Friday, August 31, 2012

Chapter Wherein the Author Copes with Negative Reviews

Recapping the story thus far...

In 2009 I wrote a story called The Zeroes.

In 2010 I pitched the manuscript to literary agents and small publishers. I honestly lost track of how many. About 10% responded with polite form letters that began "Dear Author." The other 90% didn't respond at all. I have no reason to believe that any of the people I pitched ever actually read the book. (Which is understandable, but nevertheless discouraging.)

In 2011 I resigned myself to getting the damn thing off my hands and bearing the stigma of being a self-published author.

Earlier this year (2012), the manuscript became a novel. In February it was published as an ebook. In April it was released in paperback form.

Since then I've devoted less energy to finalizing the draft of a new short novel (written between September and May) than trying to make people interested in reading (and ideally purchasing) The Zeroes.

Once again, this is why you want to have a publisher to begin with. They take care of all that crucial but excruciatingly bothersome business for you. They put your book in stores, see that it gets reviewed by the right reviewers, and design Facebook ads on your behalf so you can work on writing more books and making them more money.

A failing to which I will freely confess is that I have no business acumen. I don't know how to design snappy ads or pitches. Relentless self-promotion puts a bad taste in my mouth. I don't have an outgoing personality and I'm not very good at disingenuous glad-handing. Frankly, I'd rather write than tell people about what I've already written.

In a 21st century market, this is a crippling deficiency. I'm well aware.

One of my primary motivations for maintaining a blog, updating a webcomic, and doing these video game reviews is to give myself a platform from which I can promote my book. Yes, I do enjoy working on all this stuff for its own sake -- but between my fiction and my video game criticism, the fiction is much more important to me. And between the two, I'd rather people were reading my fiction.

But a book is an imposition. A free article about a familiar video game in a web browser is much less of an investment than a 300-page novel by an author who's not respectable enough to be adopted by an imprint but still has the nerve to ask for your time and money. I'm finding that if, for instance, a hundred people read my EarthBound writeup, it doesn't necessarily mean even one of them will click on the link to my Amazon page and shell out $15 (or even $3) for a copy of The Zeroes, even if I cajole them.

This is where the reviews come in.

Ideal scenario: you convince a blogger to review your book. They tell everyone in their sphere that your book is worthwhile, and some of these people actually purchase and read it. And if the reviewer has some clout, other people with clout might be more willing to give you and your book a chance.

One thing I've learned over the past few months is that it's almost as hard to get a book review as it is to get a book deal.

There's absolutely no shortage of book review blogs focusing on "indie" books. But there's even less a scarcity of self-published nobody authors incessantly pleading and screaming REVIEW MY BOOK NEXT. And so for days and weeks you toss custom-written pitches toward these bloggers (who, for all you know, only receive traffic from other self-published authors desperately searching for reviewers) and hear nothing back from any of them, not even a "no thanks," because their inboxes are already inundated with a hundred other solicitations from a hundred other lousy authors begging them to review a hundred other books nobody wanted to publish.

The only blog that agreed to check out and review The Zeroes was the Unbound Underground. Go on, read the review.

It's not very flattering. Statements like "seems to lack any depth or understanding of depression" and "incredibly condescending and insulting" rather negate any of the scant bits of praise that buoy the rating up to a 3.

Shortly after it was posted, a reader hopped on my Formspring an asked me about my reaction to it. I let it all out and felt pretty good about myself.

Not long afterwards, somebody (perhaps the person who submitted the question to begin with) sent me a few words of advice. The gist of it was that while people who'd already read and appreciated my book might agree and sympathize, but to the much more sizable Everyone Else, the rant would make me look like some bitchy diva with a wounded ego -- especially since the Unbound Underground was actually doing me a favor by reading and reviewing the book to begin with.

He was absolutely correct. If some other blogger were considering The Zeroes for his next post and doing some research on its author, a Formspring page containing a tirade against the last person to review his book would almost definitely change his mind. So I thanked him for his clarity of judgement and axed the question and my response to it.

I started pitching other bloggers, hoping to offset this one negative review with a few positive ones from readers who might better understand the book.

A prewritten form letter won't work. Especially not when you're asking somebody to take on a project on their own time and offering them no renumeration. And especially not when you're pitching them a book that is, by your own admission, as deliberately mundane as possible, and for which you can't effectively compose a snappy plot summary because there (deliberately) isn't much of a plot. Your task becomes finding a suitable blog, reading enough of it to get an idea who you're dealing with, and then composing a personalized pitch that adheres to their unique submission guidelines.

