Ladysplaining the Value of A Literary Culture for Commercial Fiction
A few weeks ago, Jon Stock made a definite name for himself as an author, but not for his books. Stock, erstwhile journalist for The Telegraph, emailed a reviewer who gave his spy thriller a one-star Amazon review, turning the experience into an article titled, “Spy Writer Jon Stock: How I Survived A Literary Mauling.” According to Stock:
To be fair to my latest Amazon reviewer, she is not your average punter. She is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and her review was 700 words of well-reasoned, if flawed, criticism. I know this because I tracked her down. Without wishing to sound like a serial killer, I track down all my hostile reviewers, sooner or later, particularly the anonymous ones (although I’m still working on “FleetStreetMan”). In this age of “sock puppetry”, when authors attack each other online under false names, it’s a necessary part of the job.
Without disclosing to the reviewer that he was a journalist, Stock chronicled their email exchange and published it in The Telegraph, all without the woman’s permission (she details all of this in her comments). It’s also important to note that in his article he changes the title of her Amazon review, replacing a comma with a colon so as to suggest that the reviewer was calling Stock a serial killer, even though it’s perfectly clear in the body of the review that she was calling out Stock on a literary device á la the woman in the refrigerator.
Just two days before, author consultant Ron Hogan chronicled his own wife’s run-in with an author who became angry at one of her reviews. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, Hogan endorses Elle Lothlorien’s view that “Authors Should ALWAYS Respond to Negative Reviews,” because, in her words, “customer = reader,” and that’s just good “customer service.” Hogan’s piece provoked an excellent post by Liz Mc2, including numerous comments from Hogan (he does not allow comments on his own site, Beatrice). One of the most interesting moments in the discussion occurred when both Liz and I asked Hogan what the reader got out of this so-called customer service. That is, we know what the author is looking for, because Lothlorien and Stock both identify in very positive terms a reviewer changing or withdrawing a review after being “tracked down” by the author. But what does the reader get out of it? Hogan’s response: “That’s an issue I’m still mulling over, and would prefer to discuss on my own blog, in my own time, after I’ve thought it through carefully.”
And that, I think, articulates the problem neatly: reviewer tracking is not about the reader; it’s about the author. And in not authentically considering the reader’s position and possible objections, reader tracking overstates its value to the author, too.
But how could something aimed at exposing sock puppets and getting reviewers to change their negative reviews be bad for authors? It’s in the reader comments to Elle Lothlorien’s posts at Digital Book World. It’s in the extensive, unanimous rebuttals to Ron Hogan’s lone insistence that pursuing the reader-reviewer is a good thing. It’s in the reader comments to Jon Stock’s article and in the comments to this Dear Author review.
Pursuing readers chills the reviewing climate and makes readers averse to reviewing books in public venues. The extent to which authors believe public reviews matter is ironized by reviewer tracking’s destructive effects.
It’s easy to forget that a relatively short time ago (i.e. less than ten years), critical reviewing was not the norm, at least not in the Romance community. But all commercial fiction struggles with the question of whether its books are merely meant to be enjoyed and not analyzed, or whether they, like so-called literary fiction, should be able to stand up to critical discussion and reviewing.
In Romance, that culture of critique has risen in tandem with the growth of blogs and reader-driven reviews. And the transition has been rough, the backlash sometimes serious. Besides dealing with sockpuppets and paid-for-positive-reviews, the community is facing doxing in various forms as a method of shaming and intimidation. Trust between authors and readers has waxed and waned, but right now it’s got to be at an all-time low. And yet, some authors authentically believe it’s productive to “track down” reader-reviewers and confront/question them about low-star reviews. Hogan even argued that it would be good for honest communication in the community. I want to argue that not only is reader tracking unproductive, but it’s also going to erode what little trust we’re currently hanging on to, which will have long-term negative effects on both genre fiction communities and author engagement with readers in the process of commercial bookselling.
The Customer Service Fallacy
This is the least persuasive rationale for me, aka the “customer.” If we were talking about toasters here instead of books, would toaster makers be tracking us down to talk about why we didn’t like their toaster and why our rating is so low? In fact, under what circumstances does any manufacturer pursue an individual product reviewer?
But there’s a deeper problem with this analogy, namely that the author is not pursuing the reviewer to replace a defective product; instead, the author is pursuing the reader because she/he believes that the low-star review is impeding sales. In other words, the remedy is aimed at the author, not the reader/consumer.
Another reason the customer service analogy doesn’t really work with authors and books is because the author’s attachment to his or her book as special is what really drives the need to pursue reviewers. And because so many authors are acting as publishers now, the difficulty in separating book from author is an even more vexed issue. Moreover, sites like Goodreads that encourage author and reader mingling can blur the lines, as does the fact that every author is also at some point a reader. But these are also the reasons it is so very important for authors to be cautious about identifying and crossing boundaries.
The “Power Lies With The Reader” Fallacy
This has to be one of the most frustrating myths for the reader to rebut, because it is so well entrenched in a publishing mentality that equates sales numbers with reader preferences. But regardless of what sales numbers do or don’t say about what readers want, in a person-to-person contact, the author has the balance of power, real or imagined. And if you doubt that at all, just go back and read Jon Stock’s justification for pursuing his reviewer: “her review was 700 words of well-reasoned, if flawed, criticism.” Who says it’s flawed criticism? Who has the right to determine that? Stock offers that as a foregone conclusion, without regard to establishing it as a matter of opinion and interpretation. In fact, he asks her if “she might consider writing an individual review for each book, rather than using the same blanket comment for all three,” because he saw one review as “unorthodox and unfair.” And he seemed to have little understanding of why what he did is problematic. In fact, he even went so far as to refer to those of us who found his pursuit of a reader creepy as “loons” on Twitter.
Whatever he felt about the review’s power over potential book buyers, he comes across as comfortable being the authority on his own book, deciding what criticism of the book is “unfair” and “flawed.” I wonder if he considers the “well-written” criticism something positive or negative. How much of this comes down to a question of who has a more legitimate power to persuade? Still, the fact remains that there are many readers – who are not academics nor journalists nor just plain argumentative and confident in their own ability to read – who would be intimidated by having an author contact them. Others might be flattered and impressed that the author sought them out, while others still just might not want to open the Pandora’s Box of potentially bad author behavior. In any and all of these cases, the balance of perceived power lies with the author, and the reader tracking takes on an element of duress, even if unintentional and inadvertent.
But Who Will Take Care of the Sock Puppets?
Apparently Amazon is deleting accounts as we speak, and if anything demonstrates the problematic nature of authors trying to game the system, it’s the seemingly erratic results of the newest Amazon algorithms.
But It’s Just Commercial Fiction, and The Name of The Game Is Selling Books
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the past seven or eight years, the same seven or eight years in which the Romance community, at least, has seen exponential growth in blogs and reader-reviewers, self-publishing authors, myriad digital and small presses, affordable digital reading devices, and astonishing growth in ebook sales, we’ve cultivated an incredibly rich, online book culture.The link is evident: when readers are engaged and excited about books, they talk about them, engaging and exciting other readers, who in turn bring more books into the discussions. And passion for reading and books does not necessitate loving a book; how many passionate debates have begun with a book a reader intensely disliked? The value is in the general engagement, not the particularity of a single opinion.
It’s also ironic, but not unexpected, that this growth has intensified competition for reader eyes and dollars, which has, in turn, led to desperate measures by some authors (e.g. purchased reviews) that are casting a long shadow over perfectly honest authors. I don’t think we’ve yet reached the tipping point at which these strategies or their backlash catalyze contraction and sterility in online book discussions. However, if more authors adopt the strategy of reader tracking, I think we’re all going to be stunned by how quickly the climate chills to the point of stagnation. Trust is already shaky, and even honest, well intentioned authors can unintentionally erode it further.
It’s About Accountability, Not Harassment
Here’s the thing: genre authors write books for commercial gain. Readers, on the other hand, do not have that kind of investment in the commercial success of a book. Most readers I know buy far more books than they love; in fact, books are one of the few things we purchase regularly with no guarantee of gratification. Another interesting aspect of the Stock reviewer is that she received the book through the Vine program, which is clearly disclosed above the review. What’s important about this fact is that it runs against the argument that a free book is more likely to yield a positive review as a kind of informal “payment.” Readers, have neither the investment in nor the obligations to a book’s success that authors do, which is what makes the reader review so potentially valuable. While that lack of responsibility may also seem unfair to authors, is it better and fairer to have readers afraid to review books publicly because they don’t want to be hassled by the author?
Ron Hogan insisted that not considering the author in creating a book review dehumanized and disrespected the author (I’m paraphrasing here). The problem is that one of the reasons authors tend to react badly to reviews is that they take them as personal assaults. And there are points where that line can be crossed (ironically, Hogan’s wife’s review continued to refer to the author, and while I don’t believe it was over the line, I can see how the author would feel it was directed at him as much as at the book). I don’t really think Goodreads has helped by making it impossible to have your bookshelves appear as functionally distinct from your reviews. Even the “Dear Author” shtick has felt uncomfortable for me over the years, and I try to shift as quickly as possible into the third person in my own reviews. So I do think that readers would do well to stick as close to the book as possible in their reviews.
At the same time, one of the reasons we’re seeing so much hostility from readers toward authors is because readers feel that authors have pushed themselves into the space between reader and book, and made it impossible for the book to stand on its own. Which is precisely what the author who tracks down the reader does, even if his/her intentions are not at all aggressive or malicious. And because the author is the professional, i.e. the one who has the commercial investment in his/her book, he/she must also be the one who accepts responsibility for staying behind the line. For the most part, readers and authors who have familiarity will know what is and is not appropriate. In cases where that is in question, it may just be best to keep quiet, at least within the context of the review space.
And that is another reason why the public space of the book review has been customarily uninhabited by the author. Yes, the author can read the review, and yes, readers should assume by default that the author is going to see the review at some point. But that invisible line between the review and the author is intended to mirror the line between author and book that the reader is expected to recognize in the act of reading and reviewing. And there will be times that line is broken for the reader, sometimes in innocuous ways (e.g. semi-autobiographical fiction), sometimes in more problematic ways (e.g. Cassie Edwards). But even when the reader crosses that line, unless it is truly defamatory or materially damaging, the author does himself/herself no favors by rushing in to defend his/her name and work. And they do other authors no good, either, adding to the cumulative level of distrust between readers and authors. At the same time, I think readers who do not want to be pursued by an author need to hold tightly to the boundary of the book space and not, even indirectly, invite the author in. And if an author does intrude uninvited into that space, do not engage, and if it continues, perhaps even make a note in the review itself that the author repeatedly tried to establish contact.
It’s Not Just A Girl Thing
One of the most fascinating (but not surprising) things about these discussions regarding reader tracking is that they have most recently occurred between male authors (or author representatives) and female readers. In the past two weeks, I have debated extensively with Stock, Hogan, and Jeremy Duns, who, despite a mostly civil exchange, persistently mocked me on Twitter for pointing out that the privileged position of the white male is not necessarily going to recognize the feelings of vulnerability that a female reader might associate with being tagged by a male author (he was also arguing that I made an “ad hominem” attack on him by accusing him of “mansplaining,” thus the title of my post).
While this is not purely about gender, just as it’s not exclusively about Romance, I wanted to focus on the gender issue for second as a way of demonstrating the extent of unintended consequences for authors who undertake reader tracking. The author may not think of it as hunting, but in an online climate where readers have truly felt in physical jeopardy (the Emily Giffin incident, anyone?), these ideological cues are important.
In fact, what fascinates me most about the Jon Stock example, with which I started, is that the female reviewer (a literary scholar, not surprisingly, given the concerns of her review) was critiquing a certain ideology she felt was common in spy thrillers, and evident in Stock’s work. I cannot comment on that, as I have not read his books, but I do think it’s extremely important that the kind of discussion that particular review opened up can be had publicly and without the weighted threat of the author’s influence. NOT because it’s inappropriate for authors to engage in these discussions; quite the opposite, in fact.
