If you know any indie writers, there is a possibility that you have been stuck in this awkward position: they self-publish their sparkling new novel, and excitedly send it to all their friends and family members for feedback, reviews, and free word-of-mouth news spreading.
The cover might be good, it might not; some new writers wing their own design to save a couple of hundred bucks, and some pay for a cover. You open it and read the first page.
First lines are important, of course; it’s their job to suck you in and urge you forward into the story. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the writer is genuinely talented, giving you a pleasant reading experience that transforms you from friend to fan.
However, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the book might, well… suck. Several pages in and you’re already tired of the clumsy prose, unlikable characters, eye-rolling cliches, and whatever else that puts you off entirely.
Out come the excuses, and you pop it on a shelf where it gathers dust for the next few months. You get on with your life, and hope and pray that your writer friend has forgotten all about it.
Let me tell you this right now: they almost always haven’t.
They won’t ever mention it, because who wants to be badgered with “have you finished it yet?” But the crushing realization comes after several months of nothing, zero, zilch, possibly hurting even more when we come over and see said book on the shelf, serving no more purpose than being some light decoration.
But what’s the alternative? You can’t just say to your friend “hey, I read some of your novel and… it’s just terrible. You aren’t a good writer.” It’s better to avoid such uncomfortable conversations and just let the book sit quietly in some forgotten corner of the bookshelf.
You might have some idea of the time, energy, and money that is spent on producing a book. You might feel bad for them or you might even be able to convince yourself that there’s nothing really wrong with the book, it’s just not to your taste.
I used to be that writer. At 22 years old and with a sparkling publishing contract from a new company, I thought I’d written something really special and I wanted the whole world to see it. I paid for postage and packaging of several paperbacks, sending it to friends, family members, and other writers. I waited for feedback. Probably ten percent of those who I sent it to ever spoke to me about it again.
If you find yourself on the other end of this situation, do yourself (and us) a favour by avoiding these excuses, all of which I’ve heard before. We aren’t stupid, and we know what they really mean.
- “I’m a slow reader.” Give me a break. There’s slow, taking a month to read a novel, and then there’s “I never intend to read it and I’m going to blame my reading speed.”
- “I’m too busy to read.” Well then, why did you accept the book? If you dislike reading, that’s one thing, but if you claim to love books, you’ll make time. We all make time for the things we enjoy.
- My personal favourite I’ve heard is “I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end!” Apparently they loved it so much that two years later, they still feel the same way. Uh-huh.
So what can you do in the painful situation of having received a free book, but not being able to read it? Here are some things you can do that will help the writer but not destroy your friendship.
1. Identify What You Didn’t Like
It’s not easy to just say “I didn’t like it” and it’s even harder for the writer to hear it. To make this constructive, identify WHAT you didn’t like.
I’m not telling you to become an editor or offer advice. Absolutely not. But if you see a crummy film and turn it off or walk out of the cinema, you can probably explain why: bad acting, horrible directing, clumsy dialogue, a silly story.
The same goes with the book. Here are some ideas.
- “I couldn’t identify with the characters.” Characters are the pillars of a story and if you don’t care about them when reading a book, you won’t care what happens to them. Is their main character unrealistic, too perfect, too selfish, or just plain unlikable? Let the writer know.
- “There is too much description.” It’s easy for writers to get caught up in paragraph-long descriptions of everything. Whereas writers from a few decades past such as Stephen King could get away with this, times change. This kind of feedback can be really useful for writers. If you find yourself skipping paragraphs to get beyond detailed descriptions and back to the action, be sure to tell them.
- “It’s difficult to follow.” Some stories just don’t make sense! If the story itself is confusing, don’t keep quiet about it. Point out things that you don’t understand; it’s likely other readers feel the same.
- “There are too many typos.” One thing that happens a lot with indie writing is the amount of grammatical mistakes and spelling errors and other errors. Don’t feel obligated to point out every single one – that is what proofreaders are for – but feel free to tell them that’s why you couldn’t carry on. Typos interrupt the flow of writing and
2. Be Honest but Constructive
Easier said than done – absolutely. Avoid vague things like “it wasn’t my cup of tea” (though this is MUCH more preferable to the aforementioned excuses) and give reasons why.
3. Say What You Did Like (But Only if it’s True)
If possible, start with something you did like about the book. It’s a lot easier to hear negative feedback when it’s accompanied by the positive. Were there some good ideas hiding among the mistakes? A certain character you genuinely loved? Let the writer know. Give them the ol’ compliment sandwich.
4. Give the Book Back
You might think that giving back an unread paperback is the ultimate insult, but I personally don’t think so.
Getting a book back when they haven’t read it provides a bit of closure to me – now I won’t be waiting and waiting for the feedback that will never come.
The financial aspect is also relevant here; if I get back the book, I can offer it to someone else.
5. Assure Them Nothing Has Changed in Your Relationship
Artists can be quite, well… fragile when it comes to their work. The writer might take your feedback on board and use it to become better, and some writers might fall apart. Worst case scenario, the writer might even get angry.
I was extremely embarrassed after getting some negative feedback. I remembered sending my book to dozens of people and realized that they were probably all laughing at me, shaking their heads and thinking “poor, naive Poppy. Don’t tell her she’s untalented and her book belongs in the trash.”
Have you ever watched X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent (America’s Got Talent if you’re across the pond)? When people go on thinking they can sing only to be shot down and heartbroken by the judges?
That’s what it feels like when you don’t bother letting someone know their book needs work. Thankfully, our version doesn’t include humiliation on national TV, for which I’m grateful.
Please, please, please be honest! Otherwise we cannot grow.
Tell them that you love them all the same and you’re excited to see them improve. Assure them that they will get better – great writers become great only after plenty of practice, after all.
A Note to Writers
If you’re on the other side of this situation – the eager writer waiting on feedback – then here is some advice for you, too.
- Don’t get emotional. Getting upset or even angry is a big mistake when dealing with feedback.
- Be grateful. People are taking time out of their day to provide honest, free feedback. It isn’t easy for them, especially if you’re both close, so be sure to say “thank you” (even if you’re picking up the broken shards of your heart as you do so.)
- Take their feedback on board. A Taylor Swift-esque shake it off, haters gonna hate attitude works in some cases, but if this person has given you honest, specific feedback, be sure to listen to it. It’ll make you a better writer.
- Look for patterns. If you’re lucky enough that several people have talked to you about your book, look for patterns in their feedback. If three people have told you that the main character is too wooden, it might be time for some rewriting. If four have said there are too many typos, hire a proofreader. Feedback is extremely valuable.
Writers adore people who give real feedback! A potentially awkward situation can be a big opportunity for struggling indie writers. Don’t be a “someday” reader who lets their friend’s book sit, untouched, on the shelf forever.