(Or, Why I Don’t Read My Goodreads Reviews)
Back in January, I claimed my Goodreads author page. I was elated. I’ve been a Goodreads user since 2008 and have long dreamed of having my very own author page, of having that “Goodreads Author” badge show up next to my name. I promptly sent the link to friends and family and then watched with pleasure as Are You Sleeping received five-star ratings, was added to to-read shelves, and voted for inclusion on various lists.
I checked the page almost daily, mostly to reassure myself that it was still there and that this was, in fact, really happening.
And then I logged in one morning and saw Are You Sleeping had received a one-star rating from a stranger.
I was irate. Advance copies had just arrived; the only people who had them were my immediate family and a handful of close friends. There was absolutely no way that this stranger—this stranger who joined Goodreads the day before, had an empty profile, and issued dozens of one-star reviews to forthcoming books—had read my book. They were a fraud. Something had to be done.
I was a little startled by my utter lack of chill over such an obvious troll. I knew my five-star rating on Goodreads wouldn’t last forever; I knew that I would get one-star reviews eventually. I thought I was prepared for them, and certain that I would let them roll off my back like water. Art is subjective, after all, and even great books get bad reviews. I mean, I once wrote a scathing Goodreads review about a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that is at one point told through the viewpoint of an unfertilized human egg. (Look, I’ve got a lot of respect for that author and I love his other books, but come on. There’s no way that those sections aren’t anything other than pretentious.)
I explained to anyone who would listen to me that I wasn’t upset about the negative rating, I was upset that this sham user was violating community standards and passing out one-star ratings to books they couldn’t have possibly read. This is where Ron Howard’s Narrator voice intones, “She was upset about the negative rating.”
Goodreads eventually removed the illegitimate profile, and the one-star rating vanished from my page. I pumped my fist in victory.
And then I got a two-star rating. The advance copies still had not yet gone out, so this person couldn’t possibly have read my book either. Another fraud! I was incensed. But a quick peek at this reviewer’s profile indicated it was legitimate. Maybe they meant to click “Want to Read” and clicked the two-star instead. Maybe they hated the description of the book so much that they felt compelled to issue a two-star rating. Either way, I realized I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) spend my time policing my Goodreads page.
I stopped checking the page every day, although I remained tempted. When the advance copies went out and the book became available on NetGalley, the temptation skyrocketed. I was torn between dying to know what readers thought of the book and being petrified to know what readers thought of the book. I checked the page occasionally, usually after a glass of wine and usually while peeking through my fingers, horror-movie style.
Publishing is not for the thin-skinned, I know that. Anytime you put creative work out there, it’s inevitable that some people won’t like it. Some people will probably actively hate it. And that’s okay. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked the same stuff. I get it.
That doesn’t mean that I need to read it. I’m so appreciative of the people who take the time to read and review Are You Sleeping, and I’ve been gratified by the generally positive reception its gotten, but I am way too invested in the book to read reviews without losing my cool. I can find the one neutral or mildly negative comment in an otherwise glowing review and obsess over it. This is not my best trait, to put it lightly, but it’s the way that I am.
So I don’t read my Goodreads reviews. My husband does, and he will occasionally tell me if there’s a particularly positive or negative one he thinks I’ll find amusing. I told him I’ll never find negative reviews amusing, but I admit that I did enjoy the guy who hates podcast and hates books about twins, and thusly hated my book. Are You Sleeping is about a podcast and a set of twins, and that’s all in the jacket copy so it’s not like I was hiding it. The fact that he didn’t enjoy my book was on him.
If you’re an author that can read your reviews and remain sane, my hat’s off to you! Seriously, I’m envious. On the other hand, if you’re an author just discovering the particular horror of negative reviews about your work, allow me to share a few tips for handling them:
First, STAY COOL. Resist the urge to fire off a withering retort or to inform the reader exactly where they can stick their dumb opinions. We’ve all read that story about the author who threatened to hex a reader, and, while I’m sure none of you would go so far as to actually hex a reader, don’t metaphorically threaten to hex a reader either. It’ll only come back to bite you. Complain to your friends, your spouse, your stuffed animal, but, whatever you do, don’t complain in a public forum.
Second, remind yourself that art is subjective. Read some one-star reviews of famous books. (Check out The Catcher in the Rye if you need somewhere to start.) And repeat after me, “Not all books are for all people.”
Third and finally, in the immortal words of pre-vengeance-obsessed Taylor Swift, shake it off. There’s nothing you can do about a negative review, and there’s no sense in letting it sap your creative energy.
Kathleen Barber was raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law, and previously practiced bankruptcy law at large firms in Chicago and New York. When she’s not writing, Kathleen enjoys traveling the world with her husband.
To learn more about ARE YOU SLEEPING, click on the cover below: