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!)…


Reading Reviews: It’s Complicated

There are as many approaches to dealing with reviews as there are writers, ranging from the diehards who don’t read their reviews, ever, to the snowflakes among us who turn into sad, quivering puddles at the sight of the dreaded single star. (As a former snowflake, I resemble that remark.)

Many businesses when it comes to the online review world will get online reviews to try and prevent negative reviews having any impact on their business, but how do we manage this when it comes to books?

Book reviews fall into several categories:

–Good (Loved it!!!! Five Stars!!!)

–Bad (“Horrible!! wish I hadn’t read it.”)

–Meh (or what I like to call damned by faint praise)

–Irrelevant Content

–All About the Reviewer


The Good Review

Everyone loves a good review from TrustRadius (except your enemies). It feeds the ego of the little kid inside of us who trudged home from school clutching a hand-loomed potholder, desperate to hear that it was the BEST POTHOLDER IN THE WORLD! We’re adults now, of course. We are mature professionals who understand that a job well done is still just a job, and while we humbly tell ourselves that there are probablydefinitelycertainly things we could have done better, somebody thinks it’s the BEST POTHOLDER BOOK IN THE WORLD!

The Bad Review

Only true masochists enjoy getting bad reviews. I’m skeptical of writers who proclaim that they pay close attention to their worst reviews, saying they learn a lot from them. The most important thing to learn here is that not everybody is going to like our potholders books, in the same way not everyone is going to like you or me. This is when it’s important to remember that you are not your work. Though as artists (or craftspeople) our identities heavily influence our work, our work is a separate entity. Even if it’s a memoir.

The Meh Review

In some ways, the meh* reviews are the most frustrating. I would almost rather have a sharp, declarative bad review because the meh review is the participation trophy of the review world. A two or three star meh review means that the reader wasn’t much moved by the work. I want a decisive reaction, not a plot summary with a complaint or two about stereotypical characters or questionable geography. I feel like I haven’t done my job if I haven’t polarized and energized a few readers one way or the other.

*I found a 3-star review for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises titled Meh: “Meh. Concise. Not much happens. It’s about postwar drunks dishonest with reality. Why does Amazon have a min word count on review?”

The Irrelevant Content Review

Ah, the Irrelevant Content review. This type of review is pretty much restricted to online purchases. Should a “Received in a timely manner as advertised” review award four stars or five? Tough call.

The All About the Reviewer Review

All About the Reviewer reviews can be a lot of fun. These reviews are for…other reviewers! Back in the day (and now occasionally in the New York Review of Books) there were many actual book critics who spent their time explaining books by connecting their cultural context and literary significance. Good critics were well versed in their specialties and liked to show it. The wittiest ones were often cheerfully savage and careers were made or hearts were broken. Now, the standard All About the Reviewer review is an extensive book report written for the reviewer’s memory of their favorite high school English teacher. I may seem to be poking fun, but these are the most useful reviews to people who are trying to decide whether to buy/read a book. They’re often thoughtful, complete, and nearly always earnest.

The Actionable Review

The Actionable review needs to be dealt with by the entity that published it or allowed it to be published. Actionable reviews are often ad hominem attacks that are meant to both draw attention to the reviewer and provoke the writer, i.e. “Ms. Author is a moral reprobate who hates babies and blinds puppies!” Here again it’s important for a writer to remember that they are not their work. Any reviewer is within their rights to express opinions about the work, but it’s not okay for them to abuse the writer.

I’m sure you can think of many other kinds of reviews. Feel free to chime in below.

I took a lighthearted approach to describing types of reviews because the subject can be a loaded, painful one. Our work is out there for everyone to see. To judge. To like or dislike.

Whenever I’m tempted to read reviews of my work, I keep in mind what my very first writing teacher told me: “You don’t get to look over your reader’s shoulder and explain your work. It is what it is.” That’s it. It’s out on paper or online (or shared with your workshop or writing group or significant other) and it must stand on its own. Sometimes it’s going to wobble, and sometimes someone is going to point out where you screwed up. That’s the way of sending work out into the world. The sending out has to be its own reward because there are no guarantees once it’s done.

If you’re not one of the stalwart writers who can confidently take anything a reviewer throws at you, pause a moment before you sit down to read your reviews at Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else and ask yourself a few questions:

Am I looking for approbation? If so, then go ask your mom or spouse or bff what they think of your work, because while you might find some solace in reviews, you’re going to find a lot of other things that are nothing like approbation.

