THE BLOG
08/09/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013

The Bum Rap on Reviews

Okay, so you've followed some of the advice out there (hopefully none of mine) and you've managed to get your book published. Or self-published, whatever. Now it's all about sitting back and letting people discover your genius, right? Wrong.

See there is this problem with the book publishing industry: the readers. I'm sure many people have told you that readers are an asset, but these people would be lying to you. Readers, for better or worse, are all universally critics -- and most of these critics have never successfully written a book or published one. And as a result, a sort of anger seeps in to their souls. They don't like people who get things done; they want to squash all achievement. And so they go on Amazon or wherever, and they review your book.

By now, you're likely thinking, "Oh this whiny dickhead wrote a piss-poor book and everyone hated it." Not true. I have more five-star reviews for The Dead Janitors Club than any other rating. Of course, it is only slightly more than the one-star reviews, but therein highlights the thesis of my complaint: Neither the great nor the terrible reviews are accurate really. People aren't any more accurate or honest when they are anonymous than when they are speaking right to your face.

Sure it is an opinion, and every opinion is valid -- but typically to one person and one person only: themselves. So that is great that you have a few five-star reviews, but boil that down to the nitty-gritty -- that is a host of folks saying that, for them, your book is on the level of the absolute best of Steinbeck, Heller, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Rowling, whoever. Your book, to these people, is absolute perfection. Is that really who you want on your team? Put your ego aside for a moment as I have, because, I promise, I cherish each and every one of my great reviews, and realize the terrible naiveté of these sweet, sweet people. Either they haven't done a whole lot of reading, they know you (or are you) or, at worst, they really, truly believe that your book is nirvana. We'll get to why that is terrible in a second, but first we have to piss on the terrible reviews.

When someone gives your book one star, it means they have an agenda. They hated your book so much that they couldn't possibly exist on this planet without telling others why your book belongs in the same league as monkey shit. It means they couldn't just ignore your book: they had to warn others away from it in the same way rusted metal signs warn of minefields. People don't comment about truly bad books because they don't finish truly bad books -- they throw them aside and never give them another thought.

The truth lies in the 4-2 star range. These people are realists mostly. They aren't governed by emotion in any form. They tend to present an even keel and rational opinion as to what you are dealing with. Ideally, if you wrote a solid book, most of your reviews should fall into this range. These reviews are what tend to inform you that you've got a career as a solid, middle-of-the-road author. Congratulations, you have reached the ranks of, I don't know, Dean Koontz. This is not a burn: most everyone, myself included, would LOVE to be Dean Koontz. Or James Patterson. Or most successful authors working today... I bet Ken Follett is a solidly 2-3-4 reviewed author (except by those emotional loonies who gobble up his books like a crack addict indulges on sweets). Real artists, those folks who live on the fringe, are the authors who get ones and fives.

You know who gets ones and fives? Steinbeck, Heller, Hemingway, etc... the absolute masters of art get a lot of these opposing sides of the spectrum because they have captured a true emotion -- something resonant and powerful that elicits anger or love in readers.

"So, great," you say, noting that your book and my book both have lots of ones and/or fives. Except we're both sitting here reading this column and not being lauded like the true titans of literature. And therein lies the rub of people who found your book sublime: their opinions, while flattering, are ultimately futile. While it is wonderful to be reaching out to some Midwestern housewife somewhere and taking her on an emotional journey, the fact that you have to explain to most others that you "have a lot of five-star reviews" tells most folks exactly what they need to know about reading your book. And that feeling is typically "meh."