Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Place of Reviews in the Writer’s Universe

Sally MacKenzie
The Naked Gentleman
Publisher: Zebra
Pub date: March 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

A review of my April release, The Naked Gentleman, just showed up in my inbox. I considered deleting it unread.

Reviews are a fact of the published author’s life. We may not like them, but we need them. My publisher sends out advance review copies (ARCs) of my books to garner reviews and I send out my own homemade ARCs. Reviews—even negative reviews—are good. They make the world aware that your book is out there. Hopefully they generate buzz and cause lots and lots of readers to run to the bookstore—bricks and mortar or virtual—to buy, buy, buy your book.

However, there is no requirement that an author read any of those reviews. Reviews are for readers. Reviews for writers are called revision letters and they come from your editor.

It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to read my reviews—I had to hear it from a more experienced author. I did read the reviews of my first couple books. I’m a professional; I have a thick skin; I can take criticism. Except by the third book I couldn’t. I don’t know what it was—the book, my age, whatever—but the critical reviews really started to get to me. I was driving poor Jessica crazy, fretting that my career was over, that I had disappointed my readers. But, Jessica would say, the book got a glowing review from Publishers Weekly. (Thankfully, she did not say, Calm down, you neurotic writer. She is very patient.) Yes, I’d reply, but Suzie Reviewer on We ‘R’ Reviews hated it. Or Betty Reads-a-Lot posted on Amazon that the heroine was majorly TSTL (too stupid to live) and the book was so terrible she was throwing it and all my other books against the wall.

Why is it I can brush off five complimentary reviews and only focus on the single critical one—or the critical sentences in an otherwise positive opinion? And the internet makes sharing one’s opinion so easy. There are many online review sites, and anyone who wants to can set up a blog for free. It is correspondingly easy to read those opinions. If you search, you will find.

I ended up on high blood pressure medicine. Worse, I kept hearing little critical whisperings as I tried to write the next book. So I swore I’d be more Zen about it all this time through. Here are my new review mantras:
1. A review is only one person’s opinion. (Unfortunately, this is true for glowing reviews as well as stinky ones.)

2. All reviews are good reviews because they get the book title out there.

3. Getting worked up—either wildly happy or madly depressed—over any review is a waste of energy. Use that energy to write the next book.

4. If I must watch the bouncing Amazon numbers, I’ll do so from my Publishers Marketplace track books page—and, bonus (!)—I can watch the bouncing B&N numbers at the same time. I will never go to the book’s actual Amazon or B&N page after the release date.

5. I will step away from the Google function. I will not Google my name or my book title.

6. I will not go to websites where I might stumble upon a review of my book, and I will NEVER argue with readers about their opinion of my books. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion—even if they are just wrong, wrong, wrong. (No, I didn’t say that.)

7. If I must whine about a review, I will only whine to Jessica and/or my very small group of close writer pals, those sworn to secrecy.
So, did I read the review that popped into my inbox? Well, yes. I do feel a need to read a couple reviews, if for no other reason than to find a good quote or two for my website’s review page. My heart pounded and my palms sweated as I clicked to open it, though. My eyes immediately dropped to the opinion at the bottom—whew, she’d liked the book. Best, she’d actually reviewed the book I’d written, not the book she might have thought I should have written. It was a fun review to read. If I were reviewing her review, I’d give her five stars!

But I’m still not going Googling.


Julie Weathers said...

Ms MacKenzie,

I agree, that could be pretty disheartening.

I have a friend who did quite well with his little mid-list zombie book. He got glowing reviews from a lot of people, but the vocal minority who shredded him overshadowed the good ones. He couldn't get them out of his mind.

The exact same scenario you discussed.

Even if you don't like country music, read the lyrics to Toby Keith's The Critic sometime. He wrote it in response to someone who was pretty mean-spirited in a review of his music.

Funny how envisioning one of your critics like that sort of just evens everything out.

Congratulations on The Naked Gentleman, I'll be nice and not comment. However, it will have me wondering, as I try to drift off to sleep, how you know a man is a gentleman if he is naked. I mean does he tip his hat to you? If he had a hat--

Nevermind. I'll just buy the book.

Anonymous said...

