Vox Pop: Reader Reviews and Writers Reactions

With the advent of sites like Goodreads, Book Safari and the like books no longer have to rely on catching the attention of the print media to get a review. Readers can post their reviews and thoughts on these websites – and on most online bookshop sites – for all to read.

These sites demonstrate the wide and varied responses people can have to a particular book and in many instances prove to be fairly worthless if you are trying to choose a book to read, (in my experience). Emotional responses such as ‘loved it, hated it, boring, adore this, don’t even pick it up’ and so on don’t do much to enlighten the curious and potential reader. The trick is to find a reviewer whose reviews are balanced and whose tastes you share, and that’s not easy given the number of would-be reviewers out there.

But what about the writers? To receive four stars and a gushing comment is a feel good moment for most of us. And then there are those readers who need to vent their disappointment by splashing negatives around like angry toddlers in a bath. It may be momentarily satisfying for them but it’s a casually destructive act that is cached forever alongside our name. Yes, this is the load those of us who venture into public must carry, trolls come with the territory and dealing with such negatives is a part of the job description. But how do we feel about this phenomenon? Is any publicity good? Does it rock your confidence or do you just shrug it off and get on with what you have to do?

The conventional wisdom is that one simply adopts the enigmatic and silent position and avoid drawing attention to any negatives. I asked a selection of writers with different publishing backgrounds what they thought …

Krissy Kneen

I intend to not read the bad reviews. I get my partner to read them all first then I ask them what was said. One from the weekend Tasmanian was a kind of bad review but it was critical of me and my lifestyle not the writing. I had no problem reading it as a bit of comedy. I am hoping that if I get a really bad review that pulls my craft apart I will not read it. All those words would rattle around in my head.

Favel Parrett

I find it really hard to not read reviews. I have just taken myself off Twitter because I am pretty much hopeless at just not looking at things! I was a bit obsessed with the reviews on Goodreads for a while when my book came out – and I did take bad reviews to heart. I like the idea or not saying anything if you don’t like a book – and just reviewing the ones you liked. I am going to take that wisdom on in my own life from now on.
After a year of publicity with my book – I have decided to try and turn over an new leaf. To not read reviews – or google alerts, to not spend so much time on social media (which I am finding hard). I have to try and get back to the writing – how it was before I was published.

Kate Kasserman

Just a couple days ago I got my first blistering review; the reviewer’s furious complaint was that the sequel was too long in coming and so no one should buy the book. My first reaction was but…but…but…I have been scrabbling desperately the past two years to make a living, and do I really deserve to be hanged for not having written a four-hundred page novel as well as working these eighty-, hundred-hour weeks? Sense kicked in after not too long; what the reviewer was (evidently quite) incensed over was not only something I could not do anything about but also not exactly an unusual delay between lengthy books nor any sort of reflection upon the writing or story.

I would not enjoy, but would still want to read, a review that had a substantive bone to pick (beyond “not my sort of thing” which is of course always fair enough). If some readers were saying they liked a book fine while a few did not, probably I could and would more or less shrug off the negatives as questions of taste. If, however, MOST readers were barfing, that’s something I seriously need to look into. So, I would want to know. Maybe I’d want to stick to my guns (“the world NEEDS talking animal space epics written in the form of limericks, and posterity will vindicate me!”) or maybe I’d need to retool, but at least it would be an informed choice. The way I’d deal with it is either getting all messianic (privately, in my secret heart — no public fits) about my talking animal space epic limerick innovation.Or else resolving that with the hard feedback I Would Do Better In The Future. And I would probably take some antacids and long walks, heh.

With the personal-attack bad reviews, ultimately it’s just like any other random hostility. Unpleasant, but unless the person is actually coming at me with a knife, its own content-free emptiness dissipates it over time, and not a very long time at that.

Alexander McNabb

I have so far had only one bad review for Olives, a spiteful piece that was obviously intended to be hurtful penned by a professional journalist who was so focused on lashing out at me, he included a massive spoiler in the piece, something readers obviously do not want. So I thought it was interesting he’d sacrifice the interests of his readers on the altar of trying to hurt me. He obviously cared more than he perhaps thought about me.

I read the review twice. And then I thought, “Is that it, Pal? Is that your best shot?” and I realised I’d passed a milestone – whatever people said of my book, it couldn’t be worse than that. And I was still standing and still had my belief in the book intact. Now, having spoken to book clubs, readers, people on Twitter and Facebook and book signings, I have hundreds of positive reactions to Olives. I know I was right and he was wrong – and he remains a solitary negative voice.

The Internet works in mysterious ways. People know to balance commentary now, to take a single ‘odd man out’ piece of commentary with a pinch of salt. If you have ten good reviews and one spittle-flecked rant, people will either be piqued by the polarisation or, more likely, ignore the strange one. The worst thing that can happen is ‘meh’ as a reaction!
Generally, I have found many reviews by journalists aren’t terribly well constructed and often make assertions without providing much evidence, focusing on providing a synopsis of the book rather than examining its impact on the reader. That might just be the Middle East for you, though

Edwina Shaw

I haven’t had any bad reviews (any reviews in fact) yet except from my own family – some of whom have been deeply upset by my fictionalising of some shared truths. These hurt. A lot.
However, as with all negatives I tend not to dwell on them – or else they do my head in. I don’t watch the news. I don’t read abusive mail and I’ll probably extend this to reviews as well, should I be lucky enough to get any.

