I don’t consider myself a writer because I don’t write. At least not yet. Not with any discipline. So, consider this blog post a bit of me talking out of school.
I have a handful of friends who are actual writers, though. And some of them have self-published some of their work. I’m incredibly proud of them because it’s no small accomplishment in my mind to not only have written something, but to have put it out there in the world to suffer the slings and arrows of public opinion.
As much as we may want to think that we don’t take criticism personally, writers invest a lot of their time, energy, and self into what they’re writing. And when someone poops on that, it hurts. Some of the writers on the podcasts I listen to recommend avoiding reading the reviews completely.
The problem for the self-published authors on Amazon is that those star ratings greatly impact the visibility of your work in their discovery algorithms. People who are looking for something new to read will see suggestions from books with the highest star ratings. And if you don’t have a marketing budget, seeing your book pop up as a recommendation is critical for sales.
A writer I know does a lot of things to try to boost his star ratings. He often distributes electronic “galley” copies of his work to Facebook friends in exchange for an early review. This is a devil’s bargain, though, and I think unless you’re a writer with self-control and confidence, this may be a bad move.
You see, he said he wanted an honest review of the work. But what he really wanted were five star ratings only. He didn’t come right out and say that to me, but when I rated his work with four stars (a good rating, I believe) he berated me over email for it. I’m ashamed to say I capitulated and changed my rating for five stars and left the review in place for a few months before deleting it What’s sad is that I think he wrote some really good stuff! I told him that repeatedly, and bought multiple copies of his work, but the stars told all for him.
The problem his work and the work many self-publishing writers have is that they lack an editor. Since I started paying attention more to the craft of writing, the need for editing has come into stark relief for me. But if you think marketing is expensive, you haven’t priced out editors or book coaches. So, I get it.
But editing is critical to the quality and subsequent success of a written work. Many argue that editing is even harder than writing. I believe it is an exceptionally rare book that could 100% get by without an editor and even those books should be reviewed by an editor of some sort just to make sure.
If you doubt this, a friend of mine who is a voracious reader recommends you compare the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird to Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee had an editor for the first book, but the second was published posthumously and did not receive that benefit. I am told the difference is staggering. (I haven’t read Watchman because I found Mockingbird to be so magical that I am not yet ready to risk taking anything from that first experience with her work.)
So, what can a self-published writer do?
Here are a couple of suggestions from an inexperienced, wannabe on some ways to get by without an editor, but still get a lot of help editing.
Join a Writers’ Group
There are lots of people out there who want to be writers. And they often join forces to help give feedback on work, both as it progresses and in its final state. I have no experience with this, but I know that even big time writers like Branden Sanderson use groups like this to help refine their work in addition to an editor.
What’s more, writing groups can be a good source for alpha and beta readers.
Alpha & Beta Readers
So, maybe you’re not a “group” type of person. You can minimally get some early readers for your work.
Alpha readers are the very first people to read your work. Some people say you can have only one alpha reader, but I don’t see why a small handful of readers can’t all read the same draft at the same time. Because it’s an early draft, though, the alpha reader is there to give you all kinds of feedback on the work from language edits to plot suggests. This type of feedback can be brutal, so it’s important that you trust and have confidence in your alpha readers.
Beta readers come later in the process. You’ve done a few drafts. You’ve incorporated the feedback from your alpha readers. Now it’s time to get another review to make sure the work will pass muster with casual readers. Enter the beta readers.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like the beta reader feedback doesn’t matter or that it’s light and fluffy. It really isn’t. They’re there to give you their reactions to various parts of the work as a casual reader. They might also point out continuity errors or inconsistencies that could require some extensive re-working.
I don’t think there’s a set rule about the number of revisions a person should do on a book. But it seems to me that three is a minimum. The first is just you re-reading and revising. The second is your alpha reader revision. And the third is the beta reader revision.
I still don’t think a writing group or alpha and beta reader are the equivalent of a good, professional editor, but they could take a writer far.
Take a Deep Breath
Not everyone is going to like your book. It’s not worth your energy to berate or insult people who provide critical feedback of your work. It’s also not worth losing friends over a star rating on Amazon.
My friend who obsesses over his star ratings actively responds to nearly every review on Amazon and has even offered free books to those who gave him less than five stars. (He actually regards three stars as a “negative review”) And he unfriended me on social media when I gave one of his works two stars on Good Reads. It’s hard for me to imagine that this is a pleasant or positive basis upon which to interact with his readers and friends.
I’ve heard it said that when you, the writer, are reading Amazon reviews, you should ignore the five- and two- and one-star reviews because those people either loved or hated you uncritically from the start and you have no hope of really changing their minds without doing something drastic like shooting them in the face or bribing them. But the four- and three-star reviews are from people who were cheering for you and wanted you to win, but something went wrong. Find out what went wrong for them and see what you can learn.
Whatever you choose to do about your online reviews, you should work very hard not to take them personally. Look for the opportunity to learn and improve your craft. Stay positive and focus on making the next thing you write even better!
PHOTO CREDIT: Feature photo by mohamed taher from Pexels