Monday, July 2, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gray Area II: What authors have to say about bad reviews

We had an amazing response to our first "50 Shades of Gray Area" post, in which some of our CLC team and other bloggers talked about how they handle giving bad reviews. Now some authors are here to give their point of view. Since it's a big group, we'll just let them speak for themselves!

Stacey Ballis, author of "Off the Menu":
I don’t mind, and even welcome, honest thoughtful criticism. Writers are works in progress. And while we always know what we meant to say or what feelings we meant to inspire, we are so close to our own work it is difficult to know if we are being successful. It is why good editors are so important, and why criticism is a valid part of the industry. What I do mind, both for myself and on behalf of other writers, is snarky, mean-spirited, hateful criticism. Going after someone in a very personal way. My work may not have resonated with you in the way I intended or the way you wanted, and I do want to know what you found lacking and why. Were characters underdeveloped? Plot lines thin? Inquiring minds want to know! But blanket “this was crap” “so mad I spent my money on this stupid book” and “you must be stupid if you think people would believe this story” do nothing for me, and don’t help other readers, it is just purposefully hurtful and mean. My feeling is that if you have a criticism that would help other readers find the right books for them, “this book is very sexually graphic, so not for the timid” “this book was more serious than I expected, so if you are looking for a fluffy beach read, you might want to try Jen Lancaster instead”, post away. And if there were things that you can acknowledge that were successful, include them as well. If it is a personal thing, you were offended by a snippy political joke a character makes, or representation of something that you felt was denigrating to someone, e-mail the author personally first to see if you can get some satisfaction privately. Publishing writers answer to readers. They are the boss of us, if they don’t buy books, our publishers don’t renew our contracts. If I have a problem with you personally, you wouldn’t want me to send a note to your boss that might make them fire you, so have the same respect for me. And know that in this day and age of social media and internet savvy, you aren’t as anonymous as you think you are, and I am well within my rights to publically fight back if I feel you are being unfair or overly personal.

Josie Brown, whose latest book, "Totlandia," will be out in September:
Negative reviews are a part of the business of writing fiction. I don't know an author who hasn't had one. That said, I feel there is a way for the reviewer to get her point across about what she didn't like about the book without killing an author's reputation.

For example, pointing out that if the characters weren't fully fleshed out, or didn't allow you to root for them, or saying that the plot lost you or didn't hold your attention are all legitimate points, which can be made without spoilers (the bain of an author's existence). In other words, don't make it personal; instead, make it a true review.

Gemma Burgess, author of "A Girl Like You":
For me, it's not about the sales, but I don't want to know anything negative anyway, hah! I find negative comments kind of upsetting, so now I don't read any reviews at all in case there's a line in there that I end up lying in bed feeling bad about that night. That's kind of lame but hey, that's me... You know, it's my book. I wrote it hoping people would love it. If they don't, I feel bad....

Plus, I think that ultimately, reviews are for readers, not the author - I always read the Amazon reviews before buying a book. But authors need to write what they want to write, what excites them and what feels real to them. If you get a book deal, and your books are selling, then that's really all that matters. What thrills one reader will appal another, what makes one person laugh will make another cringe. People will always have opinions, but if you curtail your writing to please everyone, you'll lose what makes you unique. You have to write what you want to write.

Rowan Coleman, author of "Lessons in Laughing Out Loud":
When you become a writer you open yourself up to the possibility of less than flattering reviews! And I don't mind them if they are thoughtful, relevant and pertinent. Often a reader makes a good point that as a writer I am willing to take on board. Its reviews of a personal, spiteful, bitter and frankly jealous tone that I object to, and I have been unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of a few of these over the years. The one that hurt me personally the most was published in a magazine that is only in printed in my home town, and although the reviewer didn't have the guts to print their name, I know was based on a personal dislike of me, particularly as errors in the review concerning the plot and characters hinted very strongly at the fact that they hadn't read it!! Can a single bad review really hurt sales, I suspect not. What we have learnt is that word of mouth is a powerful thing, and if the overwhelming chorus is one of praise then the writer should not be concerned.

Dee DeTarsio, author of "Haole Wood:
As Billy Joel sings,

“Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue . . .”

(If that song is now stuck in your head, you’re welcome!) Ninety-seven percent of readers check out negative reviews, according to IMTU (I Made That Up). I bet that’s pretty accurate, even though I don’t think negative reviews hurt book sales. Those stingers don’t feel good, mind you, (“Yawn, poor.” Ouch!) but I think readers are smart enough to pull out clues they need before deciding to read . . . or not to read.

Honest reviews? Bring them on, she says bravely, with only a hint of a lip quiver.

