Responding to Reviews

Watch, I’m psychic. You think I’m going to tell you not to be the author who declares war on her best publicity tool:

Or not to engage in this passive-aggressive version:

…And you’re right. I don’t want you to do those things. But honestly, you’re reading the Shimmer blog, which means you’re smart enough that you probably don’t need me to remind you those are bad ideas.

So “don’t freak out at bad reviews” is only part of what I want to tell you. There are other ways to respond to reviews that might negatively impact your career, and I’m going to illustrate them with more cheesy cartoons.

Sometimes authors think that appearing reasonable is a good idea. Perhaps he’d like to seem like the kind of guy who uses criticism to improve himself. It’s not a good idea to comment even in agreement with criticism, however…

Readers who are normally too lazy to send you a whiny e-mail will be only too happy to complain to you now–after all, you’re right there in front of them, and since you listened to the reviewer, maybe you’ll listen to everybody! And now you HAVE to answer EVERY question, or it will look like you’re picking favorites, or like you’re sulking, or like you decided you were too good to come back and read the replies… You can’t win.

The best way to respond to a negative review is to get a photo of the reviewer from Google Images, print it out at work so you’re not even paying for the paper, and then use it for toilet paper after All-You-Can-Eat Shrimp Night at the Mexican seafood restaurant down by the docks.

(No, I’m not going to illustrate that one. Use your imagination.)

What if you get a positive review, one like this?

You might be tempted to thank the reviewer in a comment, or perhaps privately, through e-mail.

…Let’s not.

Every day, the Google Alert spell of “Summon Author” is cast all across the Internet. Authors see their name in someone’s blog, then pop up and say something before disappearing–or are they only invisible?

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a fan who gets a blog visit from their favorite author. (Hi, Scott Lynch!) Awesome, right? Now imagine what it’s like for a police detective to get a friendly phone call from the mafia (Hi, Joey the Fist). Okay, okay, it’s not that bad, but responding to a review isn’t good, either. The reviewer’s job is to monitor fiction and determine its quality, then pass that information on to readers. Authors are not part of this equation, and there are a couple of good reasons for that.

One is that if you are friendly to a reviewer, you’re initiating a personal connection, and now it’s in their professional best interest to stop reviewing your work, or at least to add a caveat about their bias. After all, once you’re a friendly acquaintance or a real friend, they’re no longer impartial. (This doesn’t mean you should avoid them like space herpes, but remember: reviewer friends doesn’t mean friendly reviews–it means LESS reviews.)

The second reason will make the most sense if you put yourself in the reviewer’s place. Reviewers are people, and while they know that you’ll see their reviews (or at least that you might), they should have the freedom to evaluate your work and comment on it without being afraid of possible retaliation. If you’re friendly once, it doesn’t mean you will be next time. And now they know you’re watching them and that you’re willing to insert yourself into a conversation where you weren’t invited.

Do you really want to be an unwelcome guest?

If you want to show off a good review, do so! There’s nothing wrong with pointing more readers toward the review–the readers belong in that conversation.

If you’re brave (hi, Jay Lake!) you can even link to your bad reviews. As long as you’re not trying to stir your fans into a ferocious horde, you’re still doing the same thing as when you linked to the good reviews: sending readers to reviewers.

Most authors would rather the readers didn’t find the bad reviews, but there are benefits. Sharing all reviews means more web traffic with your name as a key word. