As I am preparing my first novel, I have been studying up on the finer points of becoming an author, issues like getting an agent, self-publishing versus going with a publication house, use of social media, etc. One of the issues that I have run across regards online book reviews. I have always been someone who tries to give positive and constructive feedback and when I read reviews on books I am considering buying, I am amazed at what some individuals submit as a review. There are books that I have read that I have been disappointed in, however, I have never felt the need to publicly comment on those. I can understand constructive feedback like editing errors to some extent but really, calling out an author as being a no-talented hack gets you no where. When I read some of the negative reviews, I can definitely see how an author may feel the need to defend his/herself against certain allegations, however, to what end does this engagement lead? If the individual truly hates your work, nothing you can say will change that person’s mind. All you can do is rely on other readers who appreciate your work for what it is and point out the positive aspects. It is those readers who will stay loyal to you.
I have taught college for 14 years and have run into a similar issue of late with course evaluations. I cannot please all of my students and inevitably there are some students that just don’t like me, no matter what I do or say. With the recent advent of online teaching rating sites through rateyourprofessor.com among others, I have discovered it is best if I just ignore their existence. When I first discovered that I had been added to these sites and was being evaluated in an open forum, as I read my reviews I became distressed with the negative reviews and sadly, I allowed it to interfere with my teaching. When I wrote a particularly difficult exam after reading a few reviews on how my class was an easy A (which it is not), I realized that I was putting too much stock in someone evaluating me openly but who did not put the same evaluation in my professional, university evaluation. When I would check the online ratings, I would feel this overwhelming need to defend myself, but I always stopped myself short. What good would it do for me to reply? Whoever wrote the review probably will not look back at any of my replies and besides, that individual probably just made sure to avoid having me as their instructor for future courses. My reviews on these sites are completely all over the place from getting super high reviews to super low reviews. I hope that because there is a lack of consistency, anyone who is looking at those reviews can see that only a few students, those that either really liked me or really hated me posted on this site and therefore, it is not a reliable or valid measure of my ability as a teacher. I care a lot about my students, I want them to get the most out of my class and as such, when I read negative reviews, I lose sleep and obsess over what I did wrong. I can’t change the past, only work on the present and the future and that is when I decided it was no longer worth my time to look at these reviews. They hold no merit to who I am as a teacher and instead, I focus on feedback I receive during the course as well as in the university course evaluations that my students fill out and I receive the following semester or during the intersession break and I always look through those to find areas that I can improve on for the future. I always encourage my students to provide constructive feedback. Saying that I am a cold-hearted bitch does nothing. Saying that I did not spend enough time explaining how power relates to definitions of deviance, on the other hand, is something I can do something about. I always get the typical few evaluations from students who don’t like me and perhaps did not do well in my class, however, far more are the evaluations that tell me what I did right or what I need to change or improve upon. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter if a student does not like me, if he/she learns something from the class, that is the only thing that matters.
So getting back to authors responding to reviews, I really feel that while it is important to look at all of your reviews, try not to let the negative reviews get you down. Look for constructive feedback. If there were major editing issues, take that up with your publisher or look into how to correct those editing errors and further pay attention for the future. Not everyone is going to like the story you want to tell and for that matter, may not like how you resolve your story. I have read many books that I had hoped would end differently but just because the author chose to end it his/her own way doesn’t mean I immediately slammed the entire book in an open, online forum. Remember it is your story to tell. It is part of who you are as an author and you should not change yourself to please a few. By engaging in repeated battles against negative reviewers, you are simply sweating the small stuff and in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter. In some cases, if the interaction between the author and the negative reviewer gets particularly nasty, it exposes you to further scrutiny by others and as such may even alienate some of your following.
I have heard the argument that your readers are your customers and replying to negative reviews is good customer service. Yes, technically your readers are your customers but writing isn’t about customer service. It is about self expression and creativity and in that sense, I think that it is a waste of time to worry about the negative reviews that hold no constructive merit. A reviewer that complains that your book was not what they expected it to be is not a reflection on you as the author, rather a reflection on the reader and what led him/her to have these unmet expectations.
As an author, I hope to be able to restrain myself from responding to negative reviews, but because I am not yet published, who knows what the future holds. I hope that if I encounter a negative review that gets under my skin, I will come back and read this entry and remind myself of what is important. I am writing my novel for me. It is a story that I want to tell and if it is not a best seller, that’s ok, if it does not do well, that is also ok, because for me, it is about telling this story and maybe years from now, someone will read it and get what I wanted my readers to get from it, but I am not going to worry about a lot of these little things. I used to worry about what people thought of my writing and after a few bad critiques, I let those critiques influence me to hide my writing away for years and never talk about it or show it to anyone. I let someone’s opinion of my work influence whether I engaged in something I truly enjoy doing and I have finally reached a point in my life where I need to do what is right for me and writing this novel, spending time preparing for another novel feels like the right thing for me to do. I am not going to apologize for who I am and what I believe in and if that means that readers following me on twitter do not appreciate my posts and retweets about human rights issues or how we treat our veterans, then they don’t have to follow me. But for those who want to know who I am , where I get my ideas from, those are the readers who will follow me and appreciate what I try to do with my writing.