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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

So many reasons not to respond to reviews ... and maybe a couple exceptions.

Here I go, rambling on and on about reviews again ... but it's important because as much as there is about this topic out there urging people not to panic, not to engage, etc, it seems like I still run into authors repeatedly making the same basic mistakes or building up mental fortresses created by self-pity and the reassurance of peers that 'It's okay, the mean reviewer just doesn't understand you because they are a stupid troll.'

I just wanted an excuse to use this graphic again
Though commenting on the review is the major "no no" you see referenced in author posts, there are a lot of different ways that you can interact with a review that in the end may very well bite you in the butt. Here are some true tales (identities obscured to protect those involved) that I've seen ... from fairly innocent new author "mistakes" to full blown disasters ... I'll also mention two exceptions that I think justify a little bit of interaction/meddling.

1. The way too polite writer

I once ran into a writer who told me she leaves a comment under every review to thank the reviewer and it would be rude not to. 
I can see how this would seem harmless. I still advise against it for the following reasons:

1. It lets reviewers and potential reviewers know that you are "watching." It can be a little awkward. Imagine you're riding a bus and talking with your friend about a recent Steven Spielberg movie and how it compares to his body of work and what you liked and disliked about it ... when the man himself leans over the seat and says, "Hey, I hope you don't mind if I listen in. I really just love to hear what fans have to say about my work." 
Would it change the tone of the conversation? For reviews to be honest and organic, you really can't have the author hovering over the reviewer's shoulder.

2. Tone is HARD on the internet. When you say, "Thank you" to a positive review it comes out as sincere, but what about when that "I hated this book" review drops. Do you say "Thank you?" Does it risk coming across as sarcastic? If you only thank the reviewers who leave positive reviews does it look like you're sensitive and aren't thankful for the negative ones? 

2. The writer with the really "helpful" friends

This is one I see far too often, and a lot of times the author doesn't mean for it to happen, but they get a bad review, so they go to someplace they consider "safe" and start to talk about it. However, if this place is online (as opposed to just crying on your spouse or best friend's shoulder ... and only this if you know they won't do something stupid on your behalf), privacy is probably an illusion. Even if the post is in a closed group, it can be screen shot. Those people who read your post may go other places online and talk about it. 
All it takes is one friend/reader/fellow author with a crusader complex to start commenting "on your behalf" and things can spin out of control. While at first we might appreciate it and assume that since it comes from a reader, not from you, it won't in turn blow up in your face, with the anonymity of the internet this can quickly lead to accusations that an author sics her followers on those who dare to dislike her book ... or that the author is making up false accounts and commenting as "a reader" in order to get at the reviewer. And both of these things have happened, so it is not a totally unfounded suspicion. Just like I sometimes see authors worried that a competitor is the one leaving the bad reviews to try and mess with their sales (again, probably not, but it HAS happened), the suspicion can do a lot of damage to a reputation. 
And you can't always avoid this happening, but posting links to your negative reviews and talking about how much they hurt your feelings or how you fear they are damaging your sales can cause this. I've seen a lot of author groups swarm negative reviews with down votes, and it does look really suspicious when your only negative review has twenty down votes. 

3. Talking down the reviewer, in public or private.

Most authors I know are smart enough not to publicly trash a reviewer. Sure, there are a few delusional exceptions who don't understand how this can reflect badly on them and see themselves as "righting a wrong" when they go on the attack, but most at least have heard the advice not to respond ... however, in private, or places they think are private, they might give themselves permission to "vent." 
A lot of time the author is fairly innocent in their intent. They don't want to talk down the reviewer. They are just feeling sad (because getting a bad review can hurt, obviously. Merited or not, matter of opinion or not, no one likes someone to tell us that what we made doesn't work for them on some level) and want to tell someone about it.
The problem is, I have almost NEVER been in a group where this doesn't draw out at least one or two members whose response to "I got a bad review" is to start ranting about how the reviewer is a troll who doesn't have a life because the only reason to be negative about a book is because you are a negative person who likes to drag others down, right? 
Things I see said fairy frequently.
  • The reviewer is just a troll (trolls exist. Most negative reviewers aren't trolls. They just didn't like a book.).
  • The reviewer is stupid ... or "you really should be able to pass an intelligence test to leave a review" or "any idiot can leave a review." 
  • The reviewer "lacks a life" ... is a "sad, negative person" ... 
  • The reviewer has some ominous plot, is probably a frustrated author in their own right, etc.
Two things:
1. Do we really want to build up ourselves by tearing others down? Doesn't that make us as bad as the reviewer? And that's assuming the reviewer is in some way "bad." It's not really bad not to dislike something and to have an opinion on it, and yeah, sometimes the language in a review can be unneededly harsh or feel like an attack on your person rather than the book (though I find most writers are so interconnected with their work that they have a hard time separating an attack on the book in a true ad hominem ... I have seen it, though, where a reader takes something about a book and makes an assumption about the person. It does happen. However, literary analysis has always in some way come back to trying to figure out the author's intent and therefore their worldview and personality and some armchair critics can end up coming up with some bizarre conclusions when they attempt this. I'm apparently a sexist according to a couple of reviews, for instance.). 
2. No matter how private you believe your forum of choice is, it can probably get back to the reader. It's really hard to know who is watching online. The online world is a small world. 

Here are two personal stories illustrating this "small web" concept.

1. A while back I had a three star review that said some harsher things about the book and called my lead character boring. A few months later, I was in an author group and another author said, "Oh hey, I recognize your name. I think I read your book." 
Guess what review that person had left (they used their real name as their reviewer name). 
I had a moment of awkward fumbling for something to say, "Oh yeah ... haha, you did, didn't you?" Then I started chuckling about the whole thing and went into an unrelated author group (that was private), and wrote a post about how hilariously uncomfortable the encounter was for me ... well, turns out my "private" author group had an author who was friends with the reviewing author ... totally well-meaning friend decides she must patch things up between her two author buddies and next thing I know, I'm fielding an apology and an offer to change the review because she felt guilty for being harsh now that she actually knew me. I told her like three times it was fine. I just found it amusing. No, you don't have to change the review. I still think it's funny ... 
She still changed the review.
I got really lucky in this interaction. Could've gone a lot different. I am now a lot more careful about what I say even in online forums I think are safe places.

2. In a similar "safe space" "private group" an author friend posted about a "hurtful" new review she'd gotten. I click on the review and recognize the screen name ... it's my teenage sister. 
Now my family has a lot of natural snark and my sister is at that age where she knows EVERYTHING, so yeah, the tone of the review was kind of on the acerbic side ...



So I ended up messaging my writer friend and say, "Just so you know, the literary critic who has passed their scathing judgement on your Christian romance is a high school freshman who hasn't even been on a date yet." 
She deleted her mournful thread, and again, this ended pretty well.

Both of those situations were diffused by a mix of intervention and dumb luck, but either of them very well could've blown up in the writers' faces.
If the "trash the reviewer" thing had started, then lines are drawn and it becomes a writer vs reviewer, those who like the book vs those who don't full on battle. You really don't want to risk this.

4. The author who shot themselves in the foot

A bit back, someone linked a book a friend wrote in an author group ... I click on the link and start to read the blurb. It's not a good blurb. It reads more like a rambling synopsis than a true blurb and smack in the middle is a typo. Now, knowing that the friend of the author linked the book, I had a way to get to the author and tell them, "Oh yeah, did you know there is a typo in your blurb? Might want to fix that."
But my curious nature wondered, "Typo in the blurb ... I wonder what the editing on the piece is like."
So I scroll down and look at the reviews for mentions of editing. The piece had like four five star review and one three star ... and on the three star is a peevish comment from the author about how he/she didn't like how negative the reviewer was ...
I decided NOT to message the author about an error. They didn't seem like the type who could handle criticism. 

