How a Negative Book Review Can Be a Good Thing

“…poorly written, reads like a first draft of Mary Sue fanfiction where the author inserted himself into the main character to get back at all the bullies in his life…”

What you’ve just read was an actual review for my book, “Dodger’s Doorway”. Seems harsh, right? How can someone be so brash and blunt when reviewing an independent author’s first piece of work? I mean, give us a break, right? We’re out here putting our sweat and blood into our writing; the least you could do is cut us some slack when reviewing our books.

Well, hold on a minute. While it does indeed suck to read such a negative review about a project that I’ve worked on for a long time, I can’t help but feel grateful. If you want me to be completely honest, I get more annoyed when I see a negative review on my book that was clearly written by a troll. For example, this was a great little paragraph that someone left on my book along with a two-star rating a few years ago:

“I thought this book way about the baseball team, the Dodgers. BOY WAS I WRONG! I only read books on sports, so I didn’t enjoy it, but it seems like a great read for a kid struggling with obesity. I highly recommend it for anyone trying to coax their son away from the compute screen. It is like a mix of the “Star Wars” cartoon series and “The Chronicles of Narnia”, mostly because it is set inside a closet.”

Clearly, Ebert here was just trolling. I shouldn’t be bothered by his review because it’s fake. But I’m more annoyed with this than the previous review I posted, mainly because it’s a waste. That two-star rating is stuck on my book forever, and even Amazon said they couldn’t remove it. The worst part of all this is that I didn’t learn anything from that review except that some people can be real a**holes.

When I see or hear a negative review on my book, I get the feeling of defeat. It honestly sucks when someone doesn’t enjoy my work. But it’s nobody’s fault. People have their preferences. However, if I see a negative review because of the poor writing or weak storytelling, then I begin to look at things differently. I see this as a learning opportunity, something that I can use to hone my abilities for future projects.

I fully welcome negative reviews to my work as long as there is something I can learn from them. Give me a two-star rating, but at least provide some helpful feedback! Does that sound crazy? Of course it does. Most people will scoff and think, “Well, we need to support independent authors for trying to get their work out there. Negative reviews aren’t necessary.” Um, no. If you truly think that self-published authors are exempt from negative feedback, then you are in for a harsh surprise in your future writing career.

EDIT: Apparently, people are confused and think that my previous paragraph means that people are obligated to leave feedback when writing book reviews. I’m here to say that in no way, shape, or form is it mandatory. It is just a small personal request. Ultimately, it is up to the reviewers’ discretion if they want to share feedback or not.

Everybody makes mistakes. When you’re a writer, you’re going to become best friends with either an eraser, a red pen, or the delete button. You need to ensure that you are creating the best piece of work you can before sending it off for publication. While the occasional error can slip through the cracks every now and then, it doesn’t mean you can simply write a first draft of a book and then immediately start selling it. If you try to do that, you might have some angry or frustrated readers. What happens then? They start spreading the word via their groups of friends, their social media profiles, and possibly some book review channels, such as Amazon or Goodreads.

That negative review is permanently linked with my book. There’s no way to get rid of it. I’ll admit, I’m a bit upset that this blemish will forever taint the name of “Dodger’s Doorway”, but if it wasn’t for that review, I probably never would’ve seriously reconsidered and rebuilt my career as a writer.

Once I saw that review, I went back and re-read “Dodger’s Doorway”. The reviewer was right about most of her feedback. I had left some plot-holes open, the spelling and grammar was hit-or-miss, and overall, the story was just weak. I couldn’t believe that I had once thought my book was a literary masterpiece. It was just… bad. I had to do something. I had to go back and use my newly-developed writing experience to re-invent the story. A few years later, I released the second edition of “Dodger’s Doorway”.

Looking back, I wonder what would’ve happened if I never saw that review. Would someone have eventually told me the truth? Would I crack open the book one day and stare appallingly at the horribly written story before my eyes? Probably not. That negative review was a wake-up call. It inspired me to take extra care in my writing (it also taught me the value of hiring an editor and not rushing to publication).

 

So what should you do when you see a one or two star rating for your book along with a negative review? Let it sink in. Read what the reviewer is saying. Does it sound like legitimate criticism? How can you use it to improve your work for the future? In time, you might come to appreciate this negative, yet honest feedback.

It’s important to remember that if you’re willing to put your work out there for the world to see, you better be prepared for some harsh feedback every now and then. Luckily, you’ll develop a thick skin as a writer (or as any kind of artist).

In the meantime, all you can do is EDIT, EDIT, EDIT your work so that it’s as perfect as can be before you publish it, and if you see a negative review, figure out how you can turn it into a learning opportunity.

 

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Self-Publishing vs. “Traditional” Publishing

For most writers, the ultimate goal is to get published. One of the greatest feelings in the world is holding that first hard copy of your work in your hands. You think to yourself, “Wow, this is the result of my hard work. I’ve accomplished something!” If you’ve had your work published, congratulations! You deserve every bit of success that comes your way! If you’ve self-published, congratulations! You deserve every bit of success that comes your way!

Yes, I did intentionally repeat myself. In my eyes, whether you publish traditionally or independently, you deserve credit. Some people don’t see much of a difference between the two, but in certain circles, there seems to be this weird notion that, if you self-publish, you’re not a real writer.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull****.

I could go on and on about how independent and self-published books deserve just as much appreciation as their traditionally published counterparts, but I think it’s more important rather to discuss the main differences between the two. I think the negativity towards self-publishing stems mostly from lack of knowledge (isn’t that usually the case?). So in case you’re curious about the differences, or you’re wondering which route to go with when you decide to publish, here’s a handy little rundown.

