Take Some Shade: Not all Editorial Reviewers Are Going to Love Your Work
One way to establish credibility as an author is to submit your book for editorial review.
An editorial book review is an unbiased, reader-focused review of your published or soon-to-be published book, often used on marketing material like book covers, posters, and on the “editorial reviews” section on their Amazon sales page. Editorial reviews usually come from recognized review sites, fellow authors, or experts in the author’s field.
If your book is any good and you’re confident in your work, you can hope to receive positive four and five-star reviews from said reviewers.
Thus far, Spirit of the King (2020), has received positive reviews from several nationally recognized book reviewers, including Booklife by Publisher’s Weekly, San Francisco Book Review, and Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews.
About a month ago, I submitted Spirit of the King to Seattle Book Review for a professional editorial review. (You can never have too many, heh.) Because of the book’s trending success with editorial reviewers, I naturally anticipated — in fact, expected — to receive yet another positive four or five-star review.
When Seattle Book Review’s e-mail appeared in my inbox, the first thing my eyes landed on was the star rating: 3/5 stars.
Immediately, I was concerned. Again, I was anticipating four or five stars. So what the heck? Why only three? What didn’t they like about it?
First, let me start by saying that three out of five-stars isn’t a bad thing. Generally speaking, it means the reviewer liked it. They wouldn’t read it again, or encourage friends and family members to read it, but hey, they liked it. Despite some personal complaints, they enjoyed the journey for what it was.
But as I read the full review, my heart sank. He said the writing was good, thank God, but from the tone of his review, I got the sense that he didn’t like the book for personal reasons. I started to feel discouraged and even angry.
In that emotionally charged moment, I remember thinking, I’m trying to launch a trilogy! I’m trying to build a solid platform with the first book so that the trilogy as a whole will find success. Positive reviews are so crucial at this stage in the game. How can I do that if there is a mediocre three-star review floating around out there? That works against me!
I scoured the review for a sentence — no, a single redemptive phrase — that I could use for marketing purposes, but after reading and re-reading the review, I began to seriously question its promotional value. My first inclination was to bury it. Seattle Book Review offers a kind policy where if you do not like your book review — that is, your book received an inherently negative review — you can opt to trade its publication, and subsequent promotional value, for 30 days of free advertising on Seattle Book Review’s website.
But something in me didn’t want to do that. Some strange part of me (probably the mature, humble part) actually wanted to approve the review and put it out there on the internet for everyone to read. After some quiet introspection, I realized why.
I don’t want to hide behind a veneer of four and five-star reviews while shoving three or lower-star reviews under the carpet. I want to earn my stripes as an authentic writer: that means receiving criticism and accolades with equal gusto. I also want to be honest and transparent with my readers; that’s what they deserve. If my books are going to sink or swim in the real world — that is, if they are going to stand the test of time and gain popularity over the years — I have to embrace the mediocre reviews.
For the sake of transparency, I will share the full review with you here:
Ben Haskett, Seattle Book Review
Star Rating: 3 / 5
“After thirteen grueling years under the tutelage of an evil spirit named Kerrigor [sic], main character Aria finally works up the courage to run — she throws off her weapons and darts through the open gates of Kerrigor’s compound. Although she’s immediately overwhelmed by an outside world she hasn’t laid eyes on since she was six, she eventually acclimates and embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery and redemption.
“Spirit of the King delights in the simple pleasures of life — of nature, soft fabrics, the smells of savory foods, the sounds of music. Freed at last from the shackles of the murderous Kerrigor, Aria eagerly soaks up these experiences like an alien come to Earth, and it’s hard not to get swept up in her joy. You’ll wish you were there with her in the Corrinian [sic] marketplace, shopping for outfits and learning about maps. She’s adaptable, quick to make friends, eager to learn, and always willing to listen.
“Refreshingly, the book eschews the typical “chosen one” cliché so common in books of this genre, and instead, Aria is targeted by forces good and evil simply because she’s a kind person with a good heart.
