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Seeking Positives from my First Bad Book Review

There Are Other Rivers

When I write a book, who do I write it for?

  • For myself?
  • For the public (in other words, to sell lots of copies)?
  • For reviewers (in other words, to win the praise of others)?

My most recent book (There Are Other Rivers) was most definitely written for myself. The format I wanted to attempt (the whole journey as one day; the journey merely a framework for an explanation of why I make these journeys) was never going to appeal to a mass market. I wrote as much in the introduction,

“It probably won’t appeal to a mainstream audience. It may not even be a good idea. But it was my idea and I am willing to stand by it.”

Secondly, choosing to self-publish still stigmatises a book in the eyes of powerful (but out of touch?) reviewing platforms such as the big newspapers and magazines.

Therefore, when the book received its first terrible review this week (in Geographical magazine) my first thought was,

“Relax! I wrote a book knowing that it would not suit all tastes. Now that has proved to be the case I should not get angry or upset.”

(That was not quite my first thought. That was more along the lines of, “let me get my hands on whoever wrote this and dump him on an ocean rowing boat far from land…”)

So I am trying to see this bad review as a positive exercise in self-restraint. It is not nice, of course, to have something you worked so hard at snubbed in public. But I might as well seek some positives from it. I’m not going to bother pointing out that the reviewer totally missed the point of half the book, or any of my other gripes. Instead I’ve pasted the review at the foot of this post so that you can read it if you want.

If the gentleman who reviewed my book had loved it I would have been delighted. I would have embraced his opinion as gospel truth. I would have carefully plucked the nicest sentences from the review and splashed them all over this website. (In fact, I’m going to do that anyway…)

And now I’m going to leave the review behind and move on to highlight the impact that the opinion of other people, even people we have never met, can have on what we do or what we aspire to do.

When I go on an expedition or begin a new project, who am I doing it for?

  • For myself?
  • For the public (in other words, to get rich and famous)?
  • For reviewers (in other words, to win the praise of others)?
I covered most of this ground when I outlined the Rules of my Expeditions a while ago. Please have a read if you missed it before.

It is normal and acceptable to enjoy receiving praise. Praise encourages us to do more and better things, whether it comes from the anonymous general public or from the peers who are the most respected in your niche.

However I do not think we should do things solely to receive praise. In the long run it is an empty, intangible, fickle feeling compared to the lasting feeling of quiet personal satisfaction. The applause dies down very quickly. The silence afterwards lasts much longer. (Seth Godin writes nicely about this too.)

The biggest problem comes if we worry about criticism. This is what stunts creativity and innovation and ambition before it has even begun. In the age of the internet everyone is a critic. Nameless, faceless people with little claim towards expertise can pour scorn on any creation you put online. It’s important therefore to remember the old adage about the Man in the Arena.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. He who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

The brief conclusion of this is that the healthiest, most robust reason for doing something is to do it for your own satisfaction and pride. Do not be stifled by rebukes or inhibited by the possibility of criticism. The important thing is to do something because you want to do it. To do it to the best of your ability because that is what you always demand of yourself. To be satisfied and proud with the outcome. If you do that then you (“I”?) should not be discouraged by somebody’s criticism. It does not change what you have done.

Here’s a brief illustration of this point: another person who writes reviews for Geographical told me that There Are Other Rivers is the best thing I have ever written. If their review had been published instead would that change whether or not the book was actually any good? Of course not.

When we rowed the Atlantic Marin was the first Slovenian to row across an ocean. The story was everywhere – newspaper, TV and radio. He is a superstar now. He might even get a girlfriend. Meanwhile the only media interest back in the UK was when Steve bought his girlfriend some Valentine flowers over the satellite phone and the Falmouth Gazette saw a chance to fill some inches on a quiet day. Marin’s achievement was no greater than Steve’s.  The perception of achievement, the showers of praise and media attention are not a valid reflection of true achievement. Size, it seems, does not always matter.

So write your books, make your journeys and chase your dreams. Do not be cowed by bad reviews or sneering comments online. Trust yourself and do your thing in the way that you want to. Do it well, but do it for yourself. It’s the quiet way, but it is the right way.

There Are Other Rivers is on sale now, as a book and on Kindle. Geographical magazine described the book as “enterprising”… ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have already read the book please do leave a quick review here. I won’t get mad if you write a negative one!

