Should Authors Respond to Reviewers? by Catherine McKenzie

HiddenSo you're an author, and your book is out there in the world. You've sweated and agonized and copy edited and re-read; in short, you've done everything you could to make sure your book is the best thing you can write at that moment. You wait nervously for its release. Will it sell? Will people like it? And then the reviews start to appear. Maybe it's a positive review (yeah!); maybe it's negative (ouch!), but the reviewer takes the time to explain what it is they didn't like about the book in a clear and fair way (still ouch, but okay, I get it, no book is for everyone).

But say the review is something else. Say it's simply two stars with the comment "meh." Um, okay. I spent two years of my life working on that, but all's fair in public opinion, right? Now, what if the review is "I gave this book one star because I really don't like books about (insert topic of the book)"? Or "I gave this book one star because after reading other people's reviews I knew I wasn't going to like it"? (This last comment sums up numerous reviews that were posted on Amazon after Veronica Roth's third book in the Divergent trilogy came out and fans were--to say the least--unhappy about the ending.) Or, finally, what if the review is "I didn't like this book because (insert several sentences that clearly demonstrate that the reviewer did not read the book attentively because the answers to all their quibbles are in fact in the book?) This happens more often than you might think.

Besides pouring a large glass of wine, what is an author supposed to do in these situations?

One way to respond is to follow Patrick Sommerville's example. He decided not to let a poor and error-filled review of This Bright River in the New York Times go idly by. Instead he wrote a response that was published in Salon and got a lot of attention. I'm sure that on some level, he enjoyed writing that article, and there is, to be honest, nothing more frustrating than reading a review from someone that dislikes your novel for what feels like false reasons. Don't like me (or my book) for me, fine. But don't like me because I'm blonde when I have red hair? Am I just supposed to just let that go?

It's just as frustrating to receive a review from somebody who hasn't even read the book but bases his or her opinion on someone else's review. Reading someone else's review is a completely legitimate reason not to buy a book; but it does not justify posting a one-star review of it. Allegiant might deserve to have a 2.5 star rating on Amazon because of its content; but not because of reviews by people who didn't even bother to read it.

I personally find reviews that begin with "I don't like [insert topic or genre of your book], so I'm giving this book [insert bad star rating] extremely frustrating. As a reader, I totally get not liking a certain kind of book. There are lots of types of books that I don't like, and I solve the problem by not reading them. While I understand, and admire, people who try genres they don't usually like, I don't get why someone would give a book a bad review simply because they (re)discovered they don't like the genre.

But yet, people are, and should be, free to write whatever they want, so what are authors supposed to do in these situation?

My advice: Nothing.

Why do I say this? Because, as difficult as it might be to "get" this, reviewers don't write reviews for the author. So what if their review doesn't please you? Your book didn't please them! Reviews are not a dialogue between author and reviewer. They're a forum for someone to express their opinion about a book which might lead to a dialogue with other readers. Or not. That dialogue is not about you. Even though it feels like it is. Even though it's about something you created.

And so, while it may take every fibre of self-control not to engage, just don't. You're not going to change anyone's mind.

(P.S. The author of this piece would like to note that she has written this mostly as a reminder to herself.)


HiddenA graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKensie practises law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine's novels, Spin, Arranged, Forgotten and Hidden - which was released in the USA on April 1, 2014 - are all international bestsellers. She is currently seeking a new one–word title so she can write her fifth novel. And if you want to know how she has time to do all that, the answer is: robots. Visit her at catherinemckenzie.com, on Facebook and on Twitter @cemckenzie1.

Your decision to say "nothing" is open hearted, kind, and insightful. You rightfully move the focus from the writer or even the book and place it on the reviewer. Many reviewers write, not for potential readers, but for themselves--there's a certain egoistic superiority expressed in many negative reviews that reveal a jealousy that the reviewer is not capable of producing anything as good as the writer. Keep writing. Keep honest to yourself and to your vision, and let the reviewers read or misread as they will.

I have reviewed a number of books for Bookbrowse, but have made it a point not to write a review for any book to which I could not assign a 4 or 5 because, first of all, taste comes into play and I don't want to use my own likes and dislikes to become some kind of standard for judgment--I just admit this is not for me. Second, a reviewer is helping readers find books that are not only worth reading but which can enrich their lives--if a book hasn't done that for me, I don't have the right to foist my response on others who may find the book a revelation.

So, keep on writing, Catherine, for all our sakes.

Bob
# Posted By bob sauerbrey | 4/17/14 10:54 AM
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