You And Your Bad Reviews

After yesterday’s blog post, I didn’t expect another lesson in the phrase, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze” quite so soon. BUT HEY, HERE WE ARE.

Authors: just as I have suggested it may not be in your best interest to write negative reviews, it’s probably not in your best interest, or that of your readers, to respond to negative reviews.

To recap:

A blog said something about an author’s books, the author got on the blog, everyone started out semi-reasonable but it swiftly descended into rage-face and Molotov cocktails and fecal-pitching, and then another website said something, and the author went there too, and then the original blog did an update and the author went to that post as well, and by the end of it everyone has poop on their shoes and now nobody’s happy.

It was a total shitshow.

I’m not linking because it’s no longer worth the attention, and I’m sure you can scare up the links somewhere if you’re really Jonesing to rubberneck at this particular car crash.

Author Francis Knight said, wisely, that authors not responding to reviews is a guideline, not a law — and she’s right about that. This isn’t hammered into stone. But a guideline, it remains.

Here’s why it’s a guideline:

Because it’s usually not worth the response.

It can be! Once in a while, an author can — with the right measure of politeness, kindness, and diplomacy! — actually respond to a negative review. This is especially true in forums that encourage this (some bloggers, for instance, are comfortable with writers swinging by their bloggery huts and talking about their work, even on negative reviews).

For the most part, however, assume this isn’t true.

Assume that it’s not commentary meant for you, and so you’re not welcome. Assume that your response will do little to engender the community’s response. Assume it’ll corrupt the discussion. Assume that you will accidentally read more defensive than you sound or that you might be more defensive than you actually think. Assume that people are going to think what they’re going to think, and that’s that. Assume that no good can come of your response.

Bare minimum, your response should be: “Hey, thanks, sorry you didn’t like it.”

Or, if you’re really itchy: “Hey, thanks, sorry you didn’t like it; I’d be happy to discuss this further, but no harm, no foul if you’d rather me not engage with the conversation.”

You think: I’m a reader, too! I want to talk about my work! I want to engage with you, the people who took the time to read that book I worked so hard to produce — it’s like you’re out there talking about my kid, and it’s my kid, so I wanna talk about my kid with you. But it’s not your child. It’s a book. And your book has to stand for itself. I know! I know. You want to respond! You want to correct details that you feel were stated incorrectly. Or you want to disagree with their assertions. Or offer up some behind-the-scenes information. Or serve up a personal anecdote! Or, or, or. Don’t! Don’t. Don’t. Seriously. BZZT! Do. Not.

Okay. Now, with all that being said…

A couple-few times you can probably — maybe, no guarantees — get away with it.

First, you know the reviewer or have corresponded. I know some bloggers who, if they gave me a negative review, I could probably engage with ‘em and we’d all be super-cool about it.

Second, the commentary after the review can engender a larger discussion about important things (sexism, racism, politics, book culture, whatever). Note: this is tricky, especially if you will come across in any way defensively. More to the point: if criticism regarding those things is pointed at you or the book, do not engage. Repeat: do not engage.

Third, you genuinely liked the review and want to say so. Hey, some negative reviews are interesting and/or clarifying. No harm in saying so, throwing around high-fives.

And, as always, kill ‘em with kindness.

Oh, and duh. Don’t be a dick.

Because, as I said before:

The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.

It really, really isn’t. Hey, listen. Bad reviews happen. They’re a shame, and you feel like — “AAAGRRBLE NO WAIT DAMNIT, STOP TURNING PEOPLE OFF OF MY WORK” — especially if it’s a review that you feel maligns the book unfairly or gets stuff wrong or whatever. It is what it is. Not everybody’s going to like your book. That has to be okay. The review might not be nice. It might be snarky. It might be downright nasty. (Note: nasty as it may be, it isn’t bullying. It may not be friendly, it may not be welcoming or wise, but it isn’t bullying.)

Be happy they took the time to write the review.

Understand that you are potentially not welcome, unless they state otherwise.

Disengage. If you have to, bite a leather belt, punch some drywall, eat a pint of ice cream.

Just the same –

Writers are expected to be professional. The prevailing wisdom says that, just as a writer wouldn’t traipse into a discussion with, say, a NYT critic or an EW review and engage, the writer probably shouldn’t do the same thing on someone’s book blog. The river flows both ways, though. Book blogs, nine times out of ten, are incredibly awesome spaces. Friendly and welcoming and inclusive of everyone, including writers. (Book blogs are some of my favorite places, and my experiences with sites like My Bookish Ways and My Shelf Confessions and countless others have been nothing short of wonderful.) Sometimes, though, book blogs can get a little nasty — very exclusive, very cliquish, very mean-snarky. My advice to those bloggers is the same: don’t be a dick. Just as the writer is expected to be polite and professional, you should do the same, because that whole idea of ‘fighting fire with fire’ actually just creates more fire. If the writer should engage with you in the same way she should engage with a NYT critic, then you should attempt to act with a modicum of professionalism even if the writer will not.

