Upon Further Review

I was chatting with my friend Ed the other day on the topic of reviews. Having just self-published a novel, it’s been a topic much on my mind. At some point in the discussion, we swapped links of the most scornful reviews of our previous works.

A couple of years back I published an interactive novella, Choice of the Star Captain, through the publisher Choice of Games. The app was generally well received – across multiple platforms and review sites, it averaged something like 4.4 stars out of 5 on well over a hundred reviews, and that included a bunch of people who rated it a “1” because they couldn’t get the app to load. Point is, there was decent evidence that I had not, in fact, produced the worst interactive story ever written.

But there was one review… hoo boy. The reviewer would have given me negative stars had that been a choice. His review was lengthy, detailed, and uncompromisingly scathing. I felt as though I must have accidentally kicked his dog and set his pants on fire sometime in the past. It was pure, lovingly-crafted vitriol. Not only had I written the worst interactive story experience in mankind’s history, I had single-handedly set back the evolution of the written word by several years all by myself.

That review also served the valuable purpose of severing most of my emotional ties to strangers’ views of my work. As tempting as it can be to make a personal investment into others’ opinions, it’s ultimately a losing proposition. For every great work out there, someone is going to hate it. For instance, here are some quotes from reviews of Pulitzer-prize-winning Anthony Doerr’s wonderful book All the Light We Cannot See:

“It felt like reading a cookbook. I didn’t feel that invested in the characters, which was probably a good thing since the plot sputtered out and died.”

“Tedious as a catalogue but without the point.”

“This is the most unsatisfying, lazy book I have read in years.”

I think of these reviews, leveled at what I consider one of the best books I have ever read, and use them as armor against what I know is coming. And what’s coming, inevitably, are similar reviews about my own book. Right now, even as I type, two people I don’t know have marked The Ventifact Colossus as “reading this now” on Goodreads. It’s entirely possible that one or both of them will grace the review page with sharp-edged complaints about the book. If it’s not one of them, it will be someone else down the line. Heck, there’s a decent chance that a less-than-pleasing review will come from someone reading this blog entry, right now. And when it happens?

To use my 10-year-old’s current favorite phrase: “meh.”

In fact, as Ed pointed out, bad reviews are about as valuable as good ones as long as they don’t make up too big a percentage. (It starts to look suspicious when all the reviews are 5-star love-fests.) If you read the book and think it merited 2 or 3 stars, please, still go ahead and write up a review. I promise not to take it personally. What I *will* do is mine it for ideas and improvements I can take away and carry to my next book.

All of this is not to say that I won’t feel happy when I read the reviews of people who liked the book. I certainly will; I am a human being, after all. But the book is out of my hands now. I’ve put it in its little wicker basket and sent it down a river full of churning rapids and hungry piranhas. It’s bound to get a little beaten-up and chewed-on over the course of its life.

But I can live with that.

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