On getting bad reviews - real or fake
There are two kinds of reviews these days, as we all know - the print, 'traditional media' reviews that are commissioned by an editor for a newspaper or magazine; and the non-traditional kind, where literary bloggers post up their reviews and Amazon customers rate books. This latter category can be anonymous, and various scandals in the past have caught out writers like Orlando Figes, castigated for putting up bad reviews of rivals' books under various pseudonyms.
Which is worse? A bad review in a broadsheet, where you can see who wrote it and challenge them with a letter to the editor if you want? Or a bad review on Amazon, where you have little right of reply, except maybe a request to take it down if it's particularly nasty/suspicious? Which kind affects sales of your book the most? The casual shopper browsing through Amazon, or the casual reader of his/her daily paper? And is there anything that you, as a writer, can do about it?
When my book, Between the Sheets, came out in hardback in 2010, mainly print reviews started appearing in February and they continued until the end of August that year. I received almost 30 print reviews altogether - very unexpected, for a work of feminist literary non-fiction. I expected it to be a niche book, covered maybe by a couple of feminist-interest magazines or journals, and a couple of broadsheets (mainly the ones I write for!). In the end, newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, and magazines like The New Republic, gave it lengthy reviews.
A good review in the Sunday Times saw a hike in my sales, enough for my publisher to send over more copies of my book. A great feature on the online website www.lemondrop.com, saw my Amazon rankings soar. So far, so easy to calculate. Both online reviews and traditional print ones had an impact.
But what about the bad review? How many sales might I have lost for the Daily Mail slagging I got, telling its readers my book was only about the 'sex lives of tormented writers' and we didn't need to know that stuff (the Daily Mail never indulges in such things after all! It's a very funny review and you can read it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-1283776/Clever-girls-terrible-taste-men-BETWEEN-THE-SHEETS-BY-LESLEY-MCDOWELL.html.)
After the half-dozen bad reviews I received in all, I wrote about being a critic who gets a bad review for The Guardian here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/22/writers-review-critics?INTCMP=SRCH. For those who don't want to read the whole thing, I was really just asking how, as a writer, do you respond to the bad review? Most writers, when they post up about bad reviews on facebook or twitter, earn sympathetic responses from their friends, usually along the lines of 'what do critics know/critics are just jealous they haven't written a book/it's all personal', etc etc). But I was also a critic who'd written a book! And I've never written a bad review of someone because I was jealous, or had any personal problem with them.
So how could I comfort myself? I didn't have much - all I could tell myself was that some people would like what I'd done, some people would hate it, and accept it. And gradually I did. Although one particularly nasty review was by a writer I liked (and whose past books I'd reviewed - and been nice about), and I have found since that I can't look at her books again. She did bring out a book last year and I deliberately avoided it - I don't think I can be objective about her work. So it's best for me not to go there.
The reason for that decision is that I make my living as a freelance critic. And that living depends on my reputation being a good one. The last thing I want is to be thought of as someone who writes bitchy reviews to get back at people who didn't like my book. I want to think I'm professional enough, and behave accordingly.
The problem with non-professional reviews, though, is something else. I have bad reviews on Amazon for both my books - one for The Picnic which very oddly is from a woman who says she saw me reading at a festival and bought my book on the strength of that, then decided she hated it (I only spoke at one festival that year, I think, and gave two lengthy readings - should have been enough to let her know what my writing was like!). Two are for Between the Sheets, and somewhat fishily, both recommend Katie Rophie's Uncommon Arrangements instead (and in quite similar terms).
I'm not suggesting these are 'fake' reviews, or done out of a sense of personal spite (although I should perhaps say that I did review Roiphe's book for the Scotsman, and said that I found it quite disappointing, more like potted biographies than any real analysis of the relationships involved. Fans of Roiphe perhaps then?) I checked their reviewing record and one hasn't put up any other reviews since; the other has. And I have no idea how much damage their reviews have done to my sales - maybe someone wanted to buy my book and was put off by their comments. I just don't know. But this unregulated side of reviewing - where ordinary readers with differing taste mingle with 'sock puppets' (i.e. fake identities) who can trash rivals without fear of exposure seems to me to be simply the flip-side of unregulated online publishing. If you want a world where anyone can publish any book they like, in any shape, then you also have to accept a world where anyone can say what they like about a book, in any terms or any guise. You can't have a bit of regulation when someone says something you don't like, whilst embracing the freedom of the internet to publish wholesale.
Blogs and amazon reviews have allowed writers who have traditionally been ignored by print media to get attention. That's not a bad thing. Such attention isn't always the welcome kind though, and any writer who has ever been reviewed widely by the print media can tell you that. Even if it is better than being ignored altogether.