Everybody, repeat after me:

The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.

The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.

Der Saft ist nicht wert, den Squeeze.

El jugo no vale la pena el apretón.

Exprimendum sucus est non tanti.

Juice. Not worth. The squeeze.

*drinks juice*

*makes a face*

*shudders*

82 comments

  • Oh, and just to get ahead of it, the standard caveats do apply: all this is YMMV, and you are free to act as you care to act. Writers can respond to whatever negative reviews they like, and bloggers can crucify them for it if need be. As Francis says: guidelines, not laws. I’m not trying to set commandments in stone so much as I am trying to wave my arms in a warning fashion, as if to say: THE BRIDGE IS OUT, TURN BACK BEFORE YOU DRIVE INTO THE RIVER.

    Further, please be polite in the comments. The orbital laser is warmed up in case anyone gets too feisty.

    *finger hovers over big red button*

  • I say this over and over and over and over. Authors should just say thank you for reading my book. Reviewers should just say thank you for stopping by, Then every one should walk away because this ‘argument’ is one no one can win. It’s an effort in futility.

  • I think the big lesson is to pause and ask yourself for an honest thirty seconds “What do I want?”

    As someone who spends his days knee-deep in negotiations analysis, I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of people (authors and otherwise) don’t examine what they really want from an exchange.

    Do you want an exchange with the blogger? Why? Is it because they got something factually wrong in the review? In that case I’m sure the blogger has an email or private-messaging system where you can leave a (very) diplomatic note.

    But maybe you’re not really wanting to correct a factual error. Maybe you really want to change someone’s opinion. Well, good luck. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been trying this for years and their track record isn’t so hot either. In this case it might just be best to walk away.

    If you really want to create a dialogue with someone because you think they have something to say (or their review touches on some deeper insecurity you feel about your work), again, tread with caution. It’s not about what you type, it’s about what the reader reads. Missed signals in the absence of body language can escalate like wildfire.

    • “As someone who spends his days knee-deep in negotiations analysis, I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of people (authors and otherwise) don’t examine what they really want from an exchange.”

      This is very well-said. If an author is just looking for a power exchange, it’s a) a little weird and b) not worth it.

      — c.

    • Your comment was marvelous! I think that is what causes so much of the drama. Is that the ones that blow up – neither party is really interacting just responding. I boil it down to that childish need to put your two cents in or have the last say in something.

    • People have already said it, but I feel I mustagree. This is an excellent point. And it really applies to more than negative reviews, or nasty blog posts. Why you are doing something that even you know isn’t the best idea should really be looked into to before you do it. This advice has probably saved my husband and I from about a billion really, really, stupid fights. Really Stupid.

  • Wise words. OK, so here’s where I fess up for replying to a negative review on a short story I wrote.

    The guy liked the story but gave it two stars because he thought I’d listed it in a dishonest manner. I was quite alarmed, the last thing I wanted was for anyone to feel diddled. I didn’t quite get why he felt that way but I could see that it was something that I needed to understand if I didn’t want to piss people off. So I took my courage in both hands and asked him for clarification.

    He was kind enough to reply and while I’m still not 100% certain I got right to the bottom of why he was dissatisfied I did pick up four important points to think about when listing a story:

    1. Say what genre it is, it doesn’t matter if you’ve had to assign it a genre loading it up, that may not show on the listing, say it anyway.
    2. State the length of words – basically, on Amazon, when you say ‘short’ a lot of people are expecting a 20,000 word novella. Having cut my teeth entering short story competitions, I think of a ‘short’ as 2,000 words (so there’s me thinking my 4,000 was quite generous).
    3. If your short doesn’t have a twist in the tale, make it clear.
    4. If it’s a prequel or a spin out using characters from one of your other books, make sure you say.

    Nos. 1 – 3 had never crossed my mind and I thought I’d made 4 clear but hadn’t. Not at all.

    So yeh, some really useful lessons from that one. If I hadn’t replied, it’d probably be sitting there pissing off other readers to this day.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • I’m purely a reader. I do unpaid reviews for a tiny website, which means sometimes I have to finish and review books I didn’t particularly enjoy. I think honesty is important although I have never panned a book without also finding something good to say about it and I would hope that if an author stopped by and felt compelled to comment on my thoughts they would be respectful too. I personally would be happy to engage in an amicable discussion/debate and in fact I think that potentially being able to discuss a book with its author is one of the best things about the internet. If the author was a bit of an arse, I would probably choose not to engage other than a “thanks for your thoughts”. It wouldn’t put me off reviewing although it might put off potential readers of their work far more than my opinion ever could.

