Handling Reviews

An article in the New York Times last week got me thinking (again) about reviews (hey, I bet most authors have a small part of their brain devoted to the ever-present background angst about past or future reviews/criticism of their work). The article (which you can find clicking on this link) is an interview with the author Curtis Sittenfield on the thorny issue of how professional authors handle criticism.

Now we’ve all heard of the unfortunate instances where authors have directly responded to negative reviews or criticism – usually through an ill-advised rant on twitter or a hot-headed response on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve forgotten or unsure of what some authors have stooped to doing, I recommend reading some of The Guardian’s book blog posts on the matter (see: how not to handle reviews; how not to respond to a bad review for example).

Curtis Sittenfield provides a useful quadrant tool that many authors could use. Basically she divides up reviews into four quadrants: smart and positive (definitely read!); smart and negative (still read); dumb and positive (read for the ego’s sake); and dumb and negative (do not read!). Many authors get into the greatest hot-water when they allow themselves to get embroiled in a debate over what they consider to be ‘dumb and negative’ reviews. Now, maybe it’s too hard to resist the temptation to read these kind of reviews but it’s up to every professional author worth their salt to resist the temptation to respond to them. You just can’t take it all so personally (being a professional writer means recognizing this is a business after all). As Curtis Sittenfield notes: ” I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a letter from a writer complaining about his or her negative review that made the writer look good. You’re better off just biting your tongue.”

Too true!

But, as Curtis goes on to point out, there are many instances in which harsh criticism can identify a real weakness in a book or an author’s approach to their material that, while humiliating, can all be part of the process of learning to be a better writer. Even in these instances though, the best response from a writer is no response at all. For Curtis, her nightmare reviewer is one who has an agenda that precludes them from responding sincerely to the book – and I think this is (again) where many authors come unstuck. There’s a lot of mean people on the internet who have their own agenda when it comes to reviewing a book or adding comments on a thread regarding someone’s work. Sometimes they are angry and bitter, sometimes they may be jealous, sometimes they want to indulge in a personal attack just for the hell of it (some are just plain trolls after all). But there can be nothing gained from responding to a scathing comment or a harsh review regardless of the reviewer’s real (or imagined) motive. Anyone who’s been on Facebook or other social media recently can attest to the fact that you are never going to change someone’s mind through an ill-advised post, comment or flamewar!

As professional author, how should we behave when it comes to the question of negative reviews or criticism (no matter whether they fall in the ‘smart and negative’ or the ‘dumb and negative’ quadrant)? By biding our time, biting our tongue, retaining our dignity and ignoring them (maybe the ‘smart and negative’ can inform our development as better writers but even so, that doesn’t mean anyone has to know this!).

So what do you think TKZers, how should authors approach the issue of reviews and criticism? As  a writer do you also review books and if so, how do you approach the issue from the other side? What are your expectations as to how an author should (or should not) respond? And if you have any horror stories from the tenches  feel free to share (hey, it might be be cathartic!)…


34 thoughts on “Handling Reviews

  1. I just went to a conference where one speaker discussed trolls. I was shocked. Who has that much time to be that mean? What can an author do?

      • Really awful. I am about to give up on Facebook.

        Only reason I stay there now is to stay in contact with my family and some friends, and part of my income comes from a Facebook-related business.

        Otherwise, I am just awfully disgusted with the whole Facebook thing.

    • I recently watched a major author car crash on FB, it was truly horrible. However, the author had been set up by a member of a closed reader group who’d alerted the author to a nasty troll review on Goodreads. When the furious author responded negatively the closed group, that same member screenshot the comments and shared them far and wide with the blogging community. No one came out of that episode smelling of roses, and it’s that sort of nasty behaviour that makes me cringe. The moral of this story – do NOT engage with trolls ever.

      FB can be a brilliant tool to connect with fans IF authors use it correctly. As in interacting with readers on our FB Pages and not on our personal profile page, which is for family and friends. I don’t have a street team, or ARC team, or reader groups for my work. I only engage on my professional author pages where everyone is included. I don’t do blog tours or events or parties or giveaways or rafflecopters or anything else. I’m too busy writing. I’m no happy clappy eternally cheerful person on FB, but my posts on my author page are purely about the books, cover reveals, what’s coming and when etc. I give readers a lighthearted weekly sneak peek behind the curtains of character’s lives to keep them engaged between releases, and readers love it. There’s no asking for reviews or shares or anything else.