But for authors and readers to be able to have the kinds of critical discussions both Hogan and Stock claim they want, there needs to be a baseline of trust and respect, and one time-tested expression of respect in the book community has been for authors to stay out of the review space, to give the impression, at least, that readers should be trusted to conduct conversations about books on their own terms, because interpretation is inextricable from the act of reading, and it’s where all of our reactions – pleasurable and otherwise – are formed.
One of the recent pieces Ron Hogan referenced is an article by John Warner, in which he contacted the author of his “worst review.” And if you read the text of that exchange and compare it to the case studies of Elle Lothlorien or Jon Stock, you see immediately the most glaring and critical difference: there is absolutely no aim to change the reader’s mind, to influence the review, or to reach any particular point. In fact, as Warner writes at the very end of the piece, even after all that discussion, the reviewer doesn’t like the book any better than he did before they started. And that’s okay. It has to be okay if we are to eventually get to the point where authors and readers can engage in open, honest, critically productive discussions about the author’s own books.
Because that’s an end point, not a strategy. And we’re nowhere close to it, at least not as things stand now. The question is, if that’s where we want to be (itself an open question), how do we get there?
Authors of all types need a thicker skin regardless of how they publish. I rarely see actors or singers lash out at the critics, and if they do it’s very far and few between. And these critics of reviewers of movies, tv shows, theater and of music hit way below the belt in their reviews, making it very personal by commenting on an artist’s looks, weight etc… If you are in a creative field, you need a very thick skin. If you can’t handle the criticism, then you are in the wrong career.
Why would you blast a consumer who can put money in your pocket even if they found disgust with your work? In this day an age of social media where something can go viral in a second, the author who lashes out at the consumer will be taken down more than a peg and hit where it hurts- loss of income and respect. They may not care about the respect, but losing money? That will make a big difference.
I must say, Stock’s article convinced me that his reviewer is probably spot on, that I don’t want to read his books and that he could brush up on his grammar.
He didn’t convince me that Amazon reviewers like the one he was ‘mauled’ by are a bad thing, which I think was his point. In fact, the opposite. I hail the SUNY professor whose review helps people like me avoid books by misogynistic jerks like Stock.
It’s a double-edged sword, because on one hand readers should feel free (and safe) to review books honestly and without worry of authors lashing back. On the other hand, there is sometimes an expectation that authors must remain completely silent about their books, and not engage in any way with readers, even if it is positive. (Case in point–an author responded here to a review a few weeks ago and someone posted a comment about how that effectively closed down the discussion, which may or may not have ended up being true, I didn’t follow it.)
As a reader I like to engage with an author, and as an author I like to engage with a reader. Some of my most interesting and educational experiences have been with people who *hated* my books–in these cases, the discourse was through private email, but it was extremely enlightening. I’ve learned something from nearly every bad review I’ve received, even the vicious rants. That’s not to say I enjoy them, but I do wish there was a better spirit of camaraderie between authors and readers. We obviously all love reading romance, so you think that would bring us together. Instead it often feels like the current election: each camp viewing the other as the enemy.
One of the things that worries me about the online “stalking” is the effect it could possibly have on the reviewer’s family. I’ve stumbled across many romance blogs written by mothers and worry about how little it would take to jeopardize those who live with the reviewer. I know many authors have zealous fans, but I think we’ve all noticed at least one extreme, negative reaction aimed at a reviewer after he/she has been “stalked” by fans usually brought on my author comments. The possible snowball effect scares me.
A well thought out and reasoned article, thank you for giving me lots of food for thought!
The thing that worries me most, as an author, is the chill factor you discuss. People not caring any more because the atmosphere is getting toxic and the author is too busy gaming the system. I see it all the time on author loops and the problem is twofold.
Most of it is the self pubbed and the smaller publishers, and the authors not knowing any better. The culture of a small publisher is for everybody to muck in to help each other, and that includes “liking” and “tagging.” They don’t see it as wrong, and if you object, you’re a spoilsport.
But I’m a reader as well. I read a lot – 5 books a week on average. If I’m misled into buying a book by the reviews being overly good (and that has happened more and more with the self-pubbed titles I’ve acquired recently) then I’m not going back.
Authors behaving badly? Most don’t know any better. Doesn’t excuse the behaviour, of course, but it might help to explain it. Getting published is the aim of the unpublished, and everything goes to that. There’s a lot of gaming goes on there, as well, of a different kind. Once she’s published, she discovers that isn’t easy either. They’ve studied how to write a book, not how to promote one, so they learn from their peers and what’s gone before. I came from a marketing background, but from fast moving consumer goods marketing, which is hard line and aggressive. I had to relearn everything, but not before I’d made some mistakes.
There’s also a strong feeling of entitlement. “I’ve written this book, so it deserves to get on the bookshelves.” Well no. There’s a lot to be said for a more gradual apprenticeship. Writers used to take it for granted that they’d have six or so manuscripts mouldering in a drawer that would never see the light of day, because they were the ones they used to learn their trade. Now, instead of a drawer, they’re up on Amazon.
I also guest post at DBW where Elle posted her blog on responding to reviews. She was savaged pretty badly there.
I don’t respond. Actually, I did once on Amazon, and ended up deleting it, but that didn’t even help as the hanging posse was out. I just don’t think you can get people to change their minds.
I do respond if readers have a problem with formatting or downloading, even if the problem isn’t my fault– I send them a copy of the book in the format they want and usually throw in an extra one. That’s giving the reader something.
And that’s the key point you’ve made: what does the reader get out of it?
@Kate Hewitt: Authors can provide a lot of insight into books. They can provide insight into book industry. They can talk about the books that they love and that they don’t love. The comment section is not foreclosed to authors.
The trouble is that many readers feel intimidated by authors which is why it is easy for authors who track down negative reviews to get them changed. In the Avis Exley review, for example, she made a point of asking where the negative press was and that my negative review was a lone voice. What was her intention in the comments? Was it to foster robust discussion of her book? Was it to glean insights?
There are many ways for authors and readers to interact together and I think we are slowly navigating that path but it’s a process.
Really enjoyed this essay, Robin. My favorite part: “Readers should be trusted to conduct conversations about books on their own terms, because interpretation is inextricable from the act of reading, and it’s where all of our reactions – pleasurable and otherwise – are formed.” Absolutely. I believe this as both author and reader — and furthermore I believe that readers are just as capable of reading, engaging with, and interpreting reviews as they are books. That’s why Stock’s assertion that “track[ing] down hostile reviewers” is “a necessary part of the job” both baffles and alarms me. Why would anyone think that? It’s utter madness, and, as you argue, hostile to the kind of culture we should be trying to create.
This just boggles my mind. I’m sorry but at what point did these authors think it was okay to stalk someone on the internet? Just because they don’t like your book doesn’t mean you have the right to harass them, mock them, or otherwise engage in a debate with them to change their mind about it. It’s rude, it’s creepy and it’s just wrong.
Part of being a published author is knowing that not everyone is going to like what you write. You can’t please everyone and there are going to be bad reviews on occasion. The best thing to do is learn from them (if they have valid points and aren’t just “OMG I hate your book, I hate you, you suck!”) if you can and have some chocolate and a short sulk if you can’t.
Authors choose to publish their work in the public sphere and that means their babies are now out their for public debate and criticism. If you don’t like that and don’t want to grow skin that would make an armadillo jealous there’s a very simple solution– Don’t Publish.
It sounds like,to me, from reading his article that Mr. Stock could have learned from this review and used it to write a better book next time. Instead, he wasted all this time stalking some poor woman over the internet and then writing an article to defend his personal brand of overly aggressive, neurotic crazy.
It was funny in a sad way seeing Stock and Duns agreeing with each other, and calling others loons. Do they really think that was a way to impress others and increase their readership. They are so entrenched in their viewpoint their minds are closed. Readers can forgive a bad book but they are less likely to forgive being mocked or dismissed (or harassed).
I was going to review a book recently. Then I read in the author’s description of herself:
This took me aback. I thought “what the hell does that mean?” Does it mean, if I review this book, she’ll track down my review and respond? Or does it mean, she’ll figure out who I am and stalk me, either on the net or elsewhere? The latter option gave me pause.
Thus far I have not reviewed her book. It’s not only because of her “threat,” but that is a part of it. Stalking is scary in any form; telling reviewers you plan to do so is a way of silencing them. I haven’t asked the author if that was her intent, but her words seem fairly stark to me.
@Dabney: A year or two ago if an author said in her bio that she stalks her reviewers, I’d assumed it was a good-natured joke, and possibly a plea for me to take the time to leave a review. Because no one would really take the time to stalk a reviewer. After the events of the last year? I couldn’t make that assumption any more.
Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article.
I am flabbergasted by the authors who gleefully admit that they stalk their reviewers with the explicit purpose of getting them to change their reviews – WTF?!
Re: chilling the review climate. I have already observed many times an author joining a review discussion and all conversation on the thread immediately ceasing. I think this happens for two reasons, 1) readers who are criticizing the book are suddenly uncomfortable because they realize that by extension they are talking about an actual person and 2) they are afraid that the author may start ranting, raving or stalking them. In the majority of situations, this won’t happen. However, it does happen, as evidenced by this article.
Lots to think about. It makes me so happy when we can have a rational, measured discussion about topics like this.
I would hesitate to review her books as well. Because her bio is either a not-funny joke or she is serious. Neither of those options is appealing.
@Julia Broadbooks: But then I feel intimidated and somehow wimpy for not calling her out on both how bad her book is and how awful that threat is. It’s not a good feeling.
Dabney – we all have moments like that. Sometimes saying nothing is the best message.
Speaking as an author with a fair number of bad reviews under his belt, I do sometimes respond to bad reviews with something like “I’m sorry to hear it didn’t work for you, but I appreciate your giving it a shot and taking the time to talk about it. If you try my work again, I hope the next one works better for you.”
That’s about all that makes sense to do. Stalking readers seems . . . well, weird. Deeply weird. And creepy.
Whenever I read these articles and essays, I feel like some backward innocent- I just don’t know these things go on! The complexity of the publishing world astonishes me and makes me glad to be ignorant of so much of it.
@Dabney: ITA. Which is why authors generating this kind of controversy fall off my TBR list. I’m not angry, I just associate the author’s name with all of that awful melange of guilt and confusion and anxiety and decide I want to read someone who is less effort.
I used to be cool with badly-behaving authors. I was wrong. Perhaps you shouldn’t punish the book for the mistakes of its creator but also an author who dares to stalk, track and/or verbally abuse a reader, online or elsewhere, just because they didn’t like their book won’t get my money. BTW not accepting reasonable and sensible criricizm writers harm themselves – instead of struggling to write better and better, eliminating their mistakes, they spend their time and energy persecuting negative reviewers. Does it make sense?
“Ron Hogan’s lone insistence that pursuing the reader-reviewer is a good thing.”
I have NEVER suggested that “pursuing” the reader-reviewer is a good thing.
What I said was that IF, after careful deliberation, an author determined that there was something to be learned from contacting the author of a negative review — and we’ve all agreed that the point isn’t to change the reader’s mind, or to say the reader is wrong, but to learn more about why they took away from the book what they did — there are ways to initiate such contact that won’t make the author look like a jerk, or at the very least are less likely to make to the author look like a jerk. (You never know how some people are going to react to even the most civil contact.) I don’t recommend such contact; I don’t discourage it, either. I do tell authors they need to think really, really carefully about why they want to do it, and what they think they’re going to get out of it, and whether it’s really worth it.
Also, to clarify, the dehumanization of authors comes specifically from writing a book review, publishing it in a public venue, and declaring that it’s off-limits for the book’s author to respond because the reader needs a space to discuss the book without the author’s interference. Now, there are all sorts of PRACTICAL reasons why an author shouldn’t respond to a public review, but as a simple matter of where the reader’s entitlements actually begin and end, if you publish something in public, you’re inviting response from the entire public, including the author. I’m all for the creation of explicit “no authors allowed” zones, whether they’re private networks or semi-public websites with clear “signage” laying out the ground rules, but outside of such zones, nobody gets to be outraged when authors respond to public reviews — only by HOW they respond to them.
But a lot of good points in this article — thanks for writing it!
