readers who just don’t connect to the narrator, or think the story is too fast or too slow, or don’t believe in a character’s motivation. I think critiques by thoughtful readers who didn’t care for one aspect or another, but offer balanced opinions on the pros and cons of a book and give a low-star review are fair. Again, you can’t please everyone.
But there are also the reviews that essentially say things like, “I hate fiction/stories about sisters/first person narrators. I knew this book was fiction/a story about sisters/a first person narrator, but I read it anyway and don’t like it because it’s not true/too sisterly/used I too much. If you like fiction/stories about sisters/first-person narrators, you’ll probably like it.” One- or two- star ratings usually accompany these types of reviews and drag down the average for reasons that are not really applicable to people who like books about any number of things the reviewer doesn’t.
Reviews will be contradictory. (Just like complex characters.)
Some readers love my ending, say that it’s satisfying and exactly what they wished for. Some readers have said it’s too easy and tidily packaged. Some have said my book is hopeful and inspiring; some have said it’s dark or bleak. People are different, obviously, so elements will be interpreted differently, framed by the readers’ perspectives, so that no two reading experiences are exactly the same. In some ways, it’s nice to see the balance of comments on both sides. I feel like that means I probably got it pretty close to right.
No book is perfect. (Even the really good ones.)
Writers are so hard on ourselves. I know many authors—myself included—who feel like a three star review on Goodreads is a reason to be disappointed. The official caption for three stars is “liked it,” so then why do I feel so dissatisfied? Because I want everyone to love my book and when they don’t, I feel like I failed. I have to keep reminding myself that three stars isn’t bad. It isn’t! Not every book can be a five star “amazing” book to everyone. How great is it that another person read the book, even if they didn’t rate it as an “amazing” five stars? How amazing is it to get any five star reviews at all?
Look at all the classics or bestsellers or really any book at all and you’ll see one star reviews. All books get them. Many reviews, even the good ones, especially industry reviews, have at least one line of criticism. Because, it’s true, you know. No book is perfect.
You have no control over any of this. (And reviews are not the only important thing.)
This is the number one thing I’ve learned about being reviewed. I can’t force anyone to like my book or to only write good things or to give it more stars. I can’t control who reads the book or how they interpret it or what they tell their friends, even if I think they’re wrong. I can’t control what industry professionals write or which publications review the book. I have absolutely no control over any part of being reviewed beyond getting my book into the hands of readers and reviewers. After that, all I can do is wish that the person likes it, that they understand it, that it moves them in some way. I have to hope that the people who are meant to read it will find it and love it, and that the readers who don’t will respectfully voice their complaints.