On the perils of the disappointing book review

Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleWarning: This post was manufactured in a facility that also processes self-pity. May contain traces of nuts and stronger swear words.

Bad reviews are inevitable. As an author, you have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism, even when it’s unconstructive. As a reader, you have the right to get what you pay for, and the right to complain about it when you don’t. We all know this when we buy or sell a book. It’s part of the social contract of readership, and that’s totally cool. We learn from our unpleasant experiences and move on from them a richer, wiser person. Right?

Well…no. Let’s be honest. Getting a bad review sucks. It stings and burns and makes you squirm in your seat like an itch you just can’t scratch, because in most cases, you can’t reach out to that reader and explain to them in painful detail what exactly you were trying to accomplish, what exactly they got wrong, and how exactly they are supposed to think about your flawless masterpiece.

It’s tough. For example, quarterfinalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) got their Publisher’s Weekly reviews a few days ago, and I’ve never seen a group of authors try so very, very hard to keep their chins up in the face of what a disaster it was. While people are more likely to complain about bad reviews than post the good ones, I was rather shocked and a bit appalled at the quality of reviews – not the quality of the novels – that resulted from this particular scheme.

I won’t post my review in its entirety, since Dark the Night Descending isn’t published yet and the review contains spoilers, but I was confused and disappointed to find a near-total lack of professionalism from the person who read my book. The reviewer mixed up two major characters, which caused them to harp on the fact that my plot made no sense. They pointed out inconsistencies and open-ended questions, but they would have found out the answers had they read the entire book instead of just the first four chapters. And while they seemed to enjoy the tone and the quality of writing, they panned the overall work because of their own inattention and mistakes.

When I first read this block of text, I was absolutely furious. How could they make such elemental errors? Why did my participation in the contest have to suffer for it? Who were these people who dared to call themselves professional reviewers when they couldn’t even give their full attention to the task at hand?

I ranted on Twitter. I posted a snarky message on my Facebook page. I was ready to hunt down email addresses and write strongly-worded letters and generally storm about because Amazon should know that the people Publisher’s Weekly hired were not up to the task. I’ve heard from forum members that the reviews were laypeople offered a few hundred bucks to read lots of books in five weeks, which may or may not be true, but it would certainly explain a lot.

But…then I started reading the bad reviews that other people had posted. They had the same complaints about a lack of reading comprehension. The same level of outrage from jilted authors. The same dismay and frustration and anger when a book got totally destroyed by a piqued reader. The resigned acceptance of fate’s fickle finger from long-time participants in a contest I was just entering for the first time.

I calmed down a bit when I realized I wasn’t alone. I may have gotten shafted, but it wasn’t personal. It was just how this particular system worked. The system was terrible, and it wasn’t really fair, but I had signed an open-ended contract of readership with ABNA, and in the end, I had to take what my reader was going to dish out.

So I read my review again. And it wasn’t so bad, really. “Inventive and engaging” are good words. “Shows great promise” are also good words. I hope those sentiments are just as true as the negative ones. I will keep telling myself that they are. Of course it means I won’t be moving on to the semifinals, but there was an extremely slim chance of doing so in any case, and I didn’t expect it. I got what I came for, which was a quote with a Publisher’s Weekly tag attached to it that might help me sell some copies.

After achieving nirvana, with the help of some pizza and a long heart-to-heart conversation with my cat (he counseled patience, humility, and some of his favorite chicken treats), I came to the real question. Should I write about my sour experiences in a post like this, which has the potential to be misinterpreted, or should I delete all those zingers I had plastered across my social media accounts in the heat of the moment? Will people just think I’m a sore loser, or will they see my words as intended: a way to work through negative feelings while trying to be objective and reasonable?

Because for an author, that’s where the peril lies. It’s very hard to avoid being “the problem person” when everything you say or do online is squirreled away by Google to be trotted out every time someone types in your name. You don’t want to be that guy who oozes prickly negativity. You have to handle yourself with composure, grace, fortitude, politeness, and reserve. But does that mean not complaining about anything?  Ever?

I don’t think it does. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a great rule of thumb for the internet, especially when there is so much vitriol going around in the virtual world. Finding the balance between flagging what you perceive as an injustice and simply being a Negative Nelly is hard to do.

No one should ever attack a reader for not liking something they’ve read. If the content doesn’t tickle your fancy or if the style rubs you the wrong way, you have every right, as a reader, to tell me. Please do. But if you don’t bother to read correctly?

Then I’m sorry. I will try to be polite, but you have violated the contract of readership, and I think you kind of lose your right to express an authoritative opinion. It takes a lot of effort to write a book, and it isn’t respectful to the author to half-ass a glance at a few chapters and call yourself a professional reviewer using the name of a respectable company to back you up.

ABNA bills itself as one of the most highly sought-after prizes for self-published authors, and despite what you think about Amazon’s business practices, the name carries a hell of a lot of weight with customers. I think Amazon has seriously slighted its authors by structuring the contest in a way that doesn’t allow for a full consideration of manuscripts from seasoned, accomplished reviewers, and marred the integrity of the competition.

Should I be surprised? Maybe not, considering Amazon’s other recent negative press in the publishing world. I’m a trusting soul, even when it comes to megacorporations, and perhaps that’s a personal problem. But now I know that something I respected will not respect me, and I will behave accordingly.

And so I say fie and humbug to poor reviewers. A pox upon contests I don’t end up winning. Fiddlesticks to short attention spans, and a hearty cheer for those authors who have endured disappointment and lived to try again another day. Let’s all have a pizza and get back to work.

There. I feel better. How about you?

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3 thoughts on “On the perils of the disappointing book review

  1. Pingback: A farewell to ABNA: What contests and rejection can teach us | Inkless

  2. Pingback: Amazon Scraps Breakthrough Novel Award in Favor of Kindle Scout | Inkless

  3. Pingback: A Publisher’s Weekly and ABNA Reviewer Responds to Disappointment | Inkless

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