Monday, October 20, 2014

How to engage your critics (if you must) in a safe and productive way

Here's a thing about me--I hate hurting people's feelings. I hate it even worse than having my own feelings hurt. This isn't because I'm a super speshul snowflake or anything. It's just how I'm wired--overactive conscience, conflict-avoidant, poor ability to deal with guilt. Because of all that, I'll admit it--I struggle to understand people who write mean-spirited book reviews. What I don't struggle to understand, is that they have the right to do so.

If you have a twitter account, you've seen at least fifty tweets from authors and bloggers in the past couple of days saying that the correct response to a negative review is to just keep rolling, brush it off, write more books. They're right, and this is what I do most of the time. However, I have responded to critics on multiple occasions--four that I can remember--and all of those interactions produced positive outcomes where both parties walked away with a greater respect and understanding for each other. So a friend asked me to blog about how I do it, and I thought I'd give a few tips. NOTE: I still believe the best response is usually to shut the review window and write more books, so please do not take this blog post as a recommendation to engage your critics.

Also, I am paraphrasing review quotes and actual correspondence with reviewers out of respect for privacy, but the people I'm talking about are more than free to elaborate in the comments section and share their links.

Tip #1: Utilize a cooling off period.
I recommend at least three days. You might need longer. You need to wait long enough that you've stopped physically shaking. You need to be able to fall asleep at night without obsessing for hours. A writer-friend once pointed out a blog post about book packagers and work-for-hire writing. This blogger had only just discovered the concept and to her it was kind of suspect. "Why would anyone want to develop someone else's ideas?" she wondered. "Don't these writers have their own ideas?" [paraphrased] This article went on to mention my work-for-hire pseudonym by name, like "How does Fiona Paul feel about [this] or [that?]" My immediate response was rage, because all I could see was someone calling me out in a blog post without bothering to try to contact me, and then presuming that I was a lesser writer because I opted to write for a book development company. After I calmed down a little (okay, a lot) I realized the article wasn't accusing me of anything--it was asking questions. I didn't like what it was asking, but they were legitimate questions from someone who wanted to know. And if she wanted to know then other people wanted to know. And people think all kinds of bad things about book packaging, but a lot of them aren't true. So with the blessings of Paper Lantern Lit, I contacted her and offered an interview. I ended up writing a three-part series about WFH in general and my experiences in particular. And even though my books are probably never going to make this blogger's favorites list, she has made my favorites list as an unflinchingly honest voice in a sometimes all-too-fake world. I like to think she feels similarly about me.

Tip #2: Recognize it's not all about you.
Even if a review calls you racist, sexist, homophobic, intolerant, unintelligent, etc., it's not a review of you because this person does not know you. They are often incorrectly attributing your character's words and actions to you. Even if your villain says something reprehensible and ten characters call him/her out on it, some people will still take offense to particular words or actions, and that's their prerogative. I tend to agree with what Stephen King says in On Writing, [paraphrased] that my characters do and say offensive things because that's who they are and I'm merely transcribing their words and thoughts. But many reviewers have "hot button issues" so if you included violence against women, violence against animals, two much swearing, a love triangle, etc., they are going to hate your book on principle. I am not saying you are "right" or that reviewers who hate your book are "wrong." There is no right and wrong. You can write about anything you want, but unless you write about a glass of water sitting on a table, chances are your work is going to offend some people.

Tip #3: Recognize it might not even be about your book.
It might be 100% about your particular writing and story. Or it might be about the ten love triangle books someone read before yours, and yours just happened to be the one that made them snap. It might be because they're sick or currently suffering and your character is being a whiny baby about problems that pale in comparison. It might be because your main character reminds them of a girl who tormented them in high school. It could be a whole lot of things that they may or may not even realize. We don't read books in vacuums.

Tip #4: Figure out why you want to contact them.
Wrong answers:
--To yell at them.
--To tell them they hurt your sensitive feelings.
--To tell them they have gotten a fact, or plot point, or theme wrong.
--To explain to them how they missed your point and clarify the awesomeness that is your book.

Possible right answers:
--To thank them for spending time reading and reviewing your book, IF you mean it.
--To clarify a point, IF they asked for clarification in their review.
--To apologize if they pointed out something that personally offended them, and after careful consideration you agree with them and wish you hadn't written it. I would tread carefully here though, because as I mentioned, it's really hard to write an authentic book without anything that could be construed as offensive. Books are usually about people. People say and think and do offensive things sometimes. Such is life.