Traditional publishing

Getting published through a major company like Scholastic, HarperCollins, or Penguin Random House is almost like applying for college. You have to prove your merit. Not any book can make it through the process. In fact, it’s safe to say that a majority of manuscripts that are submitted each year are rejected. Simply put, publishers want something that sells. If they don’t think one story will sell, then they move onto the next. They have literally thousands of options to choose from.

You don’t necessarily submit your manuscript to a publishing company unless you first have a literary agent. In order to get an agent to represent you, you need one outstanding manuscript and one enticing query letter (think of this being like a cover letter that you send for a prospective job). I’ll explain the process of sending out to literary agents in the future, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s a lengthy process for those who want to get published the traditional way.

When you publish through an agent/company, you relinquish some creative control over your manuscript. You may think, “This story is my baby, and I won’t let anyone change a thing!” Well, depending on your publisher, you might be making some pretty drastic modifications. You have to decide if you’re willing to adapt to the publisher’s needs, or if you simply cannot bend to someone else’s whims. Don’t think you can get away with putting your foot down and saying “No changes!” either. Like I mentioned earlier, there are countless other prospective writers who will not only make whatever changes to the manuscript that a publisher desires, but they’d probably do so while stripping down naked and dancing around a headless chicken.

With all this hard work going into the process, you may think, “Why would I even bother going through a publishing company?” It usually pays off. The publisher worries about most of the actual publishing process. All you need to do is provide them with the manuscript, and they’ll handle the marketing, the cover designs, and the hassle of putting the book on the store shelves. All this usually comes free-of-charge, and you get to sit back and accept a nice paycheck every now and then.

That’s traditional publishing in a nutshell. People like J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Dan Brown, and James Patterson have had to go through it, and you may be lucky enough to do the same eventually. But what about the other path? What’s self-publishing like? Why would anyone bother choosing that way when they can instead work on perfecting their manuscript and query letter for a literary agent?

Self-Publishing

In essence, self-publishing gives you the most control. You have a handle on virtually everything that happens with your book. You write it, you edit it, you format it, you pick a cover, you sell it, and you market it. The only things you don’t do are print the actual book and distribute it. Nowadays, self-publishing platforms have even made it so you can pay them to format and edit it. It’s slowly becoming a very streamlined and easy-to-follow (albeit expensive) process.

Here’s how self-publishing worked for me: I had my manuscript all ready to go, and I submitted it to CreateSpace (an affiliate of Amazon). I paid them to format the interior so that the chapters looked all nice and fancy and the chapters were listed in a table of contents at the beginning. I also paid them to design a cover for me. While it was pricy, it was definitely worth it since my book came out looking fantastic.

I ordered a physical proof of my book and gave it a quick look-through to see if it fit my vision. Once it was all good to go, I approved the proof and my book went on sale! With CreateSpace, any time someone ordered a copy of my book, it would be printed and shipped to them. A portion of the sale would go to the platform, and the rest would go to me as monthly royalty checks. My customers had the option to purchase it through several outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads’ websites, but I also purchased a bunch of copies and sold them myself (mostly to friends and family).

It seems easy, right? It’s very simple on paper, but the process can be a headache when you realize you have to be an excellent salesperson. I’ve had to contact numerous bookstores, cafes, and libraries to see if they would stock my book (I’m currently waiting to hear back from Barnes & Noble to see if they’ll add it to their inventory – they have an extremely lengthy process to stock self-published books). The biggest sales move in my author career was when I opened a booth and sold copies of my book at a local comic convention last month. It was a great experience, and it taught me A LOT about preparation, marketing, and salesmanship, but it was such a pain in the ass because of one major aspect: taxes.

At the end of the year, if you’ve sold copies of your self-published book, you may get a tax form that states how much you owe the IRS. Yeah, even if you sell just one copy, you may have to pay taxes on it. When I wanted to sell my book at comic con, I actually had to create a business entity for my authorship due to tax reasons. This was easily the most frustrating and tedious aspect of my author “career”, and I caution all writers to consider this before self-publishing.

On the bright side, you get to write off a lot of stuff when you create a business as a self-published author. My comic con booth was a write-off. So was all the merchandise I purchased. You’d be surprised at what kind of tax breaks businesses get. However, I’m not a tax professional, so I can’t say that you’ll be just as lucky as I am. I highly recommend self-published authors to speak with their tax advisor to see if there’s a way to turn their writing into a business to benefit themselves.

When you look at both sides of the coin, you see that both traditional and self-publishing come with their pros and cons. You should decide which road to take based on your own preferences. I advise you to consider two things when choosing how to publish:

  • DO NOT pick one over the other because you think one will make you richer/more successful. There have been successful self-published authors and unsuccessful traditionally published authors, and vice versa.
  • DO NOT let the stigma of self-publishing make you avoid this route. As I said earlier in this article, independent and self-published books deserve just as much appreciation as their traditionally published counterparts. Just because some people turn their nose up against self-publishing does not negate the fact that self-published authors have still achieved their dreams and created a work of art.

The last thing I’ll say is don’t be afraid of rejection or failure. Publishing won’t guarantee monetary success, but you should at least try. If you send your manuscript to a publisher and they reject it, the most that will happen is they send you a letter telling you that they’re passing on representing you. If you self-publish a story and it doesn’t sell well, you just didn’t make a ton of money. Either way, you can at least relish in the fact that you created something. Not many people can say they’ve done the same. Give yourself a pat on the back. You earned it.

 

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