Reviews are in: my book sucks

It’s been a few weeks since I launched Book Craft, the writing guide I’ve been working on all year, and reviews are terrible.

I don’t really have a great place to discuss this, so I’m starting a blog post here. It’s obviously not great marketing to talk about bad reviews in a defensive preface; or even in the end of the book (though I might do both).

I’m going to tell you exactly where I went wrong, what I’m doing about it, and why I’m not really bothered by the harsh 1 star ratings on a book I spent hundreds of hours creating.

I’m going to share them below, so you can read them if you want, but here’s summary: a bloated, long-winded mess with no point, absolutely worthless, total crap.

But did they read it though?

These reviews seem to have come from people who didn’t read the book (as some of them mention, they couldn’t get through it.) This is too bad, though it’s not unexpected. I knew exactly what the risks were going in, and it’s entirely probable – as evidenced by the reviews, that I’ve made it too hard to access and stall too much before getting to the point.

EDIT: I don’t mean to be dismissive of readers who didn’t enjoy it: I completely understand that it’s *my* fault and am sensitive that the book may have failed if the majority of people just don’t like it. That said, I won’t make big editorial decisions until more reviews come in, because some readers seem to enjoy a lot of the stuff that others are more critical of, but I’ll definitely keep it all in mind and see how I can improve it later.

There is, actually, a LOT of writing advice in it, but it’s hidden behind a lot of other stuff. I made way too big a deal in the beginning setting up the topic; and although I cut 25K of words from “chapter zero” it still takes awhile to get into it.

Someone commented that writers didn’t need to be convinced that learning the craft is important. I’ve found the opposite to be true; most authors believe they don’t need it. They know what they want to write. They just need quick, specific tactics to improve their writing.

But the truth is, all of my advice combined could still be used to write “well-written books” that nobody enjoys. The main point of the “magic” theme is that the magic happens within the readers, not the authors; a shift from passion to value. Most authors, it’s true, aren’t ready to hear that; when they think “craft” they think specific, small details, rather than things like market or commercial value. But craft is about developing useful skills in order to make things of value (if not, you aren’t intentionally improving a skillset, because you have no goal or mark of excellence to shoot for).

I could have offended far fewer people if I hadn’t tried to stress this point so much, and simply started straight into the techniques.

Good or great?

Still, I underestimated the amount of ire this book would receive, by making it less accessible. I assumed everyone familiar with my brand, who had preordered the book, would already be aware I tend to ramble. Most people unsubscribe quickly – almost 2/3rds of my subscribers run away, unable to consider my long-winded exposition. Those who stay, who pay attention, have found a lot of value.

And even so, I don’t believe this book rambles. Every piece of it serves a purpose, the organization is strong, the imagery vivid, the insights cutting. If you haven’t read it yet, here are some of my favorite passages.

I’ve said earlier, when talking about writing nonfiction, that most people should start with a platform building, topic based book. Simple, clear how-to guides. I’ve done several of those, and people seem to like them. They certainly don’t attract this level of vitriol.

But the thing is, a “good” book most people will find fine.
I’m not proud of those books, they’re useful but light.

A great book, people will either love or hate. I’ve heard from many people who are actually reading the book, and so far their feedback has been positive. But I did insist at the beginning, that this book wasn’t light and easy; that learning these advanced writing strategies would need attention and effort – I’d be surprised if they were able to get through it quickly.

In contrast to the light, simple book I recommend earlier, there’s the “brand” book; the one that tells your story. The one that draws a line in the sand; it has to be memorable, unique, and make people feel feelings.

I used to be annoyed that very solid, useful, practical nonfiction books never go big; and the biggest bestselling books rarely delved into the basic fundamentals of how to do things.

But this is because, people value inspiration more than knowledge: tactics are undervalued, easily learned, easily forgotten. Powerful feelings, vivid imagery sticks with you.

A good nonfiction book should have a fair dose of story, a theme, an organization, a unique hook. I have tons of resources about writing nonfiction. Book Craft is my brand book.

I wrote it for a specific audience, which means there are definitely people who will not have the patience of it. And it even may be tedious to my supporters; and that’s my fault – I may have been self-indulgent. I may have used all my fancy words, which I warn against. I may not have followed my own advice well enough, and been showing off my eruditeness and knowledge more than strictly necessary.

I’m not surprised the people who couldn’t get into it, didn’t like it, because they got no value from it, so it was worthless – not worth the time or effort. I have a feeling, however, that those who do give it their time, and put in the effort, will find it immensely satisfying.