Tip #5: Recognize and strive to reduce the perceived power differential.
This one is hard for me because I feel like I'm about as intimidating as Mary Poppins. I'm just one single chick holed up in a tiny apartment cranking out stories on a kitchen table that is actually patio furniture. But bloggers don't intuitively know who's a well-connected, high-powered NYC writer and who's not. Bloggers might not even know that some writers are paid $250 for their first book and others are paid $250,000, even though when you set the books side-by-side you can't necessarily tell the difference. But even though I'm not a super-successful Manhattan hotshot, I'm still an author with books on shelves and access to publicists/industry insiders. And that means seeing a Goodreads response or email from me in an inbox after a negative review could cause some anxiety. [NOTE: Never engage publicly on twitter or in a comment thread--that will always feel aggressive.] I personally strive to treat reviewers as equals. I'm not a better person because I'm an author. I'm not necessarily even a better writer. And in many cases, I'm less informed about the publishing industry. I'm not embarrassed to admit that and I'm grateful to bloggers and reviewers for what they've taught me.

Tip #6: Make sure both parties can potentially benefit from contact.
You don't know until you do it, but if your desire to reach out is all about you needing closure or answers, stop right there. Reviewers aren't spouses or bosses or family members. They don't owe you an explanation for anything. I reached out to a girl who wrote a somewhat scathing review of VENOM, my first work-for-hire book. Among other things, she detailed a lot of anachronisms, specifically with the dialogue and voice. Now some of this was what I was asked to do to make the book accessible (use contractions, etc.) but some of it was just fail on my part. Even though the book had several editors and a Renaissance expert, this reviewer brought up a lot of very solid points we all missed. My thought process went something like "Waaaaah. Poor me... Holy crap this girl is smart...I wonder if she'd be interested in reading the third book before it goes to the printer..." She was. I couldn't afford to pay her, but I sent her the very first ARC, thanked her for being a "delta-reader", and offered to write her a research reference if she ever needed. It turned out to be a win-win-win. A blogger felt heard and respected by an author. A book became better. And this girl is now my friend, supporter, and publishing colleague.

Tip #7: Recognize the potential for harm to your career.
You can do everything "right" in contacting someone and still manage to piss them off. Back when the internet was just a baby, I worked retail and restaurant work and remember my managers saying something like "A happy customer tells an average of 7 people about their experience. An unsatisfied customer tells approximately 23." Dude, I don't know what the updated figures are, but I can imagine. I still do not believe that a single person can "ruin a career" (except, perhaps, for an author ruining their own career) but there is always a risk in confronting someone, so be sure to weigh the potential costs and benefits before proceeding.

Tip #8: Err on the side of being overly polite and non-argumentative.
The first critic I ever contacted was when I was brand new to Goodreads. It was 2011. The sale of VENOM had recently been announced. And sure enough, someone gave me 2 stars before ARCs had even been printed. I didn't know back then GR permitted people to rate books based on how excited you were for their release. I didn't know anything. I had clicked "I accept the terms and conditions" without bothering to read them (we all need to stop doing this.) If I had it to do over this is one contact I would not have made, because frankly it was none of my business if she chose to rate my book without reading it. But back then my neurotic author brain was like "Who is this hater and why is she trying to sabotage my book?" and then "OMG, what if there are pirated copies of some crappy first or second draft floating around?" Either way, this 2-star rating had me panicked. (Naive, yeah, I know.) So I sent her a message like: "Hi. I'm brand new to GR and saw that you rated my debut novel. I was just wondering how you managed to read it so early. Basically I'm hoping there aren't copies of one of my old drafts floating around on the internet." She responded, very kindly, that she was a reader for a foreign publisher who had access to my latest draft. She went on to tell me her feelings about the book, including both positive and negative feedback. She ended by saying that perhaps it was wrong of her to post her rating almost a year in advance and offered to take it down until closer to publication date. I declined this offer and thanked her for responding. And I felt silly for doubting her. And then I got back to work. Can you imagine how differently that would have played out if I had been aggressive or accusatory? I could have burned a bridge with a major foreign publisher for all eternity. [ETA: a good rule of thumb is not to write anything you wouldn't be okay with the whole world reading.]

