Durned if You Do, Durned if You Don’t

fortune cookie


No matter what you do, your book will never be good enough.


  • If you don’t get your book proofread well, the critics can be brutal.
  • But even if you iron out every spelling and grammar issue, people can still complain about editing. Show more, tell less. Language is too plain and simple. Language is too complex. The point of view changes where it shouldn’t have.
  • And even if your book is masterfully edited, you can still get a sour grapes review that claims that it’s poorly edited. For if the book just has a few reviews and one mentions editing issues, most customers will believe this at point-blank. Unfortunately, it’s often the case, so such sabotage can easily be effective. Your book is vulnerable. (But not defenseless.)
  • No matter how well-written a book is, there will still be readers who don’t appreciate the style. You can’t please everybody, so it will always be wrong to some.


  • If your book has formatting issues, this can deter sales.
  • You learn about justification, you master page numbering and headers, you do your best to format like traditionally published books that you see. Then critics point out how foolish you were for not hyphenating to reduce gaps in justified text, not removing widows and orphans, not having the same number of lines on every page.
  • Or you can spend big $$$ on professional formatting. Now the naysayers will tell you how little money the average self-published book (or even traditionally published book) makes. You might discover that even a most beautifully formatted book doesn’t always sell.
  • No matter how well a book is formatted, there will still be people who feel it’s wrong. Many prefer full-justified; others prefer left alignment. With a printed book, how can you please both?
  • Then there are people who have an agenda. There are book formatters who wish to drum up more business by making subtle points seem critical toward sales. There are authors who are well-versed in the subtleties of formatting who feel frustrated that poorly formatted books sometimes sell very well. There may even be traditional publishers who see a declining market share who wish to emphasize the importance of formatting and editing in order to dissuade people from buying self-published books.


  • If your book has storyline or characterization issues, this can lead to negative feedback and lack of word-of-mouth recommendations.
  • But no matter how amazing the story is, there will be some who will suggest various (and even contradictory) ways that your story could be better. You can’t please everyone.
  • If you write a single-volume fantasy novel, some will fault you for not going into more depth on the world and its rules. But if you write an epic fantasy, others will fault you for going into way too much depth.


  • If your book cover attracts the wrong audience, that can cost you much potential traffic.
  • If your book cover doesn’t appeal to the audience, that can cost you much potential traffic.
  • If your book cover has appeal and depicts the content appropriately, critics will still penalize you for issues like choosing the wrong font, including the word “by,” using too many colors, making the background too busy, arranging your images in a collage, or countless other cover design ‘mistakes.’
  • Then if you spend good $$$ on a fantastic cover, anyone who is out to get you can simply write a review that says something like, “Since the cover is so amazing, I had high expectations for this book, BUT…” Hey, it can be an outright lie. There is no fact-checking when it comes to reviews. Everything is an opinion (even when it’s black and white).


  • If your book has an unappealing or inappropriate design, this can cost valuable sales.
  • If your book has a fairly good design, it may still suffer in subtle ways—text too close to the margin or spine, kerning not quite right on a few letter pairs.
  • You might add a decorative border to appeal to kids. Then someone will fault you for not making a different border on every page; someone else would fault you for not having matching borders; someone will fault you for not making it in color; if you make it color, someone will complain about price.
  • The cover, design, formatting, and editing are important, but let’s not forget that the story itself is the most important part. No matter how great the design is, it just takes one complaint about the story to undo all the benefits of a great design.


The problem is that there will always be critics.

The critics have the upper hand.

No matter how wonderful your book is, any critic can easily find some fault in it.

Most critics are genuine readers who just aren’t happy. No book can please all of the people who read it. People simply have varied tastes.

A few critics are frustrated writers, editors hoping to market the importance of editing so they can drum up more business, designers hoping to do the same, unethical authors hoping to elevate themselves by slamming the competition (this strategy will backfire for them, e.g. by dragging their own sales down with fewer customers-also-bought recommendations), editors of traditional publishers who feel threatened by competing titles, people who are simply jealous of the author, and even review police who simply want to bait authors to cross the line.

Remember, the vast majority of critics are genuine readers.

Most of the criticism that actually identifies something specific has merit.

Those with an agenda have the upper hand, so it’s not worth the battle.

Definitely, don’t respond to any review where the reviewer may have an agenda through a public comment.

It’s too easy for the reviewer to make the author look bad. It doesn’t matter what you say, there is a 99.999% chance that you will lose. You have a reputation to uphold. Some customers will think you’re unprofessional simply because you chose to comment on the review.

It’s easy for the reviewer to solicit an emotional or defensive response from you, which will really make you look bad.

