Changing My Mind: On What to Do About Cranky Authors

Recently I argued that the best way to deal with a cranky author coming after you for writing a less-than-glowing review about their work was to delete the review but say why you had done so. My argument was that obscurity is the worst thing that can happen to an author. No reviews = no attention = no sales = no career. Bye, bye author.

Kat Kennedy (and others) responded in the comments (and on Twitter) to say that while she could understand responding that way she personally would not do it for three reasons: 1) She was proud of her reviews. 2) Some authors badgered reviewers into taking down their negative reviews. Why should they be given what they want? 3) Readers deserve to see the full range of reviews.

Today I woke up to the latest online storm around an author and their fans going after negative reviews which culminated in the reviewer receiving threatening calls. It is so petty and so stupid I just can’t even . . . Aaargh!

What is wrong with people that they can’t take in a simple very obvious fact: we all have different opinions.

Didn’t I just write about this the other day?1 You can’t control what people think of you or your books. I guess I should have also said and if you try you’ll look really, really, really bad. You’ll look like you’re abusing your powerful position as a bestselling, popular author. You’ll make people not want to buy your books far more than any one-star review ever could have.

I have a theory that there’s been a lot more of this kind of bullying from authors lately because there are far more authors who publish themselves without first going through the process of submitting to agents and editors and experiencing rejection. Authors whose work has not been workshopped or critiqued or, in some case, even edited before publication.2 They’ve only being read by people they aren’t related to or are friends with, Then they start being reviewed by strangers. Thus their first experience of criticism happens in public with unfortunate consequences.

My theory may well be true for a handful of those at the extreme end of self-publishing.

But it does not explain the established, published-by-big-houses, several-books-into-their-career, New-York-Times-bestselling authors also freaking out about negative reviews in public.

How on earth can they think a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads is going to have the slightest effect on their career? What exactly are they afraid of from less-than-stellar reviews? The more widely read your books are the bigger amount of bad reviews you’re going to get. Simply because more people are reading you. Bestsellers are pretty much always the most hated. How many haters of Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey are there? Surely there in their gazillions. As are the lovers of those books. It goes with the territory.

It’s the sheer quantity of reviews and responses and other indications of your being read that fuels further sales because they mean your book is being talked about. Many reviews means word of mouth is happening. Whether they’re negative or positive is neither here nor there.

Look, I get that there’s a lot of pressure on those bestsellers for their next book to outsell the last. For them to always be a bestseller. I know it’s very stressful.3 But seriously? Siccing your fans on an Amazon reviewer? Why?

So, yes, I’ve changed my mind. Too many of these cranky authors want negative reviews to not exist. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them bully you into taking down your reviews. Be strong. And make sure as many people as possible know that you’re being bullied. Authors have to stop doing this.

I think the other strategy is only effective for books that are already obscure. In the real world my plan of them having no reviews at all and disappearing into obscurity is not really going to happen.

You should do what works best for you. Being in the centre of an online shit storm is horrible. I’ve been there. For most of us life is too short.

The fact that any amount of an energy is being spent on this is so ridiculous. The fact that readers are nervous about sharing their honest opinions about books is also ridiculous.

You publish books, you get bad reviews. If you don’t want bad reviews don’t write books.

  1. Why isn’t everyone reading me and obeying?! []
  2. This is absolutely not true of all self-published authors. Many of whom are extremely professional. []
  3. Not from personal experience—I’ve had no bestsellers—but from observation. Friends have been/are in that position. []

15 comments

  1. Vonda N. McIntyre on #

    Dear Justine,

    I was brought up in the time of “do not argue with reviewers, ever,” and I never do. It was a lot harder to argue with reviewers in the pre-Internet days; I can understand how tempting it is for a writer, feeling pounded, to dash off a comment or a blog post. It’s a temptation that usually should be resisted.

    But, oh, it does hurt to be completely misrepresented in a review. If a reviewer wants to jump on me for being a shrieking feminist who cannot write any but weak-kneed male characters (!), that’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it. I’ll certainly cop to the feminist part, but I wish I could argue about the weak male characters. (It seems to me that some reviewers can’t tell the difference between a secondary character and a weak one — if the guy isn’t the center of the book, the focus and agent of all the action, then he must be a weak-kneed kinda guy, right?)

  2. Vonda N. McIntyre on #

    So sorry. Hit the wrong button.

    Reviewers have described Snake of Dreamsnake as a kidnapper (so not true) and have described the end of the book as blasting all my feminist credentials by having Snake get rescued in the end.

    Only, that isn’t what happens.

    So. I sometimes mention these situations, though it’s usually in the context of giving examples of trying to do something different but having readers fall into comfortable neural ruts and not even noticing that what’s happening is different. But arguing with the reviewer? Life is too short.

    Apologies for the bifurcated comment and any infelicities of phrase, as I don’t see a way to edit my prematurely-posted comment. I think your essay is well stated, and good advice.

    Best,

    Vonda

  3. Melinda on #

    ‘If you don’t want bad reviews don’t write books’ sums it up really nicely.

    I hate bad reviews but if I want to enjoy the good ones I have to accept they are both true for the reviewer

  4. Rob Osterman on #

    I have been watching this tea pot tempest and holding back comments because as a writer I can’t afford to risk any kind of reaction spilling over to my own work, but something you said resonated with me about how it is the authors doing the active bullying.

    I feel utterly powerless in this author/reader-reviewer relationship. Because of all the authors vying for attention the power really seems to lie, at least for those of us without armies, with the readers. And when you have wildly unbalanced power you have an unstable relationship. Think about the most barky of dogs: they tend to be little ones as though they are making up for their small size.

    I’m not defending Griffin’s husband or minions at all. But a lot of people seemed to be out to prove something and the result was less than shiny.

  5. Justine on #

    Vonda: As you say we all have blogs, write essays etc. We can totally talk about ways in which certain readings of our books puzzle us. Such as (male) reviewers describing your male characters as weak. (Having read many of your books I think that’s a bizarre, totally not true complaint and those reviewers are idiots.)

    Margo Lanagan has responded on her blog and in interviews to claims that her novel Tender Morsels is pro-rape. As she should.

    But as you say that’s very different from sending in our fans to chastise reviewers and trying to get reviews taken down. Life is, indeed, way too short.

    Melinda: I hate bad reviews but if I want to enjoy the good ones I have to accept they are both true for the reviewer

    Exactly. Plus some of the bad ones are hilarious. I really enjoy the one I got once which was a diatribe against first person and how it is always a sign of bad writing. Bless.

    Rob Osterman: What power exactly do you think reviewers on Amazon and goodreads have? I’m genuinely interested. Because I think part of what is going on here is that many authors have a really distorted view of the effect of bad reviews.

    Bookseller after bookseller has told me that a bad review in the New York Times, for instance, has about the same impact on sales as a good review. I admit I was shocked. But they keep saying it. Now, I’ve never been reviewed in that esteemed newspaper so I have no personal evidence. Plus they’re also saying that these days a review in the NYT doesn’t have as much of an effect on sales as it once did.

    I’ve also heard internal research at Amazon showed that book reviews had very little impact on sales. Whereas reviews for items like toasters had a huge impact. (Not sure how they measured it but it sounds right to me. What we like about a toaster is very clear cut. What we like about a book not so much.)

    I’m failing to see the power imbalance you’re talking about.
    Authors with mainstream publishers, even the ones who don’t sell that well, have way more power than a random reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook on their blog. We have the might of our publisher behind us, getting us into stores, getting us widely reviewed.

    Also we’re published. Our books are a bigger platform than a review on Amazon.

    It’s often difficult to figure out why a book isn’t selling. Lack of distribution, lack of publicity, bad cover art are often why. If no one knows the book exists no one’s going to buy. If the book is hideous ditto.

    But the lack of success of a book is almost never due to bad reviews. To very few or no reviews? Absolutely. But then you’re back at crappy publicity/distribution/cover.

    My worst selling book, Magic’s Child, had no ARC going out widely, had fewer reviews than any of my other books and much worse sell in. A great deal of that was because it was the third book in a trilogy, later books in a series always sell the worst even if your series is Harry Potter.

    There were certainly way less signals to the reading public that it existed than any of my other books. What reviews it had were largely favourable which helped not at all.

    I suspect we authors fixate on reviews because they’re visible. Perhaps it feels easier to rail against them than to rail against our lack of distribution or publicity or the fact that Oprah didn’t pick our book (or whoever anoints bestsellers these days).

    It may feel like reviewers wield all the power. But not so much . . .

  6. Kat Kennedy on #

    Excellent blogpost, Justine.

    I still think there was value in your other post – because it can be hugely upsetting to have an author and their fans attacking your review. So for those unable to deal with that, deleting their review is a valid alternative.

    I do feel for authors who have to deal with a variety of reader opinions – some of which may be inaccurate or seemingly unfounded. But if you behave professionally and with dignity in the public face of that, then that is something no review can ever take away from you and, in my opinion, so much more valuable.

  7. Rob Osterman on #

    Being honest, I don’t know where the power ~really~ is, but I’m not sure that matters. It’s all in the perception. If I believe you have some unfair power over me, I’m more likely to be hostile towards you. And, if that’s not frustrating enough, if the person in power tries to deny it, the denial can make the situation worse.

    I do know that there is a desperate struggle when you’re it alone, to get noticed, to get the eyes on the product at the very least, and then hope against hope those views translate into a sale that could turn into another review and with it more sales. And it is considerably easier to rail against a reviewer than our own failures, but I’m not defending that at all.

    But what has been rolling in my head is a collection of “feelings” (for lack of a better word) off the last few months of trying to use websites like Goodreads. There are a lot of groups that seem to know they hold the power to decide who gets to be the book of the week, who’s going to get reviewed, and even who deserves to get paid for the work of writing. I’m not saying this to excuse anyone, or even attempt to explain it.

    I’m just trying to suss out how a single review can be taken up by so many people in so many different directions so that it explodes into the social media sensation.

  8. Justine on #

    Kat Kennedy: I think so too. Dealing with people yelling at you online is really hard. No one should have deal with if it if they don’t want to. But then on the other hand . . .

    I do feel for authors who have to deal with a variety of reader opinions – some of which may be inaccurate or seemingly unfounded

    It is annoying. But, really, we don’t have to read those reviews. And as I’ve said at great length above a single review simply doesn’t have much clout. Even if it’s in the NYT.

    That’s part of what makes these sporadic explosions so ridiculous. They really are much ado about nothing.

    Rob Osterman: I’m just trying to suss out how a single review can be taken up by so many people in so many different directions so that it explodes into the social media sensation.

    I’m not entirely sure which “single review” you’re referring to. But if you mean the original one-star review that the husband of the bestseller went after, calling its author a “pyscho” etc. then I can explain why people are upset.

    Someone with much power, ie the author and their friends, attacked a random reviewer for having the temerity to have a negative opinion about the author’s latest book and to give it one star. That’s where this whole thing started.

    But, honestly, I really don’t get what you’re saying. You do know that the vast majority of people who buy books don’t even know goodreads exists, right? Whatever power you think goodreads may have it probably doesn’t.

    Of course, it’s hard for new writers to get noticed. But it’s always been hard. It was hard before goodreads and amazon existed. It was hard before the internet existed. Nothing much has changed except these kinds of explosions happen much faster.

    But, trust me, authors had hissy fits about bad reviews long before the internet and it was always a bad idea.

    Worrying about reviews on goodreads and amazon and possible conspiracies there is only going to do your head in. It’s really much better for all of us authors to concentrate on the writing part of the equation. That’s the bit we can control. Not reviews, not sales, just the words we put on the page.

  9. Danyelle on #

    I love your comment that if you don’t want bad reviews, then don’t write books. As a book editor, reviewer and writer, I’ve been on several different sides that come with the publishing process. I’m absolutely appalled by Emily’s behavior. Completely unprofessional.

    I know these types of instances freak out reviewers, but as a reader, I rely on reviews to decide what books are worth my private reading time. I generally skip all the 5 star reviews and check out the 1-3, sometimes 4, star ratings because they’re the ones that will point out what plot points or topics didn’t work for them. So please continue posting your reviews!

  10. Jennifer on #

    I have been lucky in this. I’ve kept my blog unpopular. People apparently find it through searching for individual books, which is fine. (Freaked me the fuck out when one review apparently got 150+ people reading it one day. What the hell? Happier not knowing that.) I’ve only had one author flip out at me, and she died down after awhile. But I sure as hell won’t read or review another one of her books again–actually, that’s not true. I’d read it if it was a free copy, but still wouldn’t review it. I just want to see if she continued to do what was driving me nuts in later books. (From what I’ve heard, she’s still doing it though. Sigh. Though her career is thriving, so I guess that doesn’t matter if she likes TSTL heroines.)

    But I can totally understand why some folks might want to take the review down. It may not be worth the fucking drama. I mean, death threats? REALLY? Isn’t that kind of nuts and extreme? I can easily see why it might be worth it to me to kill a review due to drama, and pointing out that I killed it due to drama. Especially if crazy fans start to gang up on you. Is the integrity of one review worth that shit being thrown at you? To me, it probably wouldn’t be because I’d rather be left the hell alone than to keep hearing about it. (This kind of thing is also why I close comments on any post that even mentions the word “Twilight.” Dear god, please don’t let those people find my blog.)

    But what would I do now? Beats me. I guess I play the crazy as it comes. But I would lean towards “kill the drama now” rather than letting it continue if it was that bad, because whether or not it’s okay to let bullies get away with shit, I have a horrible track record of making bullies stop. And they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.

  11. Vonda N. McIntyre on #

    Justine, thanks, & for the kind words.

    I’m seriously amused by the idea of sending my minions out to take on a reviewer. I can’t think of a single person I know who would react to my suggesting such a thing in any way but giving me the hairy eyeball and saying, “Are you completely nuts?”

    And where are all those minions when it’s time to wash the dishes?

    In retrospect a lot of seriously deluded reviews can be funny, like the guy who said the heroine of Moon & Sun was unbelievable because she could stay on a horse at a gallop in a sidesaddle. Anybody who’s ever ridden sidesaddle (I have) knows that the problem isn’t staying on, the problem is getting off, and out of the way of the horse, in an emergency such as a fall.

    Anyway.

    Thanks for a good article & a good conversation.

  12. Sean the Bookonaut on #

    I am not a real big fan of the star system on either Amazon or Goodreads. It is strictly a continuum from “I hate it to I love it”. So it is an emotional assessment of the work. I think authors and some reviewers see it as some sort of mark of quality, that if you get a one star you are somehow a terrible writer.

    The truth as you have pointed out is that the best books ( in terms of quality) get their fair share of 1 star reviews. And often the 1 star review reveals much more about the reviewer than the book.

    What annoys me about some who give one star reviews is that it’s used as a vehicle to attack another person. So it becomes not a “I hated the book” but “I hate the writer so I am going to try and punish them.” however ridiculous it might be in reality.

    So yeah an author should stay the hell away from book reviews. When they are being personally attacked I think there’s some cases where an author is justified in standing up for themselves.

  13. Paroma on #

    I just want to say this that to the minds of famous/relatively successful authors the bad reviews they take up arms against are not really something they think can affect their careers. I don’t believe that is what causes their neuroses at all.

    Instead, my observation from watching recent events is that they look around the net and see crowds of readers adoring them and then ONE negative review catches their eyes and they think to themselves, “this person is just being petty. I mean if so many people have judged my book wonderful then THIS person must be a callous reviewer writing a negative one just to be different and stand out. Which means this is a personal attack and deserves a set down. My fans should know that mean people like these exist, who’d slam an author just to gain popularity amongst their reviewing peers.”

    I honestly believe that this (or a version of this) is exactly what goes through their heads. And the thoughts and insidious enough and vague enough that they don’t stop and analyse them before acting.

    Case in point, when a certain author’s husband went to amazon and slammed a reviewer, the author declared she would NEVER go over and read the review (because SHE doesn’t believe in responding to reviewers) but her fans were welcome to. For the rest of the day the fans praised the husband defending the author and the author trilled about how gleeful he was to fight for her and the real issue got submerged (in the author’s mind as well as her fans’) under a deluge of “oh how romantic!”

    And I’ll go now. This is one really long comment already. =)

  14. hapax on #

    Came here via the link at dearauthor.com, and have to say I agree heartily.

    I review both professionally and privately, and this:

    But, trust me, authors had hissy fits about bad reviews long before the internet and it was always a bad idea.

    reminded me of one of the few really scathing reviews I had written for professional publications.

    It was for an entry in an (inexplicably, to me) best-selling young adult series. I had reviewed an earlier title in this series, gave it a pretty bad review, but the publishers had pulled the one positive sentence in the review and used it as a back-of-the-cover blurb.

    I was determined that this wasn’t going to happen again. So I published a savage (but scrupulously honest) review, without one salvageable pull-quote, and with the tagline “Utter dreck.”

    And what did the publishers do? Made that tagline the centerpiece of their marketing campaign!

    I still hate the books, but I have to give them mega-points for good humor, class, and marketing savviness.

  15. Lori Hedgpeth on #

    I am floored by Ms. Giffin’s actions and her attitude of “delete the review” when confronted with the fact of one of her fans threatening a reviewer.

    I am a reviewer and I don’t always like every book I read. Books are subjective. So what, really? I don’t believe in padding or fluffing up a review. If people are reading my reviews it’s because they honestly want to know what I thought of a book. I don’t know how much influence, if any, my one review may have but I can personally say that a few negative reviews won’t keep me from reading a book. It comes with the territory. As you said, Justine, bestsellers often do have a mix of opinions. There is one popular author I do not like; there was a super popular book over the last handful of years that everyone seemed to love . . . but me. I thoroughly disliked it and said so on my site. I didn’t get flamed, nor should I have.

    The only Amazon reviews that I personally take issue to are the ones that concern the shipping/packaging/etc and not the product itself. Those are the comments that should be tossed out, at least in the potential purchaser’s mind. But otherwise, as long as the reviews aren’t personally derogatory and vulgar, they should be fair game.

    I have been fortunate. I have only had an issue with one author, who informed me I was a “con artist” because I did not like his work. Authors like that immediately go on my “do not read” list. Compared to the reviewer that came under fire today, that’s nothing.

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