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

  • 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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