Lessons from My First Unfavorable Review

Live Like Rogan, Like Jocko – All Them Kings New Bayou Books

  1. Live Like Rogan, Like Jocko – All Them Kings
  2. A Year in (the) Rear-view
  3. Be Prepared to Say Goodbye to Old Habits and Friends (and Welcome New Ones)
  4. The Meaning is in the Commitment
  5. Is this a Hero’s Journey, and if So, Who is the Hero? (Surely not me?)

“Well bubba, you’re gonna have to get thicker skin, because when you’re making any kind of art, there will ALWAYS be someone out there saying some shit about what you’re doing. Sometimes it hurts because it’s true, but MOST times it’s someone trying to sound like they know better”  

– Toby Frey

So, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it turned out to be sooner. I got my first review for Tattoos and Tans yesterday—a mere two out of five stars. And I’m not gonna sugar coat it in any way: it stung. Stung like a mother fucker, actually. The sensation lasted for the better part of the day. But by the time the pain had subsided, I was left with some useful insights. Which I would like to share with you now. 

The first thing that struck me, even while I was reading the review from a reader in the UK, was that this is pretty awesome. Here was some total stranger—the first actual stranger to buy my book, to be honest—and he (or she) did not only buy the book, but they bothered to sit down and compose a review after they’d (presumably) read the whole thing. I still feel a kind of awe in thinking about that, the fact that I was able to sit at my computer and make up a story that some other person I don’t know would eventually pay money to read. 

I’ve talked in other blogs about the power of the flat publishing model that the internet, and more specifically services like Amazon KDP, enable. Reading my first review brought that awesome power into sharp focus. The truth is the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing industry are no longer necessary. You can simply disregard them, going direct to readers. 

Reading the review also brought me a kind of forced recognition that said, okay, you’re in the game now. It reminded me of the first time I got subbed into a football match as a wing back and immediately got beat by the big forward I was up against. In the first ten seconds of play he got goal-side of me and just barely hooked his shot wide, to my great relief. It was a wake up call. My first unfavorable review had a similar feeling. It was like you better bring your A game, because we play for keeps. 

Forgive me if the metaphor is kind of cliche (and, to my American friends, for calling it football instead of soccer), but I think the game analogy is accurate. I feel like this first review, and the sale that preceded it, was my initiation into the professional ranks. 

It made it real for me. Before I read the review, the idea that strangers would read my book was theoretical. Now, I’ve seen proof that I can actually reach people. And so now the only question is, when I do reach them, will readers encounter my very best effort?

And the thing is, Tattoos and Tans was my best effort at the time. I am only just now finishing up my second book, but already I’ve learned so much about producing novels that my first book seems like a dot in the rearview mirror. Which isn’t to say I’m not proud of it or that it isn’t entertaining as shit. And is also not to empower a single reviewer with the authority to pass some kind of universal judgement on the book. What I mean to say is—and this relates to the overall theme of this post—that the key to success here, I’m certain, is learning from every experience, whether it’s a good or a bad one. 

And it’s the bad experiences that provide the biggest opportunities to take great leaps forward in learning. We learn best from mistakes. Again, I don’t mean to equate a bad review with failure, but I am certain there are lessons to be drawn from the experience. And honestly, the reviewer did make a couple of valid points. 

But, let’s go back to the new landscape of publishing, where you don’t need permission from anybody to put a book out, and explore it through the lens of a debut novel. I never sent Tattoos and Tans out to agents and traditional publishers because I’m just too old to go asking anybody but my wife for permission to do anything. But if I had, I’m sure it would have been rejected. In fact, the rejection slips might’ve even echoed some of the themes from that first review. What would have happened then?

In the old days, it might’ve been enough to discourage me from writing another book. I might’ve concluded I don’t just have the natural ability, or that it’s just too much work to try again. I wonder how many potentially great novels the world missed out on back in the day because some emerging writer got smacked down by an established agent or publisher, maybe even with the best of intentions? 

So, at a very basic level, I’m just thankful I have the ability to publish my own work, not because I feel like I couldn’t have competed in the traditional model . . . but because the traditional model, to my mind, didn’t even allow you to compete. You needed special permission just to get into the game!

But the thing is, you have to be in the game to really learn the ropes. That’s just how it is. We learn from experience. We learn from failure. We learn from criticism of all kinds. And in that light, I’m feeling pretty damn good about things, because I’m in the game baby! And now that I’m here I can try things, learn from my experiences and my mistakes, and get better. Reach more readers. Sell more books. Improve. This is awesome!

Final word. The general consensus on reading reviews, as far as I can tell, is don’t do it. Don’t read the good ones. Don’t read the bad ones. I totally get that, especially if you’re TC Boyle or JK Rowling or even an author without initials for a first name. But this was my very first review. There was no way I wasn’t gonna read it! At some point, hopefully soon, I’ll have so many book reviews that I won’t even have time to read them. I’ll perhaps be able to ascend to the company of those great initialed authors, elevating myself above it all. But I’m not so sure I’m going to stop reading the reviews. I believe there’s something to be learned from every piece of feedback. And so for now, at least, I’ll be reading every one of them . . . even if it’s with one eye closed. 

Published by New Bayou Books

JR Reed started New Bayou Books to spark a revolution in Louisiana literature. The goal of the company is simple: to great writers out of the shadows to carry on the Louisiana literary tradition.

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