So, you’ve written a book…

Posted: March 4, 2013 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

I wasn’t planning to write yet another post about the bad behaviour of authors, but the last few days have seen yet another mini-explosion of authorial hooliganism that I just had to put pen to paper… fingertips to keyboard. This has been prompted (again) by writers’ responses to critical reviews, two in particular. One was erudite, well written, well researched and referenced. The other was head-scratchingly unintelligible. I’m not going to provide links because I don’t want to add to the flamewar. Instead, I’m going to use these reviews, and the fallout, to annotate yet another Advice for Writers list.

So, you’ve written a book…

That’s quite an achievement, if you’ve done it well. For the sake of the exercise, I’ll assume that you have. You’ve gone through several drafts, checked grammar, spelling and formatting. You’ve let people you trust read it and thanked them for their honest feedback. If you have the funds, you’ve sent it to an editor. It’s as good as you can get it and now it’s for sale. And review. Your work is Out There in the world, waiting for people to buy and enjoy. You’re sitting back and waiting for all the glowing reviews that you just know are going to come flooding in because you’ve written the Best Book Ever!

Here’s what you haven’t done: you haven’t entered and won a cleverness competition with all the people out there too stupid and too illiterate to write a book; you haven’t provided the world with a masterpiece that all who read will gasp and marvel at; you haven’t proved your intellectual dominance and invincibility. Someone’s going to read your book and they’re not going to like it. You can’t help that. You’ve done everything you possibly can. It’s not your fault the world doesn’t hail you as it should.

You read a review and you learn that, according to one person (or maybe even more) your story stinks, your dialogue is stilted, you’re repetitive, your sentences are too long, you’ve made errors of fact, the formatting’s out, you didn’t proofread as carefully as you might have, the twist at the end is baffling, the prose is turgid, your plot unengaging, your characters unlikeable and one-dimensional. And this hurts. It hurts bad. You have every right to be hurt by these words. Your first instinct is to believe that this reviewer is out to get you. They want to destroy your writing career. Because they’re jealous. And stupid. They’ve probably only read two books in their whole life! Maybe they need therapy. And, if you only took the time out of your busy life to explain why they should have loved your book, they’ll understand, read it again and fall in line with all the other people who love your book. A visit to Amazon to leave one little comment won’t hurt, surely?

And here’s where it starts.

See, there are people who spend a lot of time on Amazon, buying books and reviewing them. Some of them are kind in their criticism. They genuinely want to be helpful. They believe that if they point out the flaws in a book, the author will be able to use this in their future work. “The dialogue was a little stilted” might lead the writer to improving their dialogue. It’s what happens to the reviewer in their workplace. They get performance reviews that aren’t designed to make people feel bad. They’re designed to let people know how they’re going with their work and make improvements where they’re needed. That’s the way to look at book reviews. Even though – and this is a crucial point – they’re not written for the benefit of writers but for the benefit of potential readers. The reviewer is less interested in you knowing that your dialogue is stilted than in letting potential readers know this. Some might not care, others might not notice, others still might disagree. I never buy a book before I’ve read a bit of it. A lot of people are the same. “Oh, someone thinks the dialogue is stilted,” we might say. “Better check that out.” Then, after the ‘look inside’ has been done, we’ll either agree, disagree or not care. This will influence our decision to buy the book, but isn’t that what reviews are all about? You’re asking people to pay for something. Anyone who hands over money in return for a product or a service has the right to know as much about the reliability, suitability or performance of that product or service as they can. And, if they use that product or service and find it unsatisfactory, they have the right to let other people know that. That doesn’t mean they’re jealous of the product-maker or the service-provider, nor does it mean they’re out to get them. (Sometimes, a review is personally motivated, but this is rare and can usually be spotted. Writers with sockpuppet accounts are always rumbled in the end. “I didn’t enjoy this book” however badly worded, poorly spelled or expressed isn’t a sign of jealousy and spite.) Most reviewers aren’t even thinking about the writer when they post a review. They’re thinking about themselves and others who might take a look at the book with a view to buying it. THIS IS WHAT THE REVIEW PROCESS IS FOR! Writers behaving badly threaten this process. I am one writer who will not thank them for that.

But you’re hurting and the review was written by someone who doesn’t know how to use commas! And they spelled ‘dialogue’ wrong! Clearly, they’re an illiterate, jealous 10 year old, full of spite and malice, who wants to make you cry. They need educating. You have links to all the fine, positive, glowing reviews that you’ve received for your book. You have all those awards you paid good money to win. And you have clever people, people with taste and intellect, who all just love your book! If you just pointed this out to that illiterate, stupid, malicious, possibly certifiable reviewer, they’ll be ashamed of their words and the hurt will go away.

