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Opinion: Why It Helps If Indie Authors Develop A Thick Skin

Opinion: Why It Helps If Indie Authors Develop a Thick Skin

photo of author riding a camel

Reviews aren't always an easy ride, but Marie McCann has found a way to deal with them

How do you cope with bad reviews of your self-published books? Because no matter how good our books are, we writers will all surely get some negative reader feedback at some point in our career. Canadian indie author Marie McCann (who writes as E M McCann) shares her strategy for dealing with the critics, drawing on her unusual background as the child of another kind of artist in the public eye to build her personal resilience and to maintain her self-belief.


A Critic-ique

This is a confession.  I grew up the daughter of an actor. Every morning, three papers were bought and combed for reviews.  This was not an act of vanity.

An unfavourable review could turn a promising career as a television star into a lifetime selling television sets at the local department store.

photo of Brendan Behan

Irish author Brendan Behan

I can remember my father bursting past the breakfast table, ready to take on the critic who had slighted his performance the night before.  After all, as Irish playwright Brendan Behan had famously quipped,

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves”.

Applying the Actor's Philosophy to Authors

Fast forward to my first novel, Larry the Dromedary – We Won’t Desert You!… After several rejections (albeit very gentle and encouraging) from major publishers, I decided to take on the task of publishing it myself.

Being my own publisher put on me the extra responsibility of seeking out other opinions about my writing and the story itself.

With several vigorous rounds of feedback from test readers and a writer’s critique group under my belt, I felt ready to work with an editor.  Opening myself up to multiple voices had allowed me to see weaknesses in my story and enabled me to let go of some things that weren’t working.

cover of Larry the Dromedary

Marie McCann's debut novel

It was time to obtain advance reviews.  I reached out to bloggers, vloggers and publications.  But even at three months’ till the launch, the timelines were too tight.  As an unknown author, it’s hard to stand out in the crowd.  I was successful in lining up some published authors who generously agreed to read my book and write a fair review.

With butterflies and advanced copies in tow, I marched down to the post office where I stuffed puffy Manila envelopes.  For several weeks I waited for some word from my reviewers.

A daily glance at Goodreads and Amazon became an hourly check – when would my book receive those stars that would be the key to its online success?

The Moment of Reckoning

Then came the call from my first reviewer.  As we near the end of the first 20 years of this century, I find more and more that a call is more often than not, bad news.

She did not like it.  She did not even want to finish reading it.  She called because she really felt she was not the right person to be writing the review.  I asked her for some specific feedback so that I could understand where she was coming from.  In the end, she did not share my sense of humour, although she did add that “kids would probably like it”.

I did deeply respect her for giving me that honest feedback and took some ironic comfort in the fact that she felt the book was going to work with the audience it was intended for.

While that call was hard, it could not take away what I knew to be true about my story.

The Skin of Confidence

Headshot of Sean McCann

The actor Sean McCann, the inspiration for his daughter's resilience and self-belief

Among the many wonderful gifts my father gave me was the thick skin of an artist.  This skin of confidence protects me when my work is critiqued.

I can maintain my own opinion of my art even when others see it differently.

And when those stars finally started to appear, along with reviews that really got what I was trying to say, it was all the more sweet.


  • Do you have other tips on how to stay resilient in the face of criticism, without becoming arrogant or ignoring valid advice?
  • Do you even care what reviewers say?
  • We'd love to hear about your strategies for dealing with negative (and positive) reviews.
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Author: E M McCann

E.M. McCann is an award-winning creator of children's content and began her career at age 11 as an actress in Gordon Pinsent's "A Gift to Last" (CBC). After studying English and Film at the University of Toronto, she began to work in television as a writer/director/producer of educational children's media at TVOntario. Marie led the creation of long-running series such as "Gisele's Big Backyard" (TVOntario) and "Kids' Canada (CBC) which both won Gemini Awards. While on a trip to North Africa she was inspired to write "Larry the Dromedary - We Won't Desert You!" and spent a number of years working on the fantastical tale that draws on her life and mythical influences. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her two amazing daughters, her life partner, and her dog. She loves to travel, sings in a country band called Animal Kyngdom, paints, and currently heads up children's content for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The website for her book is www.larrythedromedary.wordpress.com.