Jaipur

Geographical Magazine review:
There are other rivers: On foot across India by Alastair Humphreys

Humphreys’ account of a coast-to-coast walk across India, distilled as if it took place in a single day, is self-published, and available in various formats; as well as the paperback, there are photographic and Kindle versions and also a “mappazine”, for those who prefer to read text on a single huge sheet of paper. It’s an enterprising venture, as was the trek itself, which was deliberately off-the-cuff – here’s the expedition plan: “Fly to India and take bus to the beach. Follow river on foot to its source then continue to the coast. Go home.” And that’s pretty much what happens, though in order to give the impression of a journey that could have been made at any time, by anyone, the river is unnamed, and all place names and dates omitted. The result is to render the book both anonymous and over-personalised, with every attempt at a general statement (“There are three stages of flabbiness in life”) quickly devolving into the first person (“Despite knowing this, I … “). Indeed, most sentences in this short, uncluttered book begin “I”: it’s more a journal of reflection than of event, and while Humphreys refers to his tweets as “adventure haiku”, which is quite a neat description of what Twitter might ideally be, “300km down and no blisters – yet” doesn’t really deserve the epithet. Which is not to say that Humphreys doesn’t make for a pleasant enough companion on this nameless Indian journey. I’m not convinced the mappazine idea will catch on, though.
– Mick Herron

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Comments

  1. From your introduction I was expecting a much worse review!

    Reply
  2. The gentleman who reviewed my book in Geographical magazine thought my expedition occurred at the other end of the world from where it actually happened. I doubt it was even read cover to cover – in fact I hope so, for if it was read fully the reviewer’s credibility is even further called into question.

    I recently saw an ad for book reviewers for Geographical and they were to be paid £40 per review. Don’t even give it a second thought. Your books are very, very good. Geographical does not employ credible reviewers.

    Reply
    • Thanks Alex.
      I don’t have a complaint with Geographical – I like the mag, I like their reviews. Though not this one, obviously!

      Reply
      • Very diplomatic… and yes I agree the articles tend to be good, but their reviews are consistently under-researched and barbed. I think you either have to stand behind them or take exception to them consistently.

        Reply
  3. I would certainly not classify that as a “terrible review”!

    Incidentally, longer-yet-less-frequent blog posts like this one are very welcome at this end of the table…

    Reply
    • Thanks Tom.

      My plan for this year is fewer blog posts – I’m aiming for one long piece a week (ish), scattered with the odd brief one here and there.

      Reply
  4. toonboy Posted

    im not surprised you got a bad review for this book. it was terrible!
    fair play on your biking books. i liked the one of those that i read.
    but the india book was rubbish – boring and you didnt even tell where the river was and nothing happened. i read it on my kindle and i finished it in only about an hour or something. its so short and a ripoff
    stop wining – you deserved it this time

    Reply
  5. Al, media wise, I think it’s just me being more handsome then Steve!

    Reply
  6. If its any consolation I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the different style of looking at an adventure and found it much more inspiring than the more traditional style of adventure writing (if there is such a thing). In fact I’ve never read a book twice in my life and am putting serious thought into picking this up again….. hurry up and write another

    Reply
  7. hey up mate, its been a long while since i checked your site out, im glad to see your still living well, I was like another book! Hes only gone and walked across india, nice 1 pal.

    Anyway, i read your free book ages ago, whilst dreaming and scheming, and you inspired me, bread and bloody bananas, it can be done! Now 2 years in to my bike trip bread and bananas are a way of life, ha, a good way, a simple way. (apart from on the altiplano, bananas are expensive)

    So, your book will no doubt inspire others, and you would have no doubt inspired yourself, great things indeed.

    keep growing, keep adventuring.

    side note, while im at it..I know you have been succesful at speaking. I am starting an organisation, bakery/bike kitchen/homeless house/bouldering/ workshops and the like, in the near future, and as a way to fundraise and spread my, well what will hopefully be a movement. Anyway, any tips on this aspect would be appreciated, Im thinking schools at the least as I would like to share my experiences among the youth. [email protected]

    cheers

    Jason
    Good luck with the book

    Reply
    • I’m glad to hear your adventure is still going well!

      Speaking is a rewarding thing to do, though hard at first to make money from. I gave 300 talks on my bike journey and all of them raised money for charity, not me. So I don’t think you should see speaking as a get-rich-quick scheme.

      However, if you give a few talks in schools for free and find that you are good at it and that you like it then I thikn you can certainly start to charge some money to help with your plans.

      It takes a lot of organising – emailing and phoning schools, but it is possible!