    That being said, I do think with the ability to publish your (general your) opinion on the internet should also come an acceptance that a)not everyone will agree and b) your opinion may be challenged. If you’re not up for an open discussion about your opinion, then maybe it’s best not to have a comments section.

    I guess I’m just not comfortable with authors not being allowed to comment. It may not be wise for them to do so, but they should be free to choose.

    • In a perfect world, we’d all have lovely exchanges about this sort of thing, and nobody would frown and we wouldn’t need to have these conversations. But a few rotten apples on both the author and reviewer side have spoiled the bushel, I think, at least for the short term.

  • “Der Saft ist nicht das Quetschen wert” might be a good variation. : )

    Chuck, I agree with you on all points. I’m coming from the author-publisher perspective on all of thi, and in my experience so far, authors’ responses to negative review ends in guano explosions pretty much every time. It’s just not purdy.

    The only time I’ve seen it end well is when the author offered the reader either his money back or a free copy of the sequel, I can’t remember which. That’s a (financially) dangerous habit to get into, but at least it forged peace in that one situation.

  • There have been a few authors I have dearly loved that have gone and started epic flame wars that will go down in internet history. Because of this, they’ve lost my future business. I didn’t participate in the flame war, but even watching it from the cheap seats was sobering. And then the die hard fans came out of the wood work and it became just a bunch of people destroying one person’s blog because their favorite author was upset about a legitimate review or, in one case, using the author’s book in an art project. It was nuts.

    Another author found me on the big wide interenets and proceeded to try and school me when I said, respectfully, that I didn’t like their non-genre writing. I was horrified. I hadn’t done anything wrong and I was being lashed out at by an author I had adored.

    I can not run fast enough away from these authors now, because they’ve shown how petty and vindicitive they are. Not only do you lose respect when you engage in this sort of behavior, you LOSE some of your fanbase.

    • Yeah, that’s some bad author behavior, right there. No flame war is ever worth it. If one DOES choose to respond, soon as it gets hairy, your best (only) option is to say a bunch of polite things and disappear in a puff of incredulity.

  • I really wish I could remember the book and author because I saw a fabulous author response once. A novel had just gotten panned on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the author wrote in the comment section with a list of ten (? exact number). It started with something along the lines of “Remember all press is good press,” and then listed a number of items, another two or so must have been a repeat of that first one. The list was so endearingly and (deliberately) funny a look at an author’s freak over a bad review that any number of the comments following said they were going to go buy her novel because 1) she was an incredibly good sport about the bad review and 2) if she could be that funny in her comments, the novel was probably worth reading. It’s worth noting she never countered the review or defended the book: she just put herself out there. Inspired, really.

  • I think, if you’re going to respond to a negative review, then you need, NEED to take more than just a few minutes – hours, days, whatever – to *think it through* and make sure that you are A) not responding in anger, and B) not making assumptions about the blogger/content of the blog. Most author-responses that I’ve seen fail on one or both of those accounts.

    This is particularly true if you are responding to charges that your book is and/or you are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. You swooping in and declaring “How DARE you think I’m [insert -ist] or promote [insert -ism]!” will NEVER, EVER go down well, ESPECIALLY is the blogger is a member of the group you’re accused of being -ist against. You flinging poo at someone calling out what they perceive to be problematic content, or you on your perceived privilege, is only going to confirm both the blogger’s and anyone unfortunate enough to see your meltdown’s worst opinion of you.

    (That being said, if you are truly concerned about charges of any -ism being leveled against your book – and not in a “that’s not true! that’s impossible!” sort of way, but in a “what if I *did* say something that could be construed as -ist?” way – stick around and read the comments on the review. See if more than one person had the same thoughts as the blogger. The blogger could always be a crank, but it could also be that there’s something in your writing you’ve not noticed. I think, if you can avoid sounding defensive, posting a quick thanks on a review that makes you reconsider any -ism in your work is not out of bounds.)

  • It’s actually a rule set forth by my publisher that we are not to engage with negative reviews because it is far too likely to descend into a mess that only looks bad on the author/publisher and becomes a PR nightmare.

    You put off more readers by looking obnoxious when you start into the tit-for-tat which, when someone has just maligned your “baby”, is most likely going to be where this whole thing ends up. Feelings are hurt, everyone is sensitive, and it all breaks down into a giant mess. At that point, there is no good way out. Staying out is the best way to handle it, so my publisher just has the blanket rule not to respond to negative reviews.

    BTW, thanks for inspiring my own blog post this morning. This led into the concept of reacting to negative beta reader feedback, also an area you don’t necessarily want to end up in an argument.

