And by ‘us’, I mean reviewers.
Of course, people have said things like this before – Book Riot published an article six years ago saying pretty much the same thing. But that was SIX YEARS AGO, and since then, I really don’t think anything has improved. So I’m here to say it again: authors, for the love of God, do not reply to reviewers.
Since I was 18, I’ve been reviewing (on both Goodreads and my blog) every single book I’ve read. I’m by no means some sort of one-starring troll: my average Goodreads rating is actually 3.26, which suggests I’m pretty much bang in the middle. But if I don’t like a book, I’m not afraid to say exactly why that is. And that’s occasionally gotten me into some irritating interactions over the last three years, where specific authors have decided to personally send me abusive messages (or recruit their friends to do it on their behalf). Many of them were motivated by what I’m going to call Author Mistake #1: Thinking that a reviewer’s job is to say only good things so people will buy your book.
Reviews don’t exist to encourage other readers to pick up a book. I mean, sure, if someone has left a glowing review, one nice consequence is that their friends will probably get interested in it. But many people review simply to keep a personal record of what they liked or disliked, with no expectation that it will influence others. They’re fully entitled to say negative things about a book, if that’s their opinion…and bearing in mind opinions are subjective, there’s almost no way for an author to disagree factually.
Nor should authors suffer from the belief that a slew of 5-star ratings is the only possible path to success for a book. There are plenty of bestsellers where all 100 most-liked Goodreads reviews rip them to shreds.
Often, reviewers already have enough to deal with from other readers, too. Authors should really strive to be more professional so they can distinguish themselves from their more aggressive fans. I’ve had plenty of readers direct vitriol at me for one-starring a book they love. But at the end of the day, they’re just other readers. Getting expletive-laden comments from them seriously doesn’t matter to me. But when it’s the actual author complaining, things become about 60% more ridiculous. I don’t expect professionalism from other readers, but from the author? Absolutely. Can you imagine how wild it would be if you reviewed a kettle on Amazon, and Philips left a passionate rant about how you were hurting their livelihood?
I’ve had authors counter with the argument that they put their heart and soul into their work, and love how they can interact personally with readers. They’re repulsed by any view of writing as a ‘business’. I don’t want to sound like some unfeeling capitalist here, but let’s be realistic. It doesn’t matter how much ‘soul’ you might think the publishing industry has, compared to law or banking. If a reader has spent their hard-earned disposable income on a poor-quality product, it’s their absolute right to tell other people about it. Even if that’s in language the author objects to. When another Book Riot writer said that authors don’t owe us books, they were absolutely right. But what some authors don’t seem to have realised is that readers don’t owe you positive reviews. The only thing a reader owes to an author is a legal method of download; whatever comes next is irrelevant.
This brings us to Author Mistake #2, one of the most fundamental errors a writer can make: conflating a book with themselves. If you’re an author reading this, and you only take one thing away from my article, please let it be this. Someone who criticises your book isn’t criticising you. Just like if someone doesn’t like your brownies, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Your books aren’t your children. This is a common metaphor I see everywhere, and one which I think dangerously erodes the line between person and product. I write things myself: I’m a moderately popular fan fiction author. I’ve received my fair share of negative reviews. But it’s perfectly possible for someone to say they dislike my writing style or plot ideas without it being a personal attack. And if you know reading reviews isn’t a good thing for you, don’t do it. It’s truly that simple – I know many authors who don’t read their reviews for this exact reason.
Sometimes, even when an author doesn’t directly interact with the reviewer, their behaviour can be so incredibly unprofessional that it still reflects badly on them. I’ve seen authors publicly insult reviewers on various social media platforms, and had it happen to me myself. This is Author Mistake #3: Talking about a reviewer in public. You might think there’s no way the reviewer will see your Facebook post slagging them off, but you should act as if they can. If a reviewer does see the post, there’s always an excellent chance they’ll publicise your comments on their reviews.
You may wish to challenge me now by reminding me of the old axiom that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’. Maybe an author doesn’t care which kind of publicity they get? But – in the book world, at least – I believe that’s only true up to a certain point. Yes, a reviewer might slate a book for ‘having too much sex’, and that will drive another reader to buy it straightaway. But if a reviewer publicises the fact that an author has gone after them for stating their honest opinion, people are a lot less willing to reward that behaviour. I’ve personally had people tell me that they will no longer buy certain authors’ books, just because I publicised the things they’d said to or about me. Authors are running a business, and consumers are rarely afraid to take their money elsewhere if they disagree with how a business is conducting itself. So it really is in an author’s best interest not to engage with a reviewer in any way, even if you don’t agree with what they’ve said.
But what if you get a positive review? Things become a little more ambiguous here. In my opinion, the perfect model was provided by Angel Lawson and Samantha Rue, a pair of co-writing authors who restored my faith in indie authors a little. (So far I’ve been talking about indie authors, and it’s true that problems in the author-reviewer relationship are usually confined to the indie world. Indie authors often don’t have professional publicists working with them, so they may think that they should be addressing criticism personally. They’re also more concerned about the effects that a negative review might have on sales, and thus take action to refute the review. But traditionally published authors can also fall into the trap of engaging with reviewers – look at what happened to Sarah Dessen).
Back to Angel and Samantha. A couple of months ago, I reviewed their book Lords of Pain, which incidentally is very good and I recommend it if you’re at all interested in dark romance. I gave it four stars, mixing in some criticism with praise as I usually do. The next day I messaged Angel on Facebook and asked if I could receive an ARC for the sequel, providing a link to my review to demonstrate that I’d read the first book. She responded with an agreement, stating that she and Samantha had already seen and enjoyed reading my review.
Here’s the key thing about this interaction. Even though they’d read my review, and could see I’d enjoyed the book, they gave no sign of it until I approached them. Not even a ‘thank you’ comment on my review, which is something I’ve often seen authors ask. Surely, they say, a simple ‘thank you’ on a positive comment is inoffensive? Ostensibly, yes. But many reviewers would still prefer not to be contacted at all, because it can feel uncomfortable to know an author is reading your words. Next time you review them, you’ll feel more pressure to be positive, because (believe it or not) reviewers don’t generally enjoy tearing books to shreds. We want to look like nice people too, especially if we know an author does see what we’re saying. But reviewing is more about being honest than being nice. This isn’t to say we should be deliberately cruel, and we certainly shouldn’t make personal comments about the author. But ultimately, any way a reviewer wants to express their opinion of a book is valid.
So, Author Rule #4: Never contact a reviewer unless they contact you first. Even if they’ve said they love your books. Err on the side of caution here – some reviewers won’t mind, but some absolutely will. Conversely, no reviewer minds not being contacted. It’s a no-brainer.
I think I’ve gone on about this long enough, so I’ll leave it there. If you’re an author, please think about this next time you get the urge to respond to a negative review. If you’re a reader…I hope I haven’t scared you away from reviewing! The vast majority of authors are lovely. But, as the saying goes, one bad apple spoils the bunch. There are reviewers who have stopped reviewing altogether because of bad experiences with authors. So authors, seriously: please don’t talk to us.