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No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: New Authors can benefit from Critics and Detractors
by Antonio Graceffo

A writing professor once gave us this example. What if Charles Dickens had written the best novel in the universe, and then put it away in a drawer? The answer obviously was that we would never have heard of him. And, the lesson the professor wanted us to learn was that the writer’s work doesn’t end when we complete the final chapter. We have to continue with next step, which is getting published.

But, unfortunately, the professor should have continued with the example. What if, after Charles Dickens published his work, no one read it? That is the position many new authors find themselves in. When they began writing, they believed that the odds were so severely stacked against them; being published was so unlikely, that they had no plans beyond this seemingly impossible dream.

If you ask a promising athlete, "What is your dream, in life?" He will answer, with no hesitation, "I want to win a gold medal in the Olympics." But, if you ask him the next question, he will probably stutter. "The Olympics will be held on a Tuesday. What are you planning to do on Wednesday?"

Behavioral psychologists, particularly working with athlete and business people, have long taught us that we set our own limits, the glass ceiling, which we can’t over come. Success or failure is completely determined by what we are thinking. Because I have been both a salesman and an athlete, I have been trained to visualize my success. In my mind, there is a picture of a very long difficult road, ending at a distant finish line where my books would be published.

If you have been living by a similar visualization, my suggestion would be, to extend that visualization beyond having a book published. After you cross that finish line, another very long and bumpy road begins, leading to your book becoming a financial success.

The way you get people to buy your book is by getting people to talk about your book. Conventional ways of doing this include, asking newspapers and magazines to write reviews, donating copies to libraries and schools, doing talks and book signings, and buying media ad space. Of course you can increase your book sales by publishing articles about related subjects. Once you have a reputation for being an expert in your field, people will buy your books. New ways of getting people to talk about your books is to go on Internet forums and chat rooms, and start a conversation about your book.

At least once a week, I do my fame check. I put my name into all of the Internet search engines and see what people are saying about me. The strongest indicators are when you find reviews and chats which were done independent of any action by you.

We all love getting good reviews. They are a boost to the ego, and help us along the long path of constant rejection, which is the life of the professional writer. But what about the bad reviews? What if you go in a chat room and find out that someone has panned your book? It can be disheartening. But, as writers we are leaving ourselves open to criticism. Other professions can hide their feelings. A policeman may disagree with the laws he is forced to enforce. A teacher may oppose a school policy. A business executive may think his boss is a jerk. But, they would never say this in public, because they would lose their job. At the risk of sounding cynical, most people can live a life of denial and then, switch their outer face, when the wind of public opinion changes direction. But, writers lack this option. Our job is all about expressing our feelings and opinions. If we try to hide our true self, our writing will suffer. And, regardless of what opinions you have written on paper, your true feelings will show through.

People will always have opinions. And no matter how good you are, at least 10% of the people will dislike you. Believe it or not, but somewhere, there is a bitter man, who hates Mother Teresa, because he feels she was just too selfish.

So, how does a writer deal with negative reviews? The only way we can survive in this business, without resorting to substance abuse or suicide (i.e. Jack London, Jack Kerouack, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson...) we must learn to turn adversity into opportunity. Bad publicity may be bad, but it is publicity.

You get paid when people buy your book. And, you get the same money if they hated it or loved it. Obviously, we like hearing praise on our writing, and word of mouth advertising is often the best way to sell books. There are so many books available in bookstores and online, we often chose the ones recommended by a friend. Sales statistics for other types of products and services suggest that if people are satisfied with a product, they will tell two people. If they are dissatisfied they will tell ten.

Only a small percentage of people who liked a book or article will write a letter to the editor. But people who hated it always write. And worst of all, a lot of people with too much time on their hands are bitter people. They might be sick, injured, unemployed, or incarcerated, and have nothing to fill their day, beyond writing hateful letters of complaints to editors and authors.

It is normal human behavior that we spend more time talking about things we don’t like, than talking about things we like.

A satisfied customer might say, "I ate at that new Thai restaurant last night, and I liked it. The food was good. The prices were fair. And the waiters gave excellent service."

