My Inner Contrarian Declares: “Yes, you SHOULD read negative reviews (sometimes)”
You’ve probably heard the age-old advice to new authors that they shouldn’t pay attention to reviews. Some seasoned authors will even tell you not to read the positive ones. However, it seems common sense that if you want your self-confidence to remain as robust as a Manitoba-born farmhand, you should avoid perusing the heinous ones. The truth is, there will always be haters. Even the masters of the art – Cormac, Hemingway, Salinger – cultivated a coven of malcontents that despised every word ever dripped in ink from their supreme pens. (One of my favorite books I keep on my shelf is a collection of such reviews, given to books that today we revere as classics and literary perfection.) It’s true, you’ll never please every one, and a select few of those who don’t find your work engaging or entertaining will be ready to let the world know. Some of them will consider it their raison d’etre to lead a crusade and warn the unsuspecting of public of your perceived inability to write, plot, or even master the basic rules of grammar (ironically whilst often demonstrating their lack of the same.)
So given this reality, what I’m about to say may surprise you. In my opinion, there are two types of indie authors: those who are publishing just to share a story without much thought to sales, and those, like most of us, who are pursuing what we love doing as a career. If you’re in the latter, please hear me out on this: YOU MUST READ YOUR NEGATIVE REVIEWS.
I’m not saying you need to develop a sadomasochistic fetish in which you flail yourself with others’ vitriol and spite. Where a review is clearly meant only to be malicious and cruel, you should steer clear. As Anne R. Allen recently wrote in her post The Laws of the (Amazon) Jungle, “Cruel, angry reviews say more about the reviewer than they do about your book.”
But should you take time to read a less than stellar review where the reviewer respectfully lays out their problems with your book? You bet your sweet bippy.
Yes, you’re an artist. Yes, the way your product is received is subjective. But in the end, you’re still creating something and asking people to pay for it. What a reader purchases in addition to your book when they click buy is the right to have an opinion on the good you’ve just provided them. If you’re approaching your writing as a career and not a hobby, you have the duty to listen to them when they tell you they found your product somehow lacking. I’m not saying that you have to agree with their assessment. There’s a reason we have the phrase, “I guess we’ll agree to disagree.” You can choose to credit the reviewer as having a valid point, or decide that the reason the reader was left unsatisfied is due to any umpteen valid reasons which were either by design or out of your control. But what you’ll probably discover is that some of the time, they’re absolutely right. I’ll be the first to admit that I have gone back and rewritten a section of my books even after they were published because a reviewer made a very good, very valid point in their negative review.
Indie publishing is a free market. The freest of markets, perhaps, because the readers are 100% in control of what succeeds. One of the benefits of the indie experience, not having to appeal to a select and highly prejudiced group of gatekeepers, is also one of its drawbacks. It’s very difficult to find reliable critique partners when you’re just starting out. Unless you’re willing and able to pay for the impersonal opinion of a legitimate content editor, you’re likely using your friends, relatives or other aspiring writers to receive feedback on your manuscript. Though well intending, such people may not always have the ability to render truly honest feedback, afraid to hurt your feelings or yet too unsure of their own abilities as a writer to cast dispersion on yours. Thus, many indie writers put out their first few books on the market without having it reviewed by a truly critical eye. And that’s fine. No one said you have to spit out the next Gone with the Wind or Peyton Place right off the bat. Indie lets you test and grow and develop without the pressure of satisfying a big publisher’s bottom line. But if you want to grow your career as well as your audience, you won’t shove aside what can be some really awesome advice from one of your customers.
And who knows, some day, you may even thank them.