Should authors respond to negative reviews?

In my opinion, the answer is a universal and thundrous ‘never!’ Don’t apologize because they say they wasted their money, don’t gripe that they weren’t fair, don’t bitch that they were mean. Don’t do anything. Say nothing. Shut up. I think it’s fine to respond to an exceptionally positive review, or respond to a question, but when they are critical, say not one word. You cannot win. You can only look worse.

You will look hypersensitive, thus showing other detractors that your goat is available for the getting. You will look like your work hasn’t been very successful, because you feel a negative review is impacting you. You will look petty, because you are bickering. And if you’re not careful, you may look stupid, because you fail to get the point everyone else got.

While new authors are usually the most sensitive about reviews, some damned famous ones can get very worked up about an adverse review. One may remember Laurell K. Hamilton finally breaking down and venting Dear Negative Reader, which came to define a trope. She’s never heard the end of that piece, because it conveyed to the public where she was sensitive.

The reasons not to crab back at critical reviews divide into two groups:

Professional:

  • Maybe they were actually being merciful, and you’ll convince them to stop that and say what they really thought.
  • You look petty and small-time, with so little real work to do that you have time to argue with reviewers.
  • Your book must not be selling very well if you’re afraid of a bad review.

Personal:

  • It shows the weak spot in your armor of public presence.
  • It then gives more people a good reason to want to find that weak spot and use it to torment you.
  • It opens you up to a debate you cannot win even if you’re right, stepping onto a level playing field where people won’t hesitate to gang up on you.

As you might guess, this came up due to an author’s mistake. A little over seven years ago, I wrote the following review of Joann Kuzma Deveny’s 99 Ways to Make a Flight Attendant Fly–Off the Handle: A Guide for the Novice or Oblivious Air Traveler.

Before I paid $13 for this I should have looked at the length. My mistake. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of content here compared to other recent flight attendant books out there, and that content can be boiled down to a few salient points of guidance for travelers:

1) Have no emotions except gratitude to your sainted flight attendants for choosing to serve you. Strive for your own form of sainthood, which amounts to never having needs or feelings except the foregoing.

2) You are not here to get from point A to point B. You are here to monitor your every action to improve the flight attendants’ convenience. Now you know.

3) Flight attendants basically do not like you, so watch it, lest you receive the Dreaded Eye Roll and the Stony Ignore.

There. I saved you $13. Too bad the author doesn’t give us any real reason to want to make her life easier, as she doesn’t seem to like us much to begin with. Well, I didn’t like her co-workers much either to begin with, based on experience, but I’ve always tried to keep an open mind. I still will, but no thanks to Deveny.

That’s where the book fails those it purports to help: it fails to create any sense of community between flight attendant and passenger. Both are victims: the victims of airline deregulation, cramped planes, crappy food and miserable overall conditions. The two most aggrieved groups involved in the airline industry are natural allies. A balanced book that promoted improved relations between the two would be a real service. Instead, into the hands of already angry and frustrated passengers is dropped a treatise on how to spread that annoyance around to the nearest targets–with no incentive offered as to why they should not. So I’ll pick up some slack here.

Fellow fliers, please try and treat your flight crew with courteous respect, for everyone’s benefit, in spite of the fact that they rate you slightly above a used diaper. In so doing, you’ll rise above the mean-spirited ranting that fills this book. Focus your anger where it is deserved: the airline industry executives and the immense bonuses they get, all because flight attendants and passengers are the ones jointly taking a hosing.

As for me, I want to fly even less now than I did before I read it. I wonder if it’s occurred to the author that this sentiment isn’t really going to promote greater job security in her field.

As cold as that seems, the truth was colder. If I’d meant to hurt her, I’d have estimated the word count, to show people how little actual content they were buying. I’d have pointed out how many copies were for sale for $0.01 on the secondary market. I’d have given her one star (Amazon’s lowest rating) instead of two. I’d have used much harsher verbiage. It needed a critical review, but I had no reason to want to make sure it stung. Had I lacked all empathy for flight attendants, I wouldn’t have pleaded with the public to treat them decently in spite of the book.

Today, a mere seven years later, she commented on the review to complain:

Please look further to 99 Ways… eleven 4 & 5 star reviews. The overall rating is 4 out of 5, with only 2 people, with no sense of humor, in the minority. (2 to 11)

She left a similar gripe on the other critical review today. Here’s what’s comical there: she’d left a similar gripe on that one two years ago. Evidently she didn’t even read her own comment. The best argument she could come up with was, in digested form: ‘ignore this humorless minority opinion, other people love it.’

Salient point: before she griped, she looked okay. She had a couple of negative reviews, a much greater number of positive ones, and the reader was left to judge who to believe–the majority or the minority. (As I see it, I did my part. If they still want to buy it, it’s not my money, so I am not invested and don’t care.) Now she looks bad. Now every reader knows that she will be easily stung. If some real jerk wants to, he or she can use that to make the author’s life very unhappy. Not the sort of thing I (or any person with a life) would do, but the Internet has every kind of person, including obsessive psychotic bullies.

Will I do as I told her, and go back to re-read and edit the review so as to do a more thorough job of shooting the book full of holes? Nah, I doubt it. I was mainly warning her what a dumb thing she’d done. I’m not as sensitive about such things. She doesn’t like my review, well, fine; if I had cobbled together a minimal amount of mediocre content into a $13 book, and someone called me on it, that’s not what I’d want to hear either because that speaks to the book being a bad value. If it really is a bad value, of course that’s the last thing she wants people to grasp, because they will buy one of the 33 used copies available from $0.01 (at which price point it’s an okay value). I responded mainly out of kindness, to teach her a bit of a lesson, which she really does not deserve of me.

Then that thought morphed, and I realized that the entire subject might make an interesting blog entry. There is a perspective from the author’s side, but the great majority of talking about writing is done purely from a reader’s perspective; maybe readers are interested in the author’s side. One of the first things an author needs is to learn how to behave. If Deveny now pulls up this post on search, and leaves a snide comment, that’ll be proof she didn’t get what I was trying to convey to her, but I won’t stop her from compounding the mistake. Nor will I be angry. This is writing for public consumption, and not everyone will like or value it, and some of them will say so. I’ll deal with it and move on.

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4 thoughts on “Should authors respond to negative reviews?”

  1. As a reader, and not much of an author, I enjoy hearing from the other side of the page.
    I read the Laurell Hamilton post and because what she writes is not really my ‘thing’, I looked it up in Wiki. OMG! You’d need a spreadsheet to keep track of the characters and their attributes and it’s never wise to tell readers to piss off. Very classless and petty.

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    1. Yeah, Shannon, she went beyond just getting angry with her critical readers. She got a trope named after her. Hamilton shows just how far it can go when you feel the need to muck in with your critics.

      One book I worked on has one and only one review, which criticizes it as a vile, ungodly, Satanic, Christ-hating, load of crap. Am I going to respond, even with some guffaws? In no wise. The person is an idiot, but as she is, everyone can see that. If I engage her, I will get idiot juice all over myself in public. Do. Not. Want.

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  2. I know what you mean, Jonathan. I wrote a review of Velveeta once, and the president of Kraft had the audacity to respond and accuse me of “misusing” their product. How the hell was I supposed to know it was intended as food?

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    1. I completely sympathize, SweetCece. When I first saw the stuff, I thought it was meant as flexible polymer flooring tile that could be heat-cured for perfect coverage of textured and otherwise topographied floors.

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