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Why bad reviews make me happy

August 4 2017, I got this terrific review from a reader named Anne Hill in the US.

I'm afraid this is the most boring book I have ever struggled through. Boring beyond belief. It really does not deserve any stars at all in my opinion. Although spelling and grammar were all they should be, the heroine is a most unbelievable and implausible individual ever created. What woman of 5ft 2 inches can be attacked simultaneously by four baddies and either kill or maim them without a scratch to herself. Through the book there were people mentioned without explanation as to who they were. So it did not feel as if one was reading the first book at all. Most confusing. The entire book did just not gel at all.

That was savage for sure, but it wasn’t nearly as concise as this one from Mary Claude:

Didn’t read.

What I really want to know about that review, Mary, was whether you read any of it at all? I mean, was the one star an expression of bitter regret that you’d spent $0.99 on an ebook that wasn’t really your thing? Or did you read the first page and then just think, Aargh, this is terrible? I don’t know, but I love your economy of expression.

My absolute all-time favourite bad review, however, said this (thanks, Assegai):

Sorry, but when the heroine of the book starts feeling around inside the skull of an autopsied murder victem it really doesn't leave me feeling warm and fuzzy or wanting to read more or learn what makes her tick... I can deal with quirky, but Fiona Griffiths is FAR beyond quirky and well into mentally ill! I skimmed through the chapters after the the night in the morgue scene just to see how the author resolved things. The answer is not in a particularly believeable fashion. Glad I didn't take the word of the critics and buy more than one book in the series. I found Hanibal Lecter a more understandable and sympathetic character.

And look, one of the reasons why I genuinely don’t care about these terrible reviews is that they’re in a tiny minority. My first Fiona Griffiths book has an average 4.4 rating on Amazon. The latest one hits 4.8 stars. Overall, I have hundreds, even thousands, of four and five star reviews. So I’m in the nice position of not really having to care about a few negative comments.

But bad reviews do something else as well. They start to segregate your audience, and that’s great.

Because here’s the thing. In the bad old days, nearly all marketing was quite untargeted. My first book came out in February 2000, and it got huge posters on the London Underground and mainline rail stations, probably a few airports too. They even – this is real – had women in blue sashes handing out little three-chapter samplers of the book to passing commuters.

All this was thrilling to see for a newbie author ... but the targeting behind that campaign was crazily broad. Based on the reach of some of those posters, my publisher saw my audience as “All British commuters using mainline railway stations into London.” And sure, there was an overlap between people-who-use trains and people-who-like-my-books, but there’s no marketing magic there. It’s blunderbus, not sniper’s rifle. And that wasn’t surprising. Back then, there was no alternative.

The internet has changed all that, of course. The trick of marketing anything online these days is to find your audience in the most granular way you possibly can.

That’s how come advertising on Facebook works so well. You don’t have to market to people-who-use-trains. You can market to people-who-read-and-enjoy-books-like-mine.

That’s why email marketing works so well, because you have a direct connection to people who have positively invited your efforts to keep in touch.

That’s how come Amazon itself works so well. Go to Amazon’s home page and look at the “Recommended for you” bit at the top. Now look at your sister’s version of the same page. Or your dad’s. Or your childrens’. Or your friends. Assuming they’re logged into their Amazon account, those pages will always be personalised according to what Amazon knows about your buying habits.

And that’s why negative reviews can actually be helpful.

Anyone who’s squeamish about my main character, the crimes she solves, and the scenes she generates - well, they're never going to be a great reader of my books. Yes, they might buy one book on the off chance, but then never again. If that person leaves a review because they didn’t like X, then readers who are similar will move away and select a more appropriate title for them. That’s a win! Increasingly, Amazon won’t just know who might buy a single book by Harry Bingham. It’ll know who’s likely to invest in the whole series. And because selling a whole series is more profitable than just a single book, Amazon will have ever greater confidence in marketing hard to the exact right readership.

It’s even the same thing with the reviewer who just said that my book was boring. That review stood alongside a zillion reviews that said it was great. So readers have to think, is this book boring or great? And, I think if you peruse the reviews in depth, an intelligent reader will figure out that my books don’t do a lot of gunfights and car chases, but do offer complex and absorbing plots led by a very complex and (I hope) absorbing character.

So the gun-fight-‘n-car-chase readership will go elsewhere. My readership will flock to me.

And again, that’s a win. I’d much, much rather a passionate following from a narrow segment of the reading population, than a “yeah, it’s OK” type reaction from a large segment.

I’ll say more about this kind of thing in future emails: why granularity matters so much and how to exploit it for your benefit.

For now though, just keep in mind the headline. Granularity matters. Passion matters. A passionate and narrow readership is worth ten times a ten times, unpassionate one.

And that headline should guide everything you do, including how you write your books. So if you write a scene and think “My aunt Marge [See picture in header - that's Marge] likes crime fiction, but she wouldn’t like this scene, so I’d better tone it down, you are thinking the exact wrong thing. You should think, “My aunt Marge would hate this, but my ideal reader would love it. I wonder if I can find a way to ramp things up even further.”

That strategy will work for you every single time. And it’s much, much more fun.

Sorry, Marge.


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