Tag Archives: writing

Bad reviews are important…nay, essential to the Indie author/publisher


Bad reviews are a huge topic of discussion in the indie/self-published author forums. Sometimes it feels like a good half of all discussion board threads are dedicated to it. Of course, there are good reasons for this. They’re a big deal. Yep, they are. Plus, every new author has to go through the same harrowing experience of getting their first one or two or few and it helps a lot to have like-minded others to bounce it off of.

Sometimes these authors want to be told the reviewer is out of line. It’s a Band-Aid to the ego. Sometimes they want to have the points made by the reviewer confirmed to allow future growth. Sometimes they just need to hear, ‘Hey, yeah, I’ve been there. Sucks huh?” Camaraderie goes a long way.

I was there a year and a half ago, when I published The Weeping Empress. Academically, I knew I would get bad reviews. Theoretically, I understood that everyone likes different things and there was no realistic way to please everyone. I’d even emotionally armoured myself against any possibility of mean spirited, troll-like bullies who take a perverse joy in throwing literary bombshells at new authors. Honestly, I don’t think TWE has come to the attention of one of these yet, but I was prepared. Despite all of my mental gymnastics, I didn’t really understand the whole bad review situation, not really.

In then end, I was jejune. All I understood was that at some point I would be embarrassed because someone somewhere would think me unworthy of having published a book. This is an especially hard lump for self-published authors to swallow since they don’t have the inherent affirmation of being accepted by a publisher before presenting said book to the public. It’s a little niggling fear in the back of our heads at almost all times. But there is so much more to the question of how to mentally navigate receiving a bad review than whether you allow yourself the luxury of embarrassment or not.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this post today. I’m not claiming any expertise. I’m not even sure what would provide a person with enough experience to make such a claim, but I have two avenues of important observations that makes me qualified to write this post. One is being a self published author with a book on the market that has received rave and revolting reviews. Another is as a reader and reviewer who has written hundreds and hundred of reviews of indie and self published works. I’m looking at this topic from both directions and I’m still seeing a lot of new authors who just don’t get it yet. (The yet is important, because I think anyone who plays the field long enough does eventually.) I’m hoping this post helps a little.

I had two experiences within days of each other that brought this post to mind at this point in time. The first is that TWE just received a zinger of a review.* It now has the honour of being one man’s, who’s written 280 some odd reviews, ONLY one star review. Ouch. Like a rather hardened writer, I read it, frowned a little, shrugged and moved on. It doesn’t deserve any more of my attention than that. But it left bad reviews on the mind.

Second, I posted a review on Amazon and noticed that the rating stats of the book in question looked like this:

  • 5 star:  45
  • 4 star: 11
  • 3 star:  2
  • 1 star:  1

I’m not claiming that there is anything hinky going on with this book or its author. Even if, out of curiosity, I did click on the first three 5 star reviews only to find each reviewer gave every book they read 5 stars. Or even though there were six comments following the lone 1 star review condemning her for her opinion.

But I’m pointing out that I noticed these things because it highlights the point I’m going to eventually make with this post. So many good reviews with no bad ones looks suspicious, even if nothing suspicion-worthy is going on. Bad reviews lend credibility to a book’s good reviews. 

Readers of Indie and Self Published books are a savvy bunch and they’ve learned what a sock puppet looks like. They’ve considered that authors have friends who will boost their rating for them. They’ve seen the advertisements that guarantee 5 reviews for $90. They now go into the market suspicious, so it takes very little to raise their eyebrows. And more than a few are willing to write off an author because they think he or she is cheating the system. Can you blame them? If an author has so little faith in their own work that they need to pad their numbers, how good can the writing be?

What they may not know, or know and give less credence to, is that reviews (good, bad or otherwise) are hard to come by. Sometimes authors really aren’t trying to cheat. They’re just trying to compete. I get that. But readers really don’t have any obligation to consider all sides of an issue. They have every right to pass a book up for any reason they choose.

While I think that’s the most important point here, there are a number of other reasons that bad reviews are good for a book. Bad reviews prevent further bad reviews. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But it’s true. Yes, a bad review may dampen sales a bit. But think about who’s passing the book up.

