05 May How to Sell a Book in America, Part V: reader reviews

Okay, let me make a confession. The Kindle whole-book give-away that my publisher arranged a couple of weeks ago was a mistake. He told Amazon to give away only the first three chapters – which is the standard teaser. That way, if somebody samples the book, he/she will know whether or not the book is a good fit. It was bound to help sales.

But Amazon gave away the whole book. For the entire weekend. I thought that was fine. Put the book into the hands of the curious. What’s the harm? The give-away was only for the e-book, after all. But there IS harm in giving away the whole book, I’ve come to realize: a lot of people who wouldn’t have read my book — people who shouldn’t have read it — are reading it. Simply because they got it for free.

Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have meant a thing. But now that we’re in the age of social networking on the all-pervasive internet, everybody’s got a web page and everybody – I mean everybody – is a book reviewer. So I’m sweating out the starred rating system on Good Reads and Amazon as every Joe, Gerald, and Jane – who would never have bought my book in the first place – now hold forth about Kiss Me, Stranger.

Here’s an example of a one-star review I got on Good Reads:

I don’t actually know if this is a good book or not. I just read the first few pages and realised that I could not possibly finish reading this book because it was just too awful, desperate and tragic for me. I gave it only one star because I did not finish it. That’s my standard scoring system for books. If it is a DNF, it would be either a 1 or 2 star. Others might like this.

Here’s another:


Couldn’t get into this book. then my kindle broke and by the time it was replaced, I didn’t want to continue.

I know, I know. It’s got to be a joke, right?

What’s interesting is that, even though these readers got Kiss Me, Stranger for free – and despite the fact that the book is wholly unsuited to their tastes – they felt compelled, nonetheless, to offer a review. That’s the intoxicating power of the internet. And that sense of unbridled empowerment is, in part, what makes the internet capable of fomenting a revolution in oppressed nations. Right?

So I shouldn’t complain. Still, I never pretended my little novel was for everybody. I didn’t even send my mother a copy (though, sure, I will eventually). The point is this: the array of books offered by American publishers is vast. Think of it like an amusement park. When I go to an amusement park, I stay away from the head-spinning rides like the Octopus and the Tilt-a-whirl because I know they’d make me sick to my stomach. That said, I don’t hate the Octopus or the Tilt-a-whirl. And I don’t bad-mouth these or other rides I know I’ll never enjoy.

Mind you, I appreciate reader reviews. I WANT reader reviews. But it’s hard to tell what the logic is on these review sites. I mean, if you’re a fan of romance (Nicholas Spark, Danielle Steele, et al.) and another romance fan has told you that Kiss Me, Stranger is NOT a romance (apparently this has happened more than a few times), then why would you go ahead and read Kiss Me Stranger anyway?

Here’s the scary thing: . I looked up a novel I greatly admire – really, one of the best novels of the last ten years – and I was stunned to see that it has garnered only 3 ½ (out of 5) stars on Good Reads. Where’s the center of gravity in a world like that?

Jill just laughs at me when I go on like this. And she’s right. At the end of the day, what does any of this mean? I say to her, “Jill, fifty more people are queued up on Good Reads promising the world that they are going to weigh in on my book – and that’s only because they got it for free!”

She says, “We’re at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ron. There are three, maybe four, revolutions in the Arab nations — and this is what you want to talk about?”

Whenever Jill – as a child — complained about her lot in life, her mother always retorted: “At least you’ve got your arms and legs!” This shut Jill up every time. So let me take stock: yes, I have all four of my limbs, thank you very much, and it looks like I’m going to put them to good use, to brace myself against the next wave of reviews from the do-it-yourselfers on the internet. Am I not a most fortunate man?