“Readers who enjoy novels like Safe Haven or Rose Madder will notice some familiar story beats: a woman who escapes from an abusive situation finds comfort and safety elsewhere, but must prepare for a showdown with her past. The formula works well in Aria’s tale, but the faith-based plot proved to be something of a stumbling block for me.
“Spiritual entities such as Kerrigor and Eli (the eponymous King) inhabit Aria’s world but are so loosely defined that it’s never clear what they are or what they’re capable of. Even murkier are the motivations of these entities; what stake they have in this world and their desires for its inhabitants are lost in vague assertions and half-formed allegories.
“There are many nods to the Bible, which help to fill in some gaps. The framework for the whole story, in fact, reads like an homage to the book of Job. Kerrigor and Eli, stand-ins for Satan and God respectively, discuss whether Aria will take to Kerrigor’s teachings before he abducts her. But the context is missing. And without that, Eli and Kerrigor feel like typical magicians — not creators or gods worthy of reverence. Eli comes off as aloof and oddly flirtatious, even sensual, when he speaks to Aria.
“Despite these gripes, I mostly had a good time with Spirit of the King. The book is generally well written, with a snappy pace that really moves things along. The large and varied cast of characters never stay in one place for more than a few pages, and each location is larger and more elaborate than the last. Readers who enjoy stories of redemption and don’t mind filling in a few gaps themselves are sure to find something to like here.”
Overall, it’s not a terrible review. I’m not sobbing in the corner of my apartment, too traumatized to recover. But I still dislike it. Some of you may be thinking, “Amy, you should be thanking your lucky stars that you even got a three-star review of your book. He said it was well written and there were things he actually liked about it. What more do you want? This blog post makes you sound entitled.” There may be some truth to this, but I also have a right to my own opinion when it comes to professional reviews of my work.
Let me be clear: general readers can form whatever opinion they want. That is their right. There is no book in the world that is a perfect fit for every reader and not all readers are going to like my books.
But when it comes to professional editorial reviews, I can dislike and disagree with them all I want. Any honest writer will tell you that they want to receive all positive reviews for their work and they get mad when they don’t. We want everyone to like what we created. (Especially if it took seven years of your life to write.)
He had two major complaints: 1) The vagueness of Keriggor and Eli’s relationship, and 2) the “faith-based plot”. Kirkus Reviews echoed similar complaints.
As soon as I read his first complaint, I immediately wished there had been some way to tell him beforehand that there was, in fact, more to the story. Spirit of the King is not a standalone novel. It’s the first book in a trilogy, where the history of Keriggor and Eli’s relationship is fully explained in the second and third book — but there was no way for him to know that at the time of the review. I knew structuring the story as a trilogy (compared to publishing it as one big book) could very well make the first book vulnerable to criticism. With these reviewers, it did.
But their hunger for a more thorough explanation can be appeased by simply reading the other two books in the trilogy.
His second major complaint was the “faith-based plot” woven through the story. Again, the relational dynamic between Keriggor, Eli, and Aria becomes crystal clear in the books that follow, and readers may be surprised to discover that it actually doesn’t adhere to a strict biblical allegory of good and evil but becomes something far more human and approachable.
Kirkus Reviews opined in their review that Spirit of the King’s Christian allegory of “good vs evil” wasn’t effectively utilized and therefore made Aria’s decision at the end of the story predictable. In fact, the takeaway line at the end of their review was, “A fantasy fiction novel that fails to capture the imagination.”
But wait, aren’t some of the most beloved stories in our cultural repertoire inherently predictable? Superhero stories are a prime example. Before you read a superhero comic book or go see a movie, you already know that the superhero is going to win. In fact, you convince yourself beforehand that you’re going to enjoy seeing them win. You think, I’m going to read/watch a superhero beat up some bad guys and save the world because it’s going to make me feel good.
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? You already know that the underdog is going to succeed. In fact, you expect him to not only succeed, but put all of his rivals to shame in the process. If that didn’t happen, the story would be a tragedy — and you only read tragedies to look cultured.
My point is: there’s more to the story, folks. The plot thickens in Spirit of the King’s tale. Secondary characters come into play. Some live; some die. The story is not as black and white as one would believe.
Some may be surprised to discover that negative editorial book reviews happen more often than people think. In fact, they are quite commonplace — its just part of the business. Some of the most popular and beloved works of fiction have received scathing reviews, and I mean scathing.
“What I do object to is a pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity. If Rowling is blessed with this magic gift of tapping into young minds, I can only wish she had made better use of it. Her characters, unlike life’s, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page. (Did Harry, like so many child-heroes before him, HAVE to be yet another poignant orphan?)”
Harold Bloom’s abrasive criticism of the Potter books is a literary legend in and of itself. His review titled, “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.”, appeared in The Wall Street Journal in June, 2000:
“Her prose style, heavy on cliché, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page — page 4 — of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés, all of the ‘stretch his legs’ variety. How to read ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.”
Stephen King may be a prolific and popular writer, but it’s well known that intellectual critics openly dislike him and rarely praise his work. In July, 2012, Dwight Allen from the Los Angeles Review of Books decisively stated that The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) was “boring”:
“The writing is at times so weak — so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly. At times, the novel read like not very good Y.A. fiction. I could imagine that a young reader might conceivably find the story — a nine-year-old girl lost in the Maine woods — compelling, but the pacing was, yet again, off. King’s woods were generic, and the little girl’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, while sometimes plausible, lacked authenticity and singularity.”
As a writer, I get shivers just reading that review.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times shared her open distaste for Stephen King and Owen King’s collaborative debut, Sleeping Beauties (2017):
“It too has a lot of characters, but very few of them spring to life, and many of them seem repetitive. Without speculating on what the father-son writing process was like, it feels as though some kind of politesse kept this 700-page book from being usefully tightened … Sleeping Beauties will inevitably wind up on the screen somehow. Whoever adapts it will have to beef up the characters and deflect attention from the nonthrilling main theme … What you may well come away thinking is: meh. For a book about resetting gender stereotypes, this one clings surprisingly tightly to them. Women are healers (though there are some tough customers here, thanks to the cast of law enforcers and prison inmates); men are either warriors or jerks who deserve to die. Everyone who survives this story is a little nicer by the time it’s over, but the basics still apply. And for a book that separates the sexes, the sudden impossibility of heterosexual sex goes strangely unnoticed … Stephen King didn’t become Stephen King by waffling this way.”
Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin, received this debilitating review in November 2018 from Hugo Rifkind of The Times [UK]:
“In a way, Martin’s big error with Fire and Blood is not unlike George Lucas’s, with his three godawful prequels to Star Wars. Both had originals to which fans would return, obsessively, precisely because their huge operatic backstories could only be imagined. And both men, eventually, appear to have been struck by a beard-stroking, mansplaining horror that these fans might be imagining them ever so slightly wrong … At some points, this gets frankly impenetrable … Even this would be forgivable if the story drew you in, but it does not, because there isn’t one … Occasionally the narrative shows signs of flaring up into what could have been a proper story if Martin could have been bothered to write it properly.”
After a day of mulling over whether to accept or reject my three-star review from Seattle Book Review, I decided to approve the review for publication. (I approved the one from Kirkus Reviews, as well.) And I did find a half sentence to use for promotional purposes, heh.
I needed to grow up. Toughen up. Display some true grit. Not everyone is going to love my work. Not everyone is going to interpret my work the way I want them to.
The goal of any emerging author is to find his or her audience. As you embark on your journey, there are going to be readers (and reviewers) who simply don’t like your work, for whatever reason. Eventually, you will find those people who love your work. This often takes years and numerous books to cultivate, but you will find your true audience.
In short, don’t shy away from editorial reviews that you dislike. Embrace them. Take some shade. Doing so makes you an authentic and approachable writer.
Who trusts a book that receives all glowing four and five-star reviews anyway?
Image by Shutterstock
P.S. Still struggling under the crushing weight of your negative editorial reviews? Here are some uplifting blog posts for your perusal:
Amy Hay is an independent author of fantasy fiction and seeks to share unique, powerful stories with her readers. Her work has been described as moody, transformative, psychological, and genre bending.
She is the author of the Spirit of the King trilogy and is currently working on her fourth novel.