Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reviews - An Open Letter to My Fellow Authors

First, let me say that my opinions on this matter are firm. And strong. Very strong. These are Hulk Opinions ™, and I make no apologies for that. So if this letter comes across as strident or angry, that’s probably why.

But I’m not angry. I’m frustrated. Because I love being a writer, and I love talking to other writers, and I want all of you to succeed and thrive and love this career you’ve chosen. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Except when it isn’t, and some of you are making this really hard for yourselves, and you don’t have to.

This letter will address the following points:
1. Reviews Are Not for You and They Are Not Your Business
2. Engaging with Reviewers Makes You Look Bad and Will Lose You Readers and Money
3. Why Ignoring Points 1 & 2 Will Lead to The Death of the Reviews for ARCs Ecosystem So You Should Not Ignore Points 1 & 2

I’m going to start with reviews, which are Not For You and Not Your Business.

Let’s define a review. Specifically, a book review. Merriam Webster lists a lot of definitions for this word, but the one we’re looking for is 6a: ‘a critical evaluation (as of a book or play)’. Pretty clear, right? But hang on, there’s that one word in there that throws some of us off: critical. So let’s define that as well. Merriam Webster lists a lot of definitions for ‘critical’, too, but I think the one that best suits our purposes is 1C: ‘exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation’.
So if we take these two definitions together, we can define a Book Review as “a careful judgment or judicious evaluation of a book”.

All authors want reviews. We want people to read our books, and tell the world what they think of it. In this, The Digital Age, a single review can reach a lot of people. Potential readers who might see it and think “Hmm, that sounds like fun”, who we hope will then click over to the book retailer of their choice and plunk down their hard-earned money to buy our book. And there’s lots of places people can find reviews these days. Blogs, social media like Twitter and Facebook. Retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and reader specific online spaces like Goodreads. Lots and lots of ways for those reviews to reach people, and that’s a good thing. Reviews can have a positive effect on sales, drive traffic to your website, and in the end, help us reach that ultimate goal of finding new readers with hard-earned money to plunk down.

Reviews Are Good.

But not all reviews are going to be positive, and this is where a lot of us get hung up. Let’s go back to the definition of a Book Review: a careful judgment or judicious evaluation of a book. Not everyone is going to judge or evaluate the same, with the same criteria. I, for example, hate/loathe/despise Nicholas Sparks novels. Hate. Them. I think they’re trauma porn, dreck, garbage. But as evidenced by Mr. Sparks’ book sales and movie deals, millions disagree. And that’s FINE. Opinions vary — on everything — including books.

That means, my darlings, that not everyone is going to like your book. And I urge you with all the love in my heart to do whatever you have to do to make your peace with that. Will bad reviews hurt? Of course. We’re human, and we’re allowed to be hurt. And you should get those hurt feelings out — to a spouse, a lover, a friend, a family member, a therapist, the clerk at the liquor store who always knows where they stash the good whiskey.

Where you should never get those feelings out? EVERYWHERE ELSE. Don’t put them on social media, don’t blog about them, don’t put them in the End Of The Year Update you send to family and friends. Why, you ask? Going back to my thesis statement: the review that broke your heart is none of your business.

I know that’s a hard one, but I’m going to say it again: it’s none of your business.

It FEELS like it should be, right? I mean, you wrote the damn book, how could it not be your business? Because while you did write the damn book, you also published the damn book. And when you did that, whether it was when you signed a contract with a traditional publisher or when you hit “Publish” at Amazon, your book changed. It went from something you sweated and cursed and cried and bled over to A Product. It is a Thing You Can Buy now, and like all Things You Can Buy, some people will like it and some people won’t.

It’s not personal. “But it IS personal,” people say. “They’re talking bad about MY BOOK!” Maybe they are, but if/when someone talks bad about my book? They’re not talking about me. They could say “Oh, Hannah Murray? Yeah, I hate everything she’s ever written, she SUCKS,” and that’s not about me. It’s about the work, which clearly they don’t like, and while my stomach does the top-of-the-roller-coaster-flip even thinking about hearing someone say that, and I’d probably go cry somewhere and eat six pounds of Milk Duds and stress about it for days, in the end I will remember that it’s not about me.

And that’s what you all have to realize, too. And if you can’t, if that’s absolutely too hard for you to do (which I totally get), then you have to commit to never reading your reviews. Ever.
Don’t log onto Amazon and check your star ratings. Same for Goodreads. Don’t Google your name, or search it on social media. And do not, under any circumstances, engage with reviewers.

Which brings me to point number 2: Engaging with Reviewers Makes You Look Bad and Will Lose You Readers and Money

In the last month, a kerfuffle broke out — AGAIN — over Goodreads reviews. For those of you who are new, unfamiliar, or might need a reminder, Goodreads is a reader space. It was created as an online gathering place for Readers to connect with Other Readers about what they like to read. They can make lists of books they’ve read and liked for others to see, they can make lists of books they want to read so they don’t forget them. They can create digital shelves so they can organize these lists for their own use, and that of others. And they can leave book ratings and reviews.

And once again I’ll say: those reviews are for other readers. They are posted on a website for readers, by readers, for other readers. And under no circumstances should an author engage with a Goodreads reader over a review.

