Skin Like Leather

By John Gilstrap

We always tell up-and-comers that they’ve got to have a thick skin if they’re ever going to break into the publishing business. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard not to lose faith in your own abilities. When the news finally turns good, and an agent wants to see the manuscript, and later when an editor decides to buy it, you feel vindicated. Ha-ha and neener-neener, you think. Clearly all those rejecters were wrong.

What clearer affirmation of talent can there be than a publishing contract, right? If you’re not careful, you might start rubbing aloe on that leather-tough skin, thinking that it’s time to shed the bullet-proof coating.

Oh, that it were true.

Earlier this month, I won this year’s award at Thriller Fest for the Worst Review Ever, for an opinion of Nathan’s Run that appeared in an upstate New York newspaper: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” If the quote seems familiar, I’ve posted that review in this space before. That it followed dozens of major market rave reviews from around the world softened the blow quite a bit. I laughed out loud when I read it at the time, and now I treasure my award, which is a lovely wooden box that contains a fossilized dinosaur turd. All in good fun.

So, here I am again in the early stages of a new book launch (18 days straight in the Top 30 in Amazon’s Kindle store), blessed with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I’m very proud of the book. Frankly, I think it’s my best work, but then I always think that when a new book comes out.

I almost took out the aloe again. Not so fast.

This is the age of the amateur Internet review, where the opinions of casual readers wield influence equal to that of professional critics. Among many very positive reviews, one fellow calls my book “surprisingly decent.” Another expresses surprise that this “second tier suspense writer” has had such a long career. I have been chastised for leading with my left-wing politics, and I’ve been chastised for leading with my right-wing politics. One reviewer chastises me for coming off as stupid because I can’t seem to keep my own politics straight.

Interestingly, several reviewers have accused me in an online forum of writing my own raves, one of them going so far as to praise my ability to change my writing style to accommodate my various fictional identities. (For the record, I’ve never done such a thing.)

God bless them all. Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me. It’s the nature of art that perception trumps intent. A review is a review, after all, and since the major media markets have decided that books are no longer worthy of ink and newsprint, I’m just happy that someone’s paying attention.

The need for thick skin doesn’t end at the impersonal review, however.

Nine times out of ten, people are wonderfully supportive of me and my work. It’s not about fawning. With the exception of certain engineered opportunities—book signings, etc.—I have no desire to be the star of a social setting. I’d much rather discuss current events than the mechanics of writing. Among these friends, the launch of a new book warrants a congratulations and a couple of signed books and that’s about it. Just as it should be.

Then there’s the remaining one out of ten who just sort of baffle me. Consider my relatives who ostentatiously don’t read my books (even though I think they do), yet ask me to autograph editions for their friends. A colleague of mine goes out of his way to tell me the stores he’s visited where none of my books are in stock, and another rarely misses a public opportunity to express shock that my books are currently doing as well as they are. It seems sometimes that people go out of their way to be hurtful. What am I supposed to say in response to such things?

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that none of the rudeness—whether by acts of omission or commission—are in fact intentionally hurtful. The family stuff is weirder than the collegial stuff, but I’ve decided that artistic success—even when it’s second tier—makes some people feel both empowered and uncomfortable. The public nature of book writing empowers people to criticize, while public success—and the minor celebrity that comes with it—can upset the balance of an insecure relationship.

I’m not talking jealousy here—far from it, in fact. I think it’s more akin to keeping the artist from becoming too big for his britches. I suppose that’s a noble goal, but I do wish it could be accomplished with fewer awkward moments.

Am I alone here? Do you folks encounter people who seem intent on deflating your balloon? How do you cope with it?

21 thoughts on “Skin Like Leather

  1. I’m unpubbed so have not yet gone through this.

    But whether we admit it or not, most people have a diabolical streak. Need proof? Let folks at the office know you’re on a diet and see how fast they start offering you brownies and cupcakes etc. Anything to throw you off track.

    It is much easier to take jabs at someone than to build them up.

    Not exactly an aspect of publishing to look forward to. But its why I read blogs like this–to prepare myself for various possibilities. We won’t be on everyone’s fan list.

  2. I had an early comment on Sea Fare of utter disbelief that I was published, followed by a snarky “you only have one book?”
    For a long time, it scared me off talking about my first (and only…so far!) book and I was embarrassed to mention it, until I ran into this same person again, who was, this time, mad at me because my publisher hadn’t accepted his query (for something he had yet to write) He was livid and again nasty. Apparently, this was all my fault.
    Some of the worst comments are made out of jealousy.

  3. Victoria,
    We have all run into jealous individuals. We all know passive-aggressive people. Sometimes we run into unbalanced people. Such is life. I have a very thick skin and an ability to forget slights and insults because they do not matter and it shows more about the other individual than it does me. What can I say? It takes all kinds.

    My own extended family has always been supportive. I don’t know what Gilstrap did to piss them off or to threaten the place in their heads they had for him to spend the rest of his life in. “How dare you have actual talent.”

  4. My friends and family have been supportive, for the most part, but I’ve had a few comments that seemed a little more like criticism than support. Reviews are reviews. I did a little bit of research the other day and discovered that 97% of American readers have never read Harry Potter. It doesn’t matter how popular our book might be, most people aren’t going to like it enough to read it. We hope to get good reviews from those who do, but we may not.

  5. Well analyzed, John!

    My favorite “compliments” are the “I read your book and it really was very good” type, said with such surprise. As if they expected it to completely suck.

  6. You are spot on and I have had exactly the same weirdness from relatives and friends…but rarely strangers. I am not sure why people do it but you do have to have a tough hide to ride it out. This business is not for the faint hearted!

