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A Review Stew

By AJ Kirby 

Hello everybody, and thank you so much for making me feel so welcome on this blog. Truly appreciated.

Today I’d like to talk about the pros and cons for writers in getting your books reviewed. I’ll be writing from the perspective of an author and as a reviewer (for publications such as The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review), sharing some insights and lessons learned, as well as (hopefully) a few laughs along the way.

I’ll break the ice by quoting one stunning decapitation of my novel Bully. Now, before you read this, I need to tell you that the book was an Amazon genre no.1 bestseller and isn’t actually as bad as this reviewer makes out. But, when you read a review like this, no matter how successful you are, or how many pats on the back you’ve given yourself, or how many compliments you’ve had from friends and family, you begin to feel your knees turning to water, your fragile confidence shattering like glass, and that urge to write seeping out of you (in the form of tears)…

So here goes. One Terry Gardiner of Gloucestershire, UK, wrote this of Bully: “It is the only book I have deleted from my Kindle. Luckily I downloaded it for free which I found too expensive. The continual use of the F word (although I am guilty using it at work) several time on every single page was depressing. I assume I have to award the book one star which I believe to be at least one too many.”

Now, I’ve written some bad reviews myself in my time: a real stinker for Christopher Tolkien (yes, son of the Tolkien) springs to mind. And I’ve felt incredibly bad about it. But I’ve also been amazed at the ability of some authors and publishers (especially their publishers, and even more especially the PR departments of those same publishers) to turn such gaping great black-hole negatives into sunny positives.

For example, I wrote this about another book (which I won’t name here): “This book was mostly an incomprehensible mess which had no coherent narrative thread for the reader to cling to. I couldn’t say I enjoyed this novel at all, although I was taken with one of the characters, who was written so badly he made me laugh out loud. In a bad way.” And then, a year or so later, I picked up another of this writer’s books in the store and flicked through the opening pages, until my eyes snagged on a comment which was listed under the headline Praise for the Author: “I enjoyed this novel.” (…) The characters “made me laugh out loud.”

Soon as I read that, I got it into my head that I was going to try and use Terry from Gloucestershire’s review somewhere inside my next book and cram it in under a similar Praise for the Author title… Only, it’s not as easy as it seems.

Anyway, after much head-scratching and sips from my glass of wine, I came up with the following:

“It is the only book.”

But how much effect do reviews actually have on the success or otherwise of your book? It’s an interesting question. A fellow writer (who again I won’t name here, but trust me, he’s successful and getting bigger and bigger all the time, like some kind of inflatable or bouncy castle or something) told me about his experiences when his first novel got released. The publisher got the book onto the Amazon Vine programme which generates lots of pre-publication reviews for the novel in question and hopefully, if it is working properly, gets a buzz going about it.

Only, as the reviews spilled in, this writer contacted me in (virtual) tears. You see, quite a lot of his early reviews were very, very negative. Approximately half of the pre-publication readers actively hated the book. My friend the writer (and no, this isn’t one of those ‘my friend’ stories like the ones men usually tell their doctors as they’re reluctant to unbuckle their belts and show the doc what the problem is) wanted me to stick my own review – which was a very positive one – onto Amazon yesterday. I do believe he was worried that if we didn’t see an upturn in his star-rankings, his publisher might pulp the book before it even hit the shelves.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the end, when my friend the writer contacted his publishers, they laughed off his concerns, and told him in no uncertain terms that what they’d really been worried about was middle-of-the-road type reviews. They wanted a book which polarised opinion. They wanted a book which would get people talking. And of course they knew that not everybody would like it. And of course they knew that a work of art which generates no feeling at all in the observer/ reader is the real failure.

Which is a nice fall-back position for me now when I read the spoutings of Terry from Gloucestershire et al. And what was really glorious about the whole situation – and I’ve seen this myself too – was the fact that readers who might otherwise have not bothered putting up a review of the book, suddenly took it upon themselves to rise up in defence of it, posting their own positive commentaries. People got talking. About the book.

And that old maxim, no publicity is bad publicity, came true.

I was recently longlisted for an award from the Guardian newspaper. It’s called the Not the Booker prize, and it does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It allows in entries and nominations from the types of books – genre fiction, books from independent and small presses – which would otherwise be ignored by the Booker. In order to qualify from that longlist into the six book shortlist, each nominated author had to generate votes. It was crowd-sourcing by any other name.

But then the Guardian threw a spanner in the works. What they also required, in order for each vote to count, was a 100 word review of the nominated book. So for a week, I canvassed for votes, feeling as though I’d hit that sweet-spot between charity case and IT helpdesk as I tried to talk people through the labyrinthine voting process. (This involved a lot of me on the phone, asking ‘what can you see on your screen now?’)