Ever. At all. Don’t do it. You just look really, really bad. Like the author in the latest kerfuffle, who did the following:

1. Tracked down a one-star review on Goodreads to tell the reviewer that she was wrong to review the ARC of her book on Goodreads (she wasn’t), that she was too stupid to understand the genius of the book (I’m paraphrasing), and continued to harass the reviewer in clear violations of the Goodreads TOS for authors
2. Went on social media and talked shit about everybody who’s ever had a negative opinion of her book

This author stands as a shining example of How Not to Handle a Bad Review. Since this hit last week, the author has blocked every person, including yours truly, who disagreed with her or posed a question about this incident on Twitter, called for an overhaul of Goodreads because it’s unfair to authors (again, it’s a reader space), advocated for an open space for authors to complain about reviewers and People Who Don’t Get Their Genius (I’m guessing), and as of this writing, continues to talk shit and insist she’s the victim (she’s not) because someone one-starred her book.

What’s the result of all this? Well, she might have sold a few books. It was free for a while on Amazon, and I saw a lot of folks on Twitter scooping it up to hate-read it, but then it wasn’t free anymore, so people stopped hate buying it. But the thing I’m really seeing on Twitter? Readers vowing never to touch anything this author ever produces. So even if this book was amazing, the author’s actions are driving people away from it. And even if her second or third or eighth book is amazing, people will remember her actions and not read it.

Losing readers, losing money.

And it’s not just readers vowing to stay away. You know the people I mentioned way back at the beginning of this now very long letter (sorry), the ones who write reviews that we all want and need? They’re staying away, too.

Which brings me to my final point: Why Ignoring Points 1 & 2 Will Lead to The Death of the Reviews for ARCs Ecosystem So You Should Not Ignore Points 1 & 2

Indie and self-published authors often don’t have much of a marketing budget. I’m a self-published author and my marketing budget is exactly zero dollars a month. I’m just not making enough money off my writing to justify the expense. So I, and many authors like me, look for free ways to market our books. Social media is great for that — and so are free reviews.

Right now, an author can get a free review by contacting a reviewer and saying “Hey, I wrote a book. It’s about this thing that I see from your FAQ page that you like to read and review, and I was hoping you’d be able to do that for me! I’m happy to send you an e-copy in whatever format you prefer, please let me know if you want to do this. Thanks!” The reason I know that is because that’s how I got 90% of the reviews on the two books I released in 2019.

It works because I made it clear to these reviewers — they can look at my social media to confirm this, and they will — that what I am asking for is an impartial review in exchange for a free copy of my book. I will not:
· pester them about the review
· ‘suggest’ to them how they should rate it
· follow up with a critique of their review
· request they change the rating
· talk smack about them anywhere

They can expect to receive a “thanks for doing this” acknowledgment message from me once the review is complete, and THAT’S ALL.

By the way, this used to be understood. But I actually have to spell this out for reviewers now, because so many authors think that the above list of Bad Behaviors is not only acceptable but advisable. And some authors take it even farther.


Yep, there are reviewers who are getting doxed — their personal, private information posted online for the purposes of harassment or harm — because an author doesn’t like what they had to say in a review.

Most reviewers aren’t getting paid. They might have a website with some affiliate links or other things for sale that bring in a few bucks, but reviewing isn’t a paid gig. They do it because they love to read, because they want to share that love, they want to read a great book and shout about it so everyone else reads it too. It’s their passion. But their passion isn’t worth the online harassment, the possible real-life harm being visited by Authors Behaving Badly.

So they quit reviewing.

There’s an ecosystem here. An author provides a free copy of a book, and in exchange, the reviewer provides a free review. That’s the give and take. But if the authors scare all the reviewers away with bullying tactics like the ones listed above, the ecosystem dies.

You get that? It dies. If there’s no one left to review for free, no one willing to run the gauntlet of possible hate mail and doxing and harassment, then what’s left is professional publications. Which already have such an influx of requests that you’d be lucky to get your little indie release a spot in the next year, much less the month before it releases. So then you’re left with buying reviews — paying someone to review your book — which by the way, still won’t guarantee you a positive review, and I already mentioned the budget was zero, right?

So you’ve got zero budget and no one willing to review for free because Authors Behaving Badly, and now you have to rely on Aunt Mildred and her book club to post a review on Amazon. Do you want that?

I don’t want that. I doubt the rest of you do, either. But that’s what you’re going to get if you don’t knock this shit the fuck off.

I’ve rambled on quite a bit because I had Things To Say, but I’ll close with the Cliff’s Notes version:
1. Reviews are not your business, they’re for readers
2. Your book, once published, becomes a product in an open marketplace — stop thinking of it as your ‘baby’
3. Goodreads is a reader-centered space and has a specific set of guidelines for authors — if you’re going to hang out there, go read it, and abide by it
4. Don’t ever, EVER engage with a reviewer over the content of a review or rating
6. If you want to keep being able to get free reviews, re-read points 1–5 until they sink in

I hope you know this comes from a place of love, but it also comes from fear. Fear that authors won’t understand what I and so many others are trying to say and continue to wreak havoc. Fear that reviewers will continue to quit and the ecosystem will die. Fear that making a living as an independent author-which is already hard, thanks very much-will get even harder.

Y’all. I love you. But you gotta knock this shit the fuck off.

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