It takes guts to publish a book in the 21st Century. Back in the old days, before the internet, a handful of books got reviewed in the papers, and the reviewers were all professional critics. I’m sure it was nerve-wracking enough then (read the brilliant A Vicious Circle by Amanda Craig for proof) but now the old phrase ‘everyone’s a critic’ has become frighteningly real.
Whether you self-publish or are published by a traditional publisher, the moment your book appears in the public domain you need to brace yourself. Amazon, Twitter, Goodreads, blogs…suddenly, anyone and everyone can tell the world what they think of the piece of work you spent a year sweating blood to create.
I thought it would be fun to write about something that writers tend not to discuss in public (but talk about a lot when we get together). It’s a particularly interesting topic at the moment because of the storm of controversy around ‘sock puppet’ accounts – where writers plug themselves and attack others using fake names – that is currently raging. More of this later, as we have been targeted by sock puppets – which is much scarier than it sounds!
When we first published Killing Cupid a year ago, nobody knew it existed for a while. So to get our first reviews on Amazon was very exciting. Fortunately, they were very good. One of the highlights of our early writing career was receiving a review, and an email, from an Amazon Top 100 reviewer who had stumbled across the book and really ‘got it’. It was the kind of review every writes dreams of. She even quoted my favourite line in the book.
Then, when we got more attention – because being in the spotlight of the top ten is a bit like jumping up and shouting ‘Shoot me! In the balls!’ – we started to attract some stinkers, for both Killing Cupid and Catch Your Death. This is the point at which you have to remind yourself that everybody gets bad reviews on Amazon, even JK Rowling. In fact, if you go and look at your favourite book right now you’ll find that not everyone shares your enthusiasm. I, personally, think The Secret History by Donna Tartt is the best book ever written. But Mark Crompton found it “idiotic, implausible, laughable” and used that favourite phrase among reviewers: “I only gave it one star because none wasn’t an option”.
My favourite one star review of Catch Your Death is this one:
“Having downloaded the free sample of approx 5 chapters i was satisfied that it would be a decent, clean read. How i was wrong! After making the purchase, the authors introduce the sick and twisted villain of the piece, a mass murdering serial killer who takes pleasure in the abuse of young women. The language immediately became X-rated and the detailed descriptions of the abuse was simply sick. I read 38% of the book before deleting it from my collection. I feel I was misled into thinking it would be a more or less clean thriller, and would certainly not recommend it to those looking for a fast paced clean thriller.”
If only she had pressed on to 39% she might have started to get into it. On second thoughts, there are some really unclean bits in the second half… This is what we in the trade like to think of as a positive negative review. I mean, surely all that talk of X-rated language and psychopaths will make the book’s target audience (those who like unclean thrillers) want to give it a go?
Swearing is, according to many Amazon reviewers, the worst sin a writer can commit. Like elderly ladies who go through library books crossing out the bad words (and yes, this really happens), reviewers like to warn other sensitive souls of the presence of profanity in your book.
Making factual errors is another big no-no. This is fair enough, but I sometimes think there are people out there who read books with the sole intention of finding mistakes. Readers love finding errors. ‘A-ha! Tunbridge Wells isn’t in Sussex – it’s in Kent. One star!’ We got a one-star because we mistakenly wrote APB (American) instead of APW (British).
Things like this can actually be helpful. Catch Your Death was originally self-published. When we set about editing it for the HarperCollins version, we were able to correct the mistakes that the reviewers of the original version had pointed out. On top of this, we addressed a couple of issues that came up in more than one review. By responding to the feedback from real readers, we were able to make it a better book.
I read a study recently that showed that reviews do affect sales on Amazon. A writer analysed sales immediately after a one-star review was posted – they went down. When a five-star review became the most recent, sales increased. I think we all do this: skim the reviews looking for reasons to buy, or not buy, the book. Because of this, a lot of nasty practices have sprung up. Some writers have been exposed as ‘sock-puppeteering’ – creating false accounts to write rave reviews of their own work. This is dishonest enough but it gets really nasty when those sock puppets write one-star reviews of rival authors.
This happened to us: when we were at the top of the Kindle chart, we suddenly got a spate of one- and two-star reviews, none of which displayed any evidence that the reviewer had read the book – they were very generic – and most of them having never posted a review before. The sock puppets are usually cleverer than this, though, and they will write a few good reviews before laying in to their real target. The really stupid sock-puppeteers mess this up: they post 5-star reviews of their own books and give their rivals 1 star.
We caught out a successful self-published writer who did this to us. Using a fake name, this author gave herself away by giving us a scathing review in which she listed several authors she likes – including herself. Looking at her listed reviews, I found a number of 1 stars for other successful self-publishers like John Locke and, guess what, five-star reviews for her own books, including the same book twice! Her most recent five star review is for a book published by this author’s new publishing venture (a work of strap-on lesbian erotica; sounds great!)
This was particularly annoying because this writer had been very friendly to us over email and is even named on the acknowledgements page of the new paperback of Killing Cupid! I’m not saying you can’t trust anyone, but you do have to be careful.
I would like to see Amazon change its policies so that only verified purchasers can leave reviews. This would ensure that only genuine readers are reviewing it. It wouldn’t be foolproof, and would stop people who’ve bought the book in a shop from reviewing it, but at the moment the whole system is flawed and untrustworthy.
The other thing that is intensely frustrating as a writer is when reviewers put whacking great spoilers in their critique, giving away the ending. Especially galling if it’s a twist. And this is not against Amazon’s T&Cs. This gives the malicious sock-puppet type another way of sabotaging you.
It would be like me writing a review of The Sixth Sense (look away now if you’ve never seen it and are planning to!) that went. ‘Blah blah blah… And I found it really easy to guess that Bruce Willis is a ghost.’
I can take bad reviews. But reviewers deliberately spoiling it for other readers just isn’t cricket. And it’s another thing Amazon ought to do something about. Please.
So, if you’re an aspiring writer dreaming of the day you appear in print – or pixels – you should start growing a thick skin now, learn to look over your shoulder, beware of the deadly sock puppets and… oh, I’m kidding. It’s not that bad. Getting a good review is a genuine thrill that makes you want to give the reviewer a big kiss.
Finally, a small plea: if you read a book and love it, give it a review, on Amazon, Goodreads, even on Twitter. We really appreciate it. Even a couple of lines will do. Why not go and do it now – make an author happy.
Killing Cupid is published in paperback on August 2nd and comes complete with a free paperback of Catch Your Death. Order on Amazon now.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Boot up: should Zuckerberg go?, why Pistorius is wrong, Nokia’s new phones and more | Technology News | September 4, 2012
- Boot up: should Zuckerberg go?, why Pistorius is wrong, Nokia’s new phones and more | Tech News | September 4, 2012
- Boot up: should Zuckerberg go?, why Pistorius is wrong, Nokia’s new phones and more | Web Guru Guide | September 4, 2012
- Boot up: should Zuckerberg go?, why Pistorius is wrong, Nokia's new phones and more | VAN'S REALM | September 15, 2012
- Writers: How to Deal With Criticism in 6 Easy Steps : Louise Voss & Mark Edwards | December 15, 2012