How to Grow a Thick Skin as an Author
“It’s a business you go into because you’re an egocentric. It’s a very embarrassing profession.”
That quote comes from Katherine Hepburn talking about show-business, but writing books can be described in a similar way. After all, being an author requires an element of showmanship. A desire to have people take notice of your words. It’s storytelling for an audience. Only, these days we’ve replaced camp fires with Kindle Fires and a sitting audience with a global readership. The spectators are still there but in a different form.
They are the reason some of us can live dream lifestyles, never having to sit in a cubicle to earn a fortune for a CEO we’ve never met. We couldn’t do any of this without our readers, but that doesn’t mean our relationship with them is always peachy. Indeed, readers take lots of forms. Most are a silent army – the kind who buy books in supermarkets and read them quietly on the train. A minority are more vocal. They leave reviews and reach out to us on social media. Some are just readers while others are writers themselves. All of whom are unique but share one common trait: they all have an opinion.
Often, that opinion is full of enthusiasm. They tell us how our work has changed their life, made them snort-laugh in public or cry over a character that felt real. Just fantasising about it is fodder for the soul. Of course, not every correspondence is so endearing. Sometimes, our words incite criticism, irritation, condescension and even rage, which can, at best, ruin the day and, at worst, completely stifle our ability to create.
Criticism is inevitable – and often necessary – as you grow and expose your work to more people, even if you write happy, inoffensive books and are respectful on social media. Sometimes, attracting it isn’t your fault. It’s just that someone, somewhere, is having a bad day. So, if you want to stay the course with your writing career, you need to develop a thick skin. Fortunately, just like writing, reacting well to criticism is a learnable skill you can improve. You just need to practice a few of the following tactics.
Realise It’s Not Personal
It can be difficult to interpret criticism as anything other than a personal attack. When a writing buddy says your style is too choppy, it appears to be a judgement on your ability. An objective truth. The reality, though, might just be that they prefer flowing literary fiction. Your “choppy” style annoys them but makes for a faster pace that thriller readers love. Likewise, when you see a reader glance at your book in your local bookshop before choosing something different, that isn’t necessarily a criticism on your cover or blurb. All they’ve indicated is that they didn’t want to buy your book at that moment. Perhaps they were just browsing or even shopping for a friend.
Yes, many books contain basic cover, blurb and editing issues, but professional authors usually have those problems covered. Many issues that arise after that are subjective. For instance, some readers will only ever read books with certain tropes. Your book might be a strong historical romance but if it doesn’t contain a kilt, a certain reader won’t buy it no matter how good it is. In the same vein, criticism of your ads doesn’t always stem from something you’ve said that’s particularly vexing. Occasionally, even a fantastic book, delivered expertly to its ideal reader will get dashed simply because it appeared when the reader was in a bad mood. It’s the marketing equivalent of getting your head bitten off because you entered a room during an argument. Unfortunate but not personal.
Filter Out Invalid Opinions
Lots of people will have opinions about the choices you make as an author. Family and friends might suggest that you’re not a “proper” author if you self-publish. Not understanding this ever-changing industry, and how going indie is now the best option for lots of writers, they might suggest you submit to a publisher as if it will validate your career. What they won’t realise is that this decision could eat into your profit and block you from controlling the marketing process, which will negatively impact your sales. Likewise, a reviewer might insist that your zombie book contains too much romance and not enough gore, despite it being clearly listed as a paranormal romance novel, not horror. Adhering to that single reviewer’s preferences might make them a fan but could damage your own enthusiasm for the story and your ability to make money from a bigger reader group.
The truth is that not everyone’s opinion is valid. The average person’s publishing experience comes from misinformed ideas and is skewed by bias. They don’t understand the industry, your readership or what’s best for your business. As Steven Stosny, Ph. D., a relationship expert writing for Psychology Today, says, “Critical people often delude themselves into thinking that they merely give others helpful feedback.” In many cases, though, the criticism isn’t helpful and doesn’t offer actionable ways to help you improve. Thus, you can disregard it. Successful authors are rarely liked by everyone anyway. As long as your core readers like your work, that’s all that matters.
Seek Feedback En Masse
Feedback can be difficult to accept even when you know that it’s valid and constructive. But there are steps you can take to make the medicine easier to swallow. One such tactic is to seek feedback en masse via a poll, questionnaire or a method of publicly showcasing your work, which can all be conducted easily online. It’s true that internet anonymity has a lot to answer for – people can be cruel when their words carry no consequence – but it also has benefits. One is that people can tell you exactly what they think without having to layer their feedback with praise, which wastes time and blinds you to the shortcomings.
Many authors take to Facebook groups for this reason. Some of the biggest author groups are full of expert members who are happy to assess blurbs, marketing strategies and book covers. What’s more, many know about the industry and the challenges authors face, so their opinions are often more valid than the average person on the street. If you want more genre-specific feedback, there are groups that can help you with that too. Or you could poll your readers on Twitter or send them a questionnaire via your newsletter. An individual’s critical words can feel personal and offensive but hundreds of comments all expressing a similar opinion is easier to accept as truth.
Value Criticism Over Praise
Aristotle once said that “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.” This wisdom implies that life becomes richer once you stop avoiding criticism and do things that attract it. That’s true, but even people who understand this logic get defensive when receiving feedback. When it happens to you, it can feel like a personal attack, the words of a doubter trying to dampen your flair. Writers who experience it commonly fall into three camps. They:
- get crushed and give up
- get angry and stop listening, or
- get excited and take notes
Excitement may sound like an abnormal response but some people do think that way and see their abilities evolve faster as a result. This is because they don’t get discouraged by feedback but see it as an opportunity to expand their limits. To them, it’s a process of evolution. Praise from friends is a comfortable glass tank that shields them from the real world. As an author, they recognise the need to survive outside its confines if they want to grow. They understand that it’s only by seeing their work killed over and over again that they can reveal its flaws to patch them with mutations. Do this enough and they can develop it into an altogether stronger and more intelligent animal – something that can survive in a competitive world. This is why they like to be criticised, and why you should value feedback over praise.
Remember Your Heroes
One final strategy that helps authors keep going when they receive rejection letters or scathing reviews is to look at the work of their heroes. JK Rowling is a famous example. Did you know her first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers? What about history’s other favourite writers? J R R Tolkien? Agatha Christie? Enid Blyton? They have all been snubbed for awards, received one-star reviews and been told one way or another that their books aren’t good.
When you’re feeling down, go online and search rejection stories for some of your favourite writers. Looks at their Amazon sales pages. Andy Weir’s The Martian is considered one of the best sci-fi books of the 21st century but that has 531 one-star reviews in the US, some describing it as “boring” and “God awful”. Trawling through the hatred spewed at the greats for a while is usually enough to convince anyone that authors need a thick skin and that they shouldn’t let doubters halt their progress. There isn’t a single bestseller with a perfect track record. And if they can survive a tsunami of criticism, so can you.
Developing a thick skin is vital if you want to become a better writer and enjoy a thriving career. Doing so will give you the grit to keep going and a growth mindset to enjoy the learning curve. If you only take away one lesson from this post, though, know that while forming early callouses can be painful, your skin will get tougher over time until it can withstand pressure you might never have considered impossible.
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