If you like a book more than you don't like it, constructively pointing out some of the lesser qualities is fine. But if you don't like a book, why talk about it? Move toward giving attention to a book you do love. That said, a particularly well-thought out but critical review isn't hurtful (although sometimes a small blow to an ego), but negative reviews that are vague, dismissive, or visceral, or get details of the book wrong, seem to tell more about the reviewer than the book and can be painful for a writer to read. This is our livelihood. This is us putting our hearts on display, and regardless of the result or opinions of the result it would be nice to have it remembered that we're human and we have been known to Google ourselves in less than proud moments.

As for telling the writer directly - When I like a book or film, I make a point to shout about it from the rooftops, and sometimes I'll even drop a note to the author or director. When I don't like something I move on and try to find something I do like. I don't know that I understand the compulsion to tell a writer that their book wasn't what I as a reader wanted it to be. It is what it is. It's not a work in progress anymore. It is hopefully the end result the author was working toward. I wouldn't make a point to tell someone I didn't like their book any more than I'd make a point to walk up to a stranger at a party to say, "I hate the dress you're wearing."

If it's a matter of feeling the need to publicly account for books that have been sent to a reviewer, I'd imagine some sort of policy saying that only books thought of favorably are discussed on the site, so sending a book to the reviewer is no guarantee that it would be mentioned. If a reviewer wants to discuss a book that did not inspire positive feelings, I think it's important to take the extra step of making sure the review is not personal - neither about the reviewer nor about the author, only about the book- and is well-thought out and accurate in any description of the events of the book.

Michele Gorman, author of "Misfortune Cookie":
I always want the reviewer to be honest and post her review on the blog. In fact, I think that not posting a negative review has the potential to do more harm than posting it. There's such a wide range of reading tastes even within genres, and I want readers to have a good idea about whether they'll like my book before they buy it. Otherwise that short-term sale could harm my long-term prospects. Let's say the reviewer has a real bugbear about my current book (maybe she hates the writing style I've chosen). Another reader who also hates that writing style is equally unlikely to enjoy it. So it's much better that she reads the review and passes up the book. Otherwise she may buy it, read it, hate it and never buy another book of mine again, regardless of the writing style I choose.

And I wholeheartedly agree with the bloggers who've pointed out that it's important to critique the book and not the author. I was on the receiving end of a vitriolic 2* review of my debut novel from a blogger who made a bit of a career of smearing authors (as was mentioned). If there is something a reviewer hates about my book, say so, but in a constructive way, please!

Amy Hatvany, author of "Outside the Lines":
For me, lack of balance or detail in a review are the ones I have the most trouble reading. I also think that I've developed a thicker skin when it comes to negative reviews, because there's simply no determining who will love my writing and who won't. But if a review is blatantly rude, or attacking me personally, it can cut deep.

I think it all comes down to manners. When I am considering writing a less than stellar review, or even talking with a friend about a difficult issue, I try to pause and determine two things: 1. Is what I'm going to say necessary and helpful? (i.e, constructive?) and 2. Is what I'm going to say kind? I believe it's possible to deliver constructive criticism in kind way, and too many reviewers forget this.

Sibel Hodge, author of "The Baby Trap":
When I got my first low star reviews I got really upset about them, but you have to develop a tough skin if you want to be a writer (I don't even cry now, honestly!). Of course, everyone isn't going to like your work, but there's a difference in writing an honest review about what they did or didn't like and attacking you personally. I've had several reviews which were very venomous and angry towards me, which I think is wrong. Constructive criticism is always going to be the most helpful, but many people who leave reviews are not writers, they're simply readers who either enjoyed a book or didn't, and I think they probably don't even realise how their review may impact on an author's sales.

Cari Kamm, author of "Fake Perfect Me":
I vote for honesty! At the end of the day, I write for readers, so I want their honest opinion. It helps me grow. I enjoy when readers finish a book and take the time to write a review. It means a lot to me. A book review should focus on how a reader felt about the book, but not telling others how they will feel. I can only hope that a reader doesn’t forget it is only a person’s opinion. It's like walking into an ice cream store and convincing everyone not to eat chocolate, because you don't care for the color or taste. When the reviewer goes beyond their opinion of the book, such as "I want to bludgeon your character to death with a champagne bottle," or personally attacks me as a human being, I’ve learned to smile. Let's face it, I write to evoke emotion. I prefer it to be positive, but the idea that I stirred that much emotion in someone to wish a character dead is pretty shocking. So many readers have such a kinship with my character, however, what if they would have skipped the novel based on negative or hateful reviews? I could drive myself crazy worrying about this and how it will affect my sales, but I don't think about it review to review. I just keep writing...

