Ask the Publicists: What Do I Do With a Bad Pre-Pub Review?
A Monthly Advice Column from Broadside PR
I’m devastated: I got a bad pre-publication review. What should I do? Does a bad pre-pub review really matter? What if I get other negative reviews when my book publishes?
Whitney Peeling: Nothing produces quite as much anxiety in an author as the first review. Pre-publication reviews are usually the first unbiased public reactions to a book, so they have the potential to boost an author’s spirits early on or hit a nerve that remains raw for quite some time. Pre-pubs sometimes run as early as a few months before publication date but can run on or even after publication date, so the name “pre-pub” can be confusing.
Whatever the timing, pre-pubs are brief reviews that run in Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal—these are all industry-facing publications, so aimed towards publishing professionals, book review editors, and librarians. Some online booksellers have arrangements with a few of these publications so that their reviews automatically upload to the Editorial Reviews section of a book’s page. That’s why authors sometimes see, say, a Publishers Weekly review there in full next to blurbs and excerpts of other coverage
My feeling about pre-pubs is this: thank goodness for them. As space for book review coverage, in general, has gotten so teeny tiny that it sometimes feels like there’s only enough space for five or six books to get critiqued in any given month, I’m grateful that these publications remain committed to paying attention to as many new books as possible. And in my experience, when these reviews are starred and have an exceptionally quotable piece (“This is the absolute best book that has ever been written since the dawn of time”), they’re really helpful. When you get a few starred pre-pubs, it can really give a book a lot of early momentum. But when pre-pubs are lackluster or outright negative, to be honest, I think fewer people notice them.
It’s disheartening to get a bad review anywhere, of course, but one bad pre-pub review doesn’t spell disaster for your book launch. And once a bad pre-pub is posted by an online bookseller, the publisher can try to disempower it by sending blurbs and positive press for the bookseller to run above the dreadful commentary. Also remember that you’re probably obsessing over your own Amazon page in a way that no one else is. So your dog walker or your boss or your arch enemy isn’t likely to look at you with pity the morning after it posts and be, like, “Hey. . . I saw that awful review in Publishers Weekly . . . I’m so sorry.”
If you have a question you’d like Broadside PR (Whitney Peeling, Michael Taeckens, & Kimberly Burns) to consider for our next column, please send it to us via email: ahoy@BroadsidePR.com
Kimberly Burns: Which leads to another question, pre- or post-publication: do reviews even matter? I die a little inside when people in the industry say book reviews don’t sell books. It’s the sort of sweeping generalization that makes the world a less beautiful place. One of the best parts about being a publicist is talking with critics (and I mean critics to include reviewers, editors, and radio and television producers) about books you love—their opinions and thoughts inform our thinking and the way we continue to pitch those books. When written with real passion and knowledge, a review by the right critic can put a book immediately on a bestseller list—even when there are quibbles in the review. A bad pre-pub can be deflating, but it’s not going to stop your book’s momentum. (See our column from last month on how an author can help create her own momentum.) Think about how you discover new books: the single best way is when a friend recommends it to you. (“Friend,” of course, includes your local independent bookseller.) And chances are that your friend found out about that book by reading a review (or hearing an interview with the author). If the review has successfully conveyed what the book is about, it doesn’t really matter if the review is positive or negative. How many times have you gone to buy a book and can’t remember the author or title, but you can tell the bookseller that you saw a recent review in the New York Times about “that novel about the guy in Bulgaria,” or there was something in Entertainment Weekly about that book set in the South of France, or you just heard a review on NPR about the novel about horse racing?
To be successful, a review only has to do a few things: It should offer an overview of what the book is about, provide a critical evaluation, discuss the book in relation to the author’s other work, and show how this book stands out from other books like it. Hopefully the reviews your book gets accomplish these things. When they don’t, you have every right to fume. These are the types of reviews that make steam come out of my ears: reviews that contain spoilers (good reviewers know how to write without giving critical plot points away); reviews that read like they’re book reports (book reviews should be a commentary, not a summation); reviews written by a reviewer whose first intent is to show off his own cleverness (aughhh!); and the worst: reviews that criticize the author instead of the book (this happens mostly with authors who have achieved a certain level of success, so if it happens to you… congratulations!). The point is: If your book gets a negative review, try to step back and see if it is truly worth the energy of your fury. Reviews are just people expressing their opinions, which is why your book is out in the world and not sitting in a drawer.
Michael Taeckens: I think all authors should be required to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People before their galleys are mailed out. (Although some authors should have to read When Bad Things Happen to Bad People.) Because the fact of the matter is, part of being a published author is learning how to deal with the reality that complete strangers are going to read your book and accepting that not everyone is going to love it. It’s sad, but true.
It would be ideal if every single review—from the pre-pubs to the trades, Goodreads to every last blog known to humankind (including that one blog by the precocious 11-year-old who blogs about books she shouldn’t be reading until she’s in college)—praised your scintillating prose, ingenious narrative skills, and your fully realized characters that leap right off the page, but welcome to the jungle (we got fun and games). Criticism happens, and the sooner you accept it, the better.
Here are some tips for what to do:
– Talk, moan, kvetch to your friends and family. Get it out of your system.
– Create a piñata doll likeness of your critic, whack it with a stick, devour all of the delicious, delicious candy.
– Write a foaming-at-the-mouth angry letter and then delete it.
– Meditate. (Good advice for everything in life, tbh.)
Here are some tips for what not to do:
– Don’t spit in the face of your reviewer should you run into him at a literary conference. (AKA the Richard Ford Method.)
– Don’t take a book published by the critic who gave you a bad review and shoot bullet holes through it. (Also known as the Richard Ford Method.)
– Don’t write a letter to the editor pointing out how stupid/wrong/idiotic the critic is.
– Don’t reply to negative reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, etc. NEVER EVER DO THIS.
All of this is to say: negative reviews suck; learn to take good care of yourself and soldier through. Review outlets have been eroding for well over a decade now and the competition for space is tighter than ever: decide whether a negative review is better than no review at all. Perhaps the greatest comfort can be taken in the fact that you’re not alone: seriously, have you seen how many famous books have been excoriated by critics? Know that you’re in very good company and stay committed to writing the best work you can. And trust in yourself. No review can take away from your belief in your own writing unless you allow it. (Ok, that may sound woo-woo, but it’s true.)
Kimberly Burns, Whitney Peeling, and Michael Taeckens are the co-founders of Broadside PR. They work regularly with publishers and authors to launch exceptional works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as with literary organizations and prizes to strengthen the value of the written word. If you have a question you’d like Broadside PR to consider for our next column, please send it to us via email: ahoy@BroadsidePR.com