Tip #9: No answer is an answer.
If you reach out and get no response, let it go. Again, this isn't your spouse--it's a stranger. It's the equivalent of someone who viewed your profile on a dating site and clicked no thanks. You asked for a conversation and they politely declined. Who cares if that's not how you do things. The reviewer doesn't have to play by your rules. Move on, already. Don't you have a dog to walk or some laundry to catch up on or a hobby or maybe another book to write? Live your life, or seek help from a confidante or mental health professional if you can't.

Tip #10: Know when to say no.
There are some people it does not make sense to ever engage. Some reviewers are building a brand, and their review is more about their internet platform than it is about your book. People who DNF'd your book are not going to pick it back up because you tell them to (though they might pick it back up if a friend tells them to, as long as you don't act like a total psychopath first.) Most of your 1-star reviews will come from readers who either hated your plot (too late to tweak that), hated your writing style (I don't recommend changing that for 1 or 10 or even 200 people), or just deemed your book "not for them." Liking or not liking a book has an emotional component to it and even the most logical or impassioned argument in your book's favor isn't going to change someone's mind. When's the last time Fox News or the liberal media, depending on your leanings, changed your mind about something? I rest my case. Save your breath. Save your time and energy for your next book. Or better yet, why not engage with some of the people who wrote good reviews? You know, your FANS. In the end, aren't they the ones who really matter?


  1. This is such a great post, Paula. It outlines so clearly why there are circumstances in which author/reader interactions can be rewarding for both parties involved. I appreciate your so thoughtfully reinforcing the need to question why the contact is necessary, as well as safeguarding the interests of both readers and authors.

    I've enjoyed my own interactions with you and have come to admire how much you've written about fostering mutually respectful relationships. Of course, I also loved your book! But I've also gotten to know authors on Twitter whose books I didn't enjoy, because they are interesting (and often, very kind) people, and I know others have done the same, a la C.J. Redwine's tweeted story about her relationship with Blythe. This age of access and conversation can be such a wonderful thing, if we all respect the opinions and rights of everyone concerned.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. I've enjoyed interacting with you too, and I respect your (and Blythe's) ability to separate book from author and interact with writers whose book or books might not be your preferred. One of my local Portland colleagues writes books in verse that garner fantastic reviews. Alas, books in verse are "not for me", but that doesn't mean I would hesitate to recommend them to other people who enjoy that medium. I routinely recommend books that I didn't love if I think other people will, and I bet most critical reviewers would do the same.

    2. Funnily enough re: books in verse--I didn't much care for one I read last year, but then shipped my ARC to Canada at my own expense to another blogger because I thought she might like it better. I'm sure there are a few reviwers out there who might be mean-spirited or enjoy unleashing negativity (just as there are authors who are that way), but I personally don't know any. Most of us are here because we love books, period. Our blogs and GoodReads should be safe spaces where we can express our opinions. Approaches like yours--curious, thoughtfully considered, and taking a position of non-intimidation--go a long way towards making a conversation a constructive and enjoyable one. I would also say that bloggers I enjoy reading the most are also thinking this way when they approach authors as well.

  2. "And even though my books are probably never going to make this blogger's favorites list, she has made my favorites list as an unflinchingly honest voice in a sometimes all-too-fake world. I like to think she feels similarly about me."

    This should continue... "Even now, she is snuggling me in my comments section."


  3. As always, another amazing post. Very well said.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow. This is amazing. It's great to see this side of the author perspective. I think it's great that you've had success when you've reached out appropriately. This is so refreshing. Lovely article.

    1. It's honestly scary to reach out and I'm sure that's why more authors don't do it. I guess for me I feel like if my intent is pure and I'm not pushy and I don't write anything in an email or message that I'm not comfortable standing behind if it should get published for all to see, what's to lose? Thanks for commenting :)

  5. Thanks for this article. As someone who occasionally leaves bad reviews, I needed to hear this if only to know that, yes, authors actually do frequently read their reviews. Most authors aren't sitting on piles of gold with a team of servants to fend off the millions of fan letters.

    To give some perspective on why I leave bad reviews: A lot of it is because reading novels is an addictive/avoidant behavior I do when life gets overwhelming--and which only makes life more overwhelming for me, damages my self-esteem, and makes me fear for my future. Like, back when I read fanfiction I actually quit jobs over it, and became weak from lack of sleep and food and sometimes dehydration and even not going to the bathroom. I beat that addiction but that doesn't mean I don't sometimes stay up all night reading a real novel.