      Suerte!
      Al

      Reply
  8. sorry just to claify that, I am planning on making presentations, giving talks etc

    Reply
  9. I too was expecting a much heavier review! The books great, it was my first kindle purchase and unlike the reviewer I quite liked the omission of names and dates- it gave the feeling that it could have taken place anywhere- great work.

    I would definitely agree- such adventures are done because you want to do them, I had a fair few reviews on Amazon of ‘The Treehouse Diaries’ that I did it purely to get a book deal…there are probably easier ways to go about landing a book then building a treehouse in the woods and living in it for 6 months! I did it for me!

    As for bad reviews: here’s my worst- http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/1843405644/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar

    THIS one had me in stitches.

    Reply
  10. Dear Alastair. The review gives some reasons why they donดt like it. You can agree or not but there are some point on it.
    I admire you share it with the audience. Some people only show the good not the bad.
    I never get too much happy when people say: “you are doing a great thing”, but I get a little down if I get a bad opinion.
    Even thought I strongly belive we must live our dreams for ourselves but as soon as we have websites and twitter, we are expose to others.
    Too much?
    Not sure. Anyway keep rowing the life.
    Warm regards, alvaro the biciclown after 104,452 kms on 7 years world tour on bike doing the clown.

    Reply
  11. I’ve still not got around to reading There Are Other Rivers but I will do at some point. I am in the process of self-publishing at the moment and the thought of getting a few terrible review is something that makes me wake in a sweat from time to time I have to admit. However, my book also includes The Man in the Arena quote, my favourite of all time, which applies as much to the writing of the book as to the story it’s telling. I have written the book for myself, and am only printing 1000 copies in the first (possibly only!) run so will keep my fingers crossed, but think you’re absolutely right – the quiet satisfaction of one person enjoying it makes the whole enterprise worthwhile…now I just need to find that one person!

    Reply
  12. Graham K Posted

    Al,

    For what it is worth I liked the river book. It maybe wasn’t the slick polished final draft that that been through numerous proof readings by high paid editors but for me that was the appeal …it was honest and covered the sometimes raw emotion that every adventure SHOULD have. Very often, the edges get too rounded by time and external influence.

    But ….any review is just one persons thoughts – no more and no less.

    Appreciate the other review is sore (any other reaction would be unreasonable) but just keep doing what you do.

    Cheers
    Graham K

    Reply
  13. Alistair: Take the good with the bad and pay them both equal regard. If a person wants to ignore bad reviews or criticism then they should be prepared to utterly ignore the good reviews and the praise. It’s all the same in the end!

    Reply
  14. good example of the words:
    “what people say about you is their own problem. your problem is how you react to it. ”
    “in life, focus on what you can change. You can’t change people’s opinion on you, but you can change the way you receive it”.

    well done again Alastair!!

    Reply
  15. I haven’t actually read it because I bought the mappazine version and cannot get on with it. I’ve been carrying around with me for months and have still read very little of it. So, I’d agree with that part of the review :0)

    As to the rest, I didn’t think it was too bad and if what he says is true about personalisation you’ll learn a good lesson from it.
    I look forward to the next book – preferably cycling, walking, or mini adventures, please. Things I can manage.

    Reply
    • Sorry you don’t like the mappazine. Perhaps give it to someone else and I’ll send you a refund?

      Reply
      • dexey Posted

        That’s a very kind offer, but no thanks. I knew what I was doing when I bought it so no fault lies with you.
        I suspect it is me as much as the format. I don’t like the wife’s Kindle and I’ve given up trying to read books on my iPad. I’m just happiest with traditional shaped books :0)

        Reply
  16. Hello Al,

    A friend of mine is a fan of your site and sent me the link. I’m an editor.

    I haven’t read the whole book I’m afraid, I’ve only read the extract, but I thought I’d leave a comment.

    Alvaro makes a good point, we tend to react to/feel bad opinion more than we do to good, take that into account. If this is your First Bad Book Review it will sting. At the end of your blog you say you are using it constructively – very wise!

    The comment that the book is: “over-personalised….quickly devolving into first person” is illogical. The book is a first person narrative of a personal journey. (And incidentally, that is incorrect usage of “devolved” – if the first person is a lesser form of perspective no-one has told me ๐Ÿ˜‰ !).

    That it is “more a journal of reflection than event” is not something that can be held against the book. You’ve written the book you set out to, you can’t be done for false advertising! Plus travel memoirs – at least the engaging ones – tend to towards reflection. Otherwise they’d be called travel guides.

