When you first get published, peers will tell you, “Don’t read your reviews.” We nod, completely understanding how distracting and potentially damaging it could be to our artistic psyche.
And then we all ignore that advice and read them anyway.
How can we not? They’re everywhere these days and we’re curious, of course. Writing is such a solitary job, and aside from our family and maybe a close friend, we typically have no idea how well our book is received. Even if the sales numbers don’t look good, it might still be beloved.
So we take a little peek…
And before you know it, two hours have passed by and you’ve found yourself all over the Internet.
But besides literary reviews and Amazon reviews, there are also editorial reviews and, well, family and friend reviews.
So, how does one manage all these reviews and keep yourself halfway sane?
I’ve got some tips for you. It’s manageable, I promise, but the right mindset makes all the difference in the world. The right lens. Or as I always say, a good filter.
LITERARY JOURNAL REVIEWS
These have always been the most terrifying for me. Many of my books have had the honor of being reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and I was glad I never knew ahead of time. My publishers always alerted me when they came out, and forwarded me a copy because I didn’t subscribe.
One reason I never subscribed was because I didn’t want to get into “comparison” mode. It can be easy to read great or bad reviews of other writers and start comparing yourself to them.
Publisher’s Weekly scared me the most because I knew one thing for sure: these people knew books. They breathed books. It was what they did All Day Long.
But because they know books, I had to come to terms with the fact that they knew what they were talking about. Not that they were always right. But they had reading chops, if that is a fair way to put it.
That meant I had to put at least some stock into what they were saying. I had to read with an eye toward their gift on sensing if a book was working or not.
The hard part of this is that of course all things are a matter of taste, and art of any kind of subjective. But what I started seeing as I read more and more literary journal reviews is that the reviewers seemed to be more specific in their praises and criticisms. They could put “their finger on it.”
And here’s what really won me over to really paying attention to them:
In one of my early books, I had an editor who I thought was really good, but in one instance, I noticed he’d added a line to a paragraph. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel like it fit at all. It was also, in my opinion, poorly written. In short, it was a bad attempt at a metaphor.
But being new and green, I decided, “Who am I to question a seasoned editor?”
So I left it in.
Fast forward to the review of it in the literary journal. It was a very positive review of the book. But one thing totally blew me away. It was a simple observation: “Except for the occasional strange and displaced line (and they quoted THAT LINE!).
Holy cow! They spotted it! They knew it didn’t fit!
Well, that did a couple of things for me. It taught me to trust my instincts. And to speak up if I don’t think something is working, even if it’s an editor’s suggestion. I have found that 95% of the time, a good editor nails it. But this time, I should’ve said something.
It also showed me what an eye these professional critics have. So I pay attention. I don’t hang my whole career on them. But I value their opinion, even if their opinion causes me to take a harder look at what I’m doing.
ONLINE AND BLOG REVIEWS
These review sites are typically run by avid readers, librarians, bookstore owners, bloggers and others who love books and enjoy reviewing them. They are invaluable to getting your book into the hands of readers. Word-of-mouth will always be your best friend as a writer.
These are also great because there are so many genre-specific sites. Love Amish Fiction? There are whole blogs and websites dedicated to it. I used tons of these reviews to tweet and quote. For the most part, they were helpful in that way.
But occasionally, things can go sideways. I once had a very popular site dedicated to romance and romantic suspense criticize nearly every suspense book I released for not having any strong romance in it. It was bad review after bad review.
Well, it’s because my suspense books aren’t romantic suspense.
They never did catch on to it. And the reviews were beginning to feel personal, as if I was out to insult them with my lack of a strong romantic storyline.
Those are the ones that you have to just walk away from and hope that there are readers who see it and go, “Oh, that sounds like I’d love it since I don’t like romantic suspense.”
For the most part, though, these are reviews that you can use to help spread the word about your book. And if they reach out and ask you for an interview, do it! They’re telling you that they want to promote your book! They like you! I had many sites and blogs that supported me my entire fiction writing career. I couldn’t be more thankful.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. No matter what Publisher’s Weekly or The Suspense Zone or anyone else says about your books, what do consumers think? What do readers love or hate?
These are by far the trickiest reviews to navigate. Thankfully, long ago, one of my mentors told me this about reviews: “You’ll see one star and someone will say really horrible things about your writing. Even about you. Don’t believe them. You’ll also see five star reviews declaring you’re the best writer out there. Don’t believe them. The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
I always appreciated that. It’s easy to put too much stock in reviews, good and bad. But reader reviews are important. These are who you are targeting, after all, with your writing. These are the people you want to pick up your book.
