by Will Viharo
They say all press is good press, especially when you get a bad review.
The fact is, it’s difficult for indie authors to get reviewed at all by “respected” literary journals, given the stigma still widely associated with self-publishing.
So that leaves the fate of your hard work in the hands of the critics that matter most – the readers.
So why are so many bestselling eBooks so successful despite their poor critical reception?
Anyone who pays any attention to our popular culture realizes that quality does not always equal quantity – of sales, that is. In fact, many works almost unanimously deemed as trash are among the biggest success stories of all time. Take Fifty Shades of Grey, which went from being a self-published trilogy of “mommy porn” to a major book release via a prominent publisher to a current blockbuster film. Notice I didn’t characterize it as “universally acclaimed” – because despite its massive impact on the culture, many readers panned its purple prose, poor construction, stock characterization, and inferior plotting, even by those who ignored the hype and tried to give it a fair assessment.
But who cares? The millions of its fans sure don’t. It was all about the feverish erotica, the relatable protagonist, and most importantly, strategic marketing by its savvy (if not particularly gifted) author, E.L. James. On its Amazon page – easily the highest profile platform for any author these days – the one star reviews are second only to the five star reviews. So it’s all subjective. But still mysterious, especially when you consider well-reviewed books that bomb. It all seems like a discouraging crapshoot, doesn’t it? That’s because at the end of the day, all clever promotions aside, it is.
This article offers a comprehensive list of novels that became bestsellers (and subsequently hit movies) even with an astonishing number of poor reviews, including The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and perhaps most surprisingly, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.
Even Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight book/film series was a worldwide phenomenon despite widespread denigration typified by this review. Of course, when it comes to genre fare, including comic books, which dominate our contemporary pop culture, nobody on this side of the fence cares much about academic response. It’s all about the size of the audience, i.e. money talks louder than words. Even words of dubious and debated literary value.
But even many notable literary classics were met with critical derision upon initial launch, as reported in this article, which recounts when The New Yorker infamously dismissed Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1958 masterpiece Lolita as “dull” and “pretentious.” Decades later, after it was memorably filmed in 1961 by Stanley Kubrick, it remains one of the most celebrated works of the 20th century.
Points to you if you can even name that reviewer without looking. Didn’t think so.
Do reviews matter to you, either as a writer or as a reader?