I still remember my first review. It was 2020, deep in the shadow of the pandemic, and I had taken the indie plunge after years of pursuing traditional publication. I had experienced all the peaks and valleys—and hopes and tears—of that ride: getting the agent, submitting the manuscript, and ultimately reinventing myself from the ashes of a ruined dream. Now, here I was, about to “go live” with readers who were not my mother, husband, or best friend, or even agents or potential editors—just bona fide strangers reading my book on the sofa or while tucked into bed. What would they think of this creation I had so labored over? Would they like it? Hate it? Would they even finish it?
That first review came by way of NetGalley, and then made its way to Goodreads. Five stars, from a reader who “loved it!” An auspicious start, I thought. Most of us know the thrill of discovering that our creation, crafted in solitude, has delighted a disinterested reader. And wouldn’t it be nice if the story always ended this way? But no—most of us have also experienced the opposite, that sinking feeling when reading a review from someone who hated the book, was offended by some aspect of it, or, worst of all, just found it boring.
What can we make of such a diversity of opinion? Does that very diversity indicate that a review is as much a commentary on the reader’s sensibilities as an evaluation of our beloved tome? How do we distinguish between the two? And what do we make of stars? I’ve received plenty of three-star ratings coupled with glowing review text. Each reader seems to have their own system for allocating stars, and yet, taken in the aggregate, those stars will influence prospective readers. Because stars are an objective measure of quality, right?
Maybe not. Here’s my approach.
First of all, I hold each review at an arm’s length so I can examine it dispassionately. If a reader hated my book, are issues of craft implicated? Is there something I can learn about reader expectations? If they loved it, what was it that really hit home? I examine my reactions, as well. Am I missing something valuable by invalidating this reviewer’s point of view? And, on the flip side, just because one reader loved my book doesn’t mean that I’m a confirmed genius.
A professional review may merit more scrutiny. The tendency can be to either capitulate to criticisms from these sophisticated readers or to reject them emotionally. I adopt a stance of inquiry, allowing me to mull possible areas for growth while refraining from abdicating my authority. The professional critic is a skilled reader, but still a reader, and not omnipotent. And yet they are very likely to have keen advice on craft worth considering if you want to grow.
Navigating stars is trickier for me. My own policy, which I stole from Katherine Arden, is to always give five stars if I liked a book enough to review it. Every author knows how hard it is to craft any book. I find those three-star ratings with glowing commentary deeply frustrating because, as a businessperson, I know that some prospective readers never get to the substance of the review. In my personal universe, stars would not exist, but since they do, I take a deep breath and keep my good humor.
I have found that certain books invite more controversy—and, therefore, greater diversity of opinion. These books raise interesting questions about marketability: how much do we change our vision to conform to reader expectations?
Here’s a rave for my recent release, which pushes boundaries both in terms of genre and voice: “Honestly, this book was a work of art.... An easy five-star read, and I can’t wait for the rest of the Canary House Mysteries.” And for the same book, this one-star zinger: “There’s nothing about this book that I liked.”
I also got a few DNFs, which stands for “did not finish,” a new phenomenon for me. Apparently, the accepted wisdom is that if a reader makes it past the 51% mark of your book, they consider themselves entitled to pass judgment on it.
The process of soul-searching that ensued did not take long. The eccentricities of this book were intentional, and I had prepared myself for the reality that some readers would not appreciate having their expectations upset. For me, having artistic independence is one of the biggest benefits of being indie. But not all authors will feel this way, and, if you get a book that incites more controversy than you’re willing to accept, that’s valuable information for future creations.
Ironically, The Starlet Letter is already drawing more readers than my best-reviewed novel, Elena the Brave, which is also my worst seller. Does that mean that reviews don’t affect sales? Of course they do, but perhaps not quite in the way we imagine they will. Prospective readers must navigate reviews just as we authors must, and most of them are good at “reading between the lines.” When a reviewer is rude or just inarticulate, most people will judge their opinion accordingly.
In the end, we must each discover our personal relationship with being reviewed. When undertaken consciously, this process can be valuable and can make our creative lives more empowering. Sparking this inquiry was the main goal of this article, but there’s something about a little water-cooler talk that helps, doesn’t it?
Writing a book is a great accomplishment, known only to those who can actually call themselves authors. Writing good novels is a lifelong pursuit that requires patience, perseverance, and ideally a sense of humor. All authors get bad reviews sometimes, and the camaraderie inspired by knowing that can help on a bad day. If you extract the gold from each review, and leave any toxicity by the wayside, even bad reviews can be good news.
Julie Mathison is the founder of Starr Creek Press and the author of four novels for young readers.
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