The Naked Gentleman... the mind boggles.
What a fantastic title!

This one I have to read.

Does he wear a tie? (Very tongue in.. er.. cheek.

Christine Wells said...

Hi Sally, congrats on another release in your fabulous 'Naked' series! Can you tell us a bit about the story?

I admire your Zen! Reviews are great for getting your name out there, but as you said, they're for readers. They're not critiques offering constructive criticism. They are unabashedly subjective opinions, based on the reviewer's personal tastes and prejudices and really have nothing to do with the author at all.

Kimber Li said...

Well, we only do positive reviews at Enduring Romance, so it's an emotionally safe place for authors to read reviews of their books. We manage this because we only review books we like.

Authors popping in to answer questions in the Comments section is a good thing because they're a big part of the magic of the story. This is why I think authors should have Google Alert on all their books' titles. However, I must confess that I'd be terrified to have it myself if I ever publish!

Anonymous said...

I concur and laugh about how your thoughts process... could we be twins by a different mother?

I totally enjoyed reading your column today.

Your book sounds charming.

Anonymous said...

I like your books! And try really hard not to trash a writer online, because someday I hope people won't trash me. I am not the Book-Buying Police, sent to save the world from spending their discretionary entertainment money. However, when I find something I love, I do mention it on my blog or bulletin boards.

I think we as humans always concentrate on the negative. Like Groucho Marx says, "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." It's so hard to accept praise and acceptance, and easier to believe we are unworthy.

Good luck with the nakedness!

Anne Rovinski Adams said...


You're stressing way too much. A reader's review, good or bad, indicates (to me) someone at least read your book, probably from cover to cover. No one reads the first chapter and then reams out the author or sings their praises. Clearly, your writing is "moving" people to action. Isn't that what you want? I mean, other than beating a path to the bookstore to buy your next book? Seriously, if someone said all of your books lacked strong characters would it bother you? They just confessed they read all your books, cover to cover. We should all have people who like our writing so little.

Stephanie Feagan said...

So, Sally, I think you need to propose a workshop for RWA and call it 'The Naked Writer.' and talk about how you came up with the idea for this series, how you pitched it to your editor, etc.

Re Reviews:
We're all kinda naked when it comes to those, aren't we? Good luck with avoiding Google! You go girl.

Anonymous said...

Sally MacKenzie and JJ Keller,

Make that triplets!?

I have always been fascinated by the way in which our published books invite everyone on the face of the planet to project their angst, pain, unfulfilled literary lives, and goodness-knows-what-else in our direction.

Yes, checking the amazon and bn numbers is like navigating the headwaters of the Amazon in flip-flops! A reader/reviewer once trashed one of my (quite successful) titles -- and when another reader came to the book's defense, I felt a deep vindication of epic proportions.

Thank you for telling it like it truly is for many of us -- and Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insights-- fascinating. AS an aside, you know what drives me nuts? I read about all these wonderful sounding books by interesting authors. I click the buy link that is often there. But almost never am I allowed to "search inside the book". If online book sites are going to get my money, I have to be able to read a bit of the book just like I could in the store. Why don't ALL books allow this??

Don't mean to single out this book, though I was disappointed. This happens a LOT.

Josephine Damian said...

io1I'm a very long way from having a book published, but I've already decided not to read ANY reviews - positive or negative. And I stopped "googling" myself months and months ago. The number of hits and comments I get on my own blog is enough to tell me that the world knows I'm here and blogging.

I can't think of a bigger waste of time seeing what other people have written about you or your book.

Also, I can see an underlying unhealthy ego-driven, self-ingulgent, insecure neurosis in writers who are constantly getting google alerts about themself or their book, or who whine about a bad review. Frankly, it's a turn-off to me as a reader.

Angie Fox said...

Congrats on your new release, Sally! I can't wait to get my copy of The Naked Gentleman.

Thanks for your candid look at the review process. It helps to know that even stand-out writers like you have the occasional critics. And a warning to those who haven't read Sally's "naked" books yet - they are addicting.

Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Sally--and congratulations on your latest release :-)!

You've made some great comments here on reviews. I'll definitely keep them in mind!

Heidi the Hick said...