The problem with a “brand” book – is that people have to already know, like and trust you, in order to feel comfortable making an effort: they have to be willing to listen, and strangers are busy, they don’t want to go on an adventure, they just want the easy, quick answers.

“Satisfaction is always available. It is just not always looked for. If, when you enter any experience, you enter with curiosity, respect and interest you will emerge enriched and with awareness you have been enriched. Awareness of enrichment is what satisfaction is.”

Ann Hastings

Did my book launch fail?

I started with about 1300 preorders, which surpassed my 1K goal – in that measure, it’s been a success. I got it finished, even though like always, I was rushing up against the deadline and barely squeezed it all together.

I think I was at around #1000 in the Kindle store on launch, which is decent – earning bestseller flags in all my main categories and even some wider ones like “creativity.”

Mostly, I’m happy with how it all turned out, though there are a few extra pieces that didn’t quite make it in. However, I had hoped that this book becomes one of the major resources for authors. If most people can’t get into the content, because I screwed up the writing style or made it needlessly difficult, if most people think it’s terrible, it’s going to be hard to market it (more marketing will only lead to more negative reviews).

My suspicion, is that once more people have read it, the majority of readers will have liked it. I expect reviews to be positive and generous. The right audience will be attracted to the theme; the wrong ones will just read the negative reviews and decide it’s not for them.

I didn’t write a “good” book that satisfies everyone; I wrote a challenging book that will upset some people; for others, it will speak to them in a powerful way, and teach them things about writing they never expected to learn. Whether it’s ultimately great or awful, whether it “works” or “fails” is mostly out of my hands now.

I’m sharing this email I received (with permission) because it’s great – and also to show that I’m not simply lamenting a handful of negative reviews: I’m responding to a very real backlash triggered by very real faults with the book itself.


I say this with the best of intentions… but you don’t seem to be actually listening to what anyone is truthfully telling you about Book Craft.”

“There is no doubt that you are extremely talented in writing and have much wisdom to impart. But as I force myself to slog, yes slog, through the book, it takes fierce concentration to pull out those little concise nuggets thrown in here and there. I just read your blog about it, and it made me a little angry as a customer and follower. It seems to note all the complaints that the tome is a meandering mess…and then just makes excuse after excuse for it. They clearly didn’t actually read it. “Great” books are often hated. They expected something else, not a difficult path for real writers.

I can tell you I am about 50% through the work, and I had to seriously push that far. Haven’t decided if I can go farther. It rambles, and throws metaphor after metaphor, makes the same points over and over, and includes boring stories and quotes. But again, that’s not to say there isn’t great stuff there. I honestly can’t say I’ve read anything NEW, but I have highlighted a great number of good lines. Lines that sum up a way of thinking about something. It’s just that those are so insanely BURIED under a massive pile of words. 

I say this not to insult you—I know how much you surely put into writing it—but hoping as a fellow writer to encourage you to look at your work with a more objective eye if you would like to be a respected teacher. The book needs a massive edit. So much content needs to be boiled down, condensed. Cut. You don’t have to change who you are. But if you want to be effective, some serious soul-searching (and editing) is needed. Your future could be at stake. Because you could diminish your status a bit with this work. If this is what you put out—and then reject criticisms as just not getting it—I may have to rethink my devotion to your insights. And I’m just one tiny nobody…but clearly I’m not the only one.
Bottom line: I’m sorry to say, but it’s not us. It’s you.


Am I really listening?

Based on the first batch of negative reviews, I immediately did some light rearranging and editing. People commented about typos or common grammar mistakes but the truth is, there were only a few dozen in over 100,000 words, and I’ve caught most of them already. It’s true I don’t use commas or semicolons well: I don’t care if you do either. You’ll never be a great writer if you worry about your punctuation.

The newer version includes some of the grimoire bonuses I’ve collected on a separate site, and I’ve added a very clear TOC and chapter outline to the beginning. I had removed it, because I didn’t want to give away an overview of the whole process too early, but I realized that was a mistake. Those who trust me, may be willing to let me lead them; but those who hate the writing style need a quick out – so they can flip to the most valuable resources. Hopefully that will remove a little bit of the early frustration and obstinacy of the text, which defies skimming.

EDIT: Unfortunately, it’s also entirely possible that the majority of readers will not like it, and that the positive reviews will be in the minority. It may become a cultish classic; it may rightfully fade and disappear, or be buried under all of the accurate, negative reviews (personally, for me, I would expect more 2 or 3 star reviews if it was full of useful content but needlessly reckless with the stories and metaphors – rather than the string of very harsh 1 star reviews which seem to be focused more on my character limitations).

I’ve been told it needs an editor, that it has too many boring stories and metaphors, that I repeat the same things too often. Rest assured I will definitely consider revising it once I get more feedback. I’m fine with ruthlessly hacking out all of the things that make it (for me) unique and interesting, if I’m the only one who feels this way. I can’t do it myself, because I already wrote it the way I thought it needed to be written, but someone else might be able to take it further. The question is, will cutting out all the “extra” to make it more accessible, also make it a “better” book? This will depend on my publishing aims and goals, and the audience I hope to reach. To be honest, I’m not super motivated to delete myself from the manuscript, and create something without personality; there are few practical advantages or benefits to doing so (I’d always be punting reality down the road; creating useful content only to have people disappointed when they get to know the real me).

But I also fundamentally accept that the purpose of a book is to provide value, and if this book is a flop, it needs to be fixed.

So what’s next?

I never meant this book to get so out of hand, or to devote so much time and effort to it. I do have a whole section on nonfiction I didn’t include, so I’ll be cleaning that up, finishing a video course and maybe turning that into a separate project. But mostly 2021 will (hopefully) feature me finally finishing my open series, and taking my writing up to the next level. I got a little obsessed with teaching and training others who to recognize and fix manuscript issues, so I could help other writers (and service providers!) how to do the stuff that I’ve spent decades learning. And I do enjoy the quick first chapter critiques, and some of the writing and editing projects I’m working on. But mostly, I’m excited to just do it myself and stop worrying about trying to teach others. Because I have a lot of stories to tell that I’m excited about; because readers seem to love them; because I know I can do more, and better – and because I know I can make as much or more money writing fiction than I’ve been able to do with all of my “author services” or support. Most of the content I produce is free, and costs a lot to maintain, and is a full-time job I don’t love doing.

I love writing fiction, but I’ve never done with it what I could – and I’m excited to finally start trying… ideally, I’ll finish at least 5 full series in 2021, and maybe another 5 in the next year, which is about a book every 50 days. I’d also love to write more books on creativity, but we’ll see how this one plays out. If nobody likes my writing style, I’m happy to concede I’m not meant to write nonfiction. (Nope, screw that – if nobody likes my writing style, I’ll learn from it and get better; my next book will do all of the good and none of the bad).

Someone asked what my 2020 review or wrap-up would look like, and I said I wasn’t optimistic we’d get through the year. I’ve been trying not to be hard on myself for being less productive than usual, while also keeping some goals on the table so I have something engaging to fill my time.

I’d love to hear from you about any big projects or failures you’ve encountered in 2020, and any big goals or plans you have to achieve in 2021.

UPDATE

A friend of mine just shared this Reddit post talking about my free book outlining templates; it’s gotten 1600 upvotes, which is a lot.

So her feedback, which is spot on, is that a bunch of Redditors found the templates and expected Book Craft to be more of the same… which it isn’t. The templates boil down complex themes into a simple framework.

It demystifies.

Book Craft does the opposite. I already know my materials are useful. The problem with useful content is that 10,000 people can download and enjoy it, without even knowing or recognizing its creator – a book is an opportunity to force people to listen to your stories enough to care about you, even if they really don’t want to.

I’m not surprised that Redditors who aren’t familiar with my platform didn’t like the book. Last night however I was chatting with some author friends and brought up my negative reviews, and they were surprised: “everyone knows not to read the negative reviews.”

Here’s the thing though; I’m not anxious that they’re bad – I’m anxious that they’re right. I can’t please everyone, for sure. And as I mentioned, a book that gets love will also get hate.

BUT – if roughly 30% of purchasers not only didn’t finish reading but actively disliked the content so much they felt it necessary to warn off other readers… that’s going to be a long term problem and challenge for me.

I can’t (and won’t) rewrite the whole book, but I do need to be sensitive of WHY those readers are having such a strong negative reaction to it – properly established expectations and weeding out the wrong readers early on is an important step in creating a powerful book marketing strategy.

I’m not bemoaning my fate, but I am willing to listen and learn.

About Derek Murphy

Hey there! I'm a philosophy dropout and book cover designer with a PhD in Literature. After spending a decade as a starving artist, I vowed to create the life of freedom my restless spirit demands. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write young adult fantasy novels and do a few editorial critiques to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles. FREE GUIDE: Book Marketing is Dead.
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