Your comment itself lends credibility to the review. If the review didn’t have any merit, you wouldn’t need to address it, right? (I know, that’s not the way you feel about it when it happens. It can burn inside, and not go away for weeks.)

Here’s what’s very common. You think: I’ll just make one innocent comment and leave it at that. What’s the harm in that?

Here’s the problem: The reviewer will respond to your comment and ask you a question. Now you have no choice but to respond again. Suddenly, what you intended to be a single comment turns into a discussion. The last thing you want on your (quite public!) product page is a discussion with a reviewer who posted a bad review.

You can’t play the critics’ game. The critics have the ball. They have the home field advantage (even on your product page). They have control.

But you’re not helpless.


The first thing to realize is how much you need the critics.

You don’t just need praise. If all you have is praise for your books, that will do nothing but arouse instant suspicion.

You need balance, whether you like it or not. Customers expect it. There should be bad with the good.

The second thing to realize is that you can fight the critics by not giving in to temptation.

Show them (and more importantly, all the traffic on your product page) how professional you are by not engaging with the critics emotionally or defensively.

A third thing to realize is that your book and product page are dynamic.

You can always make a revision to the content and note this in the product description.

But you don’t want to make a revision based on every bit of criticism you receive. There may be customers who actually prefer it the way it was, who simply didn’t voice their opinions.

So the best course is to wait a few weeks and see if the criticism actually has any impact on sales. Sometimes, it actually helps sales. Often, it has no effect whatsoever. (Even when there seems to be a correlation, it often turns out to be coincidence—e.g. your book might have just come off the Last 30 Days list at the same time.)

Sometimes, you just need to add clarification to your product description.

A customer might have made a mistake, assuming your book was something that it wasn’t. If so, simply clarifying this in the product description may negate any effect of that particular review.

Another thing to realize is that things are often much better than they seem. Your book is your baby; you take the criticism quite personally. But the criticism usually isn’t directed at you; it’s directed at your book.

Not everyone has the same tastes. That reviewer is letting people with similar tastes know not to try your book. And that helps! People with dissimilar tastes may still appreciate your book.

If the criticism has merit, consider making a revision. If not, just let it go.

You also have a secret weapon: It’s called marketing.

Personal interactions can often make a huge impact with potential readers. These can have a greater impact than what some stranger says on your product page.

Personal interactions help to generate sales, help the reader approach your book with a favorable frame of mind (i.e. looking forward to it, instead of wondering if anything is wrong with it), and are more likely to result in reviews and recommendations.


There is no such thing as a perfect book. Simply put, it can’t be perfect for everyone.

Sometimes, authors spend way too much time and money trying to over-perfect their books in various ways.

Here are the most important elements of any book:

  • Story appeals to the target audience.
  • Language appeals to the target audience. (Right vocabulary; flows well.)
  • Target audience can understand well without being distracted by too many hiccups.

The opposite problem—authors who don’t find and patch holes in the story, who don’t write in a way that appeals to the audience, who make many spelling or grammar mistakes, etc.—can be a huge sales deterrent. I’m not addressing the minimum effort here; I’m addressing the issue of over-perfecting.

Who needs perfect editing? An editor who reads your book. An author who writes well who reads your book. A reader who has a well-above average command of language. Others will be tolerant to various degrees as long as you meet the three points above as those points relate to them.

Who needs perfect formatting? A typographer who reads your book. An editor who reads your book. An author who has learned about formatting who reads your book. A reader who is much pickier than the average reader. Others will be tolerant to some degree. Subtle points they won’t notice any more than you did. It’s possible that they will have a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right without knowing what that is, which may distract them from the story. It doesn’t take perfect design to avoid this; it just needs enough appeal.

Who needs perfect reviews? NOBODY! Virtually every customer who sees a stockpile of nothing but five-star praise will dismiss the book out of immediate suspicion. Customers expect varied and even wild and crazy reviews. They will see if those reviews seem relevant to them. A review that ruins your book for one customer has no impact on another customer. Rather, if they dismiss the criticism because it doesn’t matter to them, they are more likely to give your book a chance. In this way, any bad review can actually stimulate a sale.

Don’t forget who your target audience is:

  • Do you expect to sell many copies on Amazon.com? Do you want support from indie authors and their friends, family, and acquaintances?
  • Do you expect to sell most of your books through bookstores? (You need to do much research and have excellent planning for this.)

In the former case, it may be an advantage to use the free CreateSpace ISBN. If you want support from customers who support self-publishing, you want it to be clear that your book is self-published.

