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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/data/book/horror/9781907954221/paint-this-town-red
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.
Author website – www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com
Goodreads Author Page – http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3029490.A_J_Kirby
New Novel Dedicated Blog – http://paintthistownred.wordpress.com
Amazon Author Page – http://www.amazon.co.uk/A.-J.-Kirby/e/B0046CG746/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
New YorkJournal of Books – http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/j-kirby