I’m thinking a bit about reviews. I know a lot of authors think about reviews. Sometimes incessantly. And yes, reviews can be helpful in terms of sales, both long-term and short-term. They can also be really harmful, but if you engage in this writing pursuit, guess what? That’s part of the territory.
In the world of books, reviews have a long and tortured history, as this 2012 Atlantic Monthly piece points out. Yes, friends, no matter the era, there are invariably complaints about reviews, reviewers, and what they ultimately accomplish. There are also always complaints about whether someone has the expertise in a particular genre or subject to do a review, and whether someone has a background in writing.
And yes, reviews can also be political/false in the sense that someone is trying to deliberately sabotage a writer or a writer is actually posting glowing reviews of his or her own work (that’s called a sock puppet review).
None of this is really new, friends. Certainly technology gives us the ability to post things quickly and create “buzz” (whether negative or positive). It also allows people to mask their identities and post whatever they want about a writer’s work. Which, again, isn’t necessarily new. It’s just a lot easier now than it was a couple decades ago to do it. The Interwebz have created an arena in which anyone can voice an opinion about a book (or any other product) and even develop reputations for reviews, and become kind of a reliable source for others about particular genres. You might, for example, find that you seem to like the same types of genres that, say, “pinklady998” likes, and you start following that user and find that you trust her/his reviews about certain things, which might in turn guide some of your own purchasing habits.
So reviews can also be tools. They’re a “word-of-mouth” kind of thing, in this crazy Internet age. So rather than hanging out with your friends on Friday night talking about the latest reads you got at the library (or at the bookstore), you post a review of a book online and that then becomes part of a larger conversation about the book/story that anyone else can engage in. Which is kind of neat, actually, that you can engage with other people from all over the world about a particular work.
As an author, though, you might consider the following guidelines regarding reviews. And I’ve said some of this elsewhere, but I’ll reiterate it here:
1. Don’t respond to bad reviews. Either publicly online or privately to the reviewer. Here’s why: here, here, and here
Seriously. Responding to a bad review, especially in a fashion like those authors whose examples I linked to above, means you’ve just taken your douchecanoe right into the rapids. The deal is, folks, that not everybody is going to like your work (NOOOOOO! AIEEEEEE! Sorry. It’s true.). That’s the nature of this beast called writing. You’ll have some who really enjoy it, some who think it’s okay, and others who think it sucks giant ass. All of those people express opinions about your work. If you ride your douchecanoe into a not-so-great review, it makes you, the author, look like the bigger ass. After all, you’re not being gracious, are you? You’re being defensive (and maybe a little arrogant) and trying to stamp on somebody you don’t even know who might one day have liked reading some of your other work. Not anymore, after you wreck your douchecanoe on their review shoals.
Yes, you will get bad reviews. Oh, well. Holler, scream, feel vindictive and shitty about it. That’s okay. But do that offline. You’ll thank me later.
2. I tend not to respond publicly to any review, whether it’s good or bad. Some authors might post a “thank you” on a blog or something where someone reviewed their work favorably (I admit, I may have done that in the past as a courtesy), but I tend not to engage directly unless the reviewer sends me a little note about how she reviewed my book and loved it and then provides the link. At that point, I’ll send a little “thank you for reading!” back.
Along those lines, I tend not to engage on social media forums in which people post book reviews. Because at any time, someone could post a crappy review of one of my works, and, well, that’s awkward, especially when people start jumping in to agree or disagree. It’s like standing in a room at a party and everybody is either lambasting your work or supporting it. Again, awkward. So I just try to avoid those situations.
My reasoning on this is that once I release a book, it’s entered a much larger conversation than the back-and-forth I had with it as a project and the back-and-forth I engaged in with editors. It’s out and about, now, a shameless hussy engaging in book-selling commerce, and I don’t have any control over what people say about it. As it should be. It’s now part of a “canon,” and it’s part of opinions and discussions that aren’t mine. That’s fine. It’s part of what every author has to go through: truly letting go of a project. And remember, you can’t please everyone. Someone out there will think your book sucks. More than one, likely. Well, guess what? Every author on this planet has gotten bad reviews and has been subject to someone’s opinions and critique. Again, that’s part of the writing journey. If you can’t take that, then maybe you need to rethink what you’re doing and step out of the arena. Or get yourself a better suit of armor.
3. Another rule that I have is that I tend not to review books by authors I know personally, whether I like a book or not. I just think it’s better for an author to maintain a certain level of detachment in that regard, and to avoid the appearance of impropriety. I will, however, privately drop a line to a fellow author and let him or her know that I really enjoyed one of his/her books.
4. I also tend not to review books that I don’t like. I prefer to post reviews of books that I find well-written and engrossing (and/or quirky/clever) whether fiction or nonfiction. I do that because I like to share what I think are good works (word-of-mouth, thus) with others. It’s part of my “positive ju-ju” campaigns. Heh.
I also follow a classic review format (you can see my reviews on Goodreads). I’ll make some introductory comments, provide a little bit of context for the work, a brief synopsis (I avoid spoilers), and a discussion about the writing style and writing mechanics of the work. My reviews thus tend to be long and include a bit of analysis about the work and where it fits in the larger genre. I’ll also do a little bit of critique if I feel the book warranted a comment about something I felt didn’t particularly work but that didn’t ruin the overall experience of reading it. Remember, I tend to be into positive ju-ju.
5. Finally, it’s up to you, the author, whether you want to read the reviews that people post about your work. I try to avoid doing that, because again, once I release a book, it’s no longer just part of my private conversation. It’s now part of a much wider conversation and I don’t need to be part of it unless somebody approaches me to be part of it. Readers are going to discuss your work in both negative and positive ways, and I prefer to let them and just focus on writing my next releases.
Yeah, I know. That last one is a little odd. After all, tons of authors are now posting links to the “latest 5-star reviews” or whatever all over social media. That might work for them as a strategy. I tend to think a reader is going to find those reviews on her own, whether I post them or not. So I’d rather post a link to the work itself and let the reader sort out whether he/she wants to check it out. That’s my current reasoning, anyway. Ha!
All rightie. Happy reading, happy writing, and if you do reviews, happy reviewing!
EXTRA BONUS TIP! A reader dropped me a line about this. If a reader contacts you to tell you they enjoyed your work, thank them. Boom. Done. That’s all you need to do. Don’t ask them to post/write a review. Just be gracious and say thank you for letting you know and you’re so glad the reader enjoyed it. Hitting them up for a review after they took the time to tell you they enjoyed your work might put them in a difficult position. At least an uncomfortable one, and they probably won’t contact you in the future to let you know they enjoyed your work because you’ll hit them up for another review.
Keep in mind that some readers may not like the star system at places like Amazon. Others may have found several grammatical or spelling errors in the book but the theme may have resonated regardless and a reader may not be comfortable being fully honest about the review if an author solicits her for it after a reader contacts her. And still other readers just don’t like to do reviews. Don’t assume, and don’t put a reader on the spot about posting a review. Let the reader make that call, and if you don’t solicit a review, then that review isn’t weighted with expectations from the author and the reader will feel more comfortable contacting you in the future about your work.
If you want to solicit reviews, best to do that in a status update on Facebook. Provide a link to the work and say something like, “reviews at [whatever site] always appreciated. Thanks.” But don’t put individual readers on the spot about it. Thanks, reader who contacted me!
As usual, concise, well-written, and excellent advice. Thanks.