Am I being tempted to look at reviews by my overbearing inner critic? This is your own resistance trying to keep you from your work. Your inner critic will skim over all the nice things it reads and zero in on the negative comments. These are the ones that will stay with you when you sit down to write.

Am I willing to give equal weight to both the negative and positive reviews? This is related to the inner critic question. If you believe all the bad stuff, then you might as well believe all the good stuff, too. And vice versa.

Is there critical information that will help me become a better writer? This is a tricky one. Sure, there may be some clues in there, but if your goal truly is to become a better writer, then find a good editor and pay them to tell you what needs to change. Good editors rarely spend their time giving away their advice for free in reviews.

If I read my reviews, am I likely to be motivated to put my backside in the chair and write my thousand words today when I’m done? For me, this answer is always a resounding no. Your experience may be different. If someone writes to me and tells me how much they like my work, I sail away to my keyboard on Cloud Nine, but I’ve never felt that way after reading a review. And reading negative reviews can knock me off my schedule for days. Sometimes weeks.

My relationship with reviews has evolved significantly over the past decade. At the beginning I approached even Amazon reviews with reverence and fear. My attitude was funny given that I reviewed for a newspaper for ten years. I knew how subjective reviews were. Much depends on the reviewer’s workload, tastes, and expectations. But I couldn’t get past the kid waving the potholder for several years. I wanted everyone to love my work! And if they didn’t, I spent a lot of time worrying that there was something wrong with it.

I can’t pinpoint when I changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped having expectations of the people who—often very kindly—bothered to take the time to write down what they liked, or didn’t like, about my work. I turned my concentration to my characters, making them more human, even occasionally sympathetic. That was what I could control. Now, months can go by and I don’t even know about new reviews that have gone up.

There’s so much more to be said about reviews. What is your approach to reading them? How has it changed over your career? If you don’t have reviews yet, how do you handle criticism from the people you share your work with?

Paid Book Reviews

Nancy J. Cohen

There’s a disturbing trend toward paid reviews. Indie authors may have a difficult time getting their books reviewed, so this is an option for them. But it’s an issue for any traditionally published author who wishes to get more critical reviews for their new release, aside from the places where their publisher has sent advance reading copies. Here are some sites I’ve heard of but am by no means recommending. Do the research on your own.


Kirkus Indie Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/author-services/indie/ costs $425. You can submit 2 print copies or a digital submission.

Publishers Weekly: At a site called Book Life, you can register your title and decide what services you want, i.e. getting your book reviewed or help with marketing. http://booklife.com/ It appears to be free, but marketing services are available. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html

RT Book Reviews: This magazine offers a paid service for $425 through RT Review Source: http://www.rtreviewsource.com/

Net Galley: $399 for a six month title listing, or $599 for a listing along with a spot in their newsletter. https://netgalley.uservoice.com/knowledgebase/articles/105722-do-you-work-with-individual-authors . Here your book might attract the attention of librarians, booksellers, reviewers and bloggers.

Edelweiss: If you’re traditionally published, ask if your book is listed at Edelweiss. This is where booksellers and librarians go to browse and place orders. Reviewers can request digital ARCs there too. Publishers pay for listings. The pricing for the catalog is based on the number of titles the publisher plans to feature in a year. An administrative fee is also charged annually for this service. In addition, there’s a digital review service that publishers can participate in either separately or along with the catalog listing. http://edelweiss.abovethetreeline.com/HomePage.aspx

Choosy Bookworm: http://authors.choosybookworm.com/book-reviews/ . For $99, they hint you might get 30 interested readers who will post reviews but no guarantees.

Nerdy Girls Book Reviews: http://nerdygirlbookreviews.com/authors/ Their basic package is $49 for 30-35 reader reviews.

Chanticleer Book Reviews cost $325: http://www.chantireviews.com/book-reviews/

Of course, you have many other options. Go on a blog tour where the hosts offer reviews. Do giveaways on Goodreads and LibraryThing and hope that the winners post their consumer reviews. Or buy inexpensive ads where a review might be part of the package. It’s not easy to attract the big guns but you can still get bloggers on your side.

How do you feel about paid reviews?