If you gathered 45 likeminded people in a room, you still wouldn’t get 45 identical preferences (part of why the above stats looks so suspicious). It stands to reason that some readers won’t like a book. If that’s the case wouldn’t it be better for the author that that particular person not pick it up in the first place?  So, those readers similar to the writer of the bad review will by-pass the book and therefore not review it.

Contrarily, those to whom the review doesn’t resonate, who like the same things the reviewer disparaged are just as likely to pick the book up as a result. It’s true, sometimes a bad review can even encourage people to read a book. If the previous point was counter-intuitive, what should I call this point? If the issues the reviewer chooses to highlight happen to pique another’s interest, it can encourage them to read a book. This is especially true if the subject in question is a little on the controversial side to start with. I’ve also, more than once, read a book just to see if it’s a bad as people say. Curiosity is a curious beast and you really never know what might cause someone to scratch that itch.

Lastly, No reviews can often be more damaging to a book than a poor review or two. Even if someone didn’t like a book, it’s still been read by someone, thereby proving itself readable. Books with no reviews don’t have this benefit. There are no quality gatekeepers to the self-published or indie marketplace. New authors are complete unknowns to a reader and many times readers will choose not to take a chance on a book that doesn’t have at least one person who claims to have read it.

I’ve left out bad reviews are amazing learning tools for authors because I really wanted this to be about how poor reviews can benefit a book’s sales or likelihood of being read. But the list really wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t include this one. As hard as bad reviews are to read, they can be chocked full of tips on how to improve future writing.

Of course, I have to concede that many of these points are dependent on the bad review being centred on a reader not liking a book or some aspect of a book. There is very little that can be gained by a review that says horribly written, badly edited, and atrociously formatted. The only benefit of such a review that I can think of is that an author knows to pull the product and start again.

I believe there is a process to learning to truly accept criticism and bad reviews as part of the writing and publishing process. It starts with the difficult and personal need to harden oneself to the harsh words of strangers, moves to being able to let such comments flow past without cringing (too much) or even not looking for them at all, then eventually comes to the point when a writer is able to look at the most vitriolic review as still beneficial to their end-goal. This is the point when those more advanced in the process can help those newer to publication. This might even be when people can let themselves think of their-selves in terms of an author instead of a writer.

I’d be more than a little interested in hearing other’s thoughts on this subject. There are thousands of new authors out there, just starting this journey and it’d be nice to hear from people at all points in the process.

*For those who might be curious, the one star review read, “I had to quit after six pages; the writing is a pretty formidable barrier, obscuring whatever story is there. Sometimes it feels like an exercise in using too many adverbs, and the choppy sentence structure makes the writing incohesive. I think Forsythe might do well to find a different medium.”
**to be honest, I should probably admit I totally snatched that header graphic from the Gotta Have Romance with a Kick discussion board. 

Interview with Helen Smith, author of Alison Wonderland + Review

 Alison WonderlandI was sent a copy of Alison Wonderland, by Helen Smith to read. I’m uncertain how to categorize this novel. Surreal or ‘weird’ fiction is probably closest to accurate. To start us off, here is the description:

After her husband leaves her for another woman, twentysomething Londoner Alison Temple impulsively applies for a job at the very P.I. firm she hired to trap her philandering ex. She hopes it will be the change of scene she so desperately needs to move on with her shattered life. At the all-female Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation, she spends her days tracking lost objects and her nights shadowing unfaithful husbands. But no matter what the case, none of her clients can compare to the fascinating characters in her personal life. There’s her boss, the estimable and tidy Mrs. Fitzgerald; Taron, Alison’s eccentric best friend, who claims her mother is a witch; Jeff, her love-struck, poetry-writing neighbour; and—last but not least—her psychic postman. Her relationships with them all become entangled when she joins Taron for a road trip to the seaside and stumbles into a misadventure of epic proportions! Clever, quirky, and infused with just a hint of magic, this humorous literary novel introduces a memorable heroine struggling with the everyday complexities of modern life.

