The pain and the pleasure (of mixed reviews)

As part of my softly-softly marketing campaign for The Poison People, I sent the book to a “legitimate” reviewing service called “Hidden Gems”, which despatches books to its reviewer list for honest reviews (ie, you’re not paying for nice reviews, simply to get it distributed to people who may or may not review you, and are certainly at liberty to say what they really think). Reviews are the lifeblood of the Amazon algorithm: they influence how much visibility your book gets, and subsequently how many sales and reads, as well as giving would-be readers an idea about what they’re buying.

The first review I received was a (rather harsh, I thought) single star. Ironically, I almost didn’t mind the review itself:

TrippyI plain didn’t like it. If I want to read about sexual encounters, I’ll read some erotica. The main character has flashbacks and blackouts and dissociation episodes. He’s sick? He’s high? He’s crazy? I dunno. I didn’t care to find out, either.. I quit reading around chapter 8.

“Trippy”? I was happy with trippy, it felt complementary in a William S. Burroughs kind of way. “Erotica”? There were a couple of other comments about the sex scenes, which are short and plot-driven. I actually hadn’t thought much about these scenes – they certainly weren’t written to tease. These reactions may be down to some sci-fi readers being unaccustomed to sex scenes. On the other hand, maybe I’m simply missing my vocation!

Other reviewers just didn’t get into the story or found it confusing. I was a bit disappointed that one reader found the book’s various Third Person excursions into the back stories of other characters “boring” (I thought they gave the narrative an unusual sense of geographical and historical perspective) but I came to feel that the fault for these criticisms laid more at my door than that of the reviewers. I don’t mean I regret what I wrote, but that I pitched the book poorly. The Kindle Scout editor warned me about this:

“We really enjoy your smart, well-crafted writing but as it’s currently written, your book requires a lot of commitment from the reader to trust that the confusing elements will eventually make sense – which they do – however, in our experience, many readers are likely to abandon the book sooner rather than later when they encounter these disorienting scenes. Readers do not normally expect avant-garde storytelling techniques from this genre.”

The editor was spot on. As I think I mentioned in previous posts, I set out to write a literary novel which I ended up “packaging” as sci-fi because I thought it broadly fell into that genre, the audience would enjoy it, and be up for the challenge (and, honestly, I didn’t think it was that challenging). But this may have been wishful thinking. My book was not typical of the genre and was undoubtedly different from what some of the reviewers were expecting. Within this context, I think that even the negative reviews were fair. Also, I think, it is key that two of the books that certainly influenced me –   Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange – were penned by established literary authors, so their readers were already primed to make the commitment required for these challenging stories (while it is a huge ask for Mr Nobody here to get readers to make that commitment).  And I note even these novels have their fair share of Amazon 1 stars (not to mention JG Ballard’s Crash).

So the fact that I received – alongside my sole 1 star, two 2 stars, and three 3 stars – two 4 stars and four 5 stars, is humbling. It is tremendously satisfying to think that these strangers understood what I was trying to achieve. One reviewer wrote:

This is a brilliantly written book, but definitely not mainstream sci-fi. A lot of readers won’t like it. I do.

Another: This book was a masterpiece!!! It was so well written. Had a perfect plot and storyline. I didn’t get bored. And the characters were intriguing 

I suspect I am being flattered, but it was a huge relief to feel that my work was being appreciated and enjoyed.

These more positive reviews came late, but although I was disappointed with the earlier reviews, I was not too downhearted.  Over the years a number of “beta” readers had said how much they appreciated PP. I was also fortified by the unsolicited comments of the Kindle Scout reviewer, who added: “the book generally reads much more like high-concept literary fiction: you’ve got some really beautiful prose, an unusual narrative structure, and a lot of intriguing moral and philosophical content.”

And there’s the rub. My experiment with Hidden Gems has been more useful than I could have imagined because it has obliged me to confront an inconvenient truth: I am really peddling literary fiction rather than straight sci-fi and many readers in this genre may simply be unprepared for, or just not like, my approach in this novel (and that could sometimes include readers like me – yes, I love Riddley Walker, but I don’t only read “challenging fiction”, I also enjoy Iain M Banks – and Iain Banks! – William Boyd, Robert Harris, etc, etc, and my current project, Canaries, although definitely literary, is written in a much more normal, non- “avant-garde” style).

So before I move onto the next stage of marketing for PP,  I really need to look again at the categories, blurb, etc. I feel a little uncomfortable marketing it as straight “literature” but I think I need to be more explicit (and I’m not talking about the “erotica”!) with my would-be readers so they know what they are getting and are not disappointed.

In the meantime, I’d like to shout out to any of you who purchased the book and would be prepared to provide it with a review. Back to that algorithm again – “Verified Purchases” have the most value and are indispensable for your Amazon rank, so the more I have, the better I can do (1 stars notwithstanding).

You can also check out my post on the background to The Poison People here.





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