Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Mystery of the Missing Rejection Letter

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of Booknook.biz, an ebook production company that has produced books for over 1,000 authors and imprints.

As some of you know, I spend a fair amount of time at the Amazon KDP (Kindle Digital Platform) author's forums, a task I was requested to do by KDP personnel when our company apotheosed to the Amazon Professional Converter's List.  Even though that was a few years back, I still visit the forum and provide helpful hints to DIY publishers, and a recurring thread has led me to this post.

Two of the most common posts at the KDP, in the General Questions forum, are variants of these: 

"Can you please take a look at my book listing here (insert link), and tell me what you think?" or, "OMG, I received a bad review!  I've read and re-read my book, and this is obviously a malicious review, this person is out to get me, and I want everyone here to agree that this is clearly evil."

Now, this inevitably leads to an unhappy author, as people will unfortunately tell him/her exactly what they think.  In the case of the former, often, the author has never asked a stranger what they thought of her novel--this is the first time that someone who isn't near and dear to them has viewed it.  Almost inevitably, when I view the "Look Inside" for someone in this category (of unaudited books) I wince.  It's usually pretty awful. 

In the case of the latter (malicious review complaint), another unhappy series of occurrences happens in rapid sequence, which usually inflames the situation.

When an author on the KDP posts that s/he has received a bad review, you can rely upon the instantaneous angry reaction from his fellow authors.  A mob mentality arrives faster than an ambulance to an accident scene, and the poor upset author is urged to report the malfeasant for "malicious reviewing."  Unfortunately, they almost always follow this advice and try to a) get the review removed, and b) "report" the reviewer for malicious reviewing.  It's enough to put me right off reviewing books, I can tell you that for nothing.

Now, I recently wondered why this happens.  I mean, I get it; a person's feelings are hurt, they're angry, and they want revenge/payback/gratification that they're right, and proof of their theory that the reviewer is secretly their 8th-Grade frenemy Charlotte who's come back to haunt them.  But--why does this happen?  I don't remember, even a mere 10 years ago, this type of crushed reaction to a simple "bad review." 

The Rejection Rumba

Then it dawned on me--we're now talking about an entire generation of authors who've never known a rejection letter.  I mean, think about this seriously:  authors who've never thrown a manuscript over the transom; who've never received a rejection letter.  Who've never been ignored, or turned down by, an Agent.  They've determined to write and  publish a book, and they do so.  Isn't the phrase itself, "author who's never received a rejection letter" oxymoronic?  Isn't it practically a fantastical creature?  When this struck me, I wrote a  post on the KDP, with words to this effect (the KDP "upgrade" seems to have nuked older entries, so I can't find what I originally wrote):

There was a time when a rejection letter was a rite of passage for any writer.  Everybody had them; everyone you know who wrote anything had them.  Some took them hard; some took them apparently lightly; but a rejection letter was always a cause for an authorial get-together, usually over a bottle of booze with ever-declining levels, during which everyone commiserated with you and diligently searched the rejection letter word-by-word, poring* over it, seeking any tiny pearl, any wording or phrasing that led you to believe that the Acquistions Editor didn't think that you were a completely hopeless loser.  Usually (in private), there might be tears.  Maybe the now-empty bottle would meet a hapless wall.  And always, a hangover ensued**.  But then life would go on; you'd curse the tasteless acquisitions editor, who after all, turned out to be a cretin (obviously); and you'd start writing again.  Maybe you'd rewrite bits of what you'd submitted; maybe you would start on something new while you submitted and resubmitted the rejected manuscript...but you'd keep writing.  And the cycle would repeat. 
And if it didn't...if you couldn't take the rejection letters...you'd leave the game. 

And that, I believe, is the difference.  The difference in why so many new authors, self-published through the KDP (or any other platform) never develop the traditional Rhino Hide (Of the genus Nauagahyde) formerly required for a writer to truly make it in the world.  They've never undergone the Rite of the Rejection Letter, or the abusive snark of an overworked Agent.  Nor have they, it seems, in ever-increasing numbers, used critique groups, editors, proofreaders, manuscript assessment services (caveat emptor), writing partners, or even beta readers that aren't their family or their best friends.  Like far too many politicians, they've only developed synchophantic "readers" of their work.  No one ever tells them what they don't want to hear. 

The Planet is My Critique Group

Thus, when they unwittingly decide to use the entire English-speaking portion of the planet as their critique group (Amazon, Barnes & Noble), they're devastated to learn what they should have learned in a Creative Writing 101 class, a good writing course, or simply by using a rotten human as a sounding board.  When I've mentioned this to those who've inquired, they reply that "critique groups are mean," and thus they won't use them.  Is it truly better, I must wonder, to use the public as a critique group?  How is that less painful?  How can they possibly be prepared for the reality of reviews, when they've never even had a critique?  Is there greater anonymity in being blasted with scathing reviews than suffering the slings and arrows of a writing partner or class or group?