Really, there aren’t too many authors out there in Romancelandia who’d dare to try and intimidate me over a review – and intimidation is what Lothlorien’s plan is about, let’s be frank – but it did happen once, bless that author’s heart. I won’t name her or the book, since she’s deleted her comments, but it was a response to a book featuring a disabled heroine. I tore the book apart for its lazy stereotyping and unchecked ableism. The author’s (heavily paraphrased) comment was “I’m sorry this story didn’t work for you. I was happy that Romantic Times gave it 4.5 stars, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”
Why? What did she hope to accomplish with that?
“I’m sorry you didn’t like this story” is an odd response to “this is an offensive portrayal of disability,” isn’t it? It sidesteps the issues and minimizes my criticism as a mere difference of opinion in one easy step. Mentioning the glowing rating an established magazine gave her book was just the cherry on the “what do you know, you amateur” sundae. Everything about her response came from a place of personal insult and was meant to hurt me back. In short: her reaction was about her hurt feelings.
The disappointing thing is that there was an opportunity for meaningful discussion there. Had she been more concerned with the hurt her unconscious ableism caused rather than indignant that someone would imply she was some sort of -ist, we could have talked about where the book went wrong in its portrayal of disability. I offered to have that conversation with her, in fact. But, you see, she wasn’t interested in learning from me, she was looking to shut me down. She doubled down on her “everyone has an opinion,” then left, deleting her earlier comments at some point between then and now.
I think this illustrates Robin’s point. If you’re contacting reviewers to try to change their minds, you’re not performing “customer service.” You’re being self-serving and egoistic. If that author thanked me for pointing out where she went wrong or apologized for appropriating disability in an offensive way, that might’ve been “customer service.” That would’ve made me feel valued, and I’d have saluted the author’s humility. That also would have helped foster a healthy climate for criticism. After all, I’m a bit of an outlier with my outspokenness and not easily intimidated. What about the lurkers who read that exchange? Will they feel comfortable to review what they read afterwards, or will they doubt themselves?
So, I won’t say an author should *never* comment on a review. But, I would encourage an author to think real hard about why she wants to. If your reasons are self-serving, it’s not going to be a good decision.
@Ron Hogan: I find this comment about how excluding authors from discussions (which isn’t the point, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument) troubling. Isn’t the criticism always supposed to be about the book and not about the author? Isn’t a “BOOK” review necessarily dehumanizing because it is about a non sentient thing?
By arguing that a review that explicitly excludes the author from conversation dehumanizes the author seems to suggest that the author is the focus of the review rather than the book itself.
I feel it is important to represent the other side in this discussion: all of this talk about how an author should/shouldn’t respond to reviews is predicated on the fact that the reviewer is obligated to write a fair review that discusses the book on its merits alone. This means the reviewer can’t personally demean the author (s/he must be really stupid to write this …), can’t threaten the author in any way (I’m gonna tell my friends to post on her Facebook…), etc.
Also? Two wrongs don’t make a right. So a reviewer publishing a review that is personally attacking the author should never be responded to. I like to think that actions (or lack thereof) speak louder than words.
@Daniel Abraham comment 18 —
I’m sorry to tell you this, but I find even such neutral responses as the example you give to be EXTREMELY creepy and off-putting. My reviews are about engaging with the text, not with the author. We all have heard the “I’m sorry this story didn’t work for you” (especially when followed by a stated or implied “but…”) boilerplate verbatim so many times that we all know now that it’s a code for “Hey, you uncouth peasant, too bad you’re too stupid to appreciate my genius; let me show you how classy I am by rising above your ignorant insults.”
I know that many authors view their books as their “babies”, so let’s try going with that analogy. If I went out on a date and later posted on FaceBook that “Yeah, X seemed to be really attractive, but later on cheaped out on the dinner, made me pay for my own movie ticket, and the kiss on the doorstep was sloppy and too much tongue”, what would you think if X’s mother tracked me down to reply: “I’m sorry to hear this date didn’t work for you, but I appreciate your giving X a shot and taking the time to talk about it. But hey, I have other children; if you want to try dating one of them, I hope the dinner is fabulous and the kiss makes your knees melt.”
A little creepy, no? That would make me consider a restraining order against the entire family!
And just for fun, here’s another great example of a (male) author responding to a (female) reviewer’s calling out his work for blatant sexism, which only serves to reinforce her point and make him look like a whiny jerk on top of it:
@Katherine What’s a “fair” review though? If I hated the book and thought it was a waste of money, is that not “fair”? I’m not sure opinions and fairness really go hand in hand.
I’m not a reviewer, but I am uncomfortable with the idea there’s some code of “fairness” expected of someone whose reporting on their experience reading a book.
I really think authors have to get out of the review world. A few weeks ago an author I’ve known for years engaged in long explanations of her book which got sort of negative reviews here. I cringed. I wanted to drive to her house and beat her about the head. I saw her a couple of weeks ago, and she was still talking about it.
Some authors I know, can’t let it go. They call them trolls and seek them out. It seems so unproductive to me. I have bought quite a few books with awful reviews because they appeal to me for one reason or another (horrible trope that I secretly love, non white characters, whatever). As authors we never really know what sells books – but I can assure you stalking your readers probably isn’t the way.
I personally don’t think authors should ever read reviews. It’s done, the book is done out there, not for everyone and (for the most part) can’t be changed. So be done with it out in the world and move on.
@Ron Hogan: Actually they do get to be outraged. Defining how reviewers react to author intrusion is not something authors get to do. The reviewers get to decide that for themselves. You can choose to only be outraged by how they respond (and for that matter so can I) but telling reviewers how they can feel is the very core of the problem. Again, you are speaking as a man to a woman centric place. Men and women react differently to social cues. When you’ve been told by as many female reviewers as you have that this male / female interaction has subtext you’re not grasping, I’d think you’d consider that more strongly than you appear to be doing. But hey. I’m not telling you where to speak, I’m just judging how you do it.
Oops, I forgot to add:
There is exactly ONE circumstance in which it is appropriate (and even positive!) for an author to respond to a review, and that’s when it’s truly a “customer service” issue.
For example, I have posted critical reviews (not on Amazon) about a (physical) book’s binding falling apart, or the pages being in the wrong order, or an (e-)book’s poor editing or wonky format. On occasion, I have then received polite responses with an offer of a free correctly bound or edited version, which made me think very highly of the author and/or publisher’s professionalism.
THAT is the appropriate comparison to the “toaster” analogy.
I don’t think it’s fair to assume all authors mean the offensive code you say when they say something like “I’m sorry this book didn’t work for you”. Publishers are always encouraging authors to engage, engage, engage with readers on the internet: through Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc. Readers often seem to like authors to be accessible, and yet when it comes to reviews there suddenly has to be this awful silence. I wish more authors could be professional about accepting less than stellar reviews, and I wish readers were more interested in entering a dialogue with authors. Maybe one day that will happen…
@Kate Hewitt: Are you saying that if readers were more interested in engaging in dialogue with authors that there would be a better atmosphere. What is it that you would like for readers to do?
I have to disagree–at least in my own experience, I’ve found reading reviews immensely helpful, and that goes especially for negative ones. You don’t learn much about your craft from the ‘I loved this book, it was sooooo fabulous!’ reviews; you learn from the ones that pick the book apart. And yes, the book is out there and you can’t do anything about that one, but you can continue to improve and grow as a writer. My voice has changed over the six years I’ve been published, and that is in part to reading and processing the various forms of feedback I’ve been given, from my editor, from writer friends, and from readers.
@hapax: I agree, but I add that there is a pitfall in the case of ebooks. I have had an author sub out an ARC because the publisher sent me the wrong version – but if I had purchased a book as a finished product and the author was still writing it – not so much. Several authors have hit my never buy list for tweaking content (not formatting or proofreading) after the book is sold.
I’ve had some lovely comments and e-mails with authors about their books, but that’s basically because I “knew” them for years on their own blogs – mostly LiveJournal, luckily a lot of my sf&f authors still have a mirror or their original blog there. So there’s an atmosphere of trust – and when I can’t squee as much about an auto-buy author’s book they sometimes try to explain something about what set me off and often they don’t.
None of them have ever asked me to change my review (maybe because I have commented on other posts of theirs and they already know I’m unlikely to delete anything I say *grin* although I can be shown the errors of my ways [if there is one] in discussion) – and rarely some have contacted me via e-mail AND asked if I would be willing to engage some more in dialogue.
Personally I try to make sure in my GR review, squee or not (and I have been sarcastic about books there, too, though not of an author I knew, admittedly, but about Gary Stu writing of women which I have NO patience for) that I make it clear it is MY opinion and MY impression, so YMMV. I talk about favourite kinks or pet-peeves and hope that – as in all reviewing – people who never agree with my taste then know to buy the book, people who have similar taste are careful.
And I have a small group of friends on LJ and GoodReads and I think that helps keep the dark side down, too – from either side of the fence.
But basically? If I get to know an author’s name in connection with stalking another author or reader (I actually am thinking of a concrete example here, who showed their ass majorly last year on various blogs I read), they are off my read or reread list. So many other good books to read and reread, I’ll never have time for them all (I can hardly keep ahead of my TBR piles, physical and e).
I’ll point out that even reviewers who don’t care much about author commenting can find it silencing. There is an author who has commented on several 3 star reviews I’ve done for her & done so respectfully. Yet her last two books I neither read nor reviewed when I would have normally done both. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that it would be opening another conversation, a conversation that while pleasant, was also not on my to-do list. This author doesn’t get reviewed so heavily that my not reviewing her at various sites is irrelevant, so I felt awkward about abandoning her books. But I haven’t picked either up.
Edited to add – this is not an author I follow on social media. If I follow you on social media I have initiated the contact and wouldn’t expect you to suddenly fall silent if I discuss your book.
I don’t know if there would be a better atmosphere or not. There are a lot of crazy authors out there who will shoot down bad reviews no matter what, and act in all sorts of appalling ways. As long as that is going on in any capacity, I imagine it will be very difficult to create the kind of atmosphere I envision.
I do know that there are plenty of authors who are terrified to engage with readers at all, or even comment on a site like this one, because there is this feeling that they must be silent. And just as authors can be defensive of their books, so readers can be defensive of their reviews/responses. There is a belief that because this is what a reader felt, it can’t be called into question. And while initial responses to a book are valid, because that’s exactly what they are–initial responses–it would be nice if readers were open to a discussion that *might* involve a change of opinion. I’ve certainly changed my opinion of a book I’ve read after discussing it with other people, and receiving different insights. I’ve also changed readers’ opinions of my books, when *they* initiated the discussion, and I explained my intent, and they acknowledged the personal baggage they were bringing to the story. In these cases we both came to the table with an honest desire to understand and discuss, not convince someone they were wrong and we were right; the intention behind the discussion, as you mentioned in your earlier comment, is clearly crucial, and *both* sides need to be open.
Wow! Well-reasoned and spot on, IMO. I’ve had books available for 3 years now, and while it took some time to get used to the fact there were going to be people who hated with a passion something I wrote, I’ve never once tried to change their minds. Oh, I’ve definitely wished I could sit down with them and ask “Why? Why, why, why? I’m a nice person!”
At that time, I was still making the newbie mistake of equating their opinion of the book with their opinion of me as a person. I don’t do that anymore. I reserve the right not to read negative reviews, but I absolutely stand by the reader’s right to post them. Because as sure as someone hates my book, someone else loves it. It’s just the way it works.
I was an English major, and I’ve written many a paper where I analyzed what an author meant. I always wished I could ask the author’s opinion of what I thought, but that wasn’t going to happen. In that vein, I wish I could get into discussions with my readers about what they think I meant and what I think I meant. I would do it in a second if invited, but I would never track down a reviewer or engage in a comment thread about my work where I wasn’t invited. I absolutely think it is an abuse of authority to do such a thing.
How a reader responds to a book is just how they respond (and since authors are also readers, they really should know that from experience). It’s not up for argument. It’s not an author’s place to point out that a reader missed a giant clue in chapter 2 about a thing they insist the author didn’t foreshadow when they reached it in chapter 8. Maybe the author didn’t do it well. Maybe the reader skimmed. Doesn’t matter. It’s simply not up for debate. When the author insists on doing it anyway, they are the one arguing from a position of authority–which equates to calling your readers liars and idiots. Not the way to win more readers with your shining personality….