    I really do love fiction and sometimes get a lot out of it, but there's also a huge amount of fear and negative feelings there that have nothing to do with the book I'm reading. So sometimes what's coming out in my review isn't, "I didn't enjoy this book," but rather, "I totally enjoyed this book but it wasn't worth sabotaging my life for!"

    I'm especially prone to leaving negative reviews when I see a ton of 4- and 5-star reviews on a book that just didn't seem that great to me. Maybe the writing style was awkward, maybe the plot was frustrating, maybe it seemed to me like the author was promoting rape culture (which as pointed out can be really ambiguous). I'm especially frustrated if the other reviewers don't seem to have understood that an event in the book was actually sexual abuse. So I'll leave a negative review not because I think the book is completely un-praiseworthy, but to try to balance out enthusiastic fans who didn't notice or aren't mentioning flaws that I think deserve to be aired. I do this intending my audience to be other readers, not the author. Kind of like when you're walking with a friend talking about something, and maybe they say all kinds of good things about it and you bring up some negative things not because you disagree with the positive things but because you want to discuss all sides of it with your friend.

    But I think I'll approach the review process differently in the future if I really stop to think and consider that the primary audience for the review is quite possibly the author.

    Of course it's good to remember that no one will ever write a novel that every reader likes, because people are different! Novels speak to people on a very personal level. Even for two people who both like a novel, the things they like and didn't like so much about it could be completely opposite. ;)

    1. Wow. Thank you for the detailed comment. I understand everything you said. I'm a reader too and for me if I spend 6 hours on a book and it lets me down with what I feel is a terrible ending, I feel upset. Even if it's a library book, my time is valuable. I get angry at things that waste it--this is why I'm a huge proponent of putting books down if they're not keeping you interested. I also have experience with internet gaming addiction (I fell asleep during a college final once after all-nighting it as a gamer) so I think I know what you mean by avoidant/addictive activities and I hope you're doing okay.

      But don't ever think that the primary audience for your review is the author, because we all realize the primary purpose of your review is to help others decide whether to read the book. You're not my beta-reader and it's not your "job" to tell me how to be a better writer. And although occasionally I can glean things from reviews and say "Hmm. I think that's one of my bad writing habits. Noted!" so often the reviews are all contradictory. "Sounds nothing like a teen." "Sounds exactly like a teen." This relationship took too long to develop." "I love how this wasn't instalove." Etc. Like you said, no one will ever write a novel that every reader likes.

      As far as who is reading your review--if it's a debut novelist, an indie/self published novelist, or a novelist who isn't getting thousands of reviews, chances are we're looking. It's not your job to spare our feelings either, but if that's something you want to do a sentence like "I think I was just in a really bad place when I read this" or "Even though I hated this book, I can see why other people who aren't sensitive to [rape culture issues] might enjoy it for the [character development.]" goes a long way.

      At the end of the day though, you should write whatever feels right to you. I go through phases where I know that negative feedback will be psychologically harmful for me/my career, and when I feel like that I don't read reviews--a choice all of us need to find the self-control to be able to make.

  6. What a fantastic and well-articulated post with some great tips for both authors and bloggers. As someone who comes from a family of creatives, I know how tough it is to put yourself out there as a writer. And I hate hurting people's feelings. So I'm not one of those frank reviewers who adds in humor or snark to a review to make it read more interesting. But I'm also not going to be dishonest if I make it through a book to its end and dislike it.

    My first couple of weeks as a blogger I was contacted by an author who was hurt by a negative review. I hadn't even been aware at that time that the author would even see my review let alone reach out to me wondering why I didn't like it. I felt like cr*p for months because of it. And while I did write back after running my response past friends and family, I was loathe to engage because I was completely intimidated. I didn't have a support structure, I wasn't part of a community. I was new to blogging and wasn't aware of what it all meant.

    As a reader, connecting with authors is still intimidating for me. So the idea that anyone would reach out in defense of their book would make me feel terrible for not liking it, even if I had every reason not to. But that initial contact back in November 2010 did give me an awareness that I hadn't had before - that authors do read reviews. And that being an online book reviewer (I hadn't quite thought of myself as a blogger at that time) is not the same thing as being a reviewer for a publication. There's no filter between reviewer and author. And that caution is necessary when posting online, unless you are seeking to engage in a negative way.

