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.