Think for a moment about your work in progress. How should your book be marketed? What kind of reader do you want to attract? Who is your book for?
Why, it's for everyone! you exclaim.
After all, who wouldn't want to read your fabulous plot, compelling characters, and engaging writing voice? Perhaps a few doltish persons on the fringe, but anyone with good sense and a love of good story would like your book.
Sorry, but nope.
Some people won't want to read your book. In fact, some people might hate your book. And that's a worthwhile reality to consider when we writers send our manuscripts into contests, open ourselves to outside critique, and read through reviews. Sometimes you'll get feedback that you can simply shrug off with, "My book wasn't for them."
It isn't personal (even though the comment might sting), but rather a mismatch between author and reader. We simply can't write a story that every single person will adore. Your book, and my book, is not for everyone.
Yet that simply puts us in good company. I like to turn to the world of authors and see what wisdom they can offer. Check out these reviews, followed by the book that sparked them.
"...no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that..." - The Chicago Tribune
"...an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” - The Saturday Review
THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald
"...no better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population… his literary skill is, of course, superior, but their moral level is low, and their perusal cannot be anything less than harmful.” -- in The New York Times
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain
"The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. [The main character] who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him." - The New Republic
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, J.D. Salinger
"These are one-dimensional children's books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more." - The Guardian
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, J.K. Rowling
"How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery." - Graham's Lady's Magazine
WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Emily Bronte
"the plan and technique of the illustrations are superb. … But they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story." -- Publisher's Weekly
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Maurice Sendak
But you know what? Just take that last one. Sendak didn't write this book for everyone. It found its way into the hearts of children, of all ages, over the years.
Here's how the Library Journal described it: "This is the kind of story that many adults will question and for many reasons, but the child will accept it wisely and without inhibition, as he knows it is written for him."
Knowing who your book is for can help you figure out how to distribute and market it to the right audience, as well as how to handle the negative reviews that inevitably come in. When that happens, remind yourself that you're in the same circle with the likes of Twain, Rowling, and Bronte. Not such a bad place to find yourself.
Have you received negative comments or reviews that feel simply like a mismatch between author and reader? Have you read a book others loved that you didn't, or vice versa?
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Thanks! And yes, I think we do need reminders now and then.
What an enlightening and soothing post. Although every writer knows he/she's going to get a bad review, it's still a punch to the psyche. It's the nature our endeavor. The reviews you shared are great reminders of the subjective nature of writing. Reading them made me feel more a part of our sisterhood of fiction.
Thank you so much. I NEEDED this post. 🙂
Glad it hit the right spot for you, Sandra! Indeed, there is subjectivity in writing and reading. It certainly shows in those reviews!
Great wisdom here. Thanks, Julie, for sharing it with us.
My pleasure! Thanks for reading.
Interesting post, Julie. Do you feel that genre is also a player in this reading game? Some people have closed their minds to certain genres such as sci fi or fantasy or even--a case in my own family--books by women! I tend to read only genres I really like, but I think I'd be a better writer if I opened my mind more. To be better writers, as Faulkner advised, we must read, read, read! That said, it is a good thing to grow a thick skin when it comes to reviews. Thanks for the post.
Absolutely! Genre makes a difference. I do think we should expand our reading lists generally.
However, we also need to recognize our biases. For instance, a writer friend wrote something in a very different genre and asked me to read for her. I didn't love it like I had a previous book of hers, and I simply admitted to her that the genre itself wasn't my cup of tea and that I tried to judge only on the strength of the story itself. It always bothers me to see a harsh review in which a reader complains that they don't really like that genre anyway, prompting to wonder why they would read and then critique the work as if they did!
This is so important to understand as a writer! Everyone has their own personal taste in writing and that's okay. We have a target demographic for a reason. Still, it's good to read the reviews...makes me feel encouraged that even literature I love isn't someone's cup of tea.
Got feedback last night from a contest my manuscript did not final in. Still haven't summoned up the energy to do more than skim two of the three judges comments. Telling myself the negative or suggestions are designed to help me improve - not to tear me down. Maybe I'll look at them later today - closer to 5:00 and appropriate time for wine.
Yes, perhaps all critiques should be read with wine, chocolate, or comfort food nearby!
Hahahaha! That's a good time to look at reviews.
