by Tess Gerritsen
I realize that’s a pretty blunt answer, and many of you will disagree with me on this. Nobody reads reviews anyway, you’ll argue. Bad reviews come with the territory, and authors survive them all the time. Or you’ll observe (accurately) that I’m famously hypersensitive to lousy reviews and I endow them with more power than they really have.
So let me explain why I think one bad review can, indeed, end your career as a published author.
There’s one time in particular when an author is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a devastating review, and that’s when you are a debut author. An editor who takes on a first-time novelist is taking a risk on someone who’s untried in the marketplace. The editor hopes, of course, that the debut novel will be wildly successful, or at a minimum, earn back its advance And to increase the chances of its success, this editor will talk up the book to the sales force. As the pub date approaches, she hopes that in-house enthusiasm for the book builds, because that enthusiasm gets transferred to booksellers, who will be convinced to increase their orders. Hefty orders mean more exposure, better displays, and of course better sales. Imagine you are that debut author, and your novel “FIRST TIME OUT” has been bought with a generous advance. Imagine that the publishing house is telling you this is going to be an important book. Imagine that they have decided to give it a big push, with major ads and an author tour.
Then imagine that your first review appears in Publishers Weekly, and they pronounce it a disaster. They call your publisher a house of idiots for buying it.
Now your editor looks like a dope. The enthusiasm at your publishing house suddenly deflates like a popped balloon. Everyone there feels a bit embarrassed, not just for you, but for themselves. The big bookstore orders don’t come in. Costco and Walmart take a pass on it. Even before your book goes on sale, it already feels like a big failure and an expensive mistake.
Those promised ads never materialize. And even though they do send you on book tour, every time you meet a bookseller, you just know they’re looking at you and thinking, “oh, so you’re the author whom PW called illiterate.” And you feel like such a loser.
That scenario is just what I faced when my first hardcover, HARVEST, was published. About a week before the book was released, a review appeared in PW. If you want to see how bad it was, check it out over on Amazon or BN.com. According to PW, HARVEST was so awful, it would be appreciated only by “readers who move their lips”. I vividly recall the depressing phone conversation I had with my agent after that review came out. And one thing she said stuck in my mind: “we’re lucky this review came in so late. The bookstores have already placed their orders.”
But what if the review had come in two months earlier? What if Costco and Target and all the myriad other book merchants had taken a pass on HARVEST? I’m almost certain that HARVEST never would have hit the New York Times bestseller list (which it did, at #13.) And even though many good reviews followed, the damage would already have been done. The book would have died, and orders for the next book (LIFE SUPPORT) would have been even worse. And that could have been the end of my career as a thriller novelist.
Debut authors in particular are exquisitely vulnerable to bad reviews. But what about the seasoned veteran, the writer who’s already established himself as a bestseller? Bad reviews don’t affect our careers, right?
Wrong. They can. But for entirely different reasons.
I recall hearing about the time Stephen King got a PW review that was so brutal, so nasty, that it almost made him stop writing entirely. Lucky for his readers, he got over the hurt and resumed writing, but I understand why he might contemplate calling it quits on his own career.
Because I had the same experience just last year.
After writing six books in the Jane Rizzoli series, I wanted to devote myself to a project that I truly, deeply, cared about. THE BONE GARDEN was an historical novel about childbed fever, the dawn of microbial theory, and the contributions of a real-life medical hero named Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. I had dreamed of writing this book for years. I spent months researching medical history, grave robbers, and the state of medical education in the 1830’s. I read reams of old Boston newspapers, immersed myself in the contemporary fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and pored over old surgical textbooks. I thought the book was one of my best ever, and I waited for the first reviews to come in, hoping that the critics would agree.
The review that came in from Booklist was one of the worst in my entire 21-year career. The reviewer ridiculed the book and called my writing incompetent. And in the weirdest criticism of all, he said he saw no reason for Oliver Wendell Holmes to even be in the book, because he had no role there. He missed entirely the theme of childbed fever and medical history — the very reason I wrote the book.
Although many good reviews followed, the damage was done. I had to finish writing the next book in order to satisfy my contract, but looking back now, I don’t know how I managed to do it. I wrote in a cloud of depression. I couldn’t focus. I didn’t see the point of continuing in a job that just invited brutal and very public humiliation. I thought about how much easier my life would be if I just quit.
That’s right, quit.
Practically speaking, I could have managed it. I’m thrifty by nature, I abhor shopping, and I’ve saved up enough money over the years to retire right now. I imagined liberating myself from the yearly cycle of sales anxiety and nasty reviews. I imagined writing only for myself — stories that I’d put in a drawer, never to be seen until after I’m dead and buried. I imagined the relief of never having to hear another critic sneer that my books stink.
It took me over a year to finally get back my equilibrium. The good reviews for THE KEEPSAKE has helped. So has the passage of time. But I was close, so very close, to just closing up shop and saying “I’m done. I’m retiring.”
All because of a bad review.
I know that it’s a wimpy excuse — “I’m quitting because my feelings were hurt by a mean reviewer.” But the process of writing relies so much on our state of mind. On how confident we feel, how excited we are about a story, and how sure we are that people will like the result. When you’re depressed, you can’t write. When you feel like a failure, you can’t write. And when you are already preemptively cringing from the next public humiliation, the writing suffers.
Sometimes it never recovers.