Advice for the Newly Published: How to Cope with a Bad Review

OK, you’ve spent years or decades hammering away in that lonely garret and you’re finally in print (either physically or online).

 To put your achievement in some sort of meaningful perspective – imagine a game of musical chairs with a thousand people playing and only one chair. Those are about the odds of getting your work published so, to have your work accepted by a commercial publisher, you have to really stand out from the crowd. You have to do something really new, or really well, or have really rich and powerful friends.

 Assuming you don’t have rich and powerful friends, you have legitimately been included within the great cultural museum of our epoch. Your work has been deemed worthy of emphasising and preserving because, on some level or other, it encapsulates or exemplifies the zeitgeist of the early C21. That is why you won the musical chair.

 So congratulations.

 Now comes the hard part.

 *     *     *

 The first time I was published, I thought I’d made it. But having finally clawed my way to the top of the pile, I was utterly dismayed to realise that an even tougher Darwinian struggle awaited me – the bookshop.

 No longer was I competing only with the rest of the great unwashed. All of a sudden I was competing with my heroes: Orwell, Tolkien, Hemingway, Heller, Fraser, Cornwell, Irvine Welsh, Janette Turner Hospital – and they all wanted me dead!

 Once your novel hits the bookshop shelves, it is fighting for survival with all the new books PLUS all the old classics. You have about six weeks to make a splash or your cherished masterpiece will be banished to the limbo of the backlist – never to be seen again.

 So what keeps you on the shelves?

 I will now reveal the great secret of publishing success… “Lots of people have to like your book and tell others so that they will buy it too.”

 Bet you never saw that coming!

 This is why reviews are crucial. Any sort of decent review, in a place where lots of people will see it, is worth money in the bank. Conversely, a bad review can kill your book, and your writing career, stone dead.

 So what do you do when you receive a bad review?

 I’ve never had a bad review, but I have had a less-than-good one, and where was that? The Age! FFS!

 The review did point out what the reviewer regarded to be the novel’s strengths, but it was mostly damned with faint praise plus a couple of lines where the reviewer was clearly enjoying himself, blending football analogies with sarcasm – plot overextended like a bad knee!

 In fact, I laughed when I read that, but also I was extremely disappointed. I’d had plenty of good reviews, but the only reviewer who hadn’t gone into raptures over my novel just happened to be the most influential in one of Australia’s key literary forums.

 There are any number of ways I might have responded – ranging from mass murder right down to nothing. Nothing, is pretty much what I did, and nothing is what I recommend that any disappointed writer do in case of a bad review.

 Of course, the whole thing is so much more complicated these days with the blogosphere crammed with opinions (like this one). Readers can post their impressions for the whole world to see, and no matter how good your book is, not everyone will like it and some will hate it. Being hated by some is part and parcel of having a public profile so get over it in advance.

 The net represents the biggest ever change in the author/reader relationship. Readers have never had such immediate access to writers as they do now and there are any number of consequences – not least the loss of authorial mystique. Once you engage with your audience on their turf, you’re fair game and you’d better know how to behave.

 You will be tested – for example, you may read a review of your book which you absolutely hate. If you must respond, limit yourself to addressing what you regard as errors or misinterpretations. Do not, whatever you do, engage in online debates with critics of your work. Stuff you post on the internet is there forever and can be flung back at you years after you thought it was forgotten. The only way to avoid that kind of embarrassment is not to post in the first place. No matter how wrong they are and how right you are, you will only end up losing your mystique.

 Some tips for responding (or not) to bad reviews:

  •  Before you respond at all, talk to someone about it;
  • No matter how personal the criticism, don’t take it personally. Internet hate is purely statistical (unless it’s your mum posting);
  • Limit yourself to correcting errors and misinterpretations and do it in a friendly or humorous way no matter how insulting the critic might have been. A dignified and humorous response to criticism can win you fans;
  • Once you’ve posted your correction, do not continue to post – this is how you get drawn in to debates;
  • Never post late at night when you’ve had a few;
  • Never post in the guise of someone else (either praising your own work or responding to criticism). This is utterly puerile behaviour and there is a strong chance you will be found out. If you are, your reputation could be destroyed before it even gets off the ground;
  • Never forget that everything you write/post is another chance to entertain and inspire more interest in your work.

 Apart from all that – enjoy it. This is a really exciting time to be involved in publishing.

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3 Comments

  1. […] experience. For those who are interested, my advice on how to cope with a bad review is below: Advice for the Newly Published: How to Cope with a Bad Review | The Book Hammer Reply With […]

  2. Q: One the whole, how valid are the criticisms made and are you objective enough to accept the ones that have merit ? Or a lot of the time, do you feel that the critics have missed the point ? Obviously, works are subject to personal interpretation and this can definitely happen, even with a critic.

    I remember when I read Mr Cleansheets and you want me to give you an honest appraisal of it (which I did). I took one simile that you put in there to task that was out of character with the person who spoke it, but you said that you loved the line so much that you refused to take it out (despite the fact that someone else had pointed it out to you).

    But yes, the professional critic has carte blanche to wipe you out and you really have no right of reply with looking like a knob.

    • Hi Frank…why are you posting during the A-League grand final?

      No-one wants to be misinterpreted. Speaking generally – the writer just has to suck it up and accept that some readers will not quite appreciate what you were trying to get across. In most cases, misinterpretation does no damage, but when it’s a major reviewer…you’re screwed.

      The particular review we’re mentioning involved someone failing to understand that there is a particular sub-genre of British football writing that is over the top to the point of surreality. (Eg, Roy of the Rovers; Billy the Fish.) Mr C is an adult version of that tradition which the vast majority of readers have appreciated and enjoyed. It was a real shame that such an influential and important reviewer (in The Age FFS) would not ‘get’ the book and take a bunch of cheap shots in teh National press.

      As a writer, you have to just accept the good with the bad because responding passionately to the bad will just make you look like a ratbag.


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