I'm not sure when this happened.  I don't know when the tide turned, and people who'd always wanted to write a book simply sat down and wrote one, without what used to be "de rigueur" for a published work.  But turned it has.  If you spend a week of time glancing at the books promoted/asked about on the KDP, that much is clear. 

But now, in addition to the "kindness of strangers" known as the Amazon review, we also have Amazon itself playing the game, sending ever-more-frequent takedown letters to authors who have even the slightest of typos--never mind unreadably bad writing--in their books.  How will this affect these selfsame authors, if at all?

I'm left to wonder.  I wonder if reviewing, given the recent scandals and what I see daily on the KDP as near-hysteria over bad ones, will be eliminated from Amazon.  I wonder if the Customer Service burden of investigating every reported "malicious review" will cost Amazon so much money, and so much brain-damage, that they'll decide it's not worth it--either self-publishing or reviews. I wonder if the flagrant disregard of any type of pre-publication critique means that these lower-quality books will create a permanent underclass of books that tars Indies with the same brush. 

I hope not.
# # # 

* (Yes, I mean poring, not pouring.)
** Now I eat Haagen-Dazs, no demon rum for this girl, with far too many Irish ancestors.  ;-)


  1. Interesting! And I suspect you're right about the authors and the lack of criticism. I keep hoping that many of the unprofessional authors will give up and get out of the business.

    And I'd love to see Amazon create a minimum standard for publication. You would think a software program could evaluate books for a minimum level of quality and reject those that don't meet it. After all, those books don't make money for anyone, so why would Amazon keep bothering to distribute them?

    It will be interesting to see how the self-publishing industry develops over the years.

  2. Maybe Amazon could add the ability to disable reviews, like YouTube does. If these "authors" think their work is so perfect that no one ON EARTH could possibly hate it, why do they need the reviews (or stars) anyway? I'm not sure what kind of readers they'd attract, since the only way to tell whether you might like the book is to Look Inside (thus turning off the majority of people who enjoy proper grammar and good spelling).

  3. This is great.

    I do have a self-published book listed on Amazon (actually a series of e-book chapters about embedded reporting in Iraq), and it's gotten a (very) few decent reviews, whatever..

    But I 100 percent agree that most "authors" have no clue what real criticism even looks like.

    I have an MFA, have been through workshops, and my book has been rejected by agents and publishers. So I know the bad feeling - but you either take it or you don't.

    But non-MFA people, or just amateurs who see e-books as some path to fame and glory, simply don't have a grasp - and it's not a bad thing, but it's just a lack of background and experience.

    And I really don't understand why authors wouldn't be at least semi-satisfied to get a harsh review. I've gotten 'five stars' from people - but the few reviews are from people I have relationships with, so of course they're good. The one that matters is the complimentary one from someone I actually do NOT know. THAT one means something to me.

    But I feel that way because I've been through workshops and I actually understand the difference between compliments, and harsh, blunt criticism and "malicious conspiracy to stalk me and give me a bad review!!!"

    Frankly, if somebody gave me one star and said they hated my work, I'd at least appreciate that it generated some feeling.

    I get offers for "review trades" all the time...and I can't do it, because I know I'll be honest, and I can't hurt people's feelings - especially after using the "Look Inside" feature and seeing comma splices, mixed metaphors and melodrama...in the first sentence (and they must think it was good? Gad!). I can't take the time to do what I know they won't appreciate or learn from.

    Great post, totally dead-on.

  4. Great post, Hitch!

    I'm with L.J. in that I hope some people sort of take their moment in the sun, cherish the memory, then when the clouds begin to build move on to something else.

    I do think we've seen evidence of the cream rising to the top, even within our own CFC authors. And we've all received bad reviews and moved on.

    Also, a good many of this generation of writers comes from the generation where "everyone wins" at any competitive event. They never learned how to lose at anything.

    When I submitted my first book to KDP for publication, they told me it would take 12-48 hours or something like that. It took between 4 and 6 hours. With THE MISSINGS, I got up at about 3:30 Monday morning to submit it, hoping it would be live by the time I got up. There was a notification that said something (I wish I had been awake enough to actually read the thing) about wanting to assure a quality experience for their readers, and that it might take 12 hours. It took 13. So maybe they are taking a closer look.

  5. Great post, Hitch! Another factor is the one Peg alluded to in sports, where we have a whole generation of people who went through a school system where teachers were instructed to soft-soap everything and heap on lots of praise. A good idea in many ways, certainly great in theory, and helps self-esteem, but not so useful for receiving an honest assessment of your skill level, and getting used to getting specific feedback for improving skills, then using that feedback to improve them.

  6. Hey, guys:

    Ohhhh, it figures. My one semi-controversial post is that one that hits the twitter-verse. DANG.

    Anyway, we've all had them. We've all had rejection in one form or the other, at least, those of us old enough to remember actual typewriters or early word-processors. I have a short story on Scribd that never gets finished--that always feels like a kick in the gut; I stopped looking at it. Obviously, I'm just not as funny as I think I am, which is food for thought when I think about trying to be the next Erma.

