My post from yesterday sparked some really interesting and respectful dialog. It’s true that I used a broad brush, and I’m aware that nothing is simple. However, I stand by what I said as general principles.
I find it easier to talk about what it’s like from the reviewer end. As an author, I’m fairly unknown. I have some positive reviews and some negative ones. I’ve had a few bizarre comments and some harsh criticism. I don’t ever want what I say to be taken as “bitterness” against reviewers. I might find some things reviewers have said to be unhelpful (the person who started their review with “I don’t understand bisexuals” comes to mind). But I stand by my belief that every reviewer has the right to say whatever they like about my work.
That said, there are a few things I’d like to say which come partly from my own experience as an author but mainly from feedback I’ve gotten from authors as a reviewer. Once again, these are broad, general ideas; your mileage may vary.
1. We prefer if you read the tags and summaries on our books.
Not just the categories Amazon or whatever bookseller has used but the ones we provide in review requests or which other reviewers have used or which our publishers have used. I hear all the time from authors that they got feedback along the lines of “It didn’t have enough romance/sex for me.” Okay, but did you check to see that it’s not a romance? Did you read the blurb? Similarly, I have exactly zero right to complain that a book contains content I don’t like to read if it’s there in the tags or the synopsis.
2. Reviews can feel highly personal.
Yeah, I know. I said yesterday that reviews aren’t the writer’s personal mission to reward or punish an author. And that’s true, but we like when you keep your reviews free of personal commentary about the author. It’s so much easier to believe our work is complete garbage than to think it’s something special. It might not seem that way, judging by the way some authors behave like toddlers even when reviewers have gone out of their way to be respectful. But a lot of those reactions are because we feel like you’ve just confirmed that we are The Worst Ever. I’m not asking for anyone to coddle us, but please at least try to use neutral language and stick to specific points in the book, not snide remarks.
3. We’re tougher than we look.
Although my previous point made it seem like I think we’re fragile, we’re actually not. The majority of us appreciate thoughtful criticism. I was surprised at first by the number of times I would hear from an author who thanked me for my specific, direct feedback about a particular issue. More often than not, it’s led to some great conversations, and I can think of at least three times it’s resulted in a solid friendship. (I have to be careful here not to reveal authors’ identities because of the Amazon Review Watchdogs.) Those reviews are highly valuable to us. A low rating with a clear explanation is more sought-after than a high rating with some fluffy, bubbly text which tells us nothing.
4. It isn’t necessarily your job to “help” us.
This one is going to get me in trouble. My own opinion is that I’m not looking at reviews of my work to learn how to be a better writer. A reviewer may feel that’s their purpose, but those are the reviews I ignore. It simply isn’t the format I find most helpful to my ongoing process. I also think it smacks of a certain degree of arrogance on the reviewer’s part. I had one recently which said my writing was bad, which it very well may be. However, the exact same book had several reviewers who felt exactly the opposite. So whose “help” do I choose? If I took every single criticism to heart, I would be a wreck, so that’s out of the question. They’re not even all correct. Trust me, when I tried to do that, I ended up writing a book that I hated, and judging by reviews, readers didn’t like it too much either. The overall sense I got was that readers prefer me when I’m the real me, not their version of me. Reminds me of the song from Free to be…you and me: “Some kinds of help are the kind of help that helping’s all about. And some kinds of help are the kind of help we all could do without.” (Oh, god…please tell me there are other children of the ’70s who remember this album!)
5. Reviews should be about the content, not the minutiae.
I do think it’s acceptable to point out if a book was unedited or the editing was sub-par. But do I want a review which says that I misspelled something on page 34? No. I read a lot, I review a lot, and I edit people’s work, so I have a trained eye. Trust me, even books from Big Five publishers have typos. Pointing a couple out in a self-published or small press book is kind of pedantic. I have had a couple of people whose only reactions to my work are along the lines of, “You missed an end quote on page 86.” Literally nothing about the plot and characters, and not even general comments about the style, flow, and word use. I’ve seen reviewers go after an author because they hated the title. Didn’t even read the book. Take a step back, breathe, and maybe think about why you wish to point out nothing but these picky details without discussing anything else.
6. Reviews may not be the best place to discuss poor editing.
I don’t think it’s wrong, necessarily. I’ve pointed it out in reviews. For people who struggle to read poorly constructed sentences, it’s probably a good idea to know from a review if a book has that problem. I mentioned yesterday that I found The Handmaid’s Tale to have this problem. However, all that’s required is a mention. It doesn’t need a paragraph describing it in detail or listing all the flaws in hopes the author will go back and edit. If you really want to go to that much trouble, try contacting the publisher (or the author if it’s self-published). We’re not all that hard to find, even big name authors. I think for me, what it amounts to is if you’re not willing to talk to the author directly about it, and you’re not willing to contact the editor or publisher, then a public review (which the author may not even read) isn’t the best place. You may be inadvertently calling out an author who can’t afford a better editor. Suggesting maybe that person shouldn’t have published something if they couldn’t pay is classism.
7. Please tag your reviews for spoilers.
I’ve put spoilers in a review before. The few times I’ve done so, it’s because I thought some of the content might be triggering for readers. I may have put in spoilers on a small number of other occasions when something was done particularly well but was integral to the plot. In every case, I white it out or use spoiler tags. I make it clear my review contains such content. It is really, really aggravating to me as a reader to have a story ruined before I’ve read it. It’s extremely frustrating as an author to have worked hard to lead up to a big reveal in the plot but have reviewers take away the fun for readers. Just don’t.
8. Leave meanness for private conversations with your friends.
You and your three besties hate some book? Fine. Go mock it to your hearts’ content in a private discussion. A review is not the place to pile on an author. It’s not just about the hurt feelings of the author. When one reviewer shreds a book and twenty other people who have not even read it jump in to participate, it creates a toxic atmosphere. I’m aware that people sometimes need to express anger because a book has perpetuated, say, racial stereotypes. That’s not what I’m talking about. I won’t name names, but I’m guessing there are people reading this who know exactly the type of thing I mean. (For my own safety, if you do, please, please, please do not provide any identifying details in the comments. I don’t need those folks coming after me. Seriously. You know they will.)
9. Reviews work best when they are clear, direct, and specific.
I mentioned yesterday that authors rarely get upset over 5-star reviews, and I was informed by several people that some do. If the review contains spoilers or if the review has no substance, some authors will vent about it. (I maintain that the level of upset is still a lot lower than a 1-star review containing spoilers or with no real explanation.) The thing is, I’m pretty forgiving. I know that not all readers are able to write well, and I think it’s a bit snobby on our part to expect that they do so. But that only applies to the average reader, who really might be just leaving a quick note to say they liked or didn’t like the book. Reviews provided by book blogs and online media sources need to be well-crafted for a number of reasons.
The reasons why you like or dislike a book are important. For me, as someone who also spends time in social justice arenas, I need specifics if you find something problematic in what I’ve written. My personal goal as an author is to represent a wide variety of people and do so respectfully. It’s not a matter of “diversity for diversity’s sake.” For me, it’s about the people in my own life and honoring and celebrating the wide range of people I know. So if I’ve done it poorly, not only do I need to know, I need to know what specifically was inappropriate. Writing a review which says, “This book is transphobic AF” tells me nothing. (Note: This applies only to people pointing out what I’ve done but who are not part of that marginalized group. I don’t expect marginalized folk to educate me.)
10. We don’t always read our reviews.
No matter how good your intentions, and no matter how hard you’ve worked on a review, we may not read it. I tend not to read my reviews unless I’ve been contacted directly or I’ve sent a review request. Just like you ultimately have the right to put whatever you want in a review, I have the right not to read it. Being indignant because your opinion went unheeded by me is silly. If you want me to see it, then contact me. I’m really easy to reach by multiple social media avenues, all of which are conveniently listed on this blog (and I think on Goodreads, too). Just so you know, even if I’m not reading your reviews, I’m still glad you’re voicing your opinion. I’m glad you read my book, even if you hated it. And I wholeheartedly believe that even if you ignore everything on this list, you have the right to do as you choose without fearing that I will go after you publicly. You have my guarantee.
I hope that my two posts have given both authors and reviewers some things to think about. Neither list is exhaustive, and both lists are my own opinions based on experience. You don’t have to agree, and you’re welcome to add more to either list.
It’s difficult to be a person on both sides of the situation because I’ve seen a lot of unnecessary hurt and drama. The fact is, for those of us who are self-published or with small presses, we often rely on each other for multiple parts of the process. That can produce some unhealthy interactions. Maybe if we work to understand each other we can build better trust and community.