But, the dissatisfied customer will say, "You will not believe what happened to me last night. I tried out that new Thai restaurant, and, from the minute I walked in, everything went wrong. The waiter… The food…" The dissatisfied customer will launch into a tirade, spinning a narrative tale, with conflict, plots, sub-plots, and maybe even space aliens. Hemingway, on his best day, couldn’t tell a story as well as a dissatisfied customer. The satisfied customer, on the other hand, only talked about the restaurant for two seconds.

After the satisfied person gives his short review, the listener says, very noncommittally, "I’ll have to try that place." After the dissatisfied customer finishes his lengthy and entertaining saga, the listener says, because he believes he is expected to, "I better stay away from that place." But in the back of his mind, he is thinking, "It couldn’t be that bad. I’d better go find out for myself." Or, maybe he is thinking about the dissatisfied customer, "That guy is such a complainer. If he didn’t like it, it’s probably good."

One friend pours himself a glass of milk from the refrigerator, and quickly spits it out. "It’s spoiled!" He yells. The other friend takes sip, also spits it out, and shouts. "You’re right!" Then he calls to someone in the other room, "Come try this milk, it’s spoiled."

You see the worst movie of your life, and call a friend. "I hated the new Vanna White movie." The friend says, "But I told you it was bad, why did you go see?" You give some feeble excuse like. "I wanted to see for myself."

In popular culture, and this extends to books, there is a certain shock factor which helps sell books. Most of us weren’t interested in reading a book, with the title, Satanic Verses, until we heard that the author had to go into hiding, because of death threats. Then, it became a best seller. In Southeast Asia, where I live and work, there is a book about Cambodia, called Off the Rails in Phnom Penh. Almost immediately after publication, the book was debunked, as a mixture of exaggerations and sensationalism. And, since the author conducted much of his research in brothels, and while buying and taking drugs, the book raises a number of moral questions. If you mention this book in a group of ex-pats, anywhere in Indochina, most will say they hated it. But more importantly, nearly 100% of them will say that they have read it. And the ones who haven’t read it, will say something like, "I have been meaning to read that, to see why everyone hated it so much."

Someone once said that you could judge a man by his enemies. If someone important or famous hates your book, this is almost a prescription for success. Charlton Heston probably didn’t give favorable reviews to Michael Moor’s "Bowling for Columbine."

I enjoyed "The Ten Commandments" as much as the next guy, but I still paid $12 to watch the movie.

The truth is, I don’t think it does. Most Kerouack fans know of the famous review by Truman Capote. After he read Off the Road, he said "That’s not writing, that’s just typing." But, I don’t know of a single person who cites this quote as a reason for not reading On the Road. "If Truman Capote didn’t like it, I won’t read it."

In my field, of adventure travel writing, one of the most famous literary rivalries of all time was between Eric Newby and explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger was a brilliant man, hardened by years of privation, exploring the deserts of Africa and Central Asia. During a brief meeting in the Hindu Kush, he once called travel writer, Eric Newby, a pansy, for sleeping on an inflatable mattress. The story of this silly insult has been retold so many times, it will probably outlive any of the great works written by either man. When Thesiger died, last year, I went on line, gathering as many of his obituaries as possible. At least half of them mentioned the fact that he had crossed Africa’s Empty Quarter more than once, and called Eric Newby a pansy.

Both men are heroes to me. And, once again, I don’t believe that this insult put anyone off of reading Eric Newby.

As writers, our jobs are to entertain, to inform, and to provoke critical thought.

I just received a threatening email, telling me that ten people are on line 24/7 writing bad reviews of my books. Paul Theroux, my biggest literary competitor, has only 61 reviews on amazon.com, soon, I will pass him.

If someone famous thought enough about you to hate you, you should feel flattered. And, if they went the extra mile, and wrote a scathing criticism of your work, glow in the spotlight. Fame and financial success will not be far off.

© Copyright 2005, Antonio Graceffo

Adventure writer Antonio Graceffo is originally from Brooklyn, New York. He has a reputation as an aggressive, judgmental, and provocative author, who writes humorous and insulting books about Southeast Asia. Widely panned, his books are available at amazon.com. He presently lives in Cambodia, but will be fleeing the country before the publication of his controversial book, Letters from the Penh. (Letters from the Penh will be available on amazon.com in 2006) Antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

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