It's a grinding process -- scouring the web for somebody who might be hip to what you're offering, skimming the last two or three months of their blog, and then writing them an unctuous personalized message that will give them the impression that you're excited to show them your book because you're an avid reader who's really into what they're doing, and certainly not some exhausted, red-eyed creep who sincerely could not give a shit what they're reading or talking about unless it's your fucking book.

(If any bloggers I may have solicited are reading this, please be assured I consider you exceptional. Would I lie to you?!)

One, two hours per pitch. One, two hours that you could be doing any number of other things, like going outside, visiting friends, napping, gardening, reading, playing video games, dancing, fucking, or working on your next book. And you do this one, two, five, a dozen and more times. And none of them write back. And none of them ask you to send them your book.

But we already understand that we can't blame them for this. Pitches pile up in their inboxes like spambot messages appear in yours.

This would be the advantage of paid reviews. (The legitimate kind, I mean -- not the perfidious phony type that makes life harder for everyone.) You throw a respectable book review publication some cash and they agree to give your book a read and a review. You're not guaranteed a good review, but your check buys you the assurance that somebody will read your book and write about it.

Kirkus Indie is a service offered by publishing industry authority pillar Kirkus. The short of it: you pay them $500 and they review your self-published novel, regardless of how obscure you might be.

A few nights ago I received Kirkus Indie's review of The Zeroes in my inbox.

Basically, I paid $500 for two paragraphs about how The Zeroes is a dreadful book about awful people and why nobody should read it.

The only upside is that my receipt reserved me the option to request that the review never see the light of day. I have already made that request. And I deleted the review.

It's a good thing I had the next day off from work. I was practically catatonic for about sixteen hours.

The question becomes: how do I read and respond to this feedback?

None of the criticisms offered by either review are especially helpful or constructive. One complains that the book is extremely depressing. Great; it's meant to be. The other lambasts the characters for being pathetic, self-absorbed, and drinking too much. Sure; that was rather the point. Both reviews bring up the word "entitlement." Well, yeah -- I thought that was a fairly obvious component of the subtext.

It's clear that the reviewers just didn't get it.

They Didn't Get It. The chorus of the failed artist. Repeated so many times by so many people that it can't possibly be true anymore. They'd get it if you were as good as you thought you were. Why should the writer have to explain himself?

So now I think about that new manuscript I've got sitting around. About polishing and finalizing it. About how I'll have to spend another few months pitching it to the agents and small presses again. About how I'll very probably have to resort to self-publishing again. About how I'll have write dozens of letters to dozens of bloggers pleading for reviews again. About how I'll watch the sales counter freeze again and sit around trying to figure out what to do next again.

But that's just how it goes. Art is a bitch and nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear about it, and you truly have no right to complain and don't deserve any sympathy. (Some asshole wrote a book about this once.)

This brings us to an alternative reading of the tea leaves: why not take the hint and call it quits?

You're never going to make any money off this. That much is certain. Given how the written word -- and especially the novel -- are trundling into irrelevance, that spicule-thin probability of being vindicated much later down the road will get closer and closer to zero as time passes. And since you seem to agonize over writing like you do, wouldn't it be better to just tear the monkey off your shoulders and find some happier and more rewarding activity to occupy your time?

Czeslaw Milosz refers to his choice to write as the deformation of his own life. Somewhat less poetically, I'd call it a kind of behavioral disorder. Unless it's paying your bills, it just doesn't make sense. It's a lot of trouble and it's really not worth it.

Fuck -- if I quit writing, I could go out and try to find a real job. I mean, one of the reasons I've been so reluctant to dive into a capital-c Career is my fear that it wouldn't leave me enough time or energy to dedicate to what I've always felt is my real work. If I stopped writing, I would almost definitely stop smoking. I'd have no excuse not spend more time with my friends, read more books, work in the garden more often, play more Street Fighter, or go to bed at a decent hour. I could go out and get laid more often. I might find myself readier to get into a sustainable loving and working relationship with a human being who actually exists outside of my own head. I'd never have to write another fucking pitch to a literary agent or blogger for the rest of my life. I could actually relax on my weekends and days off.

Quitting makes a very convincing case for itself.

About sixteen hours after reading a paid professional opinion that my writing is garbage, I finally got out of bed, had lunch, and sat down to make some progress on a new short story I've been tinkering with. I'll worry about the backdraft of rejection slips from literary magazines later on.

Ultimately, I'm still just too stupid to quit.