If you spend big $$$ trying to look professional, it might work, but it might backfire. Using your own imprint, you might lose support from millions of readers who support self-publishing. What are you gaining in return? Are you hoping to appeal to people who prefer excellent editing and typography? People who much prefer this are far more likely to read books from the big publishers, or small publishers who’ve branded an image for themselves with regard to delivering quality. They are less likely to take a chance on an unheard-of imprint. You need excellent bookstore potential, research, and planning—and you need long-term goals, like branding an image for yourself as a small publisher who delivers high quality—to make this strategy work for you.

But if you have big plans to sell to bookstores and libraries (not just hopes and dreams, but well-researched plans on how to make it happen), then professionalism can make a significant difference.

It really pays to know who your specific target audience is and what that audience will prefer.

Even if your audience supports self-publishing, they still have expectations. They’re investing money (or at least much time) to read your book. You have to deliver content and quality worthy of that investment.


You don’t measure this through reviews. Though the first time a stranger says something nice about your book, print it out and paste it to your wall. Use it as a reminder that you’re doing something right.

You don’t measure this through sales. Though the trick to sales is to find ways to consistently grow them. If you can grow your sales annually, you can reach any goal in time.

So how do you win?

First, you win by not giving up.

You win by looking professional, even when the chips are down.

You win by writing more books.

You win by learning and growing as a writer.

You win by thriving on your strengths and by shoring up your weaknesses.

You win by caring about your readers, yourself, and your community of writers.

You win by building and growing a fan base.

You win by creating a brand for yourself as an author with a website, author page, and social media.

You win by helping fellow authors.

You win by reading other self-published books—and supporting those that meet your standards through recommendations.

You win by branding a good image for self-publishing.

You win by being part of a community of writers who thrive together.

You win by being the best you can be, and accepting that you are who you are.

You win by writing because you love to write.

You win when you can SMILE despite all the challenges that authors face.

You’re a winner! Congratulations!🙂

Read Tuesday

Imagine a Black Friday type of event just for book lovers.

You don’t have to imagine it. It’s called Read Tuesday, and it’s free: www.readtuesday.com.

Please support the Read Tuesday Thunderclap. This will help spread awareness on the morning of Read Tuesday (December 9, 2014). It’s easy to help:

  • Visit http://thndr.it/1CkO2Bg.
  • Click Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr and sign in.
  • Customize the message. (Optional.)
  • Agree to the terms. All that will happen is that the Thunderclap post about Read Tuesday will go out the morning of December 9.
  • (The warning message simply means that Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr need your permission to post the Thunderclap message on December 9. This is the only post that Thunderclap will make.)

Halloween Reading

Looking for some spooky books to read this Halloween month?


Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
  • Boxed set (of 4 books) now available for Kindle pre-order

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.


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13 comments on “Durned if You Do, Durned if You Don’t

  1. ‘You can’t win’ is a wonderfully encouraging post – because you’ve separated that which you have control over from that over which you have none.

    By all means, read critics to see if there’s something you need to work on. Listen up: you may be receiving a free lesson.

    On my blog, as I publish a new scene of the WIP every Tuesday, I thank people who find typos. That’s to encourage people to do so.

    I won’t do that in ‘public’ – when it’s published. For that I’ll have a note in the book, ‘if you would like to report a typo, please send a quick email to…’

    I think I have been well trained (by you and other bloggers): do NOT respond to reviews. Period. Your chances of doing it right are vanishingly small; your chances of shooting yourself in the foot, almost 100%.

    I can always improve – if the criticism fits within my vision of what I’m trying to achieve, and points out something real that I’ve failed. Traditionally published writers often don’t get that chance.

    But it feels very freeing to be reminded that I cannot please everyone, regardless of how hard I try! So I don’t have to.

    As long as I don’t throw out the criticism ‘baby’ with the bathwater.

    • That’s exactly the right way to put it, Alicia: the separation between what we can control and what we can’t (and what we might be able to control in some way, but shouldn’t).

      Sometimes, there is a little irony with those free lessons. Sometimes the same author pleading for reviews isn’t seeing the free lesson in a review that had been so desperately sought.

      • I think the operative part is: this person who wrote the bad review (if not a troll) was 1) affected by what you wrote, 2) annoyed enough with how it made him/her feel to take time out of the day and write about that feeling.

        So you have had an emotional impact on a reader, and have goosed that reader into action. This is incredible. This is what, in the modern world, is priceless: affecting readers to the action point.

        Most people don’t bother to tell you any of this – so value the ones who do above rubies (even if it hurts). Remove yourself from the emotional fray (you’ve been drawn in by the negativity), and examine the content that caused it. And hope you can do it again and again.


        PS At least that’s the principle of the thing; it is hard to remove your own emotions enough to do it – do it anyway.

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