Except there are lurkers on Amazon just waiting for a foolish writer to stick their heads up above the parapets and respond to a critical review. They do this because they’re sick of writers rallying friends, fans and family to shout down a review and insult a reviewer. They want the Amazon (and Goodreads) review process to be a safe place for readers to express their opinions. They want to be able to read the reviews of a book – from the 1 stars to the 5, from the glowing to the critical – without fear that they, or some other poor soul, will be trashed and bullied by a band of marauding writers. They don’t want to see every 1-3 star review spammed by the writer, copying and pasting their writing cv. They don’t want to see someone who struggles to put two sentences together be told they need therapy. When they see that, the red mist comes down and they (some of them) go a little bonkers. They start calling you names. They call your sanity and intelligence into question. They defend the reviewer you’ve just trashed with a vengeance. So you go in harder. Maybe you do something incredibly stupid (and potentially threatening) as to find out where they work, or live, or eat lunch, and then tell them that you know these things. That might shut them up! Because YOU have the right to behave however you like. You’re a writer! The pinnacle of human achievement. An intellectual and literary giant, striding through humanity waving your book in people’s faces. And they’re just…

They’re just people who have a real life, a personal life, a private life. And this is off-limits to you, the writer.

So, here’s my Advice to Writers bit:

1. Don’t go to Amazon or Goodreads to respond to a review of your own or a friend’s book. If you feel you must rebut, save it for your blog. Don’t stray into personal insult, stick to the points. Better yet, when you discuss this review on your blog, find the bits that are useful and thank the reviewer for pointing them out.

2. Don’t throw a facebook pity party to get your friends, fans and family to respond to a review. People can see that a mile off. Your friends, fans and family will have a ‘defend our friend/favourite writer/spouse’ thing going on and they will be feral. This will hurt the reviewer, which is your aim. It might intimidate them to silence. Which is your aim. It might get other people out on your side as well… No, it won’t do the last. It will attract the lurkers I talked about earlier. And they will call your feral and raise you a feral.

3. If you ignore this advice and get into a flame war with reviewers or lurkers, keep reminding yourself that calling their place of work, or their home, or letting them know that you know where they live, where they work or where they eat lunch is to stray into Sociopathland. You have no right to do any of these things. If you keep it up and migrate to Stalkerland, YOU will be the one who ends up in trouble. Meanwhile, your name will be on a sizeable number of Never to Be Read lists. Maybe you can comfort yourself with the notion that controversy sells books. It might. You might get a spike in sales. That doesn’t mean you’ve won a bunch of hearts and minds. When all those avid bandwagon jumpers read your book and find out it’s YOU, the obnoxious writer, that’s controversial, not your work, they’ll drop you like last week’s cold potato. You’ve gained nothing in the long term, except a reputation for being obnoxious. And a bullly. And possibly even a stalker.

4. This applies to you as friend-of-writer as well. If your writer friend gets a less-than-stellar review and they say “Please go to Amazon and vote this loser down!” take a deep breath and try and find a better way to help them. Remind them of what they have to lose. Help them put this one (or two, or even more) review into perspective. Read it and find the bits your friend might find useful. If necessary, say something like “That’s just one person. Look at all the positive reviews you’ve got!”.

5. Don’t go to Amazon or Goodreads to respond to a review of your own or a friend’s book.

6. Don’t go to Amazon or Goodreads to respond to a review of your own or a friend’s book.

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Comments
  1. scrivenerak says:

    Wow.

    “You have all those awards you paid good money to win.”

    Are you implying award-winning authors simply purchased their prizes?

    I do agree that *some* authors, especially if they are honest with themselves and know they have difficulty accepting constructive criticism, should refrain from commenting. But I’m unsure I would agree that all authors should stay away from that process. I know of at least one authors whose comments I have read on many occasions and found to be tactful, engaging and part of a true dialogue–with the reviewer often responding and real discussion being carried on.

    I’m aware my one example could be considered an mere anecdotal evidence, and I can’t provide more because I don’t read thousands of author comments and so wouldn’t know either way. However, my point is that I’m not sure you aren’t boxing all authors in (sorry, there’s a word I need and can’t remember it) based on a few examples of poor behavior you may have seen.

    Don’t get me wrong; I agree with much you have written, and it’s quite likely you have seen a great deal more than I have. It’s just the buying awards comment that doesn’t sit well with me, and that a lot of people are quick to read an article such as this and believe it’s true of a group of people, not just the two you reference.

    Thanks and hope this finds you well. ~Lisl~

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi scrivenerak. No, I wasn’t implying that all award-winning writers purchase their awards. There does seem to be a healthy crop of awards that some indie writers enter (and pay a sizeable fee to enter) that they view much the same way as other ‘proper’ awards. Spamming each low rating review with a list of these ‘purchased’ award doesn’t, sadly, fool anyone. Maybe I could have worded this better to save any misunderstanding.
      I wasn’t trying to paint all writers with the same brush. The bad behaviour of some is seriously harming the view of all of us, though. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen something like “Well, what can you expect from indie authors?” I’d have a fair few dollars. There are also a few badly behaved ‘trad published’ authors out there as well.
      There are conversations between readers and writers on all sorts of fora that work splendidly. I do stand by my advice for writers to leave their Amazon/Goodreads reviews uncommented, however intelligent, tactful and engaging they are. Writers can always link to a useful review (positive or critical) and comment (intelligently) on facebook or their blog and move the discussion there.

