Why do I love a good one-star review? My friends have been asking me this question a lot since the debut of my first novel, Murder and Other Distractions.
So far, I’ve been lucky. Thirty-eight people have reviewed Murder and Other Distractions on Amazon, and most of them have given the book either four or five stars. Reading such praise is great. A positive review—even if it’s just a few words to say that the reader enjoyed the book—can have a tremendous effect on an author. Writing, after all, is a rather solitary experience, so even the smallest gesture from a fan can go a long way. And let’s face it: reviews are one of the best tools we have for reaching new readers, especially if you have a small publisher and no marketing budget.
Knowing the personal and financial benefits that come with good reviews, one might think that an author who loves his one-star reviews just as much as the five-star variety might be a couple of McNuggets short of a Happy Meal. In fact, when I read my first one-star review to my wife, I’m pretty sure she mistook my uncontrollable laughter for the cackle of a lunatic.
"I bought this book based on the description and great reviews,” a reader named Matt wrote. “What the description and reviews left out was the EXPLICIT SEX WARNING. I flipped the 'next page' > button several times and the sex description did not stop. When I bought this book I did not realize it was a porno in print. My only consolation is I bought it during its promotional free period, so nothing lost. I doubt I will ever finish the book if all it contains is sex.”
Guilty. I didn’t put an explicit sex warning in the description, but not because I wanted to trick readers like Matt. I left the warning out because I thought it redundant, what with a cover that has two stick figures fucking doggie style.
So what made me howl with laughter? Well, you know that old idiom about not judging a book by its cover? Exactly. You can’t write comedy that perfect.
About a month later, I got my second one-star review. Unlike the first, I don’t think this one missed the cover.
“Inane, vulgar, pointless,” a reviewer using the handle Nonatchka wrote. “Could not wait to erase it from my library so it would not pollute the rest of my books. Does it seem harsh? Sorry I could not tell you how I really feel.”
As if the review wasn’t bad enough, Nonatchka’s headline was “wanted to poke my eyes out.”
An author would have to be pretty messed up in the head to smile when a reader threatens to go Oedipus Rex after reading their book, right?
I love Nonatchka’s one-star review for the same reason that I love the dozens of five-star reviews for Murder and Other Distractions. Each one represents a reader who had a reaction to the story I told. Sure, I’d love it if those reactions were universally positive. But that never happens. And if it did happen, I’d worry that I had written something so mild that it was the literary equivalent of soda crackers—guaranteed to inspire neither offense nor fandom. Bad and good reviews alike require the reviewer to make an effort. Any review means that the book made enough of an impression to push the reader into action. That is a very good feeling.
When Murder and Other Distractions came out in September, my biggest fear was that readers would hate it. But soon enough, reality took hold and I realized that in order for my biggest fear to be realized, I’d have to overcome an even bigger challenge—getting the book in front of readers. And now that it’s out there in the world, I find that a bad review—even one that considers my book capable of “polluting” a library of other books—isn’t so bad. Because the worst feeling isn’t what comes from a bad review, it’s the sound of crickets you hear when your work fails to resonate at all.
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