I’m pleased to say I garnered fifty unique reviews, which are all up, for the world to see, on the Guardian’s website, here:

And my novel, Paint this town Red, has now made the shortlist, which I’m delighted about. But what I’m most delighted with is the way friends, family, reviewers, book-lovers, have united to provide these reviews, difficult though it was. Each and every review which popped up on that screen made my heart flutter a little bit.

What I would say about reviews, in my experience, is that a lot of people find it very easy to say negative things. Take a look at Trip Adviser if you don’t believe me. But when people have had a good experience, usually, they just shrug their shoulders and carry on. So to gain an actual, good review, you have to be doing something pretty special (or else begging!). And my advice would be this. Allow yourself that moment of congratulation when you read those good reviews. Because for every one of them, there’ll be a troll waiting under the bridge to try and drag you back down again.

I’ll always have that reminder of all my great reviews on the Guardian website, so even if Terry from Gloucestershire decides to take it upon himself to defenestrate my latest book, all I’ll need to do is flick back onto the Guardian screen and remind myself of the good times.

One more thing: the prize for getting on the shortlist? A review in the Guardian. Naturally, after everything I’ve said about taking bad reviews with a pinch of salt and putting them down to individual opinion, I am absolutely bricking it that I’ll be given a stinker.


AJ Kirby is the award-winning author of six published novels (Sharkways, 2012; Paint this Town Red, 2012; Perfect World, 2011; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, 2008; When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, 2007), two collections of short stories (The Art of Ventriloquism, a collection of crime shorts, which was released August 2012, and Mix Tape 2010), three novellas (The Haunting of Annie Nicol, 2012; The Black Book, 2011; Call of the Sea, 2010), and over fifty published short stories, which can be found widely in print anthologies, magazines and journals and across the web in zines, writing sites and more. His short fiction has won numerous awards atUKliterary festivals, and his novel Bully recently charted as an Amazon genre number 1. He is also a sportswriter for the Professional Footballers’ Association and a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books. AJ Kirby lives inLeeds,UK.


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Debbie Kaufman - September 6, 2012 - 6:38 am

Okay, AJ, now you have me longing for a few more negative reviews. So far, they’ve been good, all but one. The negative said my heroine was a TSTL twit! I loved it. Not just “Too Stupid to Live,” but a twit also. But, seriously, maybe I would have generated more reviews if I’d had more negatives, LOL!

Even as a debut author, I recognize that having sheer numbers of reviews is a good thing. And polarizing opinion, means people are talking about your book!

Thanks for the tip on turning those bad boy reviews into something positive. I’ll have to go reread the twit comment and see what I can pull out of it!

Marilyn Baron - September 6, 2012 - 6:45 am


I loved this post. It was so funny. And I love your writing. I was one of those readers who tried to post a review of your book, “Paint This Town Red,” for the Not The Booker Award in the Guardian and believe me, I was pulling my hair out by the end of the process. But I stuck to it since I believed so strongly in the book. I’ve been fortunate to receive some great reviews from you about my books and when people read the reviews they go on and on about your writing. Your reviews are works of art in themselves.

Last weekend, I attended The Decatur Book Festival and heard author Julia Keller speak. Julia just came out with her first crime novel, A Killing in the Hills. She is also a Pulitzer Prize winner and she chaired the jury for the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes in criticism. She is currently cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune. She said something that really resonated with me. I am just paraphrasing so forgive me if I don’t get this exactly right, but when someone mentioned something about a book being a failure, she strongly disagreed with that language and said the author of every book sets out to write the best novel they can, and though there are standards, she doesn’t consider any book a failure. If she doesn’t like a book, she just doesn’t review it, rather than trash it. And she’s obviously at the top of her field. As a writer, I know how much work goes into producing a novel, and it is comforting to realize that other people recognize and respect that.

Thanks for blogging with us today.

Maxine Davis - September 6, 2012 - 7:53 am

A.J., Great post! Sounds like you have seen just about everything in a review. I hate to admit that I have always been terrified that when I put my book “out there,” I’ll get a stinker review and it will be publishing suicide. Now – not so worried, thanks to you. I loved the way it turned out with Terry of Gloucestershire!

Pam Asberry - September 6, 2012 - 8:39 am

Good morning, AJ! Thank you so much for blogging with us today. As a consumer, I am guilty of posting negative reviews more than positive ones. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant or with a service provider, you can be sure I want the world to know. As a reader though, I am not so much that way. Like Marilyn, if I don’t like a book, I won’t review it, but I am generous in my praise of stories I like! The fact that I am also a writer probably has something to do with that, though. So thank you for helping me put negative reviews in perspective. I know I have read terribly critical reviews of books I have personally enjoyed tremendously; that helps, too. Continued success!