    My point wasn't to criticize, even further, "young" (in the sense of a writing career, not years) authors. My point is to urge them to avail themselves of the myriad services, courses, classes, critique groups, etc., that are out there, so that they can develop some thicker skin, AND, more importantly, become better writers by hearing things that they need to hear. The latter is more important than the former. It's for their own sake, not everyone else's--although I admit, it wouldn't ruin my week not to see another "evil reviewer" post. ;-)

    NS Webster--thanks for the Tweet! And thank you for your thoughtful note. Personally, I'm fond of my rejection letters, most of which are now curled with age; I was thinking of lacquering them for a decoupaged coffee table, just for inspiration, LOL!


  7. Oh, do I know what you mean. I did some editing and said helpful words to one hopeful. Tears welled up in her eyes. "You're hurting my feelings." A bad ending. Then I noticed she had 25 five-star reviews on Amazon.

    I had to buy this book to see who had changed her mind, even about the spelling and grammar. Unchanged. The mind boggles.

    Reviews hurt. So does helpful editing. I wish I knew where to buy some of the entitlement new writers have.

  8. Oh, I knew that Hitch. Not the "young" but the "new", but it seemed like such a strong correlation I couldn't stop myself.

  9. I suffered through many, many rejections from agents in my quest to be published. I'm not sure it necessarily made me a better or more thorough writer, but I've always been pretty cautious about releasing my work, so maybe that's what saved me.

    But I do agree with you, Hitch. For me, those rejections taught me that being published is a privilege, one that should not be taken lightly. I think far too often, independent authors don't understand the struggles many have suffered before them. The path is too easy now with no resistance along the way. Bumps in the road can be a good thing. They make us stronger and better.

  10. This explains so much. I wish Amazon would make it mandatory reading before joining the KDP program.

  11. Wow! 10 real comments and cheap viagra, too! A girl can never count her blessings too soon.

    Some of the twitterverse comments today pointed out to me that Trad-Pubs aren't immune to feeling bent about bad reviews, and of course, that's absolutely true. I think, in hindsight, what I should have made clear is that there's a vast difference between feeling annoyed, angry or hurt about a bad review, versus being being SHOCKED to your core. My post is to address the latter, not the former. Everybody--absolutely everybody--is stung by bad reviews. No one is immune (except maybe Patricia Cornwell, but that's a discussion for another day). But to not see it coming; to be gobsmacked by it...nay, these are very different things. If nothing else, a young/new author should find a decent, affordable manuscript assessment service, pay to have 20 pages done (most are incredibly cheap), and take advantage of it, if they can't bring themselves to use a Critique group. Myself, I like the Lisle Writer's Boot Camp forums, as well as her "HTTS" (How To Think Sideways) http://bit.ly/OOyT7s course for building your novel or her HTRYN ("How to Revise Your Novel") course http://bit.ly/PGM20y for the author gritting her teeth to do her first big rewrite on her novel. I think that both are excellent, and amazingly cost-effective. You get access to the critique groups, too, which are professionally run and moderated, and populated with other serious writers, not simply yahoos. Last but not least, let's not forget the fabulous "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers," (a mere $10!) http://amzn.to/NvpEU3 as a fabulous jumping-off point for those who know that their book needs some work, but want to do a little of the lifting before they're ready to face critiques.

    Hope something here helps!

  12. What great insight. I never thought about how some self published authors haven't had a chance to grow that alligator skin we all need. The worst rejection letter I got was only one sentence long. "We are looking for exceptional writing and I'm afraid yours is not."

    That really stung. But now that my book's coming out in November, I can look back and laugh about it. At least all those rejection letters thickened my skin. Braced me to read that first bad review that will inevitably come in.

  13. I learned very early on (and yes, *sigh* I remember typewriters and Life Before Internet) that the praise and good comments were nice, but it was the criticism you learned the most from. From my perspective as an author, I know what is RIGHT about a story but I haven't a clue what is WRONG (or I wouldn't have written it that way in the first place). You can always choose to dismiss criticism, but at least it points out possible flaws in your work and gives you the chance to make it better. What's bad about that?

    But as you and these comments point out, we have a whole generation (or two) of people who have grown up thinking they are all shining stars who can be anything they want to be if they only believe in themselves. Now, the ease of self-pubbing means they can go right on thinking so, believing in themselves in spite of what anyone else says. Nursed on all the big, gentle lies, they think it's the effort that counts, good intentions trump results, and they should have their faults forgiven and their mistakes excused because their self-esteem is more important than their accomplishments.

    What kind of hell have our good intentions sent them to?

  14. I've had something like eight or nine hundred rejections in the last five or six years. If nothing else, it should tell us that writing a book or short story isn't easy, and writing a good one is actually quite hard. Some would suggest that I should have given up a long time ago. I never listen to those people.


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