      On my personal profile page I keep posts positive, too. FB is not the place for religious or political rants, imho, because those attract trolls like wasps to a honey jar.

      I stay far, far away from Goodreads, too.

      Social networking can be a minefield, but if we focus on our writing and keep our behaviour professional, it can work. I’d say 10% social networking, the rest of the time writing. And as for reviews, once I see my readers are enjoying the story I don’t read them.

  2. Since I’m not on social media that much I have only been on the periphery of hearing about instances where an author doesn’t handle a review well and the storm that ensues.

    I can understand how hard it would be to resist the urge to respond to what is deemed an unfair review. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that, generally speaking, if someone is unfairly treated online, there is usually at least one person who comes to that person’s defense to re-state things in a sensible fashion.

    I’m not published and don’t have to deal with this–yet. But I was thinking about reviews in the future because my first novel that will be published will most likely draw fire because it doesn’t fit their stereotypical views. One of the great ironies of humankind, especially in this day and age is how politically correct we view ourselves, but by the same token, cling to stereotypical thought processes. And since my novel, among other things, postulates the idea that humans are capable of anything, regardless of race, culture, or background, it will not be popular with all.

    But in discussions with myself, I haven’t yet provided sufficient answers as to how I will deal with those reviews when they come. It occurs to me I can anticipate such arguments and use them as blog topics in the months prior to the book launch–again, I don’t have anything fleshed out, but I think being proactive rather than reactive is a better option, where you can choose it.

  3. I try to avoid reviews, but sometimes read them for criticism, since some of it is constructive. There’s an old saying that applies here: If one person calls you a jackass, ignore. If two do, think about it. If three call you that, shop for a pack saddle.

    • Hah! Too true…but I think most authors would acknowledge that constructive reviews are helpful (even when they sting!) I think some authors have gotten into hot water when they over-react to what they perceive to be an overly negative review. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes, take a deep breath and withdraw from the fray:)

  4. I’ve never responded publicly or privately to a review, even when it was blatantly wrong, hurtful, or mean. And I’ve had some mean ones.

    When Bliss House, the first book of my haunted house trilogy came out, I got this one-star review:
    “Ugh! Such a clunker. At first, I thought it was another dreaded “Young Adult,” genre in masquerade. Then I got to the sadistic sex scenes and perverse craziness and wished it had been:(! Pass.”

    An editor (not mine) at my publisher took exception to the review, and commented that the reviewer had surely mixed it up with an erotic romance novel of the same title. (It was self-published 4 months after mine. I *was* tempted to write the author and compliment her on the title.) The reviewer responded that “no” it was definitely my book. 11 people “liked” that review. Fortunately, there were lots of five-star reviews from people who didn’t think the sex scenes were too sadistic nor the craziness too perverse. ; )

    • After some thought, there’s something I want to add. There is some very dark writing in my early published novels because they are horror novels. But–and I will only approach my soap box here–no publisher has ever marketed them as horror novels. There is no romance in them, but the covers end up being a bit romantic, and some readers end up being uncomfortable with the content. Consequently, I changed my writing for the last two books, either taking the rough material off-scene, or keeping it out entirely. So, yes. I guess I have truly responded to reviewers.

      • Sounds like you had to adjust based on how your books were being perceived and there’s nothing wrong with that (except I guess you have to self-censor a bit:(…) I’m not sure how you respond to reviews when it sounds like they may have confused your book with another – yikes!

  5. My new book is out and my tongue is bloody, Clare. Most of the reviews have been positive — really positive. So why do the few two-star reviews hurt so much? I know they’re stupid and they still bother me. One said the car crash scene was too gruesome. Sorry, but people don’t die pretty in car crashes. It’s a DEATH INVESTIGATOR novel. Another review didn’t like one character’s swear words. Too effin’ bad. Oops. I’m getting worked up again.
    There. I feel so much better writing this. I’m going back to writing my current novel and kill someone.

    • Welcome to the dark side, Elaine, where everyone is expected to say nothing stronger than “oh fudge.” Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been knocked down a star on Amazon for “dirty language.” Like you said, too effin’ bad.