"Best, she’d actually reviewed the book I’d written, not the book she might have thought I should have written."

This must happen a lot, that readers totally don't get it, or impose their own opinion on your book.

For me, I hope that someday when I'm looking at reviews of my book, they're either glowing or absolutely awful- one extreme or the other! Either love it or hate it, but dont be all wishy washy... at least that way I'll know I had an impact.

Christie Craig said...


Congrats on your new book. It sound like another winner. Also, you offered up some wonderful advice.



Sally MacKenzie said...

Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by. For some reason I had it down on my calendar that this blog was posting tomorrow, so I was quite surprised when I got home from the gym and the doc's--blood pressure fine today, except I still have white coat syndrome!--to find the Naked guy up there. I'll try to make my way through the comments in some coherent fashion...

Oh, and about that white coat syndrome--if you're unfamiliar with it (maybe too young to give your bp a thought!)--it's the name for blood pressure that shoots up when you see a "white coat"--i.e., the doc. I'm charting my bp and saw it start to go up last night when I just thought about going to the doc's. And then, of course, I started to obsess about it. And then it went up more. And then I got mad at myself for not controlling this stupid anxiety which I'm not even feeling...and then it went up again.

Sort of like the review reading process. I've decided I'm a tad neurotic--but as my sibs-in-blog jjkeller and rachelsnyder have revealed, I'm not the only one. (I bet we're more than triplets!!) I've listened to enough writers now to know lots of us are just a wee bit sensitive. I guess that makes sense, since capturing nuances of emotion is sort of our stock in trade.

Sally MacKenzie said...

kimber an, I love positive review sites! But you know, of course, that there are a number of sites that don't follow your philosophy. One of the last Google Alerts I got before I turned off the function was a notice that Mrs. Giggles had posted a review of The Naked Earl. I had a friend check it out--and no, the Giggles had not suddenly fallen in love with my books, so I gave it a pass. And Mrs. Giggles is beginning to look pretty tame these days.

My first book was totally trashed by one very popular site. Once I got over the kicked in the gut feeling, I could actually laugh--the trashing was rather wittily done. On one level review sites--at least some review sites--exist as a source of entertainment. I just am not so entertained when it's MY book on the block. But that's ok.

And yes, whitehorse325, I do agree with you. I AM glad that people are reading my books. I'm glad Mrs. Giggles reviews them. At least, I believe all that intellectually. Emotionally...ah, that's a little harder. So I guess I save my emotions by vitually closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, and humming very loudly.

I definitely support readers' and reviewers' right to post as negatvie a review as they feel is warranted...I just also my support my right to remain in ignorance so I can fearlessly write another book they might hate--but that someone else will love.

Sally MacKenzie said...

julie weathers, we have a very eclectic collection of music in this house. I know we have some Toby Keith. I'll have to ask my husband if we have a CD with The Critic. Sounds like good listening!

Sally MacKenzie said...

maggie robinson, it's great when a reader talks up a books she enjoyed on her blog and on the bulletin boards! Word of mouth is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. But you're also right that sometimes it's hard to accept praise--at least I find it hard. (Maybe it's partly because I'm surrounded by men--a husband and four pretty much grown sons--who are slightly horrified by my new career, LOL!!) My first reaction when someone tells me they loved my book is to want to point out all the weak parts. But I bite my tongue and smile. I'm really working on just getting out the heartfelt thank you!

Sally MacKenzie said...

anonymous, I thought that "search inside the book" thing was done by the publisher, but I could be wrong about that. I'm afraid I'm pretty much an idiot with regard to Amazon. Other authors are much more savvy, doing those plogs and posting their cover copy and reviews. I have the book info on my own site, but I can see it would be good to have it on the book buying sites, too.

I've actually been struggling to find a good balance vis-a-vis the internet. I tried blogging for a while, but I discovered for me, blogging gets in the way of my real writing. Even email--some days I'll realize all I did was read and write email, that no progress was made on the book. (And this isn't just writer email--I have other volunteer jobs I do via email as well.) So when I'm really cranking on a book--or a deadline is biting me in the butt--I try to step back from the internet as much as I can and go into my writerly cave.