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Just another essay so that everyone feels my pain

Lately I am stuck up to my eyeballs in essays. I seem to eat, sleep, breathe, and dream essays. The fact that the deadlines are nearing and I will soon be free of them only pushes me toward panic. It does nothing to alleviate the stress. So, since I don’t have time to write much else and academic misery loves company I present you with what I hope is a thought-provoking piece on the circumstances of the modern identity.

Identity in Modern Sociological Thinking

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.40-41)

The question of ‘why the concept of identity[1] has become so significant in contemporary social thought’ is a question that can be answered in many ways, and there is little doubt that no one answer would wholly suffice. Having said that, the assertion this essay will to put forth is that identity is of eminent concern to modern social thinkers (and, indeed, society as a whole) because modern life places the responsibility for its formation and maintenance on the individual in previously unprecedented ways. The individual is expected to carry out this responsibility in an increasingly pluralistic and uncertain environment this, in turn fosters fear and anxiety. While often unnoticed, it is this anxiety that keeps the concept of identity from fading away.

That identity is of real concern in the social sciences is widely acknowledged. In 2000, Dennis Wrong wrote “one has the impression that ‘identity’ is the most widely used concept these days in the social sciences and humanities from which it has passed into popular discourse[2] (p. 10).” The next year Anthony Elliot beat the same drum in his book Concept of the Self, “the emergent direction of contemporary social theory is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the attention it lavishes upon the nature of the self, self-identity, and individual subjectivity (p. 8).” The year after that it was Mervyn Bendle who said, “the concept of ‘identity’ is central to much contemporary sociological analysis (p. 1),” and this year Lauren Leve (p. 1) made much the same claim for anthropology: “ “Identity” is a key term for anthropological analysis today.”

But what is it about the subject of identity that has gripped the minds and pens of writers and readers today? Could it be just as Lawler (2008, p. 1) claims when she writes that the idea of ‘identity’ is at the core of many of the troubles plaguing contemporary Western cultures? Perhaps, but this runs the risk of reductionism, and as she spent the next 148 pages of her book, Identity: Sociological Perspectives, further interrogating these problems, it is relatively safe to say Lawler would think so too.

Further, the question that is reasonably answered with ‘it’s at the heart of our problems’ is not quite the same as the one that asks what about it, identity, places it at the heart of Anglophone cultural denigration, as Lawler states. It would be more accurate to say that there are concerns with identity itself. Discourses around identity are generally accompanied by cries of ‘crisis’ (Erikson 1968), ‘loss’ (Weigert & Hastings 1977), ‘failure’ (Rose 1987), ‘disorder’ (Kluft & Foote 1999), ‘confusion’ (Tomlinson 1999), and ‘trouble’ (Lawler 2008).

Dennis Wrong (2000, p. 1) states the problem facing many modern individuals and their identity concisely: “identity reflects the freedom and mobility available under conditions of modernity, confronting individuals with a wide array of choices and holding them responsible for those that are made, which inevitably leads to uncertainties, regrets, and illusory sense of achievements, or outright “anomie” and “alienation” on the part of many people.” This has not always been the case, however.

Pre-modern identity was linked to one’s position in the social hierocracy (Baumeister 1991) and essentially fixed at birth. In what Parsons calls ascription (Abbott 1998, p. 23), a person inherited their status from their family, and almost everyone you encountered on a daily basis knew you and the family that spawned you. There was very little you could do to change this, and there was, therefore, no reason to give it much thought. “There was little sense of self-doubt, self-awareness, inner processes, or identity crisis (Baumeister 1991, p. 95).”

This changed with the industrial and democratic revolutions of the 1800s (Bendle 2002). The rise of the industrialized, urban community allowed slack into the societal guidelines and traditional regulations that had maintained the ill-thought and predominantly unnoticed ‘identity’ (for surely they had one even if no one had, yet, thought to investigate it) of pre-modern man.

