Monthly Archives: January 2012

In Praise of (One or Two) Negative Reviews

A very interesting discussion is taking place over at where Irene Watson (22 Jan 2012) posed the question: Is asking bloggers not to post negative reviews ethical? It’s an interesting question, and I didn’t realize until reading the post and subsequent discussion that many established book review services, including Kirkus, which advertises itself as the “world’s toughest book critics,” give authors and publishers the option to squash negative reviews. I’m of two minds, but the bottom line is that while it may not be unethical to ask a blogger or reviewer to withhold a negative review it’s not very smart.

If we look at book reviews from a pure marketing angle, it’s tempting to say that only positive reviews have value. Indeed, one of my goals as an author is to write such a good book that I maximize the number of good reviews. And certainly a negative review in the New York Times, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc. won’t help sales of your book (or your ego). But a negative review (or two) in many other places, particularly and barnes & noble, is not necessarily bad. In fact, it might help (as long as they are balanced with positive reviews) by adding legitimacy to the power and emotional content of your book.

On the other hand, it’s a rare book where a book review, let alone a negative one, determines its fate in the market place. Bad books rarely do well regardless of how they are reviewed by the literary intelligentsia in the major media or the more grounded new voices in the blogosphere or on They do poorly because they are bad books. Good books usually fail because of a poorly developed or executed marketing plan (including distribution). In a few cases, a book may be “before its time,” but I think that’s less the case now in the today’s publishing environment. (I’m not saying that all books can become best sellers, just that they can do well by reasonable and modest metrics: See my post here and here for more on this subject.)

Nevertheless, book reviews are crucial for crafting marketing plans and, when they are both good and from reputable sources, legitimizing your work. So, we can’t (and shouldn’t) be too dismissive.

But back the real question. As a matter of principle, and now a matter of practice, I never ask reviewers to withhold their opinions, no matter how stinging they might be (and I’ve had my books trashed by many who disagree with them over the years). I do this mainly because I believe it is essential to preserve the integrity of the review process; in other words, I want readers to know that the reviewer was honest in their opinion about the book. In fact, one book review service once published a very positive review of an earlier book, but I subsequently found out the reviewer wasn’t all that excited about it. I no longer use that service because I don’t trust them.

Honest book reviews, including (or particularly) negative reviews, serve other purposes for authors as well, including:

  • Identifying themes, plot points, and characters that resonate with readers;

  • Identifying strong and weak aspects of storytelling and analysis (for nonfiction);

  • Validating the book among potential readers (too much praise looks fishy to a prospective book buyer, particularly at reader-driven sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble);

  • Shaping the story and message of future books if you a personally or professionally vested in the subject or story.
So, in sum, a good book should generate plenty of good reviews, but a few negative reviews may actually end up helping you as an author, and even sales of your book, in the long run.

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Girl Land

Once in a long while you read a book that fundamentally forces you to rethink, re-examine, and reconstruct the way you build your characters in your stories, and Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan did that for me. (My review is also up on Flanagan’s book takes a brutally honest and unflinching look at the problems, challenges, dilemmas, and pyschological obstacles facing todays adolescent girls. It’s complex and layered. (BTW, I bought the book and didn’t get it as a freebie from the author or publisher.)

I found Girl Land invaluable as a parent to help me understand my daughter’s journey through her teen years (although about 10 years late for me) but also very important as a writer. My novels are character driven with plenty of action and I consciously build strong, young, female characters into all of them. Story, as writers know, is built on conflict, and Flanagan’s book does a great job of exposing all the subtle and not-so subtle conflicts and tensions girls face in today’s society.

But, these conflicts also work for historical fiction. Isabella, for example, is a 18th century teenage pirate captain in The Pirate of Panther Bay, and an important part of her personal struggle is coming to grips with her own identity and purpose in life. She must survive in a harsh, violent, sexist world and come to terms with the men in her life, both the good, the bad, and the downright evil. Yet, I conceived her character (pyschologically) as a girl with 21st century sensibilities, maturing into a woman, and her relationships reflect that. (In this sense, I hoped her character would be a legacy for my own daughter who was a pre-teen when the book was published.) This strong sense of individuality and the yearning for purpose has been one of the enduring features of her character that resonates with my readers, girls especially. She ends up much stronger at the end, but her personal life is much more complicated.

Also, in my more recent middle-grade novel, A Warrior’s Soul, Lucy’s character is similarly strong. Unlike Isabella, her character is nested in an awkwardly but ultimately mutually supportive relationship with her peer, Luke. I haven’t developed Lucy’s character as fully as Isabella in the first book, but my plan for book 3 in the Path of the Warrior series (even before reading Flanagan’s book) is to put her at the center and have her deal with many of challenges provocatively explored in Girl Land. Flanagan’s book has given me the framework and tools for taking Lucy’s character to a whole new level, and the plot and pace of the story should benefit tremendously.

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Most Popular Posts of 2011

Thank you readers! I’m quite pleased with the reception my blog has received during its first seven months and logged nearly 4,000 visitors. We’ve seen traffic steadily increase since we launched in May, 2011 as well, as we are looking forward to a very productive 2012 as we continue to comment on the changing nature of book publishing with a focus on new authors and writers.

I thought I would share the most popular posts for the 2011:

  1. Your Book Costs How *#&! Much, Part 1? (May 30, 2011)

  2. Secret (Literary) Agent Math (June 15, 2011)

  3. The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success (April 8, 2011)

  4. Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 3 (June 3, 2011)

  5. What New Authors Need to Do: Market (September 23, 2011)

NOTE: We will be opening our blog posts to comments in 2012 now that we have SPAM messages under control, so feel free to comment and discuss the content. Let us know what you think and suggest ideas for future posts!

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