Sárka-Jonae Miller, author of "Between Boyfriends":
The first thing I think when I receive a harsh review is what was the reviewer's intention? I look to see if their is constructive criticism -- something the author can use -- or any valid points pertaining to something the author missed. If I got a harsh review that was brilliantly written and pointed out everything I did wrong then I would be grateful. It would be like getting a free literary critique. However, when reviewers are just venting about not liking books even though they had access to an accurate description and a preview then I think they should keep it to themselves. A reader has every chance to see what the book is about and get a sense of a writer's style by reading the blurb and a sample chapter before buying the book. Unless the author was deliberately misleading by writing a book description that had nothing to do with the actual plot, categorizing it in the wrong genre for better sales or proofreading their free sample but not the rest of the book to give the impression that it was professionally edited reviewers really have no business writing harsh reviews. Maybe writing a balanced review of positive and negative comments that would give other people a sense of what the reviewer likes so that they know whether they will agree with the reviewer's point of view makes sense. But a harsh review could really hurt a new author with few reviews up and I don't think you should potentially kill a fledgling author's dream just because their book wasn't your cup of tea.

Sarah Pekkanen, author of "These Girls":
I absolutely want reviewers and readers to be honest, and I value constructive criticism. Occasionally - not often, thankfully - I've seen very disrespectful reviews of books floating around the Internet, which is a shame. Not every reader is going to love every book, but there's no reason for that. And the flip side, of course, is that authors should accept negative reviews as something we all have to endure now and then, and never, ever attack the reviewer.

Jackie Pilossoph, author of "Jackpot":
When I read a book I don't like, I don't say anything. I just keep it to myself. But if I love a book, I'm all over giving it good press. "50 Shades of Grey" is the first time I've ever gone public saying I didn't care for a book, and the reason I didn't feel bad about it is because the girl is making millions of dollars and obviously, I'm not going to affect her book sales.

Now, being an author myself, and depending on book sales for an income, I would be really bummed if someone came out with a negative review of my book (not a person, a reviewer) because financially it would really hurt me. My personal feelings wouldn't be hurt. I can take criticism and I respect people's opinions. But, when it comes to my paycheck, that's where it would really affect me. Unless of course, I was a best seller and was making tons of money anyhow.

Jackie wrote a fabulous blog post all about giving good vs. bad reviews. Check it out here.

Talli Roland, author of "Construct a Couple":
I believe consumers have the right to review a product they’ve purchased, whether their review is positive or negative. However, I also think the public deserves valid reasons if the product doesn’t live up to expectations. Just saying ‘it was rubbish’ or ‘I hated this book’ does nothing to help potential buyers, and can be quite hurtful to the author. As an author, it goes without saying negative reviews of my novels aren’t fun to read. But if the reviewer gives solid reasons as to why the book wasn’t their cup of tea, I feel it’s justified. After all, not everyone likes the same thing, and I don’t expect my novels to appeal to all readers. Once your work is out there in the public domain, people are going to judge it. It’s part of an author’s job to accept that.

D.D. Scott, author of the Bootscootin' Books and Cozy Cash Mysteries:
Here's a comment I made recently when asked about one-star reviews by Bufo Calvin of I Love My Kindle:

I’ve just started telling people (when they write to me or message me about their angst re getting 1-Star Reviews): “Congratulations and Welcome to Bestsellerdom! You know you’ve made it when you start attracting the nasty reviews!”

My experiences have been that the higher I’ve gone on all the Bestseller Lists, and the higher all the peeps who write me have gone, the more 1-Star Reviews (and horribly mean 1-Star Reviews at that) we’ve gotten.

For example, once I went FREE with Bootscootin’ (September 2011) and then again after I made Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers List three times (the paid list), I got a ton of ‘em. And many of them came on in batches (I’d get 3 in the same day using the same key words)...which was also quite odd, right?

D.D. did a full post on this topic on WG2E. Check it out here.

Dina Silver, author of "Kat Fight":
Bottom line is, reviews matter. Everything from a neighbor chatting with her book club to online reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and blog sites - all hold weight with readers. And regardless of whether I’ve just read ten glowing reviews of my book…that one bad one still manages to punch me in the gut and ruin my day. Ridiculous I know, but I’m being honest. A bad review can bring me down as much as a great review can lift me up. That being said, I have read ‘good’ bad reviews.

Overall, I think authors appreciate constructive criticism, I know I do. And if a reviewer says they don’t normally read my genre, or they enjoyed my writing style and sense of humor, but just couldn’t relate to the characters - I’m not going to wash down a pint of Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip with a bottle of malbec and snap at my husband all night.

