The Considerable Importance of Crappy Reviews

by stephenpalmersf


There is an assumption in the world of writing that the more 5* reviews an author gets the better. Many authors, editors, punters and marketers think this. But I think the assumption does not serve authors well.

There is in mathematics a thing called the normal distribution. The normal distribution in its most general form says: under some conditions (which include finite variance), the averages of random variables independently drawn from independent distributions converge in distribution to the normal, that is, become normally distributed when the number of random variables is sufficiently large. This leads to the so-called bell curve. In other words, this is a statistical variation occurring in the natural world and elsewhere, describing the average distribution of variables. A distribution skewed in one direction – for instance a shed-load of 5* reviews – is not normal.

bell curve

My hope for my reviews is that they follow the normal distribution at least to some extent. (A review, of course, is technically not a random variable, since it might be the case that an author really is good.) But I never feel comfortable until there’s at least one 1* review come in. Sometimes these can be really funny; sometimes odd, sometimes baffling. But they’re usually instructive – I like to highlight them on this blog in the Naughty Step section. I don’t think an author should want tons of 5* reviews, and I personally don’t highlight them if they come in. That’s not to say I don’t like a good review – I do, especially if the reviewer has got something constructive to say; and then I might possibly highlight it. But I want to read what people really think, not what they suppose I’d like to read in a review of my work.

I was recently asked whether I acquired “a thick skin” during my development as a writer, or whether I had it to begin with. The former is true – I was just as sensitive and shockable as any newbie when presented with the truth of the rubbish quality of my early work. But I got over it and continued to write. I wanted then, and I want now, to know what people really think. It’s not really a case of having a thick or a thin skin, it’s a case of being open to reality and accepting what others think – and then of moving on, and improving.

You learn from failure. A stream of never-ending 5* reviews is not only unrealistic, it’s not in my opinion something that an author should hope for, should expect or should encourage. Endless 5* reviews make the whole system meaningless; only the true greats deserve them.

As another friend observed recently, there’s a wide range of readers out there for every novel. That should be reflected in a wide range of stars: 1,2,3 and 4.