Thursday, May 15, 2014

On Reading your One-Star Reviews...because Your Book is a Work of Art

by: Julie Cantrell

(Today, author Julie Cantrell provides a counterpoint to Randy Ingermanson's blog post last month, which likened reading your one-star reviews to eating rat poison. Even as I struggle to decide which reviews I'll read as a now-published author, I find both arguments compelling. Again--if you're an author and you take Julie's approach, please share in the comments! If you can't handle reading those one-stars, go ahead and admit that too if you want! And a massive thanks to both talented authors for sharing their strategies with us. --Heather Day Gilbert)

Julie Cantrell’s debut novel, Into the Free, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and went on to become both a New York Times and USA TODAY bestseller. It received two Christy awards, including Book of the Year, as well as the Mississippi Library Association Fiction Award. Like Into the Free, the sequel, When Mountains Move, was named a top read of 2013 by USA TODAY and LifeWay Christian Stores. Julie is writing her third novel from her home in Oxford, Mississippi where she operates a sustainable organic farm with her family. 
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The Author as Artist
by: Julie Cantrell

What happens when we watch a film? View a painting? Listen to music? We not only expose ourselves to a work of art, we react to it at an emotional level. And if we’re willing, those emotions can take us to a higher intellectual plane as well, nudging us to think more deeply about our own beliefs and actions in this world.

Each person reacts differently to each piece of art based on personal experiences, psyche, and mood at the time we view it. Art is meant to evoke strong reactions – whether positive or negative – and as artists, writers must accept and acknowledge both extremes from our readers without taking any of that feedback personally.

As a novelist, I separate myself from my work. It’s not always easy to do because these characters become such an integrated part of me by the time the stories hit shelves, but I never take a review to heart. I don’t swell when the books are well-received, and I don’t plummet when they aren’t.

I rarely read my reviews, to be honest. But sometimes I do visit Amazon and skim through the latest reader posts. While there, I don’t just read the five-star reviews, as some authors insist is the only way to maneuver these minefields with my soul intact. Instead, I go straight to the one stars and then work my way up. 

Today, Amazon lists my debut novel, Into the Free, as having 402 reviews. Here’s how it breaks down.

            5 Star               305
            4 Star               69
3 Star               17       
2 Star               7
1 Star               4

So what did the folks who hated this book have to say about it? I want to know. Not because I want to get my feelings hurt, I am human after all, but because I enjoy hearing other people’s opinions.

One reader said, “This book has a worldly view of Christianity” and advised readers not to waste their money or their time on this story, while another gave it a one-star because: “This is a Christian book.”

Another said folks should read it “only if extremely bored,” while another thought the level of abuse described in the beginning was so intense she could “not make it past the first chapter.”

See how subjective these are? Those are the comments that make up the four one-star reviews this book received. And each one contradicts the other. It’s either too Christian or not Christian enough, too boring or too dramatic.

How can a writer please every reader? The simple answer is, we can’t. (Click to Tweet!) And we shouldn’t even try. Our job is to provide the art and then to sit back and let readers react as they may.

I value those one-star reviews as much as I do the five-star ones. Why? Because those readers FELT something when they read this book. The words I put on paper stirred their emotions on a strong level and got them thinking. That is my goal as an author. Not to convince everyone to feel or to think like me, most of my characters don’t even think like me, but to get my readers to feel and to think. Period. 


Joan said...

Julie - I have often discovered books I want to read by reading one star reviews. People are different and have different tastes. We won't please everyone.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Thank you for sharing today, Julie, and I love your mindset here. I loved this sentence: "Art is meant to evoke strong reactions – whether positive or negative – and as artists, writers must accept and acknowledge both extremes from our readers without taking any of that feedback personally." Thanks for sharing this food for thought, as we know just about every author will one day get a 1-3 star review and have to know how to handle it.

LadySaotome said...

I agree with everything you said. As a reader, if I come across a book that has nothing below a 3, I tend to approach the reviews with suspicion. Since it's just not possible to please everyone, no negative reviews makes me question the positive ones. It's easy to look at the negative reviews and decide if whatever bothered the reviewer might be a trigger for you, too, or if none of their negatives would bother you.

Mary F. Allen said...

If I'm considering a book and read 1 star reviews such as the ones above I'd tend to discount them or actually be encouraged to read the book. I think your attitude is balanced and such 1 star reviews could be used as boasts even in specific situations. It's all in knowing your current mental state. Thanks for this perspective.

Randy Ingermanson said...

I would agree with there's a lot of value in reading 1-star reviews for books somebody else wrote. I do that all the time, and it tells me things I can't learn from the 5-star reviews.

And there is also value in the 1-star reviews of my own books. The problem is that there's a high cost to actually reading them myself, and most authors find this true.

My opinion is that you can get the best of both worlds by having a friend read your 1-star reviews and tell you what's of value in them, if anything. That way, you don't have to take the venom.

I have seen writers thrown into a tailspin by a single 1-star review and mope for hours or days. It's just not worth the emotional cost, when you could have had somebody else summarize the useful info for you.

JoAnn Durgin said...

Then you have the one-star reviews that are obvious mistakes. As an example, I received a one-star review recently from a woman who'd never written an Amazon review before. Based on her words in the review to the effect of "made me laugh, made me cry...loved it and didn't want to put it down...hope there's more coming in the series," she really liked it. And thought a one-star rating was the highest. Hopefully, those pondering whether to buy the book will read that review for what it is. And then buy it. Sometimes you have to just smile. Great post and thanks!

Samuel Foreman said...

I know my book, and I know it's flaws and features. I could write my own 1-star review, or 5-star review, depending on what kind of perspective I want to see it from. Still, for a fresh author, any review is welcome. And I absolutely agree, if I can make my readers feel something then I'm at least doing something right. Though I don't think those 1-star reviews felt as strongly about your book as they did about some pet topic that it reminded them of.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

...moping author alert...been there, done that! I appreciate both of you sharing your methods of dealing w/those low stars. I've thought about having someone read mine, for sure. Just not sure who to ask to do it.

Carla Laureano said...

I actually had both a writer friend and my publicist go read a blog review the other day for me. Most of the time, I'm pretty tough and take reviews with a grain of salt, but when I'm in the middle of a brutal first draft, I can't afford anything that will throw me off my game. I'm glad I'm not the only one who does that!