And it must be terminal, because I'm totally cool with it.


  1. I've since asked my dad what he thought about it since the last time I brought that up, and he said that he liked it but there was no way he could have made it sell, not with the small publisher's limited resources.

    I think he specifically said some books by design are unsaleable.

  2. It's funny, because becoming aware of how you managed to get a book put together was a major inspiration for me attempting to do the same thing, albeit with poetry, and if there's anything less marketable and more reviled than the novel, it's the book of poems. I'm not expecting much, really, just something that I can put on my shelf and think "Yup, at least I did *something* with my life I can be proud of," but as recently as yesterday, when I finished the most recent poem for the book, I was hit with the terrifying thought that, after the let's say 5 years I've been SERIOUSLY writing, I may not have advanced my craft at all. But either way, I suppose that someone out there will one day appreciate my work, and most certainly there are those who appreciate yours. We may not ever have any sort of celebrity, even literary celebrity which is as much of an oxymoron as exists, but if one can make even one other person think, isn't that something?

    Either way, as shallow as it is to say, and how much the empathy is misguided, don't let the it get you down. It may be Sisyphean but, hopefully, it at least you're doing something that you enjoy, even if the Sophists don't get it.

  3. "The Zeroes" is a great book. It _is_ bleak as shit, I don't know if I "got it" but it definitely affected me.

    Post the bad reviews, even if only to desensitize yourself.

    How will you be vindicated down the road if you can't concretely point out the bastards holding you down?

    If the fuckheads trying to pick the carcass of the publishing industry could recognize art in a novel, they'd tell people not to read it just like you say they did - they don't want people to think, they want people to buy more crap.

  4. What exactly is "deserving" or "undeserving" cynicism? Is this just a neat new way to phrase "first world problems"? Not everything needs to be about who is suffering the most or who is the most worthy of sympathy. "The Zeroes" approaches the suffering of its characters sincerely because the characters themselves approach their own suffering sincerely! One of them is the fucking narrator! I don't think any of the points that the "Unbound" review brought up are relevant. Would it make the reviewer feel better if there was a foreword featuring a series of inspiring stories of people who have suffered greater and faced more challenges than the characters?

  5. You can't let success (or lack thereof) determine whether or not you should be doing something. Success is what we all want, but it doesn't mean much if it's not achieved in the right way. Would you feel better about yourself as a writer if you were the person who wrote the Twilight or Hunger Games books? Would you be satisfied if you got rich and (relatively) famous off of writing those kinds of simple-minded pieces of anti-art? (Not that books like that don't have their place, but I think those are two particularly awful examples of what that kind of writing is supposed to be) Success isn't determined by you, it's determined by everyone else. You could be the greatest author in history, but if nobody buys your books then you aren't successful. Generally, being a great author will get you success, but there is no way that 100% of great authors (or painters, or filmmakers, or musicians, etc.) get the success that their work is due. Sometimes things just fall through the cracks. Ultimately, the only thing in your control is how you choose to write. There's three ways to do things: The right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way (which is the wrong way, but faster). Pick one of those ways and go with it. There are plenty of reasons to stop doing anything artistic, but a lack of success isn't one of them.

  6. Hi Pat - I'm a longtime reader, first time
    I'm a blogger/aspiring writer from Australia and I've followed your Final Fantasy reviews. I ordered a paperback version of The Zeroes and I read it from cover to cover. I thought it was a very good book and indeed challenging at times. Many of the situations portrayed in The Zeroes I can see in both myself and my friends around me.
    It is indeed a shame that something of this calibre is ignored whilst rubbish *coughTwilightSagacough* sells like crazy.
    Being an aspiring writer myself, i can understand of trying to get somewhere when it's only one in a thousand writers (or so) who actually do. So if your book has reached someone (even if they happen to be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean) then that's small degree of victory

    Keep fighting the good fight :)

  7. Just when you think you're done creating your baby, the next gargantuan mountain to climb is to SELL THAT BABY. A lot of great authors had their work torn to pieces before people changed their minds about it. Critics are strange and fickle like that. Chuck Palahnuik's Fight Club didn't get off the ground for a long ass time. So if its any consolation, your book might end up as a cult hit.

  8. Well, for what it's worth, I liked your damned book. One of my friends thought it was very depressing (which didn't detract from the quality), but in my mind that's what made it very real. If I wrote a blog that anybody read ( plug plug) or had any real pull I would certainly put it up. Keep writing. You don't need to be successful for it to be worth it.