Pete Morin

My favorite review so far is the 2 star on Goodreads that says, simply, “B-O-R-I-N-G.”
My second favorite is the one from the 21 year old recent uni grad and aspiring writer who gave me 3 stars and said the legal stuff was hard to follow and the title was misleading because it wasn’t written in diary format. She also thought that I had misspelled “bore” when I used “boor,” not understanding that “boor” was actually a word.
I just chuckle and move on.

Simon Groth

No one’s cared enough about anything I’ve written to write a really bad review (I know, crack out the violins, right?). The little published criticism I’ve received so far seems to have been pretty measured and fair. A blistering review is just remunerated trolling. And you never feed the trolls. I would usually advise against engaging, unless you’re certain you can do so with dignity. Exhibit A is the self-published author Jacqueline Howett. She practically demolished her own reputation after a pretty mildly critical review from a blogger. See for yourself; the train wreck is all still there.

Michelle Witte

My thoughts as far as how authors should ideally react:

Authors can’t control what others think or say about their book, so thinking you can convince someone that they’re wrong is often a waste of breath. No matter how the author engages, it will almost always come across poorly.
In the age of the internet, nothing is ever deleted or forgotten. Even if you send your rants in a private email, it is highly possible that it will be released publicly. And shared with the subject of the rant, as in one case.

Simon Forward

Having written for the BBC’s Doctor Who books, you get to realise very early on that there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, I argued a long while back that writers’ should be in the business of creating, not catering – hence, I set out to write the kind of Doctor Who books I might’ve liked to read. So some people were bound to be upset or disappointed. But so what? The alternative is to second-guess your audience and try to cater to their likely wants and wishes and that way lies madness and a high probability of a second-rate book (at best).

You learn that no matter how well you do your job, there are critics out there who don’t do theirs particularly well and then there can be the occasional completely nutty reader. The trick lies in telling apart the genuine readers and reviewers who either just didn’t like your book and manage to highlight actual flaws, from those who perhaps haven’t read it properly or maybe even have some axe to grind.

Reviews in the main should be left to stand alone. Although for your own health and state of mind, there’s no harm in going to check out other books the reviewer has commented on and getting some measure of them. Also, it can be therapeutic to take a look at some of the less-deserving books that appear to get glowing reviews and shake your head as you marvel at the diversity of people’s opinions.

At the end of the day, you have to stand by what you wrote – as long as your editor hasn’t tampered with it too much. And while you can learn from what readers have to say, you can’t really go and rewrite a finished book after release. If there are lessons to be learned, you can take them on board for the next one. The one they’re pulling to shreds? Well, to some extent you have to say, it’s done and dusted, and you move on. At the same time, it goes without saying, treasure those authentic good reviews like gems.

Bren MacDibble

I’ve had mostly good reviews. Some ho hum, nothing bad. I’ve had two brilliant reviews in Locus Magazine, so I must be doing something right. I tend to read them all, then instantly lose the ones that are not glowing. The glowing ones, I link to from absolutely everywhere. I’ve never had close friends review me, so I feel completely justified in doing that.

Azra Alagic

I don’t have enough work out there to have warranted a scathing attack – yet. However, given that I am about to Epub my first book (Not Like My Mother – sorry had to get the plug in!) on what many have told me is a controversial and confronting topic I’m bracing myself for the darts of critique that will eventually pierce my skin. With glass of red wine in hand, and bottle on the table next to me and a box of red wine on the floor as well – just in case.
Given I consider the art of writing a continual learning experience I hope I can take on board any critique in that light and improve how I write. Reviews can also be about the topic though, and how it’s handled, and given this is subjective I don’t aim to worry too much about that. I write what I am passionate about and not everyone is going to agree with my viewpoint. That’s fine. I agree that it is dangerous to engage with the critique especially on blogs.

Elisabeth Storrs

It’s not worthwhile responding to a bad review even though they always dent the ego. While writing my book I also received both positive and negative criticism. I learned not to immediately dismiss anything adverse but try and work out whether there was any validity to it by giving myself a little space between receiving the advice and then editing the same version. Sometimes it turned out that the ‘dose of medicine’ was beneficial. I’m trying to consider bad reviews in the same way – they could well address issues that you should think about when writing your next one.
The issue of a reviewer not only commenting on content but also on the formatting of ebook versions is now becoming more common as well. In these cases I do think it’s worth trying to find out what version the reviewer was reading so something might be done about it. Publishers (and certainly authors) often don’t know about problems with formatting unless it is raised.

Helene Young

My take on reviews is pragmatic. I don’t like many of Tim Winton’s books so it stands to reason there will be people who don’t like mine. I have a one star from someone on Amazon that I’d rather wasn’t there and it’s from someone in America so I wonder if they’ve even read it.
I think the feedback from contests where I polarised readers was good training for me. As was the brush with a crit partner who told me I wasn’t listening to her and couldn’t write – dented my ego for a couple of months but I got over it! The fact reviews are cached for all times does make it a little harder to swallow, but so far I’ve had nothing to vitriolic. That can’t continue so I’ll choose to ignore it when it happens.

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