I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m seeing the movie “Fifty Shades Darker” next week, the second movie in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. Since it seems a fitting time for confessions, I’ll also admit I saw the first movie as a Valentine’s Day date two years ago when it came out.
At the time of writing this, the movie has not yet been released. I believe that when this hits your inbox, it’ll be the movie’s release day. Thus, I’ve not seen any reviews yet. I’m assuming that critics will more or less pan the movie, as they did with the first movie and with all three books.
When I saw the first movie — “Fifty Shades of Grey” — it was because I wanted to go to the local VIP theater with my husband and that was the only movie showing. I never planned to read the books, and was only familiar with passages of it (as narrated by Gilbert Gottfried), so I figured this was my shot to find out what the story as a whole was all about and to see if I could look beneath all the reviews and discern just what was happening on a storytelling level to pull so many people in.
Reviews: why they (don’t) matter
For the most part, readers of the Fifty Shades books simply didn’t care about the reviews — they just wanted to read the books. And when they read the books, they were satisfied. So when the first movie came out, those who read the books simply didn’t care about the reviews — they just wanted to see the movie. Myself included.
Reviews certainly can be helpful and they may even sway your decision to pick up a book or to watch a movie, but often they have little actual impact on the reader or viewer. By the time you look at the reviews, you’ve usually made your mind up that you want to read a given book or watch a movie. At that point, you’re checking what the mass consensus is, and trying to get a feel for trends.
That’s the important point here: Individual reviews are not what counts. Even swarms of glowing reviews that group together can be misleading (after all, how many authors have large rings of collaborators who agree to give each other 5 star reviews and positive high-fives?). What counts is the whole and the underlying principle:
Reviews can be left by anyone, so looking at the whole allows the intelligent reader to discern for themselves.
And as authors, we must trust that our ideal readers are smart. When someone reviews a book, they’re giving their opinion of it. Parts of the review may be objectively true, such as grammatical and spelling errors, though beware even these, since there do exist some self-appointed grammar and spelling gurus who actually don’t have their rules right. But more importantly, reviews are mostly subjective, simply a reader’s opinion of what they liked and didn’t like.
Bad reviews are unavoidable. Robert J. Sawyer once said to me that a great book will tend toward one and five star reviews. This is because you’re nailing your target audience — the people giving you five stars, who are absolutely satisfied with the stellar work you’ve done — and those who have come to read your book just to hate it because they hate all the attention it’s getting. The worst type of review trend is one that’s centered on three stars. Yes, even a one star is better than a three star.
Three stars is essentially the reader saying, “Meh… it was okay.” A one star, even though it’s considered a bad review, at least inspired enough passion in the reader for them to make the claim that they thought your book was terrible. At the time of writing this, there are 160,080 1-star reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey on Goodreads.com, and 562,137 5-star reviews. It doesn’t take much sifting to see that the predominant trend in the 1-star reviews is people infuriated how such “bad writing” can sell so well and capture peoples’ hearts; this is because (my opinion and analysis) many of those readers specifically bought and read Fifty Shades of Grey to convince themselves it was trash, then found it was actually good, but the writing was so bad, but they still love it, so they hated the fact that they loved it and that hate was what inspired the “I hate it” review.
I’m generalizing, of course, as the trend is much more complex, but the point here is to illustrate just how 1-star reviews and bad reviews do not always mean your book is bad and as an author looking to make your way through Alligator Skin 101, learning to put reviews in perspective is very important.
So if you receive poor reviews — and every author does — here’s what you do about it: NOTHING.
As I said above, readers are smart and as authors it’s important that we trust them to arrive at their own conclusions. It’s inevitable that they’re going to see bad reviews for a given book, possibly your book. But they’re likely going to search out the reviews that explain why someone loved or hated a book (and more than one), because that gives insight into what will be in the book. A well-written bad review can actually help sales. I know I’ve chosen to read books or watch movies simply because someone wrote a bad review — and in doing so, highlighted something they hated, but I knew I’d love.
The best example I can come up with is Charlie Jade, a one-season Canadian/South African sci-fi TV show from several years back. A local TV critic panned the show, saying it was too bleak and too complex. However, I was finding sci-fi TV just a little too generic at the time and I was actively searching for a sci-fi show that was different from the rest, perhaps something more complex, requiring the viewer to pay more attention. When I saw this bad review, I knew I had to watch the show. While it certainly wasn’t the best show on TV, it held its own, and I was really glad that I had taken the time to watch it.
So, with “Fifty Shades Darker,” I already know it’s going to get bad reviews. However, I’ll be seeing it for two reasons:
- I haven’t read the books, so I want to see what the fuss is all about.
- The first movie, as flawed as it was, ended on such an emotional cliffhanger that I can’t not see the sequel.
Okay, and maybe a third: it’s this year’s Valentine’s Day date too!
When your book gets bad reviews — as will inevitably happen — don’t get too discouraged. It’s likely that it will have little effect on your sales and your core readers. If anything, it’s a chance for you to learn what people are enjoying or not enjoying, and to look for patterns in the feedback to help you with the next books you’re writing.
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You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.