Nicole Melanson ~
If you want to strike fear into the heart of any author, sidle up alongside them at a party and whisper, “Goodreeeeadsssss” in their ear.
For the uninitiated, Goodreads is a platform where readers rate books and recommend them to other readers—readers being the key word. Goodreads was never intended for authors, yet authors can’t resist snooping around in there. On rare occasions, the end result is a burst of pride, but more often than not, the author slinks away with a bruised ego—or rather, the wise author slinks away with a bruised ego; the Devil-may-care ones roll up their sleeves and fight.
Insider tip: this fighting from an author on behalf of her book? It’s not a good look. Not under any circumstances. Nope. Never. Sorry. Even if the reader is totally wrong about the novel you’ve devoted 10 years of your life to penning. Even if the reader is just a bitter ex-partner on a smear campaign. Even if the reader clearly never even read your book. There is no way for you to defend your writing on the Goodreads platform without coming off as a precious little petal.
What should you do instead? Don’t read the reviews in the first place. Yes, it really is that simple. Tearing strips off readers for not appreciating your literary masterpiece is like barging in on a gathering of teen boys and complaining that the room smells like farts and the jokes aren’t funny. Just close the door and walk away.
What if you can’t help yourself? I get the temptation. Writing a book is basically taking your dirty laundry and hanging it out for all the world to see. It takes a lot of nerve, and it’s natural to want to know what other people think of your efforts. This doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A mother may have a nagging suspicion that her baby is just a teensy, tiny little bit funny-looking, but she doesn’t want to hear it “confirmed” from a stranger, does she? Protect your hearts, authors.
OK, but we all have our moments of weakness, don’t we? Goodreads is the drunken dial for writers, and most will succumb sooner or later. So, what do you do when you see your poor book getting trampled by the masses? Hire a hitman: ring up a friend and get them to go defend your book instead. They can politely challenge a negative review, or simply counter it by writing a considered, informed, favourable one beneath it.
So, now that I’ve told you not to touch Goodreads with a ten-foot pole, I’m going to tell you how using it can improve your writing. The secret? Read reviews of other people’s books.
Say you’ve just finished reading a novel and you’re bursting with thoughts and feelings and questions. That voice was like nothing I’ve ever read before! I cried through the entire scene with the horse. Why did the secondary characters suddenly take over the stage in Act 3? Head over to Goodreads and see what others are saying about the same book. This is a great way to see if the way you critique work bears any resemblance to other reviewers. If you’re so consumed by emotion that you miss major holes in a plot, maybe you need to practice reading more objectively—and apply that to your revision process.
By the same token, if there’s a long string of negative feedback on an individual novel, see if you agree with it. For all the people who write, “I hated this book because it was set in California and the man ate too much meat” there should be others who pick up on inconsistencies in character or a storyline that doesn’t develop. Ask yourself if you flagged the same things in your reading. If you didn’t, it’s time to revise your own work again; if you did, then consider how the author could have resolved those issues better.
Reading reviews of other people’s books can also help you further define where you sit in a genre. I have a strong personal preference for literary fiction, so when I come across readers who lean towards commercial, a lot of the negative reviews use words like “slow” or “boring” or “descriptive”. I’ve come to realize that these words don’t put me off the same way that “unrealistic” or “trite” or “rushed” do. This tells me a lot about not just what I like to read, but the way I approach writing as well—what’s most important to me, and where my work may be weak.
If nothing else, visiting Goodreads whenever you finish a book will help you appreciate that reading tastes vary widely. A lot of whether or not a book connects with the “right” readers (meaning the ones who actually enjoy it) comes down to marketing. If a book is properly pitched, it should land in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate it. That said, it’s a wonderful thing when a reader grabs a book on a lark, or receives it as a gift, or simply decides to try something outside their usual genre. If they connect with the work, great, but don’t be surprised if they don’t. When all is said and done, most authors would probably rather sell the book to someone who didn’t wind up loving it than not make that sale at all.