  7. LOL, John, you second-tier writer, you. (Damn, that must make me something like the oily goo the foundation is stuck in).

    I blogged lately about the husband of a friend of mine who, because he was unemployed and was asking about my book, I gave him an ARC for free. Then he wrote me a lengthy email saying how much he enjoyed it, following up with an even lengthier criticism of all the things he didn’t like about it.

    At least metaphorically, it left me with my mouth hanging open. Aside from the quite real possibility he’s an arrogant asshole, I couldn’t quite figure what would possess him to share his thoughts like that. I politely responded with, “Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the book.”

    Let’s face it. People are weird.

  8. I’m one of the Amazon reviewers that got accused of being you or one of your family (and you never invite me to Christmas!).

    Her justification? I hadn’t written enough reviews. My explanation? A new email address. She poo-pooed that claiming that SHE had moved several times and STILL had the same email address.

    She then accused me of having the same editor as you because of a typo in my review.

    She then came after me via email because I tried to defend myself.

    I then quit . . .

    I love the political review on Hostage Zero. I still don’t know what his point was.


  9. My balloon doesn’t have enough air in it to be deflated, so I’ll not comment on that.

    The excerpted reviews show that those who think amateur reviews in Amazon and other sources will take the place of the major media are sadly mistaken. This is (a minor) one of several reasons why I no longer do reviews: I don’t want to be lumped in with these people.

  10. I think it’s important to be cautious of giving too much credit to reviews, but positive and negative. Both can mess up your head.

  11. Robert Crais, one of the most respected of contemporary crime fiction writers, told an audience once that he had to hire an assistant to handle emails, just so she could separate out the “hate” emails and never show them to him. As his success grew, so did these emails. “The world is full of haters,” he said with incredulity.

  12. People covet success, but applaud failure.
    Tell a room full of friends, relatives or colleagues that you won an award or a fellowship or got a book published and few will want to hear the details. But go into a room and tell them you just filed bankruptcy or for a divorce or your book got rejected and watch them swarm around like flies on a sugar cube.

  13. I don’t read book reviews – they have no impact on my decision to buy. To go on Amazon to trash someone’s work? Not me.

    THE ROAD was a highly touted book. I read part of it. Was it lousy? Can’t say – it just wasn’t a match for my taste. HOSTAGE ZERO & NO MERCY? Great matches. You have a new fan. Does or should my opinion in either case mean jack? No. And why should it?

    I don’t care what people think. Anyone intent on gaining satisfaction by “deflating my balloon” should find a target that gives a rat’s ass. Life’s too awesome (& fun) to let anyone pee in your Wheaties. Dave

  14. ‘No prophet is without honor except in their own village.’

    The mere fact that they know you will make some family and friends more critical of your work than they would be of a stranger’s work.

    Which is weird and kind of sad.

  15. My mother stopped by sometime after my third or fourth book was out (and yes, they’re self-published, but they do sell). My wife mentioned that I had recently quit my part-time job. My mother turned to me and asked what I was doing now. I replied “Just the writing.”

    Blink. Blink. Blink. Turns to my wife. “So, you’re going to get a second job?”

    For what it’s worth, my mother steadfastly refuses to read any of my books.

  16. I have a relative who always asks when I’m going to write a “real book,” by which I’m guessing she means literary fiction, since to my knowledge I have yet to produce an imaginary book. They all seem to exist when I hold them in my hands.

    I have friends who abstain from reading their reviews- oh, that I had the moral strength and fortitude to do that. It would certainly spare me a lot of pain.

    Here’s a fun piece of fan hate mail that I received this week. I assume that the reader is referring to THE GATEKEEPER, since I never wrote a book entitled GATEWAY. Enjoy:

    I am reading Gateway right now. I don’t like how you skip around so much in your writing. There is too much detail in reading your novel with some details myself the reader doesn’t like to know about and is making your novel too much insignificance. I will never buy another one of your books…..

    So far, I only want to know more about the girl that’s been taken against her will by the July 1, or chapter 15, in this book. You have to weed out some of your detailing as far as my reading time goes…..

  17. A timely subject for me given that a Kirkus review of my latest book (Scared Stiff, pubbed under a pseudonym) said I was too fixated on sex and scatology. That in and of itself wasn’t so bad, but the review ended with a thinly veiled insult aimed at my mother (seriously??), who the book is dedicated to. Though the review made me laugh, I haven’t shared it with Mom. I have been signing all my emails to my editor as the Scatologist, however.

    All reviews–good and bad–have to be taken with a grain of salt. Some people find great enjoyment in belittling the successes of others.

  18. Haha! Ok so this is totally unrelated to what you were saying but for some (strange) reason I read “keeping the artist from becoming too big for his britches”, as “too big for his bitches”… which actually made some kind of weird sense!

  19. Michelle, that is hilarious!

    I haven’t made it to the exalted level of pubbed-bookdom, but I have a fair stable of short stories.

    For a lark, I reprinted one of my fav tales that had been pubbed once in a credible e-zine, and pubbed again in an anthology after it had placed in the top 40 of a contest. That one paid! So, I am fairly pleased with this little bit of prose. Let’s just say the editing phase of it is complete.

    This new site allows for scoring and feedback. Sigh . . . I’m not doing well with it at all. (:

    The common complaint is that it is “too disturbing.”

    Hmmmm . . .

    The title is “The Brain Eaters” and the first line is “It took me seven years to decide to kill my husband.” What part of that made the reader think it was about cupcakes and fluffy kittens?

    Disturbing is kinda what I was going for! In fact, I cherish those words, it means I launched it right out of the park.

    I, personally, am anxiously awaiting November. Don’t you dare take out one single detail!


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