  • No one has EVER written a book that was universally loved and accepted. The notion that *my* book would be the one to sway the entire world into eternal unanimous devotion is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Trying to win love through argument is a waste of time and energy. Love it, like it, hate it…whatever. Thanks for reading. Glad it inspired SOMETHING in you, even if that something is not what I hoped it would be. Then move along. There are nearly 7 billion other people who might feel differently. I’ll focus on them. Thanks. :)

  • This came at a good time; I recently got my first very bad review and it seemed largely the result of the reader having taken up a cause and having a hair trigger for things related to that cause, and also being too young to know what he doesn’t know…. Subtlety can be wasted on the young just as certainly as can youth LOL.

    The review was well-written, making it all the more scathing. I did not respond, but it bothered me (and still does). Someone not liking the book I wouldn’t care so much about, but I was accused of an -“ism,” which was (ironically) completely antithetical to the point of the chapter. An -ISM!

    Suddenly the author’s lack of recourse seemed terribly unfair!

    To sooth me, someone sent me this:

    “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

    This, you may recognize, is the speech the critic Anton Ego gives at the end of Ratatouille.

    Blogging seems to bring out the worst in people. Articles, tweets and yes reviews that cleverly En- and Out-Rage earn clicks, re-tweets etc. Unfortunately, these clickables seldom open honest or meaningful dialogue. Clever and Meaningful are not close friends.

    It would be nice especially if bloggers and reviewers recalled the middle of Anton’s speech:
    “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

    • I love that speech in Ratatouille! It is so true! Perhaps that scene should be required viewing each time a reviewer sits down to begin writing their next review!

    • Also Baroness : your first paragraph is very telling here. Sometimes the review isn’t at all about you or your book. Sometimes the reviewer has an opinion to flog and your “baby ” is their vehicle for that.

      I also try to look on the bright side. Having been accused of an -ism, I’ll be much more vigilant about that in subsequent stories. You control what you can but if someone has decided to have a beef, there’s nothing you can do or say to dissuade them. Certainly the review bothers you. That’s okay, but there’s no benefit to you in arguing with someone like that.

  • Let me add to the author not engaging rule, er, guideline, that the author’s friends/allies should not get into a flame war on his/her behalf, either, in the guise of “helping.” Recently I saw a blow up on GoodReads where a reader wrote an honest but critical review, then the author’s EDITOR began engaging (badly) on the reviewer’s thread. There may also have been an author sockpuppet account mixed in as a well. It got ugly, and despite posts later being deleted, many people take screen shots these days.

    Net result; all potential readers/reviewers noted the (small-house) publisher and vowed not to read or review ANY of their other books.

  • In technical writing, we’re basically told to assume that if someone read your material and didn’t understand or like it, they’re probably right and other people feel the same way. You test it with a handful of people, and if one person makes comments, they are probably speaking for a large portion of your audience. So, you know, you could sit around and kick and scream and say they read it wrong, but what’s the point? Are you going to personally go out and talk to the thousands of people that person represents and explain it? OR you could just fix your error. Other people come from different backgrounds and interpret your words differently. That doesn’t make it wrong. Their feedback should be polite, but you know what — sometimes it isn’t. But it’s up to you to decide what to do with it. You can get mad at them and throw a temper tantrum.. but that’s not terribly professional. Or you can think, “Oh, hey, I never thought of that. I see what they read there,” and either choose to incorporate that criticism or decide that you don’t want to write that kind of book…

  • I have the perfect case-in-point for this. There was an author who came into a Goodreads group I was in complaining because his book had been poorly reviewed by people who he’d claimed hadn’t read his book on the grounds that they disagreed with his general theological thesis.

    He came in claiming that it was “slanderous” for people to review his book without having read it and “demanding an apology” from those who’d made the posts (a couple of people were in the group). In fact, he carved a bloody swath across Goodreads (from my perspective, using his own blood, considering the result), not only on the reviews of his own book, but across other groups and in other reviews, trying to build some sort of consensus for his perspective.

    End result: the guy looked like an unprofessional jackass and ended up turning more people against him than he had in the first place. Regardless of whether the structure of the reviewing system on Goodreads (or anywhere else, for that matter) is “fair,” it is as it is, and had he simply left the snarky reviews as they were, he would have had a lot less vitriol turned his direction in the balance. He joined the ranks of the trolls that he claimed to be fighting. While I’d have a tendency, ideologically, to agree that one shouldn’t review a book without having given it at least a chance, I ended up arguing against his position by the end of the ordeal due to the fact that he’d really cut off his own foot by acting with such massive unprofessionalism.