The exceptions:

At the beginning I mentioned exceptions and there are some potential exceptions which I think you can make an argument for getting a little hands on about reviews.

1. This book has been updated ...

A lot of indie authors get started without the support they need to have things done "right." Even if they pay for editing, they can get a bad editor. I know many authors who published a book after what they thought was "due diligence" only get to, "Good book, but way too many typos" in a review a few weeks later. 
Now typos do slip into books a lot more than readers realize. A review that mentions, "I saw a couple of typos" does not usually turn most readers off from a book. Saying the book is "typo ridden" or "poorly edited" might. 
It is not unusual for an author to republish their first book with a new and shiny edit ... maybe once they've saved enough money to hire a better proofreader ... maybe after they desperately go through it over again themselves and destroy the errors.
Either way, if you do that and your book still has a "most helpful" review that references the prior state of things, you have options ... you can wait for another review to come in and knock that review out of the most helpful slot ... you can make a note in the blurb that references the re-release and hope people will see that and understand that the review is dated ... or you can politely mention in a comment to the reviews that the book has been edited. 
Which of these you do is more up to your comfort level than anything else. I can't imagine a reviewer getting upset because you comment in this way. You basically are telling them that you took their review seriously enough to fix the error. 
Some absolute hands off purists might say NOT to do this, but if you're doing a risk vs reward, I think the reward side is tempting.

2. The flat out misleading/troll review ...

Again, there are a few ways to deal with this and a few reasons why it could happen.
I actually still have a review on one of my books that is clearly a review of Sense and Sensibility. My book isn't even a regency romance, and the title is nothing like Sense and Sensibility. I think it is hilarious, so I've never bothered to do anything about it, but the review is CLEARLY left on the wrong book for anyone who glances at it.
But sometimes this can be a little more misleading ... and sometimes it can be an actual troll who does it.
A while back an author's group I was in got targeted as some individual went and left about a dozen reviews over a couple of days on various books by the writers (including my own) claiming that the books were full of weird sexual stuff. I write young adult and middle grade, so this is potentially harmful to my sales (and the sales of the other writers involved though not all of them were children's writers ... ironically there was one erotica writer he reviewed and that book he said was "good for kids."). All in all, a jerk with too much time on his hands. 
Several members of the group spent three days calling and emailing Amazon customer service, just repeatedly pointing out again and again what was going on. Several of us asked our readers to report the reviews to Amazon as well. I didn't want my readers to "engage" the trolls, but two did leave, "I think you reviewed the wrong book. This book isn't erotica" comments on the review, which I did appreciate ... and after several days of fuss, Amazon simultaneously sent all the complaining authors "don't bother us again" emails as well as deleting the offending reviews.
Sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the grease. 
To me this situation was a little different. Because this fellow targeted a group of authors rather than a single, it was easier to nail him down as a pure troll rather than just a really confused reviewer who reviewed the wrong book. He was also clearly operating in an attempt to harm the authors' sales/reputations.
Swarming with comments and counterattacks would probably make this worse (Trolls love attention), but there is a time to turn to Amazon and just put all your combined force into making them act. It took a lot of frustration, a lot of time spent on hold, and a lot of hearing the same, "Reviews represent the opinion of the reviewer and we can't remove them" over and over again, but eventually we got Amazon to move on this. It can happen.

Conclusion:

Don't interact with reviews ... no matter how you try to convince yourself that it is harmless, the internet is a huge, uncontainable force and attempting to "control" what is said about yourself or your books is impossible. 







2 comments:

  1. Is it bad that I laughed at your awkward reviewer encounter stories? Oh my gosh. I try not to read my reviews at all--about all I do is take note of the number while planning promos. I'm not going back to change the book, and reviews aren't meant for me, anyway.

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    1. I agree about reviews not being for us ... but somehow I can't stop looking. It's not like they upset me, but the curiosity .. then I like to snark at the bad ones in my head because I am evil.
      But yeah, I kind of snicker at these things too.

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