    Hidden in there is in fact a pretty big compliment – your book is “uncluttered” – given that this is a travel book, reporting on a notoriously sensorially luxurious country, that is a real achievement: you obviously get the physical descriptions in without going overboard.

    Your constructs – of universalising the story by using no place names and imposing a ‘one-day’ framework (I image with the intention of creating a narrative arc and so maintaining momentum) – sound to me like sensible ideas. Perhaps I’d have suggested lengthening the time frame – if the journey took several weeks and you’re telling it in a day it could have a distorting, telescopic effect – but that’s it.

    That is the end of my rant! There is plenty more I could say, but it’s going home time on a Friday.

    I really enjoyed stopping by your site – great community you have here.

    Let me know if you need any expert editorial assistance…if you change your mind about self-edits ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And – @Graham K if you know of anywhere that pays editors lots of cash please pass on their details!

    Rosie

    Reply
  17. Al,
    There thousands of writers who will never see their work reviewed. At least you got yourself a review. I read there are other rivers and I like the way you wrote it but to be honest I loved to read your biking books. But I also appreciate the innovations you achieve in publishing (mappazine). And of course I like your blogs. I was glad you were back from your rowing trip and find the RSS feeds coming in more frequently. Keep them coming.
    Nico from the Netherlands.

    Reply
  18. Personally, I don’t think you have much to fear from this review. It isn’t glowing, of that you are right, but it wouldn’t put me off a book I was interested in. It seems to me more a matter of taste. Now if he had said “this book SMELLS like an indian river”, well thats different…

    anyway, chin up, a not-great review isn’t the same as a bad one. I think the Dalai Lama said that…

    Reply
  19. Hey Al,
    Great post. As I’m nearing completion on my book I have nothing but respect for people that have undertaken the book writing journey. And I have even more respect for those that have self published with no deadline as a motivator. I haven’t read your book, but regardless if a book is a pile of shit or a best seller, the fact is it’s a book, and a lot of time, energy, late nights, early mornings, tears, cursing and passion have gone into it. Writing a book is an achievement that deserves respect.
    Like I said i haven’t read the book in question, but one thing I can say is that your blog posts are bloody brilliant. Keep writing and inspiring.
    And once again cheers for the book writing advice you gave me at the start.
    Cheers, Hap

    Reply
  20. In my reviews appearing on amazon.ca and amazon.uk, I have expressed that it was an opportunity lost. I have suggested that with this brilliant idea and a great writing style, you should come out with a ‘make-over’ expanded version of the same journey. It will be an immense success. Have it in writing from me.

    Reply
  21. Robert D Posted

    Hello Mr. Humphreys.. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Just finished reading your book on my Kindle the other day and thought that it was OK. I particularly liked the end where you said you are going home to become a father.

    That is a real adventure. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Anway, book was fine and I liked the concept of it, descriptions of India, your feelings and explanations why are you adventurer after all.

    It is very reasonably priced and I am looking forward to read/buy many more of your books. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Regards from Croatia…

    Reply
  22. Al, just read this and was reminded of the quote below which I have just used for something on my blog – “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.” Maya Angelou

    Keep up the good work,

    Matt

    Reply
  23. richard moore Posted

    “There are other rivers,” is a terrific read. All the best travel books are about the internal journey. It’s strength lies in the honesty of the adventurer’s self-appraisal ( something we’ve begun to expect from Mr Humphreys ) and in it’s relative brevity. As has been said in other contexts, “size isn’t everything.” I will recommend “Other Rivers,” to anyone interested in the genre. Download it now.

    Reply
  24. I had the great pleasure to hear you at the EL Festival last year in Flete, you are an exemplar of the species. I wouldn’t sweat it too much, just like the odd puncture here and there, it’s all part of the ride.

    there are many artists who couldn’t give their paintings away when they were alive, the same paintings that are now worth millions!

    I’d take the review as a badge of honour that you’ve failed to appeal to a mainstream reviewer and further evidence that you are on the right track!

    worst things happen at sea……(or cycling round the world by all accounts?)

    Reply
  25. Dear Alastair,

    I didn’t think it was such a bad review…

    I read it and was initially disappointed, I was expecting it to be more like your first two which I loved. But it did grow on me, and I’ve occasionally picked it up again to reread a few pages here and there.

    I got shed envy, my tiny london flat doesn’t permit!
    Noel

    Reply
  26. That wasn’t a “terrible” review”! For what it’s worth I thought the mappazine was fun.

    Reply

 
 

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