On Bad Book Reviews and the Author’s Big Mistake

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For some reason, the topic of bad reviews and appropriate responses is a contentious one on Twitter right now. I keep missing the big fights, but I’m stumbling over a lot of messy aftermaths. It’s been like walking into a bar right after a huge brawl has taken place and everyone’s holding cocktail napkins to their bloody noses. Something about authors making fun of their bad reviews, maybe?

Anyhow, back in the early 2000s when I was spending time on the Absolute Write Water Cooler in anticipation of resuming my fiction writing, I read a lot about the Author’s Big Mistake. 

What’s the Author’s Big Mistake? Responding to bad reviews. Don’t do that ever, the experienced writers said. Reviews are not for the writer; they’re for other readers. You’ll just look like a butthead if you show up and get all defensive. And if the reviewer has a lot of friends, you’re liable to find yourself in the middle of an Internet pile-on, which is never a fun place to be. As the cool kids say, never be the Internet’s main character. In fact, writers shouldn’t even respond to good reviews, said the wiser heads. Good or bad, they aren’t for you. 

The only times when it’s not a mistake to respond to a bad review? If the reviewer is talking about a completely different book while mistaking it for yours, or if they give away a huge spoiler. In those circumstances, it’s OK to contact them and point out the mistake or ask if they’ll edit out the spoiler. Politely. 

That all sounded fine. And then last year Tidepool came out and I had to put it into actual practice. Whew. Seeing as I’m old and jaded, I thought I could handle reading some of the negative stuff, but the first lukewarm reviews sent me into such an emotional tailspin that I had to stop looking at them lest I never write another word. 

And you know what? That’s part of the deal when you publish a book. Obviously I’m disappointed when someone didn’t like Tidepool, but bad reviews come with the territory. Heaven knows I haven’t held back in the past when I disliked something.

So I check my ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, but I don’t scroll down to the review sections. If I happen to stumble across a bad review on a website while I’m ego-surfing, I bail out the minute I realize where things are going. 

(I know I shouldn’t ego-surf. I do it anyhow. Sometimes I find something neat. Like how Tidepool got a nice mention in the UK’s biggest-circulation print newspaper last October as part of a “Scary Books for Halloween” type of roundup.)

Lookit me in the paper right next to Stephen Graham Jones!

I violate the old rules in one way: If someone tags me in a review on social media—a concept that did not exist back when I was lurking at Absolute Write—I assume that means they want me to see it and respond. Fortunately, everyone who’s done this has posted good reviews. I have yet to encounter the sort of person who tags authors in negative reviews, but should someone do this with Tidepool, I’m planning to stick with the no-response strategy. 

In all honesty, I appreciate anyone who has taken the time to read and review my book—even if they weren’t shy about saying they didn’t like it. I know that sounds corny and fake, but I mean it. Someone going to the trouble of reading my book and posting a review is no small thing. Maybe my next book will be more to their taste, or maybe I’m just not the writer for them. That’s OK too. 

Because I’ve come to realize something in the past several months: You know what feels even worse than a bad review? Knowing that a publication or review site got your book but never reviewed it. It’s hard not to think “Geez, did they hate Tidepool so much they couldn’t be bothered to write anything about it? Damn.” If someone talks about disliking my book, at least they’re bringing it into the ongoing conversation. When you’re with a small publisher like I am, any kind of attention is better than none.  

So when I beg for Amazon reviews and assure you that you can be honest, I’m not lying. I won’t know what you said, and even if I somehow find out, I won’t hold it against you. All reviews—yay, meh, or nay—help boost Tidepool’s profile on Amazon and elsewhere. 

And if you’ve already left a review, thanks. 

Even if you didn’t like the book. Really.

PS: Something that helped me ground myself when I saw the first really bad reviews of Tidepool? Going to Goodreads and looking up reviews of the books I think are perfect, shining jewels I wish I’d written. No matter how great I think a book is, someone out there (usually multiple someones) hated it and eviscerated it in public. It really put things in perspective.

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