Susan Carlisle - September 6, 2012 - 8:45 am

Thanks for joining us. You make me feel so muc better about reviews. I had a bad one that really hurt on my first book, but I had to remind myself that a bad review is better than no review. The second time around was better. I appreciate all the imspiration.

AJ Kirby - September 6, 2012 - 8:49 am

Thanks so much for having me as a guest/ letting me put my feet up on your table. You’ve all made me feel so welcome. I really enjoyed writing this piece, so I’m very pleased to hear people enjoyed and got something out of reading it. I’d like to extend the invitation for you all to come over to my own blog any time you like (can’t promise tea and cakes – they tend to frazzle the keyboard) but if anyone wants to talk about anything writing related, I’m always happy to hear from you, or host you as guest bloggers! Andy

Sharon Hamilton - September 6, 2012 - 9:59 am

AJ and the others on this blog: I really enjoyed this. Saw it yesterday come through my inbox, but Marilyn reminded me and so read it this morning. I agree with you about reviews.

A writer friend of mine who has like 23 books out there, most of them selling in another genre than I write, said that it is a sign of success to have a bunch of good reviews and a bunch of stinkers. Much like you said, AJ, the “saggy middle” is not where we want our books to be.

But having said that, my experience is that they don’t make any difference in sales when you get a bad one. Like you, at first I wanted to go back to bed and stay in my pajamas for a day. But when I saw my book still stayed in the top 100, and continued for weeks, I decided the review had no impact. I’ve actually gotten some private emails saying people would write me a good one because of the “unfair” or troll review. I don’t think real readers look at them at all. Only other writers do.

Great topic, and I’m sure it will continue to be for years and years to come.

Carol Burnside - September 6, 2012 - 1:14 pm

Welcome to PFHT, A.J.!

Reviews can send us dancing around the room and put a smile on our face for days. They can also be debilitating, if we let them. I’m glad to see you’ve found humor and a silver lining in the down side of writing.

[…] both as an author and professional reviewer. You can check out the guest blog by following THIS LINK. And you can get your hands on a copy of Paint this town Red from here. Share […]

Terry Wright - September 6, 2012 - 1:55 pm

Some reviewers can get just plain mean. One reviewer said this of my bebut novel “The 13th Power”: Unless you are a die-hard action fan or know any Steven Seagal fans who can read, I would not recommend purchasing this book. I turned it around to say: If you love die-hard action and you’re a Steven Seagal fan, I recommend purchasing this book. So negative reviews can be made into shining reviews with the stroke of a pen.
Keep up the great work, AJ. Terry Wright/TWB Press

Dianna Love - September 6, 2012 - 3:27 pm

Hi AJ and hugs on the nasty review. You’re right that no matter how strong you are as an author if you get bombarded by negative reviews your confidence can take a ding, which is why I try to avoid reading them while deep in a new story. When I first have a book out, I respond to every reviewer who alerts us (me and/or my publisher) about a review and thank them in some form. For the occasional negative one, I send “thank you for taking the time to read…” I know everyone is not going to like every book. I don’t like every book written. The only time I silently growl over a negative review is when it’s clear my genre is not something that reviewer reads. I”d rather they pass it along to someone who does like that type of story.

Good luck with your nomination and congrats on your book. I enjoyed your post.

Linsey Lanier - September 6, 2012 - 4:20 pm

AJ, I was so excited when Marilyn told us you’d be blogging with us. Thanks for being here.

Your post made me laugh. I don’t envy your having to find “the sweet-spot between charity case and IT helpdesk,” but I’m glad you made the shortlist.

I’ve had my share of “one-eighty” reviews. From “Best book I’ve ever read” to “worst book I’ve ever read.” It leaves me scratching my head. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.

How about this for a positive in Terry from Gloucestershire: “I have to award the book…” Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

Sia Huff - September 6, 2012 - 8:32 pm

Thanks for sharing your perspective, AJ. You’ve taught me a new way to look at reviews. Good for you, on turning a negative to a positive.
Good luck and wishing you many good reviews.

Julee J. Adams - September 11, 2012 - 11:27 am

Love it, AJ, thanks! I met Kristine Kathryn Rusch at a science fiction convention and asked her about conflicting reviews. In the critiques for RWA’s Golden Heart competition (back when they still sent them), I had two people who loved my first novel (one gave me her agent’s name), two ambivalent and two who loathed it. Kris said, “That means you’re doing some pretty powerful writing.”
I try to learn from reviews that are less than stellar, but have given up stressing about it. Thanks for giving us some laughs and perspective!

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