A couple of years ago, I finally understood this. Doesn't mean I like the fact, but it's true. There are genres I don't particularly care for, though I'll try a book that's recommended by a friend. People read for different reasons, so of course we can't make everyone happy.
Absolutely true. Wise words!
Both Jennie Nash and Jeff Goins require their students to describe their target reader. Mine (for my memoir) is "anyone who has ever had their lives touched by high risk pregnancy."
But Jennie makes you go deeper and fill out a form like this:
My ideal reader is XXX , a (age) XXX year-old XXX who lives in XXX. In her spare time, she can often be found XXX. In general, she is a XXX who values XXX. Sometimes she stays up at night XXX. More than anything in this world, my reader wants XXX. My book will help my reader get it because XXX. And she will gain a way to XXX.
Here is my response filled in:
My ideal reader is Mary Everylady, a 35-60 year-old woman who lives in a first world country. In her spare time, she can often be found pursuing her best self or focusing on her family. It might be she has a hard time doing both at the same time. In general, she is a thoughtful person who values human connection. Sometimes she stays up at night worrying about her loved ones and her own chronic health condition. More than anything in this world, my reader wants her friends and family to be happy, healthy and safe. My book will help my reader get it because she will learn coping skills through the vehicle of story. And she will gain a way to bond with her daughter/friend/co-worker who are fighting problems of their own.
That's a great exercise! And I've had the experience of completing a nonfiction book proposal that asks about target readers in a way that's a bit between the general and specific examples you provided. It does make one think when you have to identify who you're really aiming for. Thanks, Jenny!
Thanks, Julie. We all need to be reminded of this. My first response was relief, the second to remember two specific responses from agents to DRAGON SOLSTICE, which boiled down to "I don't understand why a dragon should talk, or why a witch should be chasing it." - making me wonder if the readers had read the pitch letter and, if so, why they didn't waste their time and send a simple, "Sorry, it's not for us."
Left the jaw on the floor.
Since I was becoming ill when it was self-published, there was no marketing - didn't even solicit reviews from friends. But they've trickled in from strangers who have become friends, and are very lovely, so there is some consolation that eventually it will find its holiday audience.
Now I'm going to check that link to some of the Harry Potter rejections and giggle. Then it's back to letting my prequel continue to jell as I set up a Patreon account.
You made my day! Write on!
I immediately thought, "Well, why SHOULDN'T a dragon talk or a witch be chasing it!" Isn't the sky the limit in a fantasy plotline, as long as you can sell it? I guarantee there's an audience for that story! 🙂 Thanks, Nancy. Enjoy writing the prequel!
I wrote a modern twist on Pride and Prejudice, and one reader/reviewer didn't get it the parallel. She attributed it to being a twist on You've Got Mail. Both had a bookstore. If the plot was followed closely, there shouldn't be a misunderstanding. She did enjoy the story. I said nothing, of course. (Well, not to her. I had a good laugh about it.)
Huh, other than a bookstore, and You've Got Mail's heroine being enamored with Pride and Prejudice, I don't get that. Oh well! Readers come with their own perspectives and can walk away with conclusions an author didn't intend. Again...subjective. Thanks, Denise!
Thanks for a VERY good reminder of one of those points that needs to be repeated! This can be a particular challenge when dealing with publishing professionals. Editors, freelance or otherwise, agents and publishers, have individual tastes too, as the professional reviews you quoted demonstrated. Both writers and editors need to acknowledge their preferences and limitations. And people's tastes change, sometimes rapidly, sometimes contracting, sometimes expanding.
Oh yes, this is so true with publishing professionals. Great point, John! Thanks.
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When I feel laid-out by a review, I remind myself that even the Bible doesn't have all 5-star reviews. Great reminder, Julie - thanks for this.
The word count alone would kill the Bible. God would have great difficulty getting published these days!
Hahaha! What a great way to look at it, Laura! 🙂
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I recently read a Goodreads review in which the reader said they had avoided reading The Book Thief because, if it was any good, it wouldn't be a YA book. I couldn't believe it! Not that I'd actually consider it a YA book anyway, but for someone to assume that YA novels were somehow inferior to other novels just floored me. But then, I guess that reader just wasn't interested in YA, which is fine. Her loss.
When I write, I always imagine the particular person I want to sit down and enjoy my work. Anyone else is a bonus.