This relaxing, or outright breakdown (Obeyesekere 1995), of the rules and codes of people’s lives (Bauman 2000, p. 7) provides modern people an almost limitless degree of freedom that was unheard of in previous generations (Baumeister & Muraven 1996, p. 406). This freedom came with a price, however. The modern identity is much more difficult and problematic than the identities of the past (Baumeister 1991, p. 77) because roles are no longer given. They are no longer something an individual is born with and need not expend energy thinking about. They must now be achieved through a series of deliberate demanding choices (Schwartz 2004, p. 110), individual ability, and effort (Abbott 1998). They must be personal and discovered for oneself (Taylor 1994), “sought, striven for, and forged out of fragments (Wrong 2000, p. 11),” by jural individuals (Lambek & Antze 1996, p. xxi). Establishing an identity has become an arduous epic quest.

As such there are some for whom this freedom to choose is instead a burden of choice (Schwartz 2004, Baumeister 1992). However, even for those who do not feel the weight of the task, for whom it is truly considered a right rather than an obligation, it is an ever-present reality. “Individuals must continually strive to be more efficient, faster, leaner, inventive and self-actualizing than they were previously—not sporadically, but day-in day-out (Elliot & Lamert 2006, p. 3).” People are required to exercise creative intelligence (Gross 2005, p. 292), finding or creating the rules to utilise “in a bricolage of their own identities (Lash 1999, p. 3).”

Richard Sennett called this ability to define one’s own individual identity the ‘privatization of personality’ (Abbott 1998, p. 83), and while this does allow people a far wider ability to ‘choose, change and adapt’ their identities, it also increases the pressure to do so (Baumeister & Muraven 1996). This is further complicated by the increased plurality of Western Society, which vastly increases the number of choices that have to be made (Beck & Lau 2005, p. 536) by providing a dizzying array of role, value and identity choices, but few obvious signposts to indicate how to make these choices.

These directional markers have been refer to as ‘value bases’ and are defined as values deemed right or good without any further justification (Baumeister 1991, Baumeister & Muraven 1996). They can, therefore, be held up as exemplary when future identity choices are required. Value bases not only serve to instruct individuals in proper decision making, in doing so they also accord those choices, and the ones making them, with value. Their loss can leave a decision maker uncertain about the right course of action, but also doubting the meaning of their decisions, regardless of what they may be. If there is no right or wrong answer, what does the eventual decision matter? This can lead to a feeling of insipid, vacuous meaninglessness, or identity confusion (Tomlinson 1999) about the choices they face. Schwartz (1995, p. 71) vividly describes the scenario as “Migrants of identity wander[ing] the land, trying on this or that identity, never sure, and perhaps under the circumstances, unable to attain familiar forms of authenticity.”

Constructing a value base is particularly slow and difficult in modern society (Seligman 1998). Unfortunately, detraditionalization[3] quickly and easily destroys them, creating a ‘value gap (Baumeister and Muraven 1996).’ Baumeister (1991, p.6) has called this gap “the single biggest problem for the Modern Western individual in making life meaningful.” He goes on to note “a major part of the modern response to this value gap is to elevate selfhood and the cultivation of identity into basic, compelling values.”

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in depth what has historically functioned as value bases. However, Baumeister (1991) has noted the most influential of them to have been religion, morality and tradition. As these have weakened with the encroachment of modernity others have been tested to replace them. Examples include the work ethic, the sacredness of the family, and parenthood (Baumeister and Muraven 1996). The most successful, however, and the one to be discussed here is the elevation of the self into a value base.

Because this puts morality and self-interest in the same basket for the first time (Baumeister & Muraven 1996, p. 410), some critics have called this focus on the self or identity egoism and narcissism. But as Elliot and Lamert (2006, p. 5) rightly state, these terms are too broad to be of use. Such allegations also miss the importance of the social scenario that necessitated the shift in value bases to begin with. Modern society has been struggling with fewer ways of justifying things as right and good (Baumeister 1991). Facing a series of value gaps that rendered decision making more difficult, or rather baseless and base, Moderns looked inward, to their new individualized[4] selves, for something that would give life meaning. They used the self to justify their actions (Baumeister 1992).  This had the side effect of intensifying the importance of self-understanding.

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