Thursday, July 19, 2012

Good News/Bad News

By Jay Stringer

So, hey, I got a review. And an interview. Oh, and I have an ebook you can buy. Oh yeah, and a book. And if you want to leave comments or reviews on any of these things, I promise not to send an angry mob after you.

See what I did there?

Yes, of course you did.

Professor Weddle has already covered most of the kerfuffle at length. I won't go back over what he said, because he did it with pictures, and blurred out names, and screencaps, and all manner of cool things that I can't get my brain around.

But one thing I wanted to run with today was the idea of authors pointing out bad reviews. In the comments to yesterdays post, Dan Luft made an interesting point.  I am shocked to see authors play coy posting their bad reviews "in the interest of being honest" with their fans and friends. This is a sad way get your ego stroked by a choir of admirers.

I don't quote that to single Dan out, because he made a valid point. But it ties into something I've been thinking about, so it's a good quote to star the post with. Someone that I often cite as a big influence on me (and by that I mean, someone who has a similar accent to me and who's jokes I steal) is the comedian Stewart Lee. He makes regular use of bad reviews. If you click over to his website, you'll see at the bottom of the page a display of mixed-to-negative reviews. On his tour posters, especially around the time of something like the Edinburgh Fringe, he'll put a blurb from a bad review as prominently as one from a good review.

When I first saw him doing this, I assumed it was in that interest of fairness that Dan mentioned, because we do see a lot of people using that line. My second thought, since Lee's stage persona often comes across as smug and elitist, is that he was doing it to poke fun at the reviewer. "Look at this guy, he just doesn't get it."

But I've heard him explain it a few times now, and it comes from a different place. The Edinburgh festival is a huge event. It attracts a lot of visitors (and performers) from around the country, and a lot of people who don't normally attend the theatre or comedy shows will put aside a day to head to the festival, drink, and spend a lot of money. Lee is something of a niche comedian. People who like him, love him. But equally, there are a lot of people who are looking for something different from a comedy show. He gets a lot of praise from broadsheet newspapers, and could fill posters with blurb about him being the best stand-up on the circuit, or about the way he breaks apart the craft of comedy as he performs, or any number of clever sounding quotes. But then those people who've put aside one day, and are spending a chunk of cash to see their one comedy show of the year, may not know what they're buying. They may sit through a couple hours of something they were not expecting.

Lee has also said the same thing of when he's touring around the country. He's a father now, and understands that for two parents to go out for an evening can be a major investment and a minor military operation. Does he want a young couple going to all that trouble and expense to head out to a show that they may not enjoy?

I've been thinking about this as the release date for Old Gold comes closer. What thing we'll all know around these parts is that "crime fiction" means different things to different people. Some people like to read a number of different sub-genres (I hate that term, but for this post I'll go with it) and want to be challenged with different ideas. There are others who have a set idea of what they want to read. And that's fine. It's a big world and there are books enough for everybody. But it seems to me that the chances are high, in these times when everyone is competing for that ten seconds of eye-time it takes for someone to click "buy," that it's all too easy to tell someone how great your book is, but what if it's not their book?

Of all the reviews I've read over the years, I've noticed a common theme. Sure, there are bad reviews. Sometimes there are people who are in a bad mood, or have an axe to grind. There are some who are reviewing merely to get their own name out there and to show that they should have the writing contract. But I don't think those are as prevalent as we sometimes make out. The vast majority of people who take the time to write a review -positive or negative- are people who also took the time to read your book. And they wouldn't have done that if they didn't think at some point that it was their kind of book. I've seen many reviews that really boil down to one basic issue; The book is fine, but it's not the book the reviewer wanted to read.

Stewart Lee's use of negative reviews is quite clever. Not only do they show that some people don't like him, but he chooses quotes that show why. They will refer to the fact that he wouldn't fit into a mainstream comedy bill, or that he deconstructs the jokes as he tells them, or that he doesn't use punchlines. Using these lines is basically a way of saying, "look, if you like a certain kind of mainstream comedian, that's fine, but I'm not that." Then if people still take the chance and don't like his show, they were forewarned. They knew what they were buying into.

Is there room for us to take this approach in crime fiction? If I write a book about a gang of hoodie criminals from Mars, but someone picks it up expecting Phillip Marlowe, then it's fair enough if they decide they don't like it. If I write a book about the three musketeers moonlighting as pimps, but someone picks it up expecting a dissertation on the modern city and the influence of poverty on it's crime, then it's a fair bet the review may be a bad one.

Would it not be wise for me to head that off in advance? If I get a few reviews where it's clear that the reviewer thought I'd done my job well, but that it wasn't the kind of book they were expecting, maybe I should use some of those quotes, so that people visiting my website in future may get the fair warning before they sink some cash into my work and invest the time it takes to read it.

That's what I'd been planning. But then, all of the recent events have me double thinking this. Dan made an important point, because in the current climate it does seem more and more that bad reviews are singled out not to say anything about the writer, or the book, but to say something about the reviewer. So, to keep this conversation rolling one more day; What do you guys think? Removing the other issues that have already been done, forgetting cranky pants authors revealing personal information and then lying about doing it, forget piracy, forget the angry mobs. Pure and simple. Do you think there's room for authors to use bad reviews in this way?

Oh, and as a prize for wading through this, a signed ARC of OLD GOLD to the first person who asks for one in the comments.


Ron Dionne said...

Excellent post. I have that dilemma with my book -- labeling it to sell, but worrying that folks wanting material with that label night be disappointed by it. Oh, and I'd love an ARC of OLD Gold

Jay Stringer said...

Sorted. Email me your address to

Anonymous said...

I purchase and read a large number of e-books. Before I take a chance on a new author I always do three things - read the last couple of sentences of the professional reviews, scan the number of positive reader reviews, and read the bad reviews. I don't read good reviews because I'm wary of spoilers but, I always read bad reviews, and just as often as not they lead me to purchase the book.