    What he proved was that he didn’t trust his readers (or potential readers) to be discerning people who could figure out the difference between an honest review and someone just being churlish and trolling. He ended up proving that he didn’t feel confident in his own theses by attempting to defend them so irrationally. And he proved that he really wasn’t the professional that he wanted everyone to believe he was. As a result, a book I may have read ended up in my “NEVER read” pile.

    • It is definitely crazy to go in and try and change a reader’s mind. I can understand the frustration of authors when people leave negative reviews and they haven’t even read the book. It must be hair-tearing frustration when your hard work isn’t even given that courtesy.

      • Oh, I completely understand his frustration. But he took it to a completely unacceptable level, to the point that it kinda blew my mind. Had he never encountered anything even vaguely unfair before? Did he not realize that these platforms let anyone post a review? These are the risks you take as a writer. If you can’t deal with it, then you need to find another profession. It’s scary as hell, yes. Aggravating? Absolutely. But It is as it is. Deal. And trust your readers a little bit. We’re not stupid.

  • It seems to me that the only response an author can make to a negative review is a “could you explain a bit more what you mean by X?” type thing. I’ve seen some authors do that, but the reason we keep having this conversation about whether authors should engage with reviewers is fairly obvious: authors keep doing it and, as you put it, leaving crap on everyone’s shoes. It’s not really worth it.

  • This story doesn’t quite relate to book reviews, but it has obvious parallels.

    I guy I know via Twitter, who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and chat with in real life, recently had his TV show aired on the BBC. Whilst it wasn’t universally approved of, he didn’t shy away from reacting to bad comments. However he said that when people would tweet their (often spontaneous and hostile) opinions, he’d respond with a message to say he was sorry that they didn’t enjoy the show, that obviously everyone has different tastes, and thanks for taking time out to message him and the other guys behind the show.

    In response to this some of the original critics responded with messages saying how bad they now felt.

    Obviously TV critics are different to book critics, particularly with Twitter allowing real time as-it-happens criticism (and the fact that people who take time to write a book criticism are usually giving it enough thought to try to get across their problems with the book), but it just struck me as the perfect way to respond to someone’s criticism. You’ve created something, you’ve put it into the public arena, you should accept criticism graciously, if you feel the need to acknowledge it. It can only paint you in a better light.

  • I’m always saddened when I see an author go down this path of self-destruction. Steps I recommend taking if you feel the need to respond to a bad review/criticism
    1. Get off the internet
    2. Vent to some close friends offlene
    3. Go to knowledgable writer friends who will prevent you from doing anything stupid and blowing the situation up
    4. As David Coventry said ask “What do I want?” – talk with people in #3 about what you want & if its something reasonably possible to have a discussion with the blogger/reviewer & others reading the conversation and get rather than creating a flame war
    5. Go read all the negative reviews on your favorite books – many bestsellers and classic books have thousands of negative reviews – why should you expect to be any different- congratulations you are in good company
    6. Make a commitment to focus more on your writing and to waste less time on reviews
    7. Ask your friends/fans not to engage on your behalf. You are a big girl/boy and don’t need others defending you

    On another note: A bad review is not a form of bullying. Do not confuse the two and blog/use social media to talk about being bullied or you create a long-term problem that may be impossible to recover from and is insulting to people who are truly cyberbullied.

  • I know I’m not going to ever discuss a bad review because even good reviews are difficult. People will say things that they consider praise and if it comes as a huge surprise to me, I feel anxious. (For example: ‘It reads like a well-written gaming manual.’ I know this is said as a compliment, but I immediately get the shrieks inside my head. _Oh no, I’ve utterly failed._)

    I’ve often said about having people look at your writing that it’s like standing naked in the middle of the room and letting people point out that you could lose an inch on your thighs, that your bottom needs work, or your boobs are a bit too small. And… what’s that MOLE doing there? I can’t imagine anyone putting themselves through that, so I don’t see why anyone would want to know what random strangers, who have no particular reason to try to protect your feelings, will say about your writing if pushed.

    That said, writing can be a lonely business, and I find myself wanting to have a deep discussion about it with more than just one other person. I think the thing to remember is that reviews by strangers are written for readers, not for the author.

  • I once stumbled across a review where I was accused of an -ism due to an actual, empirical misreading of the text. This wasn’t an “I didn’t mean it that way!” situation, this was a, “Er, no, that’s not actually what even -happened-” situation. It was so tempting to barge in and make the correction. But:

    a) I was not invited. This was clearly a discussion among a group in which I was not included.
    b) I am partially at fault if my text is unclear enough to engender a misinterpretation, and it is impossible for me to objectively assign a percentage of fault between myself and the reader.
    c) My story was all grown up (i.e. published) and therefore would not appreciate its mommy coming in to fight its battles for it. I had my chance to raise it (i.e. pre-publishing critique and development), but now it had left the nest, and it needed to be a big girl and fight its own battles.
    d) It would have done the opposite of what I was hoping to do, which was make myself look like a nicer human being.
    e) El jugo no vale la pena el apretón.