  6. I hate self checkout lines at stores because if I wanted to be a checkout person I wouldn’t have gone to college to do something else. I would’ve just applied to be a cashier (I did work in a dept store when I was 18 so I know I don’t want that job!). Same thing with reviewing books. If I wanted to be a serious book reviewer I’d have worked at becoming a book reviewer. It annoys me when there is the little pop-up at the end of an ebook asking me to rate that book. If I fall for that trick it wants me to write out my opinion. Using fingers on an ebook keyboard I could only manage a few glib lines, not anything thoughtful. I can’t be glib about someone’s work, and I’m rarely going to take the time to be thoughtful. Which brings up the point: who are the people writing these reviews? Maybe they’ve read the book, or maybe they just want to whinge about the price of ebooks, etc. Even if they have read the book, how many of them can express their opinions in a truly cogent way? So why be all that concerned about them?

    EV – I didn’t find the car crash gruesome at all. I didn’t notice the cursing, either. I just had to open my copy and look. Yeah, I guess there is cursing there. It must not have bothered me. Apparently I’m not the sensitive/squeamish type. I did wonder how closely the medical stuff mirrored your experiences. Did you have your head incision pop and have pus squirt out of your head? See, there was a nice visual.

    • I also avoid reviewing especially on my kindle as I just don’t feel equipped to provide any decent sounding critique (and to be honest I think I’m better off not stepping in and voicing my two-cents worth sometimes!)

  7. A few years ago I had some nasty reviews of my first writing book (because some writers don’t want anyone to tell them how something works, what is and what isn’t, or simply define the elements of a story). I wrote Jim Bell for advice, his answer was brief and brilliant. He said:

    “Pffft. A gnat.”

    I wish I could pass these off that easily, and maturely. I’ve been guilty of responding, but you’re right, nothing good ever comes of it. No matter how nasty or off-base the review, if the writer responds then other trolls just pile on.

    I had one guy who claimed (in my most recent writing book), that I promised to give definitions of some key terms (which he called “buzz words”), but that I never did. I responded with the page numbers of those definitions, and reminded him (of course this was for anyone reading this lame review) that they appeared within a bold, black-lined box, which included the word DEFINITION in its header. There wasn’t any other complaint or attitude, just straightening out his misinformation.

    Amazon took down my response, but left his misleading and clueless review (not because he didn’t like the book, but because everything he said about it, content-wise, was wrong) up. Nice author support from Amazon there.

    • Ugh – that sounds petty of Amazon when you were merely correcting misinformation but that is, as you say, why authors never win in these types of debates. We have to just swat the gnats away and grin and bear it:)

    • If writers don’t want to know how writing works, they shouldn’t read guidebooks.

  8. It’s best for authors not to respond to any reviews. And, don’t read the hateful ones.
    I only review books that I enjoyed reading. My reviews are meant to promote the books. I don’t leave reviews for books that I did not enjoy, that is a waste of time.

  9. My author profile is so low these days that trolls can’t be bothered, but my books came out in the days when professional review sites, magazines, etc. were the only real route to readers.

    The only times I complained about a review to the review site/magazine involved content, not criticism. One gave away the twist at the end which was the equivalent of “Bruce Willis’ character in THE SIXTH SENSE is a ghost, too.” I asked that that be removed, and it was. A few misspelled my or character names. All were fixed.

    The only true bad review I got was ridiculously wrong. (My editor and I had five English degrees and thirty years teaching experience between us so the text wasn’t full of grammatical errors and misspellings.) I contacted the magazine and requested that they reconsider publishing brutal reviews by first-time reviewers which this guy was. They could, at least, send the book to someone else for a second opinion. That didn’t help me, but I hope it protected others with thinner skin.

      • I hate spoilers too!!!! A few months back I got a review that gave away SO many twists. I contacted the reviewer to ask if he’d put “SPOILER ALERT” at the top of his review, which he did. He did rate it 5-stars, so I had to choose my words carefully.

  10. My very first ever review was from Kirkus. It was savage. (It’s still up there on Amazon if you want to go read the wretched thing). I called my agent and she said, “Oh, ignore it. It’s a badge of honor to get a bad review from Kirkus.”