Sally MacKenzie said...

heidi the hick--love that name! Yes, I agree, I think it is better to have people love or hate your book. It means you really pushed a button or touched them in some way. Some of the "hate its" are a little scary, though.

One of the interesting things that struck me after I had books out in the world and read some reviews is that I found it true that the reader really does bring his or her own awareness, sensitivies, prejudices to the book. I always knew reading was an active process, but you really see it when it is your book out there.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Okay, I think I've covered most of your comments--you guys had lots of interesting things to say! And apologies for any misspellings or incoherence.

About the Naked bit. Stephanie, I love the idea of a Naked Writer workshop. This series I never pitched, however. The Naked Duke, the first book, was a Golden Heart finalist that my aquiring editor grabbed and called me out of the blue to buy. She offered me a two book contract, and when the Duke did well, it seemed sensible to keep with the Naked thing, so The Naked Marquis was born.

There are three friends in the Duke, so I did have a vague plan for three books. Thank the publishing gods I got another contract and could write The Naked Earl! I set up for the Gent in the Earl.

I'm doing a workshop on writing connected books at the New England RWA conference in a couple weeks, so I've got connected books on my mind--how to write them, how to plan them. I'm not a huge planner, as one reader discovered.
The book after The Naked Gentleman is The Naked Baron. It goes back in time to when The Naked Duke is set. My reader asked me why I'm writing the books out of order, and I had to confess that I didn't know the baron existed until I wrote the Gent. (Also, I was bumping up against the end of the Regency period and didn't want to go into the Victorian. I think I have a feel for the Regency--not so for the Victorian.)

And Christine, thanks for asking about the Gent. As usual, it's a light Regency romance/romp. Both the hero and the heroine are plant enthusiasts--dumb move on my part, since I know pretty much zippo about plants. The heroine and hero are found in a compromising position at the beginning of the book--it was all quite by accident--and their relatives try to get them to wed. I had great fun writing the babies and the mother in this book. I do love my secondary characters--but of course I love my hero and heroine, too.

Is this making any sense? I think I have finally fried my brain. It's off to the grocery store. I'll check back later.

Lori Devoti said...

On the "search inside the book" I'm pretty sure that is a paid for thing through Amazon. Which explains why so many books don't have it. In my limited experience nothing paid for at Amazon (promotion wise) is exactly cheap. But you have an excerpt on your web site, don't you, Sally?
Then just a wave at Sally! You know I love you. And you did win the much coveted cowbell. So, no complaining! :)

Sally MacKenzie said...

LOL, Lori. Lori and I just roomed together at the Novelists Inc. conference in NYC--if any of you in blogland have two books in print, check out the organization. The conference was wonderful!

The cowbell Lori is referring to is a real, authentic cowbell purchased in Texas and engraved. A group of us, all navigating the first year of publication together, decided to laugh in the face of bad reviews by giving the cowbell each year to the one of us who got the worst review of all. As Lori says, I won one year. I can't remember which of my reviews--or maybe it was more than just one--garnered me the prize. Maybe it was the one that said the book was disgusting and depraved...hmm, or maybe it said that I was disgusting and depraved. I don't quite remember.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie Feagan suggested you do a column called The Naked Writer.

Sorry gals that name's taken!

The columnist in the Romance Writers of New Zealand Heart to Heart magazine/newsletter is

"The Naked Writer"

Check it out on google she's very funny.

Anonymous said...

The url for the Blog of

"The Naked Writer" from New Zealand Romance Writers is

She has a very interesting blog up at the moment

Paty Jager said...

I look for reviews of my books. Whether they are good or bad (luckily so far they have all been good) I can use them to promote the book and fill up the book's page on my website. LOL

Over the years, I have grown a thick skin over rejection letters from agents and editors. While several said they loved/enjoyed the ms but- I've clung to the fact readers like my stories, my characters. And if a reader will e-mail me and tell me they like the book that trumps a bad review. Because it is after all one person's opinion on that day.

I like your list! ;)

Congratulations on the good rievew and may you receive many more!

Katherine said...

What a great post! And also, what a great title for a book! Can't wait to read. I'm an aspring writer, and I know if I was published, I would drive myself crazy trying to figure out how well my book was selling. It's always great to put this kind of thing in perspective.