  • One bad review did I respond to.

    One.

    And I didn’t respond to any complaints about my writing. I corrected the reviewer on a mistaken accusation of plagiarism. . . . because, well that shit is serious.

    (To that, it was said I ripped off a concept in a game from 20 years ago. I pulled the source material and showed how what I did was in no way the same thing other than it had vampires.)

    But the reviewer admitted they were working off 20 year old memories of said game and they should have researched better. They retracted and all is well.

    But that is the only case I responded to a negative.

    Their edited review still didn’t like the book or the way I’d written it though. lol.

  • My very first book, published by a biggie, got only one negative review–a nasty one, anonymous (Kirkus). I was lamenting to a friend about it, when she suggested the snarky tagline would make a great T-shirt. Damned if it didn’t! I now use the tag as a quote in the new edition to demystify the book.

    You can fight negative reviews, but what’s the point? True, in a sense, all publicity is good publicity–but it’s inevitably the author, on the defense, who winds up looking like the ass.

  • Agree with all points stated. I find it extremely sad that a huge hullabaloo can sometimes come about because of a critical review. In my mind there are negative reviews and critical ones. A negative one – well that’s just someone dumping shit on their neighbors lawn. A critical review – that reviewer is taking the time to describe and explain with valid points and examples what didn’t work for them. And if they prefer to remain vague about their reasons for dislike then at least they aren’t ripping the author a new arse-hole.

    I’ve had a few authors come by and comment on my reviews – I love it when they do – even if my review was critical. Heck I was amazed someone wanted me to review their next one recently. So interaction and awesome discussion can totally happen. Like you said, it’s just not the norm. The internet thrives on drama, I think it’s that anonymity that galvanizes people into thinking they can behave like jackasses.

    Personally, well written critical reviews can end up making me want to read a book I would not have picked up otherwise.

    Thanks for the shout out!

  • Even the “Hey, thanks, sorry you didn’t like it” response can be a dodgy idea, depending on the context. I know of an author who responds to every Amazon review s/he gets–hir response to negative reviews is something along the lines of “Thanks for reading, sorry you didn’t enjoy it,” or similar. It’s always short and polite … but it really, really puts me off hir work.

    I think my negative reaction to it is pretty specific to the context it’s in; if the reviewers were addressing the author directly, by twitter, email, on the author’s own website, etc., I think there are occasions where responding (carefully!) might be the right move. Amazon reviews, however, seem more like a conversation between readers, for readers. I get that as an author one is tempted to think they’re talking to you, but I think that’s a mistake. When the author I’m thinking of shows up and responds, it feels to me not only unprofessional but bordering on bullying behavior, like s/he’s reminding readers that she’s watching what they say, intimidating them out of any negative reviews they might write. That irks me.

    I’m certain the author I’m thinking of doesn’t mean it that way and thinks s/he’s just being polite. Maybe I’m the only one who sees any harm in it … but I’d seriously recommend against the practice.

    (Also, whether by coincidence or common inspiration, this week’s Writing Excuses podcast was on the subject of dealing publicly with writing-career-related disappointment and failure, and it touched on answering negative criticism. Worth a listen, I think.)

  • So, have you been keeping up with the NChick’s book/”performance” on Goodreads? Do you know about that?

    If not, they wrote and crowd sourced a novel, a parody of bad paranormal romance called Awoken, ( where Cthulhu our the hunky dreamboat), and made up an author that wrote it who is thin skinned and who does “engage” as a satire of this very issue. The results have been interesting to say the least. The last video they put up on it was rather fascinating. (50 Shades of Green if you want to go looking for it.)

    Now I’m curious as to the flare up that started this post. Do you have some words I could search for on the Google that might point me in the right direction?

  • I don’t know how many times I’ve disagreed with someone over whether or not a book or movie was good, whether someone was pretty or ugly, whether a food was delicious or disgusting and the person I was disagreeing with was always trying to change my mind. That’s a pointless endeavor. You experience something and that experience is either pleasant or unpleasant. You can’t tell a person that he/she is delusional about which way his/her experience felt.

    Some people actually like anchoves on their pizza. Some people hate pickles on their cheeseburger. You’re not going to convince them otherwise. Humans are so multi-faceted and different from one to the next that you just learn to expect to disappoint some people. I just have to hope that prospective readers are also aware of the whole different strokes thing and don’t take the bad review as gospel.

  • The Internet is now a place where almost everyone can “buy ink by the barrel and paper by the ton”. Even a little discussion in a blog can go viral and once it does, there’s no calling it back.