    Thing is, more than a decade later, I have to admit the reviewer had a point. But he/she was quite mean about it. There’s a good way to make your point without being destructive.

    • “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.” – Brendan Behan

      • Love Jim’s reply! I remember everyone telling me that Kirkus reviews are known for being brutal so I think it is definitely a badge of honor:) And as much as we hate it, we often learn from the mean ones too…

  11. The only bad review I’ve gotten so far was for The Rendering, my collection of dark flash fiction stories. I specifically warned readers that if “dark” wasn’t their thing, they should pass. Still, the very first reviewer (and you know how critical the first review is) called it smut. Smut! There’s no sex whatsoever in the entire collection. What violence there is, is no worse than in my thrillers, which no reviewer has ever had a problem with. She went on to say she was tricked into downloading it by the same blurb where I state it’s DARK. My only saving grace is that the review only appears on Smashwords. On Amazon I started with a five-star review. Which made me feel a whole lot better. But I can’t say it doesn’t bother me every time I swing by Smashwords, considering it’s the only review on the book’s page.

    To answer your question, I never responded. I don’t even respond to fantastic reviews, unless they specifically ask me a question. When is the sequel coming out, for example. I did, however, check into the reviewer to see how she rated other books. Most had one-star reviews, too, and were a lot nastier than mine. I guess I met my first troll.

  12. I am still unpublished and working on my debut novel. I do reviews on my blog of debut authors. I have a policy that I will never review a book that I have not read cover to cover. I don’t think that’s fair to the author or future readers. If it is so bad that I can’t finish, I will contact the author and explain why I am not reviewing it. So far, that has only happened once. The author was very gracious about it and thanked me. I have given 2 stars a few times, but most are 3, 4, and 5 star. I am honest but fair and I only direct constructive criticism toward the work, never the author. I think it is in poor form for the author to respond to a negative review. I have seen them in on Amazon and some are directed as hate attacks toward the author. I have responded on a couple of them. One time I actually bought the book based on one scathing review toward the author and decided to read it myself to see. All the other reviews were 4 and 5 stars. I reviewed it and it was the first 5 star review that I wrote and the first interview as well. She and I are online friends and she comped me her next book. 🙂

  13. (I’ve been absent a lot lately — dealing with 2 audio book narrations and edits on my next book, but I have a little breathing room and am happy to be catching up at TKZ).
    Reviews .. ugh. Readers don’t know how to write them. They give book reports, with and without spoilers. That’s all on the back cover/description copy. They talk about things that have nothing to do with the book (I have one who says XX (not my name) is a new to her author, but she’ll be reading more.
    My crit partner got a 2 star review yesterday from someone who wanted ‘fluff’ and hadn’t expected something serious. (Read the blurbs, people). I’ve had readers say “I didn’t need all the cooking stuff” when the book is about a culinary instructor. Or that they don’t read ghost stories, and there are no ghosts in the book.
    I don’t respond. Early on, someone said that people who review books might be inhibited if they knew the author was “listening.” But pissing contests do no one any good.
    The only review I responded to was one pointing out the wrong form of discreet (I didn’t even know there were 2, and my editor missed it), so I replied saying I’d fixed it.
    My biggest dread of reader reviews is that advertising venues require a certain minimum and a certain average. So, until you have a ginormous amount of reviews where the 1, 2, and 3 stars don’t matter, you’re stuck with those ‘bad for the wrong reason’ reviews as part of your average.

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  15. I’m still enough of a newb (1 book published…most of the reviewers have met me…) that I hope I didn’t make a rookie mistake. I had one negative review from a reviewer who received the book from the publisher. She was offended by my descriptions of people from her country, which were based on people I met or information gathered from people who lived there. She also criticized my use of her language in ways that would not be natural for a native speaker, but in most cases the person speaking wasn’t a native speaker, but someone new to the country and trying to learn the language, so the mistakes would be typical of that. Nevertheless, she made some good points and I certainly did not intend to offend, so I did private message her. I thanked her for taking the time to read my book and to provide her honest review, and I apologized for causing offense as I love this country and its people and certainly didn’t intend to malign them.

    What do you think? Gracious response or rookie mistake?

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