As this applies to bloggers and reviewers, I think it’s extremely generous for them to decline writing a review if they didn’t enjoy the book, because unflattering reviews that are made available to a large number of people, can certainly impact the sales of a book. I think Melissa Amster said it best in your last post on this subject, “I feel this is a place to celebrate chick lit, not berate what we read.”

Your wonderfully positive energy is much appreciated!

Bonnie Trachtenberg, author of "Neurotically Yours":
One thing I've learned over the last year, is that as an author, you can't possibly please everyone who reads your books. People are just too different in their personalities, likes, dislikes, sense of humor, idiosyncrasies, frame of reference, etc. Therefore, I've learned not to let a bad review get me down, at least not for long. If someone writes a review and has taken the time to be thoughtful about what did and didn't work for them, I respect them for it, whether or not I agree with any of their criticisms. If someone really hated my book, I'd rather hear it directly from them without a review--or on second thought, I'd rather not know at all! And as for the mean-spirited people who seem to revel in leaving nasty, cutting reviews with no substance, I just take it where it's coming from and look at their comments as insight into their own misery. Negative reviews are never fun, but it's all part of the career I chose, and I wouldn't change that for anything!

Jen Tucker, author of "The Day I Wore My Panties Inside Out":
A review that reflects a desire from the reader to positively communicate what they adored, and even what they did not, about a book's content is critical when done in good taste.

Not everyone will love an author's book, and that's okay! I appreciate and crave constructive criticism. That is something that will help me be better; do better as a writer.

I am an avid reader as well. The reviews that are personal attacks towards an author, or their work, make the reviewer difficult to take seriously.

I had dinner with a group of friends recently, and someone posed this question: do you even read reviews when choosing a book? The majority felt low-starred reviews on Amazon and Goodreads were not something they took into consideration; not to be trusted. These gals, seasoned readers who devour multiple books in a week, felt there's too much bias on the Internet; too much hype for some authors/not enough honesty on both ends of the spectrum of books whether they were great or just eh. These gals relied on friends, and word of mouth for their next pick in literature.

What I find much more difficult to handle, worse even than a harsh review, are the spoilers. This doesn't happen often, but now and again it does. I'm not talking about consumer reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, I mean on book blogs. I saw one for my last book which recounted the entire plot up to the last fifty pages, including major twists I'd hoped would be surprises to the reader.

Every author I know tortures himself or herself over the exact timing of revelation for maximum engagement of the reader. It's probably one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel. To have all of that work undone by a review is gutting, frankly.

I've only had one truly harsh review and it stung but I got over it. The spoilers still bug me.

Heather Wardell, author of "Finding My Happy Pace":
I definitely want reviewers to be honest and to tell other readers what they truly thought of the book. I prefer, though, for both positive and negative reviews, that the reviewer explains WHY she feels that way. "I loved it" or "I hated it" isn't as much use to other readers or to me as "I liked how the characters spoke" or "I couldn't stand the way Character A acted toward Character B and I hated that B didn't stand up for herself". As for the risk to my sales from negative reviews, if they truly describe the book then I deserve to take the hit. :)

Thanks to everyone who voiced their opinions!

If you are an author and would like your thoughts to be heard, please comment below or e-mail us if you'd like it to be anonymous and we'll post the comment for you. We'd also love to hear what readers and reviewers think of what these authors had to say.


Anne R. Allen said...

I'm so glad you addressed this--and got so many of my favorite authors to express their feelings. I do think chick lit may attract more than its share of those trollish reviews from people who download a free book in a genre they hate just to prove how "awful" it is. They write a 21 word one-star review, apparently without even reading the first sentence. But readers ignore those. (Isn't nice on our star ratings, of course) but I agree with D. D. Scott that if you're getting attack reviews, it just means you're in the big leagues now, girl!

Anonymous said...

Misery loves company--I rate this post five stars!

susieqlaw said...

What a great post! I think it makes a good point in not attacking the author when reviewing a book. This post answered several questions. Thank you to all the authors who participated for excellent insight!

Carol Hedges said...

Some excellent points here. In my field (children's lit) kids can be Right To The Point, very honest, and I try to take on board what is said, as I know they are not trying to promote themselves at the expense of a book. As regards Amazon etc, I wonder,reading some of the reviews,whether the 'reviewer' is promoting themselves as 'brutal critic'. Some of them seem unnecessarily personal. I mean, have these people ever written a book in their lives? Writers reviewing other writers are kinder and more helpful, coz we know how much HARD WORK has gone into making a book.

Cara Cooper said...

I've had some good reviews and some stinkers! I'm just pleased someone's reading my books. Like Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about...