  • It’s so funny–I actually learned this exact lesson maybe two or three years prior, before I was even published. This was thanks to a wonderful author whom some of you might already know: Laurell K. “Dear Negative Reader” Hamilton, author of the Anita Blake Vampire Humper series. Sorry, vampire hunter. Freudian slip. Squish. Ew.

    Anyhow, if you’ve never heard of her infamous response to a critical fan, please take a gander: http://www.laurellkhamilton.org/2006/12/dear-negative-reader/. It is the pinnacle example of what Mr. Wendig is advising above. I try not to tell other writers what to do but, uh, don’t do THAT. It does way more harm than one little critical review.

    And that’s my PSA. This is a great post, and one all of us as writers will have to deal with sooner or later.

    • I was wondering when someone would bring this up. It is a near perfect example of how NEVER to respond to negative reviews. Its even listed on Wikipedia.

  • I know it’s hard to fathom, but there are authors out there who have reported bad reviews (and the insults that result from responding badly to them) to the FBI as “cyber-harassment.” One guy’s out there soliciting computer hackers to strip peoples’ anonymity. Crazy stuff.

  • I call it “you cannot defend your balloon.” When an author puts something out for others to read, free or for sale, it’s like launching a helium balloon out into the air. Once the balloon is launched, you cannot get it back again. You cannot defend or protect the balloon if people throw things at it, or steer where people make it drift. You cannot control what people say about you personally, as the launcher of the balloon. Their reactions are theirs; you have no say. Their statements are theirs; you cannot edit what they say. They don’t work for you. You asked people to notice the work, to read and react to the work. And that’s all you get. No one asked you to launch a balloon and bother them with it. So you cannot control whether they regard that balloon as beautiful or a blight and nuisance, or you as wonderful or a blight and nuisance. You cannot control the views of others by arguing with your critics either. Every word you say that is an argument with someone over how that person perceives your book is basically ignored. They may remember that you had a meltdown once, but they won’t remember what you said in it. They don’t care. You launched a balloon. It’s theirs now.

  • I review with a company I work for. I do my own writing. Even if I didn’t like a book, I try to explain who might like it and be respectful or provide constructive criticism. This is what I will want if/when I get to publish myself one day.

    Leaving a message of “Thanks for reading and reviewing” or correcting a direct misconception like James R. Tuck did above (in a respectful and factual manner, using the first point) is definitely the only way to go. You cannot please everyone and dealing with others respectfully is just a good life habit.

  • Strange people. I responded once but personally. We had a nice conversation and she complimented me publicly. I never had to do it again, and wouldn’t. I actually couldn’t because they criticize the characters and I think that is cool.

  • good stuff chuck……it seems sooooo silly for writers to comment on negative reviews, they happen, sure they are public and out there for others to see, but the very subject nature of writing absolutely guarantees that folks are not going to write negative reviews….get over it….to me, it just makes a writer appear immature and unprofessional, jeez, grow up folks

  • I think it was Jonathan Carroll who said something to the effect of: Once you write a book, and put it out there in the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Your intentions with the plot, the characters, the subtext, they no longer apply. The book belongs to the readers, and it means whatever they take it to mean.
    But that’s the beautiful part. It’s almost like collaborative art. You start the process, and the readers take the next step.
    If the step they take isn’t the one you wanted them to take, or isn’t the one you would have taken yourself, it’s doesn’t make them WRONG. You don’t get to CORRECT them, because they’re not WRONG. If they interpret something you wrote in a certain way, that’s because you wrote it in a way that could be interpreted in that way, intentionally or not.
    Don’t hate. Be glad they read it in the first place.

  • The trolls have done an excellent job of blurring the difference between a book review and a personal attack on an author. Don’t fall for this scam. Anything that is posted as a book review and talks about anything other than the specific book in question is not a review There is no justification to tolerate personal attacks.

    • It’s easy to “tolerate” personal attacks if you don’t read them in the first place. And if some idiot is couching an attack as a book review, best to let them waste their time, not yours. Sensible people will see through that sort of thing. Besides: “Never argue with an idiot. He’ll bring you down to his level and beat you with experience.”

