Thursday, October 23
Bad Reviews, or How to Hide the Bodies
Part of the Indie Author Series
Any author who’s been following the bizarre Kathleen Hale review-stalkergate dustup may, like myself, be wondering whether we might be better off never looking at a review of our work again. In fact, multiple award-winning editor/author Gardner Dozois told the Clarion West class I was in a dozen years ago not to pay attention to reviews; another famous author I know never reads any reviews of his work, not even the mainstream ones by professional reviewers and critics. Not even the good ones.
Fortunately, most ordinary readers who take the trouble to write book reviews are rational people. Still, occasionally a book may hit a nerve, especially if it touches upon any of the so-called “trigger” topics which have grown so numerous that, frankly, I’ve lost track of them. Some sensitive reader will see a mention of, say, animal abuse which a writer has made up (no animal was ever harmed) for plot or character purposes, and next thing you know a perfectly good book gets a one-star review.
Unfortunately not all reviewers are rational people. It’s well-known and very clear that there are mean-spirited individuals out there—often embittered writers either suffering from envy or trying to protect their turf—who make a point of trying to take down other authors’ work. These reviews are usually easy to spot and I don’t think anyone pays much attention to them; still, they will sting.
Occasionally some even lower form of life will surface, some species of troll, and woe betide any author unwise enough to fall for their bait. We’ve all seen it happen on the net, and while we could argue about the sanity of ever allowing anonymity in the first place, there’s a simple way to stay out of trouble and keep your peace of mind: never, ever, respond to a review. No matter how incorrect, unjust, maddening, or misleading. Ever.
That can be hard to do. When someone gives a one-star review, they often haven’t read the book. Or they’re mad because the download was glitchy. Or they thought the book was about something it wasn’t. Or the person is just plain crazy—there really are a lot of mentally borderline people on the internet, and they sometimes write reviews!
But you can’t respond. Why? Because anything you say, however you say it, comes out as “you’re wrong, you really don’t get it, give me another chance”...you get the idea.
So what do you? This review is terrible. People are going to read this review, it’ll hurt your book, it’ll—
Stop. Breathe. I’m a gentle soul, but when this happens to me (and it has), believe me that I’d love to rest my knee on that person’s windpipe until they see the light. But if I can refrain from making any response, any whatsoever, so can you.
The reality is that a few negative reviews of an otherwise well-received book aren’t going to do any harm at all—the flame goes out quickly. If you have a couple of dozen four- and five-star reviews and two or three one- and two-stars, your average will still be high. But respond to that mean reviewer and now you’re pouring gasoline on the flame; and if you’ve had the bad luck to run into a real crazy, things can get out of hand very, very quickly indeed.
Also, on Amazon you (yes, even the author) can at least vote down the negative review—and, bam! “0 out of 1 people found the following review helpful”. You might even, over a period of a week or so, ask a friend or two who enjoyed your book to do the same: no, this isn’t gaming the system, it’s protecting your good name. And you can bet that the Amazon algorithm weights reviews according to how many people found them helpful.
It also helps to realize that as long as people are reviewing your book, it means people are reading it. And look up any of the great classics and bestsellers you like, and check out the one-star reviews they got—it didn’t hurt their author, did it?
I also recommend buying a copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections, which I guarantee will lift the most crushed spirit and have you laughing off that silly reviewer that had you reaching for razor blade just a few moments ago.
As artists, I believe we have more strength—and ultimately more resilience—than most ordinary people. To write or paint or make music, to create something we believe in out of empty air and send it out into the world, is an act of raw courage mixed with a big slug of faith, like walking barefoot on hot coals. We know we’ll survive, but we’d be fools to not expect to get a little burnt once in a while.
With mean-spirited reviews, it helps to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, my interpretation of which is to not accept the poison but leave it with the poisoner. Know who owns what, and don’t buy into someone else’s negativity. Let it go. When I see a mean-spirited review, I remind myself that there’s a better than even chance that the person who wrote it is stupid, envious, angry, or quite possibly mentally ill. It helps, really.
One day, I won’t read any reviews any more, I promise, not even the good ones; but until then, I’d still really like to have my knee on that nasty reviewer’s throat...
Have you received hurtful, wrong, unfair reviews? How do you deal with them? And where do you hide the bodies?
The full debrief on the surreal Kathleen Hale incident
Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections
Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for novella submissions.
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