    It's a changing world. It's not just the major pubs that influence readers. Online outlets do have some influence and there are more people choosing to have their voices heard. Blogs and Goodreads and Amazon are all places where those who see themselves as reviewers, or those who just see themselves as readers, can share their thoughts in any way they choose. Hurtful or not. Accurate or not. Because, as much as traditional reviewers may state otherwise, there will always be a subjective component to reading and critiquing a book. How well a reader can connect to a story and engage with it isn't solely dependent upon a writer's ability to write well, but on a reader's experience, mood, etc. And there's nothing wrong with that.

    But engaging to correct a reviewer for their thoughts or words will either intimidate or enrage most readers/reviewers. Because writing reviews is their voice and their way of sharing their thoughts. And having someone come along and tell them they're wrong for writing this way, feeling this way, expressing themselves this way, can be as hurtful to them as a negative review.

    Reviewers aren't immune to criticism. I've had several comments over the years calling me stupid or a moron or complaining about my reviews being too long, or that they sounded like PR fluff. I've had to swallow back the need to engage, rant to The Dude, to my friends and family, curse for a week, obsess for several days, draft snarky commentary back, and then swallow it all. Because as a reviewer who posts online I am opening myself up for that criticism and not everyone is going to like my writing, agree with my opinion about a book, etc.

    This is why I just don't understand why there is this author/blogger divide. There is a lot more in common than different. First and foremost we are all readers and book lovers.

    And we do get just as insulted when called frustrated, unsuccessful/wannabe writers or unintelligent readers who don't know what it means to review or are ill-equipped to give our opinions of the books we read. Anyone who reads a book and is bold enough to open themselves up for criticism by sharing their opinion should be commended. Heck, anyone who reads books is pretty awesome.

    Sorry for the long ramble-y comment.

    1. Rachel--Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I have learned so much from the comments here. Like it never occurred to me that reviewers might get comments on their reviews that make them feel bad. I'll admit I read TONS of reviews--my own, books I like, books I don't like, my friends' forthcoming books. Some of it is a procrastination thing and some of it is free therapy, like "Oh, her book sold fine even though a bunch of people ranted about [whatever.] My book isn't doomed to complete and utter failure just because I have these reviews that say it's horrible." I never read the comments though, probably because that requires an extra click, or because that feels like eavesdropping on people's conversations in a way reading reviews doesn't.

      It also never occurred to me some reviewers didn't know authors were reading. It's not just authors. I'm sure certain reviews are read by agents, editors, publishers, publicists.

      I don't think there's an author/blogger divide. Not really. I think maybe there's a small percentage of authors who feel entitled to all good reviews and a small percentage of reviewers who get off on trashing as many books as possible (for whatever the reason) and these few can ruin it for the whole groups, but only if we let them.

      Anyone who puts anything on the internet is brave--book, book review, art, T-shirt design, etc.--because sooner or later someone is going to come along and criticize it and that almost always hurts. I think people should review in whatever way they feel comfortable, but me personally, I try to remember that there's a human being, or a whole team of them, lurking behind the electrons.

  7. This was such a great and well thought out post. I'm really glad I spotted this. You make a lot of great points and hearing them from an author's perspective is refreshing, since most of the commentary I gain comes from the blogging side! It is also nice to know that you have had positive experiences when reaching out and interacting with reviewers.
    "[ETA: a good rule of thumb is not to write anything you wouldn't be okay with the whole world reading.]"
    I think that this is so so so important for everyone to remember, whether it be a whole review or a simple one sentence comment on a friend's GR page. The internet has a way of never letting anything go once it is out there, so being aware of what you are saying (especially if it is fueled by anger or frustration,) is a must.
    As a blogger, I so appreciate how sweet you have been, (guest posting on my blog, ect.) I think that almost all bloggers get the jitters when approaching an author with a request, and the much talked about blogger/author negativity that has gone around definitely plays a part in that. Were just lucky that there are many respectful and kind authors [Like YOU] that make up for all that.
    Thanks for this post, great stuff!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. It's funny that you say bloggers get nervous approaching authors for requests because *I* get nervous approaching bloggers for requests. And although I have never opted not to answer an email (even if my email was "Sorry. I can't provide a free book or interview at this time") multiple bloggers have not responded to my emails, which made me feel a little sad and unimportant and irrelevant and somewhat like I'm "not a real writer."

      But your responses makes me wonder if perhaps they were just like "Well, I don't want to read/review her book but I don't want to tell her no so I'll just pretend her email got lost in the spam folder."

      So thanks for sharing your perspective, because now I feel better :)


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