  • Loved your post—do not engage. Ever. Currently, I’m taking an online marketing workshop specifically for marketing books on Amazon. I completely disagree with the opinion of the workshop host. Her opinion being that you can sometimes turn negative reviewers into fans by engaging appropriately and positively. The whole logic and kill them with kindness bit. Where that might be the case in terms of book blogs with established relationships it is not the norm. And it’s definitely not worth the risk. Certain sites such as Goodreads inadvertently encourage trolls. I think in part because of their policy. Recently, I had a one star review given on a short story. The review was one word. Lame. My husband laughed and said well you are lame. I may have wanted to tell him to keep his damned nose where it belongs… in the apple bread he was baking while I fumed at my computer screen. But he was right. I am lame. I blame it on growing up in the 80s and the five inch spiked bangs—the second worst thing I ever did with my hair. I had to ball my fingers into fists to keep my fingers from flying across the keyboard to respond to an obvious baiting tactic of an Internet troll with their faceless profile and what appeared to be page after page of one star reviews. People are entitled to their opinions and bad review or good review is still press either way. It makes you look unprofessional by responding. But I will say this about the recent events on GR. If I were that author I would be seeking legal counsel and going after the organization rather than creepy stalker threatening violence, rape, and bodily harm. Leave the creepy, stalker person alone. Do something to make the organization change their policy when it’s so apparent there’s a systemic trolling issue. Amazon doesn’t seem to have this going on and perhaps that will change with their recent purchase. Still, it would have never escalated had the author not engaged in the first place.

  • My dad liked to remind me that we don’t have to catch everything that’s thrown at us.

    And Molly Ivins’ essay on how to read the news and stay sane resonates here as well. Her point was that, no matter how ugly the headlines are on any given day, chances are the news is much less troubling in your town, and even better in your own neighborhood. Likewise, one nasty opinion–even if it is in tall, bold letters–fades in relevance against the appreciation of your closer circle of readers. As it should.

  • I read too many reviews as it is that seem like nothing but fluff pieces. As if the reviewer is hellbent on helping his little niche genre by only having positive things to say about books — or perhaps doing so to keep receiving review copies. I see the same thing with niche music review sites. I float around the Prog Rock world and I’ve really sworn off reviews because they come across as nothing more than sales pitches. That’s not a review.

    Authors are allowed to get pissed off at crap reviews if they want but it’s not the best use of their time. Most readers, me included, can tell a garbage review from a good one. I have yet to not read a book solely based on a review. I read self-published SF novels and know what I’m getting even though a review said that it seemed like the words were the product of a gibbon versus a keyboard. On another point, no matter how much time they put into writing a novel, is owed only good reviews because bad reviews will hurt sales. What? No one — no business, musician, author, house painter, organ grinder — is owed a profit. If you’re a writer and do good work, someone will purchase it and read it. Getting annoyed enough at bad reviews because it’ll hurt your quarterly projections is not the problem of a reader or reviewer and shouldn’t be your problem either. Unless that book is your only income. In that case, sorry about that, Chief.

    • I’d agree with you if the only complaint that authors have is based on an inherent inability to take criticism and their sole concern being the bottom line. I’ve seen New York Times bestselling authors act like twelve year olds and go a little wacky over a bad review. And then have their publishers and/or PR rep have Amazon take it down. There’s also been writing groups that I’ve sat in on where novice writers have become defensive when someone mentioned certain details as unbelievable. That just goes to show that a) we’re all human and b) sometimes it’s a challenge to maintain professionalism. It goes without saying that there will be fluff pieces. Although to be honest my favorite reviewer has never given me higher than 3.5 stars. Still I send her my books for an honest review because I always gain a new perspective from her point of view. Plus I know she’ll actually post them and my book won’t end up in a never ending pile of to be read books on her nightstand. Since I’m a young author I need all the reviews I can get. I operate from a different point of view when it comes to giving reviews. If I can’t give a book a decent review then I don’t review it. I’d much rather tell an author that I’m too bogged down to finish their book then the alternative. You have to look at it this way. Fellow writers are my colleagues. Why on earth would I give a colleague a bad review? What if I wanted to ask that person for a blurb or a favor later on down the line? The Internet may be a vast place but with the advent of Google alerts it makes it very easy to see who’s talking about whom. This isn’t simply an issue of authors bitching about crap reviews. A bad review is a bad review. A review should not threaten to sodimize, rape, do bodily harm, etc. etc. to an author. Period. There are laws against that. However, if you use common sense and don’t engage the unhinged Internet trolls then it most likely won’t escalate to an ugly place where no one wants to be. It goes back to professionalism. And while sometimes it’s damned hard to maintain it, sometimes you just have to bite your tongue.

  • I run a small blog where I write about horror, sci-fi, and steampunk in books, movies, and anything else related that I can get my hands on. To be quite honest, I’m always giddy and excited when an author takes the time to drop by and check out what I’ve written and leaves me some kind of response. I don’t post things to be the only perspective, I post hoping to begin conversations.
    That being said, if I really want to rip the book apart, I generally don’t review it. Just as not everyone will love a work, not everyone is doomed to hate it either. That being said, I love reading other people’s vitriol on amazon.com, I’ve actually found some of my favorite books that way. The angrier and more incoherent the response, the more likely I am to pick it up. Similarly, if someone raves about a book, I’ll pick that up too. I love reading the extremes.

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