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April 6, 2013

So it’s been quite a while since my last update, and despite how busy I’ve felt, not half of what I’ve wanted to accomplish has been checked off the to-do list. I’m starting to think that maybe I’m just woefully inefficient in all aspects of life. Other than wasting time drinking beer. I’m still pretty solid in that department. Regardless, in the past week I’ve been doing a little research on an aspect of writing that heretofore has been under my radar.

Reviews. That one little word brings up a host of questions. Do negative reviews hurt sales? Do positive reviews give a boost? How many were actually written by living, breathing sentient beings? I’ve seen books that had been on the market for under a month with hundreds of reviews. Self-pubbed titles, not the latest blockbuster, mind you, with a 6 digit sales ranking. The novel has been out for less than 30 days and has garnered 200 reviews, all while ranked under 100,000 in total sales? The numbers don’t add up. However, those cases are in the minority. A few months ago there was a big hullabaloo when the existence and prevalence of review factories came to light, and since then I don’t recall seeing anything else like that on Amazon.

What I want to talk about relates to my experience with reviews. As of April 5, APB has 13 reviews on Amazon and TCV has 5. I also have other unique reviews on Goodreads, various blogs, and B&N’s Nook site. However, the vast majority of my meager income so far has come from Amazon, so I’ll stick with them for the purposes of this post. After doing a little digging, I believe that those numbers are generally in line with other writers in my position (i.e. self-pubbed, relatively few titles, in this for less than a year). I’m still in the stage where I have to solicit most of my reviews, which I do through reader blogs. I’ve never paid for a review, but I have offered free copies of my book in exchange for a reader’s honest opinion. With all the new books on the market (everyone and their mother seems to be publishing these days), it’s hard to get a reader, even one with a voracious appetite for the written word, to give up their time to read a total unknown. When I am able to convince a kind soul to read my work, I honestly can’t wait to see what they have to say. It’s one thing for my friends to blow smoke up my ass and tell me I’m great, but I usually get actual constructive feedback from total strangers, people who have no problem telling me how it is (though my friend can be pretty brutal…makes me wonder). Some of the reviews have been near scathing, and for a second made me wonder if I should just throw my computer out of the window and head to the bar. However, after I could see through the cascade of tears, I realized that contained in that review was some damn good advice about how to improve my product.

And that is my point. Bad reviews can be the best thing that ever happened to a writer. People who don’t know you and don’t really care about your feelings give the honest, insightful critiques a writer needs to improve their craft and hopefully stand out from the masses. Writing is a tough gig, harder than I ever imagined. To get ahead, you’ve got to offer the best product you can possibly produce. Anything less, and people will move on to the next aspiring hack. A writer needs to have thick skin, and find the gold in every 1 star review. Remember, trying to please everyone is a recipe for failure. There are too many readers with different tastes, so do whatever you do best, write in your own voice, and anyone who doesn’t like it can piss off (hopefully after buying your entire catalogue).

Take Dan Brown for example. Arguably the most successful American scribe of the past decade. The Da Vinci Code sold something like 80 million copies. 80 million. I read somewhere that the guy can’t even fly coach anymore for all the fans bothering him. Must be nice. Anyway, a quick check of Amazon just told me that out of 4,309 reviews for his blockbuster novel, 759, or around 17%,  are 1 star, and include descriptions such as “inept”. They’re talking about Dan Brown here. Maybe you think his style is rambling, simplistic, or boring, but you can’t argue with sales numbers. Every new novel he puts out is guaranteed to top the charts. The guy’s basically printing money in this crappy economy. The Lost Symbol is more of the same; 3,131 reviews with 623 (almost 20%) of them giving 1 star. Even the most successful writers have their share of critics (I realize that people who didn’t like the book are more likely to leave feedback than those who did, but you get my point).

I love reviews. Good or bad, there’s something to be learned from every single one. The hard part in today’s market is getting reviews while mired in obscurity. While you’re still an unknown, you’ve got to pound the (digital) pavement, put your work in readers faces (politely, of course), and grow your virtual presence. I read on Lindsay Buroker’s blog (a fantastic source of information, by the way), that you need to hand-sell the first 1,000 copies before Amazon’s algorithms kick in and start helping. If this is true, and I have no way to prove or disprove it, that’s quite a few emails and review requests to send out. So get moving, keep writing, and if some mean reviewer (who actually took the time to read your book) says some bad things about your writing, be grateful.

Cheers to you all, and I hope the sun is shining, wherever you are.

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