Thursday, August 5, 2010

The curse of reviews - for the author, that is

How much do reviews matter? I am a published novelist (Aus and UK) and I AGONISE over them. Good ones make my heart soar; bad ones depress me for days. So far I’ve had my fair share of both ... Should I get myself so worked up over them? Do they significantly affect sales? Is a bad review better than no review at all? And as an agent do you watch for and similarly exult/agonise over your clients’ reviews??

There's an old chestnut that says 'Any publicity is good publicity' and I adhere to that belief. Having been a bookseller at one stage, I can attest to the fact that most people remember that a book was in the book section of the paper, and beyond that they don't remember details - including what it's called and who the author is. For publicists the important thing is getting a picture of the cover in - because they know, as the rest of us should, that people will remember what the cover looks like more than any other detail.

I've seen authors - wonderful writers - so distressed about a bad review and they probably don't understand my usual response ('Meh'). But that response is borne of several years witnessing that reviews really don't make a dent one way or the other because most people can't remember the content of a review when they go to a bookshop. Think about how many people would actually read the books section of a newspaper and then how many of them are going to read the review for your book - they aren't big numbers. I can't remember someone ever telling me that I shouldn't buy a certain book because they read a bad review of it (and if they did, I wouldn't let that influence my purchasing decision) but I can remember lots of people telling me that they loved a certain book and I've then bought it as a result. Word of mouth is far more powerful than a review will ever be. If you wrote a great story - if you believe you wrote a great story - then what do you think the word of mouth will be?

You say that you've had both good and bad reviews, but I wonder if you've stopped to consider that the book you wrote has been both positively and negatively appraised, and from the sounds of it you set the same store by both types of appraisal. In goddess' name, WHY? Surely the fact that there are differences of opinion about your work tell you that no response to your book is 'good' or 'bad' - just as your book isn't 'good' or 'bad'. Each reader has a different experience of the story, and that's what the reviews reflect.

You may also have noticed that reviews of fiction tend to be on the emotional side, compared with reviews of non-fiction and children's books. That's because novelists - often unpublished - review fiction, and they tend to review the author as well as the book. Non-fiction reviews usually stick to the subject matter and the way it's delivered. You'll rarely see a non-fiction review saying that the author is God's gift to writing (or the opposite) yet statements about the author often appear in fiction reviews.

My opinion about some fiction reviewers - and this is probably a controversial statement to make, but my magic shield of anonymity protects me (although I've said it in person to other people, without the shield) - is that they're jealous. Particularly if they're reviewing first or second novels and they're unpublished themselves. Reviewing a first novel - 'well, why should that mug have been given a contract when I can't get one' - is fraught with green-tinged possibilities, as is reviewing a second: 'it could still be a fluke for aforementioned untalented mug'. By novel number three it's harder to pretend that the mug is simply getting away with it, and the tone of the reviewing may shift accordingly. This is, obviously, an unscientific analysis and you'll note I said SOME not ALL fiction reviewers.

So, to answer your questions in a concise fashion:
- It's understandable that you get yourself worked up over them but I believe your energies would be better directed towards your writing. After all, 9.75 out of 10 times, someone else's response/reaction to you has nothing to do with you. Who are these people whose opinions are affecting you so strongly?
- No, they don't affect sales in any great - or measurable - way. No doubt at the local indie bookshop there's some tergiversating about one new Australian novel over another, and a review may swing that decision. I suppose that could happen a handful of times for each book. But word of mouth is far more powerful.
- Yes, a bad review is better than no review at all, because it's hard enough to get a review - if they're going to put your name and your book's name and, possibly, its cover in a publication for people to see and perhaps remember, then yay!
- I watch for reviews but the agonising/exulting within me happens out of empathy - I don't actually feel it myself, I feel it for my authors. Because I know that they'll feel the way you do, even though I try to talk them out of it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had a swag of good reviews for my first novel, in fact more than my fair share, and I was grateful for the coverage. In typical writerly fashion I zeroed in on the occasional negative comment, magnified it and brooded long and hard. I came to the conclusion that it was more about the reviewer than my book. They don't want to be seen as being too positive or gushy because in some perverse way it may undermine their critical reputation. As they came in I filed them away and haven't looked at them again. I don't have the slightest urge to go back and reread them, ever. I think this is because they don't offer me any insights as an author and because all that reveiw/interview/publicity stuff is really about selling books. My job is to write them. I don't feel a personal connection to any of the publicity. It's not 'me', it's a skin I put on and take off when and as needed.
I also think, well, these very experienced publishers liked it, many in the company read it and liked it, they are backing it so it MUST have something. And so many reviews are really about taste more than anything else.