Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Can a bad review kill your career? Short version: Yes

At least Murderati thinks so:

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.

I have to agree here. If you're established, your reputation and career can withstand a few middling and out-and-out bad reviews -- look at some of the stalwarts of modern crime fiction like Lehane, Pelecanos and Price. Not all their books were critical darlings. Heck, EW gave Pelecanos' latest a pretty negative write-up (not that EW is the ba-all-end-all in literary circles, mind you, but I digress) and not many people liked Lehane's Shutter Island. But at both points in each author's career, these guys were/are already established. Had Pelecanos gotten ripped when A Firing Offense came out, he might not be writing today. At least, it'd be harder for him to get published.

Especially if your editor has gone out on a limb for you and really pushed to get you published, an initial wave of negative reviews will, as the post says, make the editor doubt themselves and also weaken their arguments internally to get the book some support. And, let's face it. Without marketing support, a first-time author is going to have trouble laying claim to any of the marketplace. I know that sounds number-crunchy and corporate, but it's the truth.

This post is particularly relevant to me because SILENT CITY is my first novel, and if it does find a home where an editor decides it's worth publishing, it really needs reviewer support to make any kind of dent with readers. Crime fiction readers are pretty insular, so you really need to court the key literary publications and also the crime fiction tastemakers. A bad review from a key person in the field and, while you may not be sunk fully, you'll definitely be behind the eightball.

As a reader, though, how strong an influence do reviews have on your buying habits? Where do you find the best reviews?

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