It’s difficult terrain to manage your way over. Some writer friends never read them. Some read every single one. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t typically hop on Amazon or Barnes and Noble until I’ve got some distance between myself and the project. It’ll be a few months after the book is released, usually as I’m on to the next project, before I’ll go see if anyone is reviewing it and what they’re saying.
By then I have enough emotional distance to treat it more like data. I search for patterns. If I keep seeing, “The plot lags,” then I probably need to pay attention to that. And I even pay attention to patterns that are good. Those “samplings” give me the best indication of what I’m doing right and what I might be able to improve upon.
That’s, of course, after you have to wade through a lot of weirdness. You’ll see things like, “I hate reading and now I hate it more.” Okay… “I don’t like the font used in the title.” Right. “I thought this was erotica. I’m disappointed.” So good luck with all of that.
But at the end of the day, you can’t make everyone happy. And most people who read reviews before they buy know a legitimate review. Some people don’t care what others think and just read what they want to.
Years ago there used to be this amazing reviewer on Amazon. I think all she did was review books. I bet she read one or two a day. That’s how fast she was reviewing books. And she was good at it. You could tell she really read them, and her reviews were thoughtful and informative.
Too informative. Every single time, in every review, she gave away the plot twist and the ending.
It had the writing community in an uproar. A bunch of writers complained and went to Amazon. I never heard what happened, but her reviews stopped showing up. I hated that she gave away the ending. It made my stomach sick. But I do miss her reviews. It’s really interesting to read what someone else thinks of your book, especially when they’ve read it with a careful eye. That’s my favorite kind of review—minus the plot twist reveal at the end.
So you’ve written your book, made your deadline (Of course you did! That’s how professional you are!) and now you wait. And wait. And wait. Editorial reviews can take weeks. It’s a really hard waiting time. Partly it’s because you’re at your most vulnerable as a writer. And your work is too. These are the first people to see what you’ve done. How you’ve triumphed. And where you’ve failed.
Man, I hated those waits.
The longer they were, the more I began to think things were going south. Time was never a good indication of how close I’d hit my target, but it felt like it.
And then I’d get the email or phone call. Sometimes publishers wanted to talk to me by phone before they sent their notes. Sometimes they’d send notes and then want to talk. Every publisher was different.
I was so fortunate through the years to have the very best editors. Without exception, they each started their notes with everything they liked about the book. And then they would ease into what needed attention.
I’ll never forget on my third book, I had an editor named Erin Healy. The first page of notes was everything she liked and thought I was nailing. But the letter was four pages long. And pages 2-4 had suddenly dropped from 12-point type to 8-point.
I loved her for that. I loved that she was sensitive enough to try to keep the page count manageable for me. But her notes on that book made the book what it is today, and launched my most beloved comedy series that is still read all these years later. That book was Boo.
But let me share a little piece of advice on these editorial notes. They can be really hard to stomach when you first read them. So I do two things.
When I first see them come in, I don’t open them.
I always wait until first thing the next day. This gives my mind time to prepare itself. I have to get in the right mindset.
Second, after I read them, I give myself 24 hours before I do anything: before I call the editor, before I open the manuscript, before I even talk about them.
Some notes can feel so wrong. Some you want to automatically defend. Something rises up on you, like a bear defending her cub, and you can sort of feel this roar come over you and out of you. All you want to do is defend yourself, your work and your choices.
So you have to let it settle a little bit. You have to think it through.
Slowly, most if not all of the notes begin to make a little more sense. You can see it in a new light. You’re considering it with a different attitude.
It’s really amazing how it all absorbs into you. And those notes that you don’t agree with or would like clarification on can be discussed with a clear head and open mind.
Every editor has brought their own unique skill set to each project they’ve worked on with me. I cherish all of them. They’re still friends to this day. I miss working with them on a regular basis. And they made me the writer I am.
There’s no doubt about it. Writing takes a kind of emotional resilience that most of us aren’t born with. It takes practice to be able to fight your way through criticism, praise and constructive evaluation. A solid mindset going in will help, especially realizing no matter what, “It’s not the end of the world. You are not your review.” A group of friends and writing partners you can lean into will be invaluable—somehow you’ll come out laughing about it. And make a promise to yourself that you’ll keep going. You’ll keep getting better.
That’s what I love about writing. There’s never a moment where you can say, “I’ve learned it all.” There’s always room to grow and do more and that’s a challenge I’m always willing to accept.