This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. I’m afraid the thick skin doesn’t work for me at all. I feel everything far too intensely.

    I’ve taken on the Naruto way of dealing with criticism, pain, and humiliation.

    I may get the cr*p kicked out of me in every sense. I’ll just keep getting up, every time. I’ll never give up. No matter how big a fool I make of myself. No matter how awful anyone says I am.

    I’ll simply knuckle down and keep getting stronger. 🙂

  2. I have also reduced reading reviews of my books. I think that self-publishing has come at a time when many commentators feel utterly empowered and perhaps if it had evolved before this era we would not see the kind of responses we receive.

    I have found the anger of some customers hard to swallow and it has taken some years to become immune to them. I do wish there were greater possibilities for responding to customer reviews, but if you try this then you get shot down very quickly with – ‘you shouldn’t be on here, it’s only for readers’ rather than allowing a dialogue between author and reader.

    One challenge nowadays is that the commentators see themselves very much as customers rather than readers. Thus, there is almost an expectation that a book must precisely fit their personal expectations. If it does not, then it is simply ‘bad’ (that is an actual review I have received, a single word) no matter the merits of the story or the writing. Writing historical fiction, I find myself being directed only to follow popular perceptions of what went on rather than accurate ones. This can be a real challenge as a British writer with a largely American audience when writing about the two world wars, let alone American history. There is a vocal anger if you write a story which does not comply with what people believe to be the truth and the view of the truth is always absolute for reviewers. In contrast many authors like to play with ambivalence and varied perspectives, notably engaging with the views of women and ethnic minorities who tend to be under-represented in terms of reviews.

    There are unwritten rules about genre which commentators will use vigorously to beat you with. I was told my alternate analysis books should not be in alternate history listings because they offer a range of views of likely outcomes rather than a definite view on what might have happened. One reviewer complained that one of my books was ‘like a primary school project’ because it viewed the Mongol invasion of Europe from the French side rather than the Mongol side. Stories straddling across genres come in for very vigorous attacks. Most recently even published author, Chris Brookmyre has received hostile reviews for daring to write a crime novel set on a space station, ‘Places in the Darkness’. It is not accepted either by crime or SF readers because it straddles the genre lines so strongly enforced by commentators.

    One major problem I feel is that there are very strong, but very traditional expectations about what constitutes ‘correct’ writing. You dare not play around with grammar or chronology or characters or anything which moves outside a very linear approach to a novel with all the punctuation as it is traditionally taught. I always note that Irvine Welsh with his use of dialect and speech only shown by use of hyphens would be constantly 1-star rated if he was a self-publishing author of the 2010s. I was criticised this week for ‘forgetting’ to end a chapter. The adventure was over, the prisoners had escaped and got back over the border and yet, because I did not go on and show them reaching their homes and getting back to normality it was deemed ‘unfinished’. I get the same criticism because I do not detail the fates of every minor character. Many reviewers have a very staid, old fashioned view of what stories *must* entail and I fear it will lead to much of what is being produced in the years to come being very bland and lacking innovation in any format.

    I would suggest that writers do pay attention to what commentators write, but also cling tight to the courage to challenge them and not feel straitjacketed into just producing what the most vocal of reviewers insist is the ‘only’ way to write.

    1. I think you make a really great observation – that readers are seeing themselves as customers with a set of expectations that they are measuring their reviews against. There is a huge tradition of course of reviews and criticism by people whose job it is to evaluate and discuss writing. It’s a really good reminder to keep in mind who is writing the review and what perspective they may be coming from. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I don’t read reviews of my books anymore. They just annoy me. Sometimes even the good ones annoy me. I did when I was starting out, and I learned some good lessons from them, but most of the time those lessons weren’t worth the aggravation.

    I check the star averages periodically and as long as they are 4 stars or above, I’m happy.

    I love the phrase “skin of confidence.” I feel I have developed that. I know in an instant whether a review is on target or not, because I know what I do well and what I sometimes flub up.

    “I can maintain my own opinion of my art even when others see it differently.” Very well put!

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