Monday, October 31, 2011

With Sales Come Criticism, It's How Things Work

I've posted quite a bit lately about how thrilled I am that my book sales have been going well so I feel a little obligated to talk about the down-side that comes with the up-side. The more books an author sells, and the more people that read those books, the more likely you are to encounter people who don't like what you wrote. It's just the way things go – nobody can write a book that everyone will like. We all get criticism. If selling more books means getting more criticism I'm fine with that.

The criticism comes sometimes in negative reviews on review sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords, and sometimes it comes in emails and Private Messages. Usually those criticisms are insightful and offer observations that I hadn't considered before. I always appreciate honest critiques – sometimes they are more helpful than the glowing ones. There are also the mysterious ones in which a piece of work gets 1 or 2 stars with no explanation of why. While it is certainly a reader's right to do that if the site they are posting on allows it (Amazon does not, on Amazon you have to post a minimum of 20 word in order to leave a review) it always leaves me wondering what they didn't like.

Of course the biggest single reason most negative reviews occur is because the book was not what the reader expected and they are disappointed by that. When a reader buys a book, whether based on reviews, recommendations, or just because they liked the cover, there is a certain degree of expectation. If the book turns out to be different from the expectations some readers will adapt and, if they like the writing and the story, roll with it. Others want their expectations to be met and their attitude about the book will reflect that. As writers we have to accept that not everyone will like our work – we can't meet everyone's expectations. The more books we sell the higher our chances are of someone being disappointed. It goes with the job.

There is also the issue of spitefulness that, while usually minor overall, is a factor. Recently on a discussion board for writers I read there was a very active discussion about writers that retaliate for criticism of their work by leaving bad reviews for the books of the person who criticized them. This is always a risk when writers review other writers. I often publish book reviews on this blog and, so far, most of the responses are positive but I do get a few nasty (and always anonymous) comments which I don't post if they don't contribute anything useful. Comments like “you are a self-indulgent b#tch who thinks she is better than everyone else” doesn't really contribute to the sum of world knowledge. We already know that.

One of the things I struggle with as a writer is the urge to explain things to readers who missed something critical in a work and therefore don't understand it. That happens. If it happens a lot then it is definitely something I have to take a look at but if those complaints are the exception then I just have to roll with it. The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic is categorized as “psychological horror”. It is not the usual horror with blood and guts and creepy crawlies. Rather, the horror comes slowly, as the story is ending and the reader begins slowly, horribly to realize the truth of what the heroine, Maddie, had grown up in the presence of. There have been a few readers who told me that, while they liked the story a lot, they didn't find the ending particularly horrible. We all have our own interpretations of what is horrible.

In love, murder, etc. there is a story called The View from the Lighthouse that has also puzzled a few readers. They told me that they didn't understand the ending. I can empathize with this because I did leave the ending pretty ambiguous – I'm sort of a fan of those “lady or the tiger” type endings anyway. Consequently, I can't complain when a reader, who wants to know for sure, has something to say about it.

I love talking with readers about my stories whether in person or in discussion groups, even readers who don't like what I wrote – it is almost always enlightening for me. So, to all my readers, whether you liked my stories or not, I will repeat one more time:

Thanks for reading!!!

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