This is what boggles me about authors going after readers. Why do they place so much weight on those reviews? Why do they think readers can’t discern between a legitimate criticism and a rant? Why do they think every critique of their story has to be positive?
Negative reviews happen. Authors need to deal with it. Every author who chases down a reader/reviewer, like Stock did, make the rest of us look bad. And that pisses me off. I am a reasonable person and I don’t appreciate being made to feel like I’m just one negative review away from a meltdown. I’m not. I may rant to my husband, consume lots of wine and chocolate, but I won’t chase anyone down and demand a dialogue. How presumptuous and arrogant to even think that’s an author’s right.
@Kate Hewitt: But I ask, what value is that to the reviewer? Why do I spend the time to let an author explain what they didn’t explain on the page? Or have me interpret what I read differently? What you suggest is the domain of book groups – conversations entered by people who want to spend time doing that. IK am all for reader / author interaction where the reader wishes to interact – I think that’s very different from reviewer / author interaction that the author initiates.
Edited to add – I get that we largely agree. I’m reacting to the idea that the reviewer in any way owes this conversation to the author.
It doesn’t matter if that’s what the author “means”. What matters is that’s what I hear.
I already know that the author is “sorry the book didn’t work for me.” I can’t imagine any author INTENDS to produce a story that is boring, or irritating, or just not that great. But every book isn’t meant for every reader, and I don’t take it personally against the author.
Unless, for some inexplicable reason, the author makes it personal by seeking me out to “engage” with their “apology.” Then, how can I help but assume a hidden agenda?
There’s a HUGE difference between authors being “accessible” via blogs, Twitter, etc. , and responding to reviews. The first is an open invitation to approach them, or not, in their own space. The second is an uninvited invasion into my space, or at least a space I thought was safe.
Mmm, I’ll have to think about that. I think reading ‘reader’s’ reviews can possibly be helpful, but not necessarily. Also, I’ve seen too many authors who cannot restrain themselves from the urge to respond, explain, and then get mad, I think – alienating more readers.
I get a lot of that back and forth from my editor. Also, I’m three books ahead of the latest release, and have evolved a lot – although the reader can’t know that. Plus, bad reviews can ruin your day and require copious amounts of wine.
@Lynn Raye Harris: You just sold me a book. Seriously.
It’s a bit disingenuous to say that’s what you ‘hear’. On the internet you have no vocal tone to guide you, and you are assuming quite a lot and could be mistaking the author’s intent completely in some instances. That said, my comments here have not been directed at responding to reviews, but rather authors and readers being able to engage in a meaningful discussion which seems to happen so rarely. I would never support authors chasing after readers or trying to convince them to change a review.
I am not in any way suggesting that the reader owes the author anything. I don’t think she does. And I don’t actually think authors should respond to reviews, since it does seem to shut the conversation down and be unhelpful. I just wish there were more honest discourse between authors and readers, instead of what often feels like antipathy. The attitude from readers sometimes feels like ‘I bought your damn book, now shut up’ and the attitude from authors ‘if you don’t give me five stars you’re stupid and ugly’ and both are depressing and unhelpful.
That’s a silly strawman. Surely you know what she meant?
@Kate Hewitt: I think part of the problem with authors and readers engaging is the pervasive attitudes taught to girls to be nice. Thus, when a person in authority (the author who wrote the book and therefore is more knowledgeable about the book) comes in and says “it meant X, not Y as you took it” there is a tendency for readers to feel like the be nice thing to do is not respond.
Not leaving reviews, actually, may very well be part of a woman’s tendency toward being nice or at least being reluctant to make her opinion known. I think that is changing.
I certainly don’t mind if someone comes and challenges my review because I don’t mind arguing with them. When Avis Exley called out my negative review as a lone voice, I just laughed. But for others, the idea that somehow they are out of step with the mainstream can be discomfiting. We all tend to feel that sometimes when there is a beloved book and we are the only ones that find it execrable.
It is possible that authors can learn from reviews but I think it is also important that reviewers aren’t writing their reviews from that standpoint. That’s been a point of contention that authors have made clear early on. If the point of a review is to start a conversation with another reader or share with another reader thoughts and opinions, then whatever benefit the author may receive is merely tangential.
I think the safest places for authors and readers to engage in discussion is a) when it is not about that particular author’s book and b) when it is clearly designated as an author/reader conversation and c) when it is a general discussion. In those areas, there is equality of sorts. But when it comes to a particular book, I do think that the author presents herself as an authority figure. “I know what this book is about and your interpretations aren’t accurate.”
If you reference Robin’s last link, the reviewer admits that he went in with other expectations. If you read Thea’s review and the author’s response to it, the author wanted Thea to go into his book as if she had never read another book before. I think even Jennifer Crusie once said that she wished readers would leave their reader baggage at the door (paraphrasing). The problem is that readers just can’t. It’s not possible. The entire life and their upbringing and their reading past all affect the interpretations they place on the book.
I think I’ve gone off on a tangent so I’ll just stop typing now.
Yes, I know what she meant, and I’m not attempting to make a big argument of it. It still seems to me a bit unfair to assume all authors mean something so offensive from a fairly innocuous statement.
Writing books and reviewing them too, makes life interesting. I’ve had some absolutely fantastic responses, publicly and privately, about books I didn’t like from authors. A few abusive ones, and “you’re one of us, what are you giving me an F for” ones, but honestly, not so many of those. I’ve learned such a lot, and had such interesting discussions, I’d hate to see them go. As long as both sides agree to be civilised, there’s a lot to be gained by it.
@Kate Hewitt: In fairness to meoskop, that incident just happened this past weekend in the Avis Exley thread. She came to thank me for my detailed review and then, after further comments were made, came back to tell another reader that mine was the lone voice. Thus, the implication in her thank you was exactly how meoskop says that an author’s voice can be interpreted. Even by the “fairly innocuous statement.”
And because of several other such incidences, I think the negative assumption has taken hold.
I think you’re probably right that this is in part a reflection of the girls-be-nice attitude still prevalent in our society. And I realise my comments in this thread are probably coming off like I am defending authors’ responses to reviews, which I am most definitely not. I agree with you, there is a place for author and reader discourse, and it isn’t in response to an Amazon review, or whatever. (As for the Exley review, I didn’t remember exactly what she wrote, and I wouldn’t have referenced it if I’d recalled the ‘lone voice’ comment, so clearly that was not a good example).
All I am really trying to say, and I realise this is tangential to the discussion, is that I regret the apparent hostility between readers and authors (as groups, not necessarily individuals) and wish it were otherwise.
Writing is a lonely business and engaging with readers is a joy of the job. I wish it happened more, and more honestly and openly, critically or otherwise.
@Lynn Raye Harris: What she said.
@Ridley: I did this once, on my second book, and I regret it very much. A reader wrote to me, a very long email taking me to task for my portrayal of a character, and I responded with that very thing you said. At that time, I was still new and still not quite sure how to handle myself. I also thought I was protecting myself from negativity that could undermine my confidence.
I wish that letter had come to me on a later book (or that I’d learned much quicker than I did). I wish I could go back and respond to that woman differently. She was trying to open that dialogue, or at least she’d invited a dialogue with her long email, and I shut it down. I think of it from time to time, but another of my self-protection measures at the time was that I deleted the letter. I wish I could send another response and apologize for the first.
@Kate Hewitt: I wish that we could have more open dialogue too. I would love that. There are times that I’ve had authors email me something in regards to a review and I’ve encouraged them to post it but they are reluctant. It’s a tough balance.
@Meoskop: Thank you!
Nicole – by fair, I mean no personal attacks. I agree that the whole “you’ve got to say something nice” makes a review meaningless. The review should be about the book. Period.
I think that there are plenty of ways for authors to interact with readers that don’t involve commenting on reviews. Twitter, for instance, works really well for this. Or being involved with other discussions on blogs and forums. And, horror of horrors, being a reviewer as well as an author. As a reader, I do like to get to know authors – not to get their expert opinion on their books, but because I’m interested in getting to know the people who write the kind of books I love. As an author, I’m always happy to hear from readers and get to know them too. I do read reviews of my books and I particularly love the bad ones, for some reason. They make me smile and sometimes they make me take note of something I need to do better in future.
I think that if you want authors to be involved with reader discussions, the safest way to set that up is in a book club format, like the one at Smart Bitches. That way everyone is clear that the author is in the room and can ask the kinds of questions they want. Otherwise I think it is always true that authors commenting on reviews make the discussion about them, not the book, however well-meaning they are.
The “it’s just commercial fiction” argument drives me bonkers. Do you want to be taken seriously or not? In fact, I think it is *more* important to analyze commercial genres for their social messages and tropes than it is to analyze a really self-conscious and obscure literary novel. What is going to have more effect on our culture? The book two thousand people read, or the book two million people read?
As for reviews themselves… authors, please don’t underestimate your readership. We’re not idiots, and most of us don’t glance at the star average and move on without looking at the breakdown of reviews down below. Personally I disregard the ranting one-stars AND the ranting five-stars. “I loved it!!!” vs “I hated it!!!” mean nothing to me without reasons to back it up, so usually the mid-range reviews are the ones that tell me what I need to know. And guess what? Sometimes a good review will cite reasons that make it clear this book isn’t right for me (say, somebody gushes about a steamy love triangle), and sometimes a bad review will convince me to read an excerpt and decide for myself (say, somebody complains there was too much action, not enough sexxin).
I don’t see any hostility between these groups in general. I love the authors I talk to on Twitter, as they add another perspective and insight to discussions. The only hostility I and other readers have is towards anyone who doesn’t respect boundaries. We love authors… until they violate the social contract and creep us out. But we also dislike other readers who do that. Review certain authors’ books critically, and the fangirls descend en masse to tell you how wrong you are. That’s just as intimidating.
It’s not that we don’t want to talk to authors. It’s that we don’t like the emotional manipulation behind the comments authors tend to leave on reviews.
I’ve actually had an author post a comment to one of my Amazon reviews before. And to the authors above who think posting something like “I’m sorry this didn’t work for you” is innocuous, I can assure you it’s not. I realize the author was probably just trying to be friendly, but I felt intimidated by the author’s comment…even though it was polite, and even though there wasn’t even a hint of asking me to change anything. I had commented on how the book seemed too short and the story wasn’t fully developed because of that, and the author commented thanking me for my comment and saying the book was quite long on her computer. Strange response. I ended up feeling really self conscious about my review and weirded out that the author would have taken the time to write, especially over such an odd point. (It wasn’t even a terrible review–I commented on good and not-so-good points.) Believe me, I will never review, nor read, another one of this author’s books again! It’s also made me think twice about reviewing other books.
I think it’s a good thing for reviewers to consider that the author is a person who has real feelings. Reviews SHOULD focus on the book and should be backed up with genuine observations from the book itself–they should really think through what they’re saying. (If you say the writing is sloppy, you should have examples. If you say the main character is stupid, you should have examples. Etc.) But, reviewers don’t always do that, and that’s just a part of life. Anyone who has ever been reviewed (performance evaluations, assignments for school, etc) for any reason knows that.
Ideally reviews should be based on evidence from the text, but what makes reading (and thinking) so wonderful is that evidence can sometimes be interpreted in multiple ways.
That’s good to hear :)
Fascinating comments here.
A couple of quick observations – contacting a reviewer when you’re an author is nuts. It’s just plain bloody nuts. Reviewers are a percentage of the book reading market but they don’t represent the entire book reading market. They are simply people who like to express an opinion about a book in a public sphere. It’s within the realm of possibility the vast majority of an authors readers don’t blog and don’t review on Amazon. They might well be expressing a like or dislike of a title among their friends and family – should an author seek them out as well for “clarification”?
Frankly the whole notion of contacting reviewers is an exploration of an author’s vanity – that’s really what it all has to boil down to. I honestly can’t think of a reason other than author vanity to contact a reviewer. (It’s creepy. It’s stalkerriffic. It’s @#$% wrong and authors should stop it. Now.)
Authors can gussy up the reasons for contacting a reviewer, but want to know something? I have a literary agent. I challenge any agented author to tell their literary agent they plan to contact a reviewer for “clarification”. Let’s see how quickly that agent drops the author’s sorry ass.
