I spent this past weekend up in the Catskills with family and friends, where we hiked and made food and drank good beer and let the kids experience some honest-to-goodness natural settings. It was awesome. Turns out, though, I missed something that set my Twitter feed aflame.
Author Kathleen Hale wrote a piece in The Guardian about confronting an influential book blogger/reviewer who gave her book one star on Goodreads. And by confronting, I mean seriously going to extreme lengths to find this particular blogger. Hale divined the pseudonymous blogger’s real identity through Internet searches, paid for a background check and showed up at her house.
Hale justifies this rather unjustifiable action by stating that the review was oddly biased and factually in error and that she was being “catfished.” In reading her piece, I got the sense that she wanted to gain some measure of justice, or at least convince herself that the blogger who may have “sabotaged” her book wasn’t really credible, even though the damage was already done.
So I’m going to put something out here that, I think, should be something every author should take to heart: This is not OK.
Look, I’ve gotten one-star reviews. Yes, I’ve read them. Some of them were very well written and pretty funny. Some had measures of vitriol that, I thought, were out of proportion to the work. Some were just one-sentence pans. I’ve had a couple of bloggers take my work to the woodshed over the course of several paragraphs.
Do bad reviews hurt? Not really. My books are rated in the high threes on Goodreads, low fours on Amazon. In both cases, the three-stars-and-up ratings well outnumber the twos and ones. To me, that’s a win — I would’ve settled for a 50-50 split. Heck, I have fans. Why would I focus on one-star reviews when I have fans who like my work? I’ll focus on them. Because they’re awesome.
Now, I’ve been a professional writer for 22 years now — meaning I’ve gotten paid to write stuff. Most of that was as a journalist, and during that span, I lost count the number of times someone ripped into me for something. That’s the nature of the beast. When you write something and put it out there, not everyone will agree. Some will react very negatively. On the Internet, you can practically count on someone laying into you with all the righteous outrage they can muster.
Point is, I’ve developed a thick skin over the years. If someone dislikes my book to the point where they feel a good rant could provide catharsis, then rant away.
I happen to like the book bloggers I’ve interacted with over the past few years. Even when they’ve been critical. The vast majority of the time, that criticism makes fair points, and I’ve even learned from some reviews and applied it to the next book. Plus, the bloggers themselves are good people who love SF/F and enjoy telling others about what they read. I write books, they review — this is what brings us joy, respectively. I’m grateful to them for giving my work a shot.
Now, I’ve been reviewed by folks who haven’t put their real name up there. And…who cares? If someone opts to review under an assumed name, well…after this, can you really blame them? Authors write under pen names all the time, and given the anonymity provided by the Internet, nobody can pretend to be shocked that someone isn’t who they say they are.
Long story short, authors cannot expect to avoid bad reviews. No single work of art can please everyone. If you put a book out there, it will be judged, and at some point it will be judged harshly and perhaps even unfairly. That is simply how this works.
Should authors avoid reading reviews? That’s up to you. If you think reading a bad review is going to derail your headspace and keep you up nights, then please avoid them. Have someone else give you a tally of how you’re doing on Goodreads or Amazon or the blogs. Take it in aggregate, not individually. And don’t take it personally.
My advice: Do not respond to bad reviews. Do not attempt to engage reviewers who dislike your work. Even if you feel there are factual inaccuracies, it’s just not worth it. And if the reviews are toxic sludge full of personal attacks and hate, all you have to do is anonymously report them, if possible, and move on. But if it’s just an opinion about your book, leave it be. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Writers make a living out of freedom-of-speech. We shouldn’t be in the business of curtailing others’ freedom.
And for God’s sake, don’t stalk anybody. That’s exceptionally creepy.