      • scrivenerak says:

        Thanks for your reply; I do appreciate your willingness to discuss. And while I do agree with your broad brush comment, I surely would miss those author comments such as from the one I referenced earlier, because even I as a third party have something to gain from a well-balanced discussion. It’s a good idea, what you say about taking the conversation elsewhere, such as the author’s blog, though I have seen comments to the effect of how authors simply do not approve posts that don’t agree with their “agenda.” Sigh. I suppose that might fall into the “can’t please everybody” category? I also wonder that potential Amazon buyers (as per the distinction you make above) won’t find their way to author blogs. Or maybe I’m not giving readers enough credit and for the books they care for, they will.

        I wonder what most authors think about this idea of across-the-board not commenting on the Amazon or Goodreads forums. I could be totally way off base and the majority of them like the idea. It’ll be interesting to see what further comments will show.

  2. Carole says:

    I think this is a well thought out and well written blog. I couldn’t have said it better. But I certainly thought this. I commend you in your honesty. Well done!

  3. Sound advice. I do agree with scrivernerak about the awards comment, but I see you have clarified in your answer.
    I know of one of the ongoing incidents that has triggered your blog, and I have been shaking my head at the way the author has behaved. To answer Scrivenerak, I never comment on my reviews at Amazon or Goodreads. As far as I’m concerned reviews are for the reader. Having an author comment on reviews can be inhibiting and intimidating. It’s an invasion. Should the reader want to contact the author about the review elsewhere, than that’s different and it’s reader solicited. But even leaving a thank you on Amazon for a good review is like saying ‘Yoo hoo, I’m here – and I’m watching!’ My advice would be not to comment, and if bad reviews upset you, don’t look in the first place.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth.

      • anevillfeast says:

        I tried to come up with an analogy, because I quite like them. All the time I was writing this, I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out. It struck me a little while ago. Amazon/Goodreads review pages are a bit like little rooms full of focus groups, with fake mirrors on the walls. You know the marketing director of the company is in the next room, and you know he’s going to take your comments and think about them, maybe even include them in a report, maybe even laugh at the stupid things you’ve the next time all the marketing directors go out for dinner… but they’re not going to come bursting into the room call you a psycho and tell you you aren’t intelligent enough to comment on their wonderful product. Or you wouldn’t sign up and they wouldn’t get your (honest) feedback. Brilliant!

  4. Derek Birks says:

    As a first time writer I agree wholeheartedly with your basic point. I’m always grateful if anyone actually gives up their time to review my work since I’m not prepared to pay them to do so. Hard though it is, I think a writer needs to have sufficient confidence in his own work to withstand the inevitable adverse comments he will collect along the way. After all, I’m the one who has thrust my writing out into the world and said ‘what do you think?’ I’ve been fortunate so far but I have to accept that some reviewers – and readers! – won’t like my book. Why should they? There are plenty of books I’ve read that I did not like.
    I have found comments by some reviewers very helpful and in some ways they have influenced how I have approached my second book. That doesn’t mean I don’t still believe in my work. You have to, as they say, accentuate the positive. Glowing reviews do keep you going and fuel your self belief but without a few lines to pull you up sharply now and again self belief becomes self delusion.

  5. See how the replies prove your points? I took the ‘awards’ comment as tongue-in-cheek – maybe because I’ve never won one 😉 Nice post.
    Yours with a thickly grown skin,
    Jonathan

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Jonathan. For years, I’ve been told I have a thin skin. That’s before I found all this social networking on the internet. I’m beginning to think I have the hide of an elephant.

  6. Martin Lake says:

    I thought this was a timely and thoughtful post. I hope that all authors read it and take note. I always comment on my reviews – in the same words: ‘Thank you for your review.’ I figure that anyone who takes the time to comment on my book is doing me a pretty good favour and I respect them taking time to do it.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Martin. That’s my husband’s view as well. From his (reader’s) perspective, he tells me that he’d appreciate author feedback of that sort to a review. While I don’t agree (there are other ways of showing appreciation for a review) I do understand his – and your – point of view.

  7. Linda Root says:

    This past month I have produced a new edition of my debut novel, in spite of good sales. I did it because of a report concerning misspelled French words and formatting issues. I did a complete line edit and some revisions in response to a couple of3 star reviews mimy xed in with a majority of 5star reviews. Did I want to do it? Eventually. I was sufficiently happy with the result that I did the same with my second book. It did now require a completely new edition, but it did need a line edit.. I also discovered that I had apparently now downloaded the final version. Was I happy with the mediocre reviews. Of course not. Did I profit from them? Yes.

  8. Derek Birks says:

    My earlier comment seems to have been awaiting moderation for a decade or two…no idea why

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