Hard and fast rules:
1) Don’t read reviews.
2) If you must read reviews, then read the glowing ones. (Everyone likes to hear the good rather than the bad)
3) Ask yourself – “will my agent kick my ass if I do this?”
4) Ask yourself – will the blogosphere find out and eviscerate me as a result? (Um … yes.)
2012 – forget about the Mayans. This is the year author’s lost their sh#t.
I’ve been pondering this for the last hour or so, but I think I have to agree with Hapax that it doesn’t really matter what the author intends when leaving a polite response to a review. I’m probably going to feel intruded upon as the reviewer. And I’m the type who genuinely wants to give the benefit of the doubt, but if a book led me to vent my reasons for disliking it into a review, the last thing I’d hope for in the comments section was a gentle, polite response from the author of said book. That hasn’t happened to me personally too often, but when it did, I got little to no response from regular readers, and, hence, no book discussion like I’d hoped. It would really be in the better interest for the author, of whom I feel reviews are never about anyway, to just let it go. Last I’d heard, readers don’t need the author to lead them in any direction on what to think of their books, or reviewers for that matter (which isn’t what I and probably many others are trying to do). Readers make up their own minds.
This was the statement (and the earlier version) that seemed particularly jarring to me in Hogan’s position. Personally, I give honest reviews, some more detailed than others. If I liked a book or not, I try to say why. Sometimes a book will really annoy me, and my comments about the book will be a little on the scathing side. I guess I can handle the thought of the author reading it. However, I’m not generally a confrontational person, and an author popping up to respond to me (no matter how gracious or even grateful their comments) would probably really unnerve me. If the author tries to change my opinion (even politely), I’m definitely going to see that as a hassle, not as a “good customer service” moment. One way to avoid the hassle? Not buying or reading any more of the author’s books.
But really, Hogan’s axiom should be revised and given to authors:
(apologies if someone already said that)
From a PR/marketing perspective, going after negative reviewers is a waste of resources, if nothing else. You want to focus the bulk of your marketing efforts on people who haven’t heard of you and have no opinion of you yet. The people who have heard of you have formed an opinion that you’ll have to work really hard to change. With the ones whose opinion is favorable, you want to put in some effort in keeping them informed about new releases. Chasing after those who’ve formed a negative opinion is a waste of time that could better be spent on reaching new people.
You’re not going to make reviewers like you more if you chastise them. You’re just going to make them have an even stronger negative opinion, no matter what happens to your star rating for that book. In the time it takes to track down the review, find a way to contact the reviewer and then engage in any kind of communication, you could have found some marketing activity that would introduce you to readers who’ve never heard of you.
The best reviews I’ve ever received have been negative ones. A reader taking the time to articulate why my writing didn’t work was the best feeling ever. It was something I discovered years and years ago in the poetry world; an editor could publish your poem and you wouldn’t know why it worked but one who took the time to explain where your weakness was helped you identify that in further work and pushed you to be better.
My first couple of book reviews thrilled me so much I jumped in and thanked the reviewer. I wouldn’t do that now. Although I wish I could thank those who gave the work thoughtful response even with only one or two stars.
And to my mind, my emotional response to anything I read is my response and I own it. I don’t owe the author anything beyond paying for the book. I don’t even owe an articulate review if I choose to review it. (One book I read pissed me off so bad all I did was write a number of curse words as a Goodreads review.)
I’d pity the author who might try to engage a conversation after that.
As someone who reviewed books professionally for a number of years (I used to be RT’s SF person) and who is now doing their own thing (I have a book review blog with a friend), I have a deep and abiding interest in this issue–reviews are for readers, period. One person’s review isn’t going to doom a book to abject failure or raise it to the lofty heights of bestsellerdom. It just isn’t. (Me mentioning that I used to be a pro reviewer is not my attempting to pull rank on anyone in this conversation, but it is something that has informed my perspective on this issue.)
I am still boggling at the notion that any writer would “track down” a reviewer to discuss their review (and proudly write about it, too, by the way!). The ego and entitlement inherent in that idea is just…well, mind boggling. Here’s the deal: the moment you write a book and publish it for public consumption, you are offering it up for scrutiny. Let’s be honest, most writers dream of that scrutiny resulting in praise for their hours of toil at the keyboard (I believe we can even find the kind of things some writers dream of having said about them in the sock puppet reviews they write of their own work – “one of the most talented authors of today” and “his ability to craft the English language is breathtaking” spring to mind). But the reality is that once the book leaves our hands we have no control over how it will be perceived and received in the world. Just as my life experiences and psychological make up (for want of a better word) inform the way I write and what I choose to write about, a reader brings these same things to the table when she reads. My book becomes something else when filtered through their eyes/imagination. They form their own opinion about it – and I’ve asked them to do that by putting it in front of them in the first place. I have no right to try to influence a reader’s opinion post publication. I had my say when I wrote the book in the first place. If I failed to convey something, I failed. If for whatever reason the reader didn’t pick up on something that was clearly there, well, so be it. That was their experience of the book. Me hunting them down and engaging in some sort of debate with them over the merits of my writing or storytelling would be nothing but an exercise in rampant egotism, because as several people have said above, the reader gets nothing out of that experience except browbeaten. Like all writers, I’m a reader, too, and I appreciate good, rational, critical reviews that help me gauge whether a book will ring my bell or not. As a reader, I hope that the reviewing community holds strong against these incursions and invasions by needy authors. I need book recs! I love seeing discussion amongst fellow romance lovers. It would be a bad and horrible day if these kinds of smothering tactics succeeded in quelling discussion. As a writer…if you read my book, I’m honored that you trusted me with several hours of your life and I hope I gave you something in return for your money and time and investment of imagination. But any efforts I can make to ensure that was a positive experience for you ended when I finished the book and sent it off for publication. Once the book is public, it’s fair game. If that’s not something you can handle as a writer, then you need to keep your manuscript in the bottom drawer.
Doesn’t help when authors like this ( http://lichencraig.blogspot.com/2012/10/if-you-are-reader-do-you-read-book.html ) blog about what reviews should be.
Authors hate it when people dictate what they should write about and how they should write about it. Why is this principle not given to reviewers too? Or is this a different issue, a possible strawman, I’m making here?
When I first joined this community around 6 years ago, it seemed to me that authors and readers interracted fairly readily and without many boundaries – as a newbie I thought it was odd, to be honest. Whilst I did come to enjoy the interractions I had with many authors (and made friendships that helped with my own writing, later) I was never comfortable sharing review space with authors.
The first time I remember reading a blog post about authors chilling discussion (though there may have been others before this) was this post by Jessica at RRR – which I see is three and half years old. At the time it felt like quite a novel (to me) suggestion : http://www.readreactreview.com/2009/04/20/do-author-comments-have-a-chilling-effect-on-review-discussions/#more-2619
I’m also reminded, Robin, of a post you wrote some years ago about how online communities can establish rules of conduct (apologies, I couldn’t find the link). I think I made a comment in which I was pretty dismissive about the practicality of ever attempting such a thing. I think I’ve changed my mind on that now – I was coming at the idea from a typically lawyerly and institutional perspective of having rigid, fixed rules that universally apply – that could never work but there is something more fluid that can happen via discussions like this – attempts at reaching a broad (but realistically never a unanimous) consensus on important issues. And from my perspective, that’s the positive to focus on here – this is driving a community discussion that will change the way (some) people behave. That’s got to be a good thing, I think.
Thanks for that link. 2009, wow. 3 years now and things have changed for the worse.
@Edward: that Lichen Craig post … I can’t even. That exhausted an entire year’s supply of “can”.
I’d never heard of this author, but hilariously tin-eared pseudonym aside, I found the description of the book mildly intriguing, until I read the post and stumbled over this bit:
followed by the list of things (plot, theme, characters, technical skills) that a reviewer is NOT allowed to mention.
Obviously, despite my more than ten years as a professional paid reviewer, and thirty years as a librarian, I am simply not QUALIFIED enough to read Craig’s books.
Good to know.
@Sarah Mayberry — your comment was enough to make me buy some of your books, if I didn’t already have a reader full of them! But I see you have a new title coming out in November — a companion to All They Need? Well, one more for the Shopping Cart!
@sarah Mayberry: What an awesome post! But yeah, mind boggles was my first reaction too when I read about reviewer tracking for the first time elsewhere :(
@hapax: I wondered where I remember this nickname (Lichen Craig) from and I remembered – he/she was busily promoting her/his book on Amazon at some point. Couple of friends read this book and had good words to say, but after reading this obnoxiousness there is absolutely no way I will ever buy that book. I am most certainly not qualify to review it. Ooops.
I have jumped in where angels fear to tread and commented on Lichen Craig’s post (part of me hopes that is actually his real name and that his parents meant it lovingly).
Also, I know it’s always only been a stylistic conceit, but I do genuinely wonder if now is a good time to consider renaming Dear Author. The conceit does appear to invite authors into the discussion of their books and, especially if an author doesn’t regularly hang out here, it could be misleading. I have no suggestions for better titles, but I think it might be worth reviewing whether Dear Author is the best way you want the blog to be known.
Great post Robin – I’ve been looking forward to it :)
In general, I think an author should not respond in public to a review of his/her own book. I think authors are welcome in all other discussions. I love socialising with authors on blogs like this, on Twitter etc. If a blogger/reader/reviewer explicitly *invites* an author into a discussion of her own book that is a different thing altogether. I think if an author feels s/he absolutely has to contact a reviewer (and I’d think about whether there would be a mutual benefit to the discussion rather than only to the author before doing it) it should be done offline in a private setting so as not to chill any public discussion.
I reviewed a Sarah Mayberry book recently. In relation to the same book I tweeted her about how she made my cry and how I was worried about one of the characters because her writing made me care so much. I *invited* that discussion with her and we had a fun (and from her side, classy) Twitter conversation about it. I did not invite her to respond to my review and she didn’t. That’s how it works.
Really… the words… tracked her down…I mean, how can he not clue in on that?
Oh. Yeah. I figured this out on twitter earlier. My comment… Dear Stalker-Ass Author: You’re a moron. (Or maybe I called him an idiot.)
@Kaetrin: Perfect example of the difference between review space and a Twitter comment! And classy of Sarah Mayberry to respect the distance (doesn’t surprise me at all).
I never understand why anyone tags an author when tweeting a link to a negative review, because tagging the author is an invitation to conversation, I think. I once mentioned an author in a tweet (without using her Twitter handle) and when she responded directly to me, I was a little creeped out — she wasn’t an author who followed me, or whom I followed, but somehow my little comment came to her attention and she jumped all over it. Never reading a book by her again.
I endorse the idea of safe spaces for different kinds of conversation. An author’s blog, for example, should be safe from people who hate the kind of books the author writes; by the same token, I think a reader’s space should be free of authorial intrusion. I think, more and more, that readers today know how to find authors if they want to talk to them, and authors are clearly in those spaces looking for reader interaction — Twitter, Facebook, guest posts on blogs, even a Goodreads group that’s clearly identified as author-inclusive. (And I blame Goodreads’ determination to flog off readers to authors as a commodity to access using their site for some of the confusion around this issue online. Sunita wrote some great posts on that back in August, which I have stunningly failed to link to here.)
The Smart Bitches book club referenced above is a great example — readers talk about the book knowing that the author will be joining them for the last hour, so it’s not intrusive or creepy. I think it’s still chilling, but that’s the trade-off. The important thing is that everyone involved is agreed on the author’s presence, and that shapes some basic expectations for the interaction.
I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments here, and of course Robin for making such a clear case to begin with. This is a brave new world for readers as much as authors, and feeling our way through it with some understanding of each other’s perspective is a lot better than antagonism. Readers and authors shouldn’t be antagonists, and I don’t think they need to be if voices like these are really heard.
Over at the Site Which Shall Not Be Named, former frequent DA poster Gyruleine on Vacation is so far against the opinion that authors should not engage with reviewers over reviews, that she believes the author should have final control over the review’s content:
I’m sure that all the reviewers and readers reading this, would be perfectly happy to allow authors to tell them what to write.
@hapax: Good to know I’m not the only one who is having a WTF moment at that post. It’s a free world. That author can believe whatever. As far I’m concerned, the author did me a favor and saved my money and my time. I’m moving along.
It’s only a few authors who are misbehaving but with so many drama this year I hesitate to talk any author. I’m a real coward for it, but I’m not going to risk my safety. No. Reviewing is already a precarious task thank you very much. Looking at you That Site That Must Not Be Named.
Never knew simply posting an opinion about a book can actually lead one to be tracked, stalked, and doxed.
I still love authors, but it only take one loco to ruin the initiative to talk to authors. That attack on agent Pam by an author-wannabe at her home last month scared the fuck out of me. (Article on attack: http://mybookgoggles.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/authors-behaving-badly-attack-on-pam.html)
@Ann Somerville: So let me get this straight, now we are taking it a step further. Not only mentioning of the author is bad in the review, accidentally I just want to know who will disagree that attack on the author’s person does not belong in the review, but now we cannot even talk about contents of the book, unless the author approves that my criticisms of the characters, plot, themes, etc is legitimate?
OMG, I want somebody to approach me with this idiocy, please do. (Sarcasm). And I know I asked it before, but how come she does not understand that there are more authors in this world than any sane reader can manage to read?
Hey, Author (Guruilene, or whoever) on Vacation, guess what – the result of this will be *no review*, not the review you want, how come so many of you do not understand that???
And does she seriously think that free books is the main incentive for reviewers to do so? Probably 90- 95% of my amazon reviews are the books I paid for and boy do I have a lot of those sitting on my kindle which I will read eh one day. ARC copies is a nice trinket, nice frosting on the top of the cake which is my love of talking about the books. Trust me, dear on vacation I can always afford a book I want to read and somebody please show me the reader who buys the book wanting to trash it? I always want to love the book I buy or get for review. OY. Sorry for the rant.
SEP just posted this on her FB page. I’m wondering who it is aimed at. Readers? Reviewers? Her fans?
@Dabney: SEP has professed publicly to disliking DA and SBTB so I’m guessing we are the people lacking in intelligence and courtesy.
@Dabney: Please forgive my ignorance – primarily mm reader here, but who is SEP? Thanks :)
@Jane: Oh, that’s good to know. I’ll make sure my next negative review is both stupid and rude.
I am bothered by the idea that simply because someone worked hard, he or she must be praised. An awareness of the effort behind the work should not influence a review of the work.
@Dabney: What a prat.
@Sirius: Susan Elizabeth Phillips who has sold millions of books and won every romance award possible.
@Dabney: But given that she feels the need to sign up on Goodreads, it would seem that she wants increased promotion. So essentially she wants more reviews and exposure but only in the way that Author on Vacation would deem appropriate. Reviews, now with quote approval.
@Dabney: Thanks. Never heard of her. Live and learn lol.
Dabney, with this “I am bothered by the idea that simply because someone worked hard, he or she must be praised. An awareness of the effort behind the work should not influence a review of the work.” you have absolutely hit the nail on the head.
When I was a teacher, I had students argue with me that simply doing the work, regardless of quality, should earn them an A. It was extraordinarily frustrating to try to explain to them that’s not the way it works. I thought they simply didn’t get it because they were teenagers. Apparently even adults, and successful ones at that, believe simply working hard means the world owes you something.
The world isn’t fair and the world owes us nothing. As a writer, I don’t feel a reviewer owes me anything. If they want to be rude, it’s their perogative just as it’s a person’s prerogative to be rude in line at the grocery store. Would it piss me off? Yeah, but I’m not going to whine about it in a public forum.
It baffles me there ‘s such a disconnect here. Or that someone as successful as SEP cares that some people trash her books online. People criticize the President, the Pope, hell I bet you can find anti-Mother Theresa websites out there. It’s life.
If you want everyone to be nice, surround yourself with nice people and forget the rest. Also, don’t go on the Internet. Ever.
@Jane: One could read her post and take from it that good reviews that are rude and stupid are fine–it’s only the critical ones that need to be kind and smart.
@Nicole: I do hate that expectation. When my kids were little and played kiddie sports I railed against the trophies for all concept. What one earth does a child learn from that? “I showed up, ate snacks, kicked the ball, and, look, now I’ve got an award.”
Achievement is achievement. Some people get there by brains alone, some by dint of effort, some with lots of help, most with some combination of those things. It’s just as silly to say that someone who wrote something brilliant without much effort shouldn’t be rewarded as it is to say effort only should garner praise.
‘If everyone is special, than no one is.’
When I did my MA in Education the general belief was that effort should be given an A, always. Ability wasn’t as important as attitude, which I suppose is a nice thought but it doesn’t really work in real life.
@Dabney: I don’t know why she’s complaining since she doesn’t read them anyway! Yeah, right. She reads them. That’s why she’s complaining.
Did anyone ever find out if Author on Vacation is a traditional published author or an indie? She really seemed dismissive of everyone and everything, both indie and traditional.
@Dabney: How disappointing. I’ve enjoyed her books, but that attitude makes me less inclined to read any future ones.
@sarah Mayberry: Well said and insightful.
What an odd comment from SEP.
After all, as much as I’ve enjoyed (most) of her books, the one consistent theme — especially in the later ones — is that good intentions, effort, and talent count for nothing; the ONLY thing that earns a heroine her HEA is to have the entire world hate her and treat her horribly for no good reason.
You’d think, given that running motif, that SEP would welcome “mean reviews”, and eagerly seek out as much online “bullying” as she can get.
Or maybe that’s what that Facebook post is meant to invite?
@Jane: I doubt SEP thinks she needs more promotion. She probably just wants to be on GR to talk to fans or share happy thoughts about books.
@Ridley: Really appreciate this comment. I’d like to be able to apologize to a reader if I’ve written something offensive and learn from the experience. I don’t know if most reviewers would be open to this kind of dialogue or if most authors could engage in it without getting defensive. Maybe the key is that an author can respond in a sincere attempt to learn and grow, rather than teach and manipulate?
I can think of an example from my reviews here. More than one reviewer IIRC has criticized the unoriginal mental lusting between my characters. I can’t say that I consider this a big problem, but I’ve been thinking about it lately. I’d like to ask for examples of original mental lusting. What does it look like, Judith Ivory characterizations in which they lust after odd physical quirks? I don’t know! This is not the kind of thing you’re talking about, of course, and I’m sure it’s not an appropriate or important discussion to launch in the comments of the review.
Another example. I just read a negative movie review for “Savages.” Violetta Vane thought it was racist and awful. I thought it was authentic and awesome! Now, if I’m the creator, I can’t engage with Violetta in a defensive manner. I might not think I have anything to learn from her. I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up–I’m just thinking about the difficulty of having discussions like this when you have a financial and emotional stake in the material. While I applaud your openness to having a dialogue with the author of the book you mentioned, I imagine that she disagrees with you so strongly on the content that such a discussion isn’t possible. Her instinct would be to defend her choices rather than accepting that her book is full of offensive stereotypes.
Also, how can we determine if our work IS truly offensive when opinions are so varied? RequiresHate thinks Charlaine Harris is a racist. Should Harris apologize to and learn from this reader? I don’t know. I do know that Harris should NOT contact her with the intention of changing the reader’s mind or manipulating her emotionally.
I had some other general comments to make but I’ve gone on too long. Great discussion–thanks!
Like Ros, I fixed on the last part of SEP’s comment, namely that she doesn’t read reviews. My first reaction was a head-shaking disappointment that she is using her platform as an author to denigrate reviews she has not even read, without acknowledging the irony in that, given her remarks about intelligence and courtesy. I’m guessing that her fans won’t be bothered by any credibility issues there, but beyond the irony of the “mean girl” characterization, has anyone volunteered to name one of these unintelligent, discourteous, mean girl reviews, so that we can all see the standard we should be living up/down to?
I’d also suggest to @Kate Hewitt that this SEP mini-rant is a perfect example of why readers are wary of author contact. And I agree that it’s frustrating; in fact, IIRC, the majority of us who were arguing with Ron Hogan come from academic backgrounds, so we’re acclimated to a much more open critical climate. One point I kept making to Hogan was that the environment of open, honest engagement between authors and readers requires trust on both sides. And whether it’s fair or not, I think the bulk of the responsibility for building that trust lies with authors, because authors are the “professionals,” who have the interest of commercial profit.
I do still think it’s pretty early in Romance, at least, for the culture I remember when I first started online (about ten years ago) to have changed completely — and what I’m referring to is a more fan-structured culture where readers were not so much reviewing and critiquing books publicly, but were looking at authors more as celebrities, seeking signed books and the like. While that reality has changed substantially, I think there is a lot of lingering resentment toward this change, and a belief that “criticism” is a bad, negative, destructive thing. While on the reader side, there is some harsh, IMO over-personal lashing out at authors, and perhaps resentment from authors that readers seem to have that freedom when they do not.
What I’m afraid of is that authors who want to have things become more “positive” push on the community before it’s ready, thus catalyzing more backlash. As we all know, trust takes a lot longer to build than to destroy.
The question I asked at the end of my post, which I don’t think has really been taken up, is how are we going to get to that place where authors and readers can talk about reader reactions to books in a non-adversarial, non-threatening way?
I was reading several articles last night about Judith Butler’s receipt of the Adorno Prize, and (http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/09/12/butler-wins-adorno-prize/), and in the press release she had a great line in there that I think is appropriate for this discussion, too:
”Critical” does not mean destructive, but only willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world.
Obviously this applies to readers and authors alike, but I think this kind of willingness might be a good place to start in transforming some of our online genre fiction communities.
@Joanna Chambers: Is this the post and comment? https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/whos-rulin-who/#comment-195326
I, too, have changed and changed again when it comes to my own perceptions of community rules and customs. When I first started online, I was a vocal proponent of “civility,” and I had all sorts of internal distinctions regarding “good” and “bad” reviews. Looking back, I’m convinced that I felt this way because I was still somewhat insecure about being online and about feeling like I fit in anywhere.
As I became more comfortable online and had secure blogging platforms, my sense of what I felt was “required” loosened a lot. I found myself defending reviews that I previously would have felt were insufficient in some way; in fact, my whole definition of “review” got leaner and less fussy. I felt strongly that it was much more important to defend openness than to try and proscribe rules of civility, and I really believed that the good outweighed the bad in terms of online speech.
Now, with the recent crapola, I have not changed my convictions about the importance of speech and my underlying faith in the ability of a community to remain constructive, but I am also more interested in promoting “mindful” interchange. Things feel more fragile, and I feel like thoughtful, constructive voices are withdrawing. I don’t think of civility as a good goal anymore, because I think it mostly amounts to tolerance, and that’s not always a positive value. And I haven’t lost my idealism, either. But I do think it’s important to talk about community values and mores and to try to negotiate some of the more contentious relationships. I also feel strongly in solidarity among those with shared interests and values, and I think that’s kind of become my new campaign. And it’s not because I think people are stupid or intrinsically mean; I just think that we can all get so enmeshed in our own stuff that we lose our mindful awareness of how we are connected to other people and what our informal responsibilities to them might be. If nothing else, these discussions allow us all to become a little more aware of what other people are thinking and feeling, even if we don’t seem to be ‘getting anywhere’ in a quantifiable way.
I absolutely agree with you that the trust has to be on both sides, and also that the majority of the responsibility falls to authors since to some it seems as if they are in the position of power. I think the fact that this discussion is occurring at all is a positive sign. There will always be badly behaving authors, because there will always be badly behaving humans. I hope, however, that they dwindle to a very small minority.
@Ron Hogan: I have NEVER suggested that “pursuing” the reader-reviewer is a good thing.
You never used those words, that’s true. And had I just been taking my reaction from your Beatrice article alone, I might even have accepted your explanation. However, after spending however many hours and however many comments debating you in the comments to Liz’s post, you sure did seem dug in against every single objection any of us had to your apparent endorsement of Lothlorien’s “customer service” strategy. In fact, now that I really think about it (and go back over some of your comments), I’d almost characterize your position as a vehement conviction that readers had a responsibility to expect author contact and response to our reviews, and that such contact would be unfailingly appropriate, because the reader chose to write her review in a public online space.
This tweet (https://twitter.com/RonHogan/status/255738986339897345) and the two following it also give me that impression, particularly your statements that The “polite fiction” readers “need” to discuss books IN PUBLIC w/o authors responding dehumanizes authors AND gives readers false security. And that If you need a space where you can talk about books & not have to deal with authors, create one. But don’t confuse the public sphere for it.
I know some of us responded to similar comments to these at length on Liz’s blog, but I will just say — again — that there are all sorts of customs, policies, and limitations associated with public spaces that prescribe and proscribe behavior. For example, you can’t protest on most public university campuses in such a way that interferes with the educational work/mission of the institution. There are often rules around how much amplification you can use, how many people, where you can gather, and whether you even have to reserve the space to do so. Then there are many codes of behavior that are accepted as the norm in regard to public places (like being quiet in public library, for example).
But beyond that, I think there’s some confusion about what constitutes a “public” space online. Sure locations that anyone can surf to are public in a very general sense. Just like restaurants and shopping malls and parking lots. However, just as many of those commercial spaces are privately owned and managed, so do many online spaces have domain name owners and/or moderators who determine whether or not you or I or anyone else can comment or even see what’s going on past a certain point. So a blog, for example, is a public space in the sense that people can surf to it and (if it’s marked as “public”) read it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all for everyone. Nor does it mean that every type of speech from every type of speaker is appropriate or desirable.
And that’s the whole point here: the custom of authors not responding to reviews, especially in the reviewing space, is long-standing and deeply-entrenched. And it’s not because reviewers are big babies who can’t take author feedback. The public nature of the venue facilitates broad access. When you have the number of people you want to invite into conversation about a review so far exceeding the number you don’t, it’s ridiculous to set up barricades that will likely keep out many of the people you want to invite into the discussion.
And to suggest that maintaining these boundaries is disrespectful or dehumanizing to authors, or that it signifies lack of “moral conviction” in readers, undermines the environment of open exchange and critique you champion. We all know these spaces are “public” in the broadest sense. We don’t discourage people from yelling in the library or peeing in the public pool or talking in class or unnecessarily honking their car horns to the rhythm of a Lady Gaga song on a public street at 4am because it’s “dehumanizing” to expect them to refrain from such behavior; we do it out of respect for the idea that not all boundaries have to be physical or legally enforced to be valid and socially legitimate.
Beyond all that, I do worry that part of the commercial mindset of some authors (especially those who also act as publisher) is incompatible with the environment that is more likely to yield commercial success. That is, it seems that the perceived threat of negative reviews outweighs the perceived value of having as many people as possible read and review and discuss one’s books. And even if some people — readers and authors alike — do not see the inherent value in a culture that values the broadest possible book talk, I’m hoping the reality of many readers shying away from an author who tracks down even a single reviewer will at least challenge the perceived commercial value of reader tracking.
@Kate Hewitt: I’m not sure it’s even the number that counts as much as how the majority uses its platform and power. For example, the recent anti-bullying post at DA that engendered immediate controversy is an example of how what I think is a perfectly innocent disconnect ended up salting an open wound. Sometimes it’s an issue of awareness and of knowing what’s going on in the community and how readers in a particular venue are feeling. Sometimes it’s an issue of giving the benefit of the doubt — on both sides (reader and author). Sometimes it’s an issue of bad timing. But whatever it is, those incidents can create an inadvertent setback that can ripple through the community as a whole. I just think we all need to be extra mindful right now, and fair or not, that probably goes double for authors.
@Jill Sorenson: Actually I do think she thinks she needs more promotion. Why would she want to sign up for Goodreads where a bunch of meangirls hangs out when she can get all the adulation she wants from her own forum or facebook page. Just because you hit the list doesn’t mean it lasts forever. Her last book didn’t sell as well according to the USA Today list. It spent two weeks on the list and peaked at 16 whereas her previous book spent 4 weeks on the list and peaked 14. Her bookscan numbers, year over year, have been declining. This could be in large part due to the contraction of physical brick & mortar stores. I had been hearing last year that for most book authors flat (in terms of sales) is the new up due to smaller print runs and digital book sales not representing a one to one replacement for lost print sales
It is, in part, this ongoing pressure on authors to get out there and make connections that drives this belief that one negative review or even five are going to do a book in.
What’s ironic is that because of the high profile subversions of the Amazon ratings, I’ve seen a lot of readers on Amazon talk about how they totally disregard books now that have only positive reviews, believing those reviews to be fake. Books that have negative reviews are less likely to be the subject of fraud in these readers’ minds.
Pursuing reviewers in order to get negative reviews taken down will result in likely negative consequences, not just in the bad publicity (because that’s probably always a positive) but in terms of the remaining reviews giving the book a suspicious aspect or reviews dwindling in overall numbers as readers and reviewers become more reluctant to review.
@Robin/Janet: The question I asked at the end of my post, which I don’t think has really been taken up, is how are we going to get to that place where authors and readers can talk about reader reactions to books in a non-adversarial, non-threatening way?
I think Kate Hewitt has the right of it. I think we all need to be more patient and understanding with each other. I think readers need to be more willing to comment even if an author is present in the comment thread and accept that the author could have had a different intention (even though it obviously didn’t work with that reader) and that authors need to be more willing to field the criticism.
@Jane: Maybe you’re right. I follow plenty of authors on GR who actually write reviews and use the site like regular readers, so maybe my perception is skewed. I’m certainly not defending her mean girls comment. I think that kind of attitude is damaging to the reviewing community and I’d never support it. Readers should be encouraged to write honest reviews, period.
I agree with everything else you said and I wish more authors would stop trying to manipulate the system by getting negative reviews taken down and/or buying positive ones. Both practices are loathsome.
So, here’s the next post on FB by SEP. This also has an interesting–and to me, untenable–idea: one should only review books that are one’s “cup of tea.” Yes, all reviewers–and writers and readers and pretty much everybody–has a bias. If we only commented on those things that fit into our bias, we would all live in a far less nuanced and informed world. This, to me, is perhaps more disconcerting than her assertion that authorial effort should play into a review.
@Dabney: Ah, but what happens when you don’t like a book that’s your absolute cup or tea? There’s no guarantee that readers will like a book until they actually read it. Not even when the reader’s bias tends to lean towards that particular author, genre or trope. Should those readers refrain from reviewing the book as well?
@Jane: I think Kate Hewitt has the right of it. I think we all need to be more patient and understanding with each other. I think readers need to be more willing to comment even if an author is present in the comment thread and accept that the author could have had a different intention (even though it obviously didn’t work with that reader) and that authors need to be more willing to field the criticism.
I agree that’s a good start, and in a practical sense, may be most of what we can accomplish in the short run.
Several people also mentioned the book club at SBTB, too, where the author comes in at the halfway point and engages with the readership. That made me wonder whether there are more deliberate spaces we can establish to promote actual book discussions (because while these discussions are valuable, it’s nice to facilitate the end game ones, too). And I’m also wondering whether bloggers can create policies delineating whether or not they welcome author input to reviews (some probably will). I’m just thinking about what kind controlled experiments we already have going and what kind we might be able to design as a way of, at the very least, creating some happy book-talk and author-reader mingling.
@Brie: Funnily enough, that’s true for me with SEP’s books. There are many I like, a few I think are so-so and at least one I thought bit. And today, I just read the second in a series by a well-known historical author where, though I’d loved the first, the second didn’t work for me.
To take it one step further: I don’t really read fantasy or para-normal. But I’ve reviewed several books in those genres–some positively–because I think it’s useful for readers to see what someone new to a genre thinks of a book. It’s a way to introduce readers to genres they might not flock to. This, I think, is something most authors would prize.
Honestly, her comments baffle me. If they are genuinely off-the-cuff, she’s brave. If they’re at all planned, it’s odd.
Robin’s comment about the number of academics involved in the online romance community made me think. I know there is the IASPR and associated journal, and an increasing awareness of romance novels as suitable material for academic research. But I don’t know if there is a place where individual romance novels are being reviewed or discussed in a more academic way. I ask because I would love to have the sort of conversations that are “open, honest, critically productive discussions”, and to me, the sort of environment that seems most likely to foster such discussion is one that adheres to some kind of academic principles. Do they ever do this at Teach Me Tonight? I’ve mostly only seen meta-discussions there. Would anyone else be interested in reviews from this sort of perspective?
@Jane: What happened to the DA book club? Is it still happening? I felt like the way it was set up didn’t quite work to stimulate discussion, because the author was ‘present’ in your interviews, though not involved in the discussion. Maybe that’s a thing to revisit and think about?
@Dabney and @Brie:
First of all, how does someone who doesn’t read reviews know what’s being put out there?
Beyond that, how the hell do you eve know if a book is “your cup of tea” (god I hate that expression) until you’ve read it?
You know, I’ve been really determined, as a reviewer, to take on any book, because I think that’s the fairest use of my time. Reviewing is time-consuming for me, and I don’t love everything I read (nor do I review every book I read-just don’t have the time & some are already reviewed). But I try to take every book on its own terms, and I can enjoy a book that executes its premise well, even if it doesn’t use one of my favorite tropes or motifs.
But even if none of that was the case — even if I picked up every book I expected to hate, read it, and then wrote a negative review of it — who is to say that’s wrong? Other readers decide the value of reviews, and I could imagine a hysterical blog comprised entirely of reviews of book the reviewer(s) hated. Frankly, I often learn more about a book — and a reviewer — from reading those negative reviews. I’ve picked up many a book based on a negative review.
Still, I think what SEP is saying there is a not-very-well-veiled version of “if you don’t have anything nice…” and that’s not reviewing — that’s promotion, and it’s what authors are supposed to be doing for their own work. The reviewer’s job is different, and who can ever get to know and trust the analytical ability and taste of a reviewer who refuses to express any critical sentiments about any book?
What a strange, strange comment from SEP.
I mean, I agree with “no sweeping statements that basically say anybody who likes this book is an idiot” — reviewing potential readers is even more unhelpful and unprofessional than reviewing authors instead of books — but she seems to be saying “only review books that you liked” which once again, comes down to “only give positive reviews” which, no.
After all, I have given enthusiastic recommendations for books of types I greatly dislike (even to individual books I personally hated!) and, for that matter, negative reviews to titles I rather guiltily enjoyed. That’s one of the skills that comes with the job: knowing what a particular reader is looking for, and being able to objectively assess whether a particular title provides it.
I can sorta kinda get behind the notion of “only review books in genres you enjoy”, although that would cut out a significant portion of my reviewing income — I’d prefer to say “only review books in genres you are familiar with / understand the appeal factors of.”
But SEP seems to be saying something even more restrictive — that we can only read books with tropes and archetypes that punch our personal buttons? But how many times have I — or any of us — read a scathing review, which was well-written and complete enough to say, “Oooh, sod hapax, that sounds like the book I was dying to read yesterday!”?
Does she not understand the difference between reviews and advertisements?
You know, I don’t get it when writers complain that readers bring bias or baggage to their reading. This is a feature of art, not a bug. If we didn’t bring our whole selves to our experience of art, we wouldn’t be moved by it, wouldn’t love it, wouldn’t say that something we read or saw changed our lives. Of course sometimes the feelings are negative. That’s part of the way it works. Sometimes a book pushes a reader’s personal hot buttons, for big reasons (portrayal of disability or race) or for reasons that will seem “trivial” to other people (hatred of red haired heroes, portrayal of condom use in a single scene, use of particular language). Those responses are just as legitimate as positive ones.
Should we only be “allowed” to read or comment on books that fall within a very narrow comfort zone? Can we not take a chance that a book will make us enjoy something we normally wouldn’t, or that we might gain something from reading it even if we don’t like it? Can we not read to stretch our boundaries, an enterprise that risks disappointment? I guess SEP and authors with similar attitudes would say no, but I’m an English teacher and I say hell, yes. That’s what books are for. People hate “acknowledged” classics. They don’t see greatness there. Them’s the breaks.
It distresss me when a writers, of all people, express such a very narrow view of what constitutes an acceptable response to fiction. Or see reviews solely in promotional terms, and not as personal responses to art.
@Robin/Janet: “Other readers decide the value of reviews” This is key. I keep repeating the same thing: give the readers credit to decide whether a review is useful or not. Every time someone complains about mean reviews, I feel like they are treating me like an idiot who can’t read and needs someone to tell me how to interpret the review.
And of course this is a variation of the “be nice” discourse. I wonder why now, and where is this coming from. Yesterday she posted this:
What did they teach her in that conference?
@Liz Mc2: Those SEP comments take me back to when I first started online in the Romance community. Back then, AAR was considered the resident mean girls site, and RT was considered much more author-friendly. Then there was the infamous Dixlieland Mafia incident (http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/dont_bite_the_hand_that_you_wish_to_feed_you/) and some other stuff, but the climate really started to change once blogs started to grow and multiply. I suspect these changes don’t sit well with those who preferred things the way they were in the “good old days.”
@Brie: Interested to know what creative new ways Patrick has come up with to toss Goodreads’ reader-users under the bus.
@Liz Mc2: This is why I’d rather read your blog than an SEP book at the moment.
It’s not just SEP though. It wasn’t all that long ago that Suzanne Brockmann was sicking her FB fangirls onto an Amazon reviewer who didn’t think much of her latest novella. Fortunately, the fangirls didn’t seem to rise to the bait all that much on that occasion.
I’m getting to the point where I just don’t want to follow any authors on FB anymore. I’m getting tired of the “you should buy my book in the first week and not early because then the sales don’t count and if my sales numbers aren’t high then I can’t write more books and that’s all your fault” thing that crops up a lot too.
@hapax: I think she wants the reviews to BE advertisements :(.
I read widely across the genres and I mean widely – scifi, fantasy, thrillers, historical, these days a lot of it has mm content, but a lot of it still does not. The book almost always has the potential to surprise me and make me happy. I do not *have* a favourite genre in the genre fiction, should I limit myself to what exactly according to her?
True, there is one genre I avoid almost entirely – horror, I know I wont be able to enjoy it and I do not read it, but even there, if somebody whose tastes I trust recommends the book with horror elements, I may still try it, because there is a chance I may like it.
What a wierd wierd argument she makes, but I think wanting reviews to be promos for her is what it all comes down to.
And so true that I recommended the books I hated – mind you I always will say why I hated it, but I will recommend it to the readers if I feel that it was well written. With one exception I cannot stand “rape him till he loves me” trope in mm romance, just *cannot deal with it*, I cannot tell you to how many people whom I know I recommended the book which uses this trope in the way which does not even have any mitigating circumstances to make me enjoy the trope sort of (to make rapist remorseful, make him suffer, etc). Does she really think that little of readers’ intelligence? It is a book for crying out loud, if I write a negative review, that is NOT because I have some hidden desire to see the book not selling. It is only what I thought about this book as a reader. Unless I think that the book personally offends me in a sense that I find it homophobic, antisemitic, racist, that kind of stuff, of course I will recommend it to the readers who will enjoy plot twists or characterization I did not.
I dislike Big Misunderstandings, I do not like lots and lots of sex in my books, but I will be the most enthusiastic to suggest it to you if you do.
Anyway, I agree with your post :-)
As an author, I realize that you cannot please everyone. Nor can you please anyone all of the time. When I am made aware of a review, I will read it and usually thank the reviewer for their time and efforts, regardless of the rating. If they didn’t like it, I will tell them that I’m sorry they didn’t enjoy it. Why get nasty about it?
Not everyone can write a review, and not everyone can write a 90,000 word novel. We must all learn to take the good with the bad and realize that we can’t make people love our work, so why should we even worry about it?
Also, I have never commented on a review by a private reviewer. I have only thanked professional review houses such as Fallen Angel Reviews or The Romance Studio, etc.. Private reviewers are a different story altogether. I only contact readers who contact me first. Anything else would just be creepy. They will contact me if they wish to. If not… it’s all good.
(It seems that every time I miss a day reading DA, some sort of s***fest happens!)
First off—SHEESH. A bad review won’t kill a book. How many times has it been said here that a bad review resulted in someone buying a book, and a gushing good review (or many gushing reviews) turned a potential buyer totally cold?
Second, I have to agree that unsolicited contact from an author ranks pretty high on my creep-o-meter. I had an author respond with a polite thank you-type comment on a 4-star Amazon review. It totally freaked me out. I’ve never read another of her books, much less reviewed one. Maybe my reaction was OTT, but it remains the same a number of years later: It still freaks me out. It was as if she opened my front door and just walked into my house.
Third, since Stock’s actions were in response to a Vine review/reviewer, I wonder if Amazon will take any action? I assume publishers see the Vine program as a way to drum up Amazon customer interest and actively seek to be included in the program. If an author is abusing this privilege by personally attacking reviewers, will there be consequences? Will Amazon “have words” with the publisher over author conduct? Seems like they could tell the publisher that the ground rules of the Amazon Vine program don’t include authors trying to game the system and intimidate honest reviewers. Would this be appropriate?
It’s just too bad that some people take things to the extreme. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
This whole business of only writing reviews on books that are “your cuppa” really, really bugs me. I recently read a book which I would otherwise never have picked up because I would have deemed it not to be “my cuppa”. This book was recommended in glowing terms by several reviewers and I also read some average and negative reviews. Had all the reviews been glowingly positive, I would likely have passed on the book – it was the average and negative reviews and the reviews that pointed out the difficult themes raised in the book that convinced me to give it a go, and boy am I glad I did. This book made me think and question some of my “beliefs” about things, and it and its sequel are among the best books I have read in 2012 and this author is now an aut0-buy for me.
As for authors commenting on reviews, unfortunately what I have seen happen too often is that the author comes on and tells the reviewer that s/he is wrong in her/his opinion of the book. That type of comment does not sit well with me and it seems to me that it is completely counterproductive to the author – why highlight a review that you disagree with? As for contacting authors to try to get them to change their reviews and then bragging about it, or stalking/outing/threatening a reviewer because of a negative review, really that’s just plain stupid. Sure, it might get an author publicity for awhile, but in the long run, I am going to remember that the author acted like an idiot or worse and that’s going to colour my opinion of the quality of the writing. I’m fairly certain that this will be the case with other readers as well.
I think the idea of the book club is a better venue for authors to come in to discuss their books. That kind of a venue allows the participants to engage in a discussion of the book itself and everyone who chooses to participate is there voluntarily. What I refer to as “drive-by” author comments to reviews are problematic because people who don’t like authors commenting on reviews or who find them “chilling” (no matter how innocuous the comment is intended to be) don’t really have the option to look away. Authors do have their own venues (their websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages etc.) to comment on whatever they want, including reviews they don’t like – of course whether making such comments is productive to their business is questionable (I don’t really know of any successful businesses that willingly draw attention to negative reviews or criticize the customers who review their products the way some authors seem to relish doing on a regular basis).
As always, an interesting discussion.
So here is how I envision an author could comment. Probably not everyone would agree with me, but let’s use Avis Exley as an example. My main problem with her book was the passivity of the female character.
If Exley wanted to open a dialogue that would encourage other readers, I think a comment like this would have been interesting:
Thanks for the review. I understand that you had some issues with my heroine. You aren’t the only one. The character arc of Emma (not the real name but I can’t recall it at this moment) is a subtle one. You indicated that you saw her almost as a battered woman and that is what I was going for. The Dark Moment was followed by her standing up for herself and admitting she needed to find her own way forward and that meant pushing aside this guy who she loved, risking that she would lose him forever. That was, in my mind, her gaining agency.
But I appreciate that some readers might have found that too little, too late. My worry was by introducing more agency for her earlier, the conflict would have died out and I didn’t want to place too much emphasis on the couple’s separation since the book started with a separation.
Your comments have given me food for thought for future books.”
Or something like that.
@Ros: I think what you’re talking about is less a review site, per se, and more a site that would focus on specific books from a critical perspective. And I think that would be a fine idea, especially if different folks would volunteer to take a book and do a basic analytical work up, aimed toward generating discussion. It wouldn’t have to be academic-focused, but it could be more explicitly analytical, which is basically the same thing without all the 50 cent words.
Amazon forumer and author, P B (Peter) Morin has created a video which is particularly pertinent to this post, I think:
@Robin/Janet: Yes, I’m all for critical discussion without the long words! (I assume that’s what 50 cent words are? Never heard that term before.)
I wrote a number of posts for Teach Me Tonight about specific novels. There’s a list of them at the end of this page. They’re definitely literary criticism and not reviews, though, because I generally focussed on a specific aspect of the text, didn’t outline the plot and, in the course of my writing, revealed what would, in a review, be classed as “spoilers.”
Jackie C. Horne has recently begun reviewing romances from a feminist perspective, and hers are probably more the kind of review you’re looking for.
@Ann Somerville: HAHAHA. The video was awesome, thank you.
@Robin/Janet: you said, Several people also mentioned the book club at SBTB, too, where the author comes in at the halfway point and engages with the readership. That made me wonder whether there are more deliberate spaces we can establish to promote actual book discussions (because while these discussions are valuable, it’s nice to facilitate the end game ones, too).
Two things: the discussion is an hour and the Q&A is a half hour. So it’s the final third. Not that this matters hugely but it’s a different proportion of time given to discussion vs Q&A.
But one thing I’ve noticed in many SBTB book club chats (and in discussions here as well) is that there are frequently readers who didn’t like the book who want to come and talk about why – and who stay for the Q&A part, too, knowing the author is present. Sometimes the person who disliked the book argues their point of view in a way that makes those who did enjoy it see the book differently, and other times the person who disliked it tries to convince those who did enjoy the book that they’re wrong. The former approach works much better, and is more common – which makes for a really interesting hour.
But what’s encouraging for me is that the readers who dislike the book stay for the Q&A, and I’d like to think that’s because they feel “safe” for lack of a better term. It’s ok to dislike the book and say so (an accomplishment given the climate of romance communities online in years past, as you’ve mentioned) and that they also feel able to discuss their perspective with other readers, and sometimes with the author as well. Even with the author present, there are discussions about the book, which is part of our collective goal.
I can’t agree with the “cup of tea” sentiment, either. It’s useful to me when a romance reviewer I click with reviews outside the romance genre or in a different sub-genre. It gives me a view through a familiar lens of a book I wouldn’t normally read. “X doesn’t sound like my cup of tea but A liked it and she always gives warnings about bad endings because she’s a romance reader.” OR “X sounds good, oh but A said is has some disturbing scenes so I better stay away.”
ETA Sorry, too many windows open!
I did this to someone early on, and I still feel pretty lousy about it. Some poor unsuspecting reviewer gave A Lady Awakened five stars on Goodreads, and, because this is the kind of idiot I am, I assumed that anyone who loved my book would necessarily like to hear from me and perhaps wish to be my new best friend.
So I swooped in and had my little Sally Field moment, and, though she was polite in her answer, it was obvious I’d taken her aback. And only after the interaction did I realize I’d violated what should have been an author-free space. It was just like you say: I’d marched in her front door uninvited.
Nowadays I don’t even read my Goodreads or Amazon reviews. Not because I’m “above” reading reviews, or uninterested – I’m always interested in peoples’ opinions of books with which I’m familiar, and there are no books with which I’m more familiar than the ones I write myself – but because it feels a little voyeuristic. Like I’m peeking in someone’s windows, to go back to your front-door analogy.
(Blog reviews feel more public to me, and I often do read those, though I can’t really articulate what the difference is.)
Any author who has time to track down reviewers is not only a resident of crazytown but also not doing what they should be doing: writing.
Part of being at the big girl’s table is accepting that some people will like what you’re doing and others won’t. The humor in my books is particularly love it or hate it. But why would I get mad because a reader doesn’t like my style? Is anyone actually vain enough to think that EVERY reader will just love what they write?
As far as the “customer service” – really? I’m seeing Seth Meyers from SNL as I type this but REALLY? I have to call bull$h!t on that one. You tracked them down because you’re mad someone said your baby was ugly.
And because you’re crazy. That’s it. That’s all.
As Sean Cummings mentioned above, readers talk about books to their friends and family, too. Which is great. That’s what we want them to do. But if you’re stalking reviewers, you’ve pretty much guaranteed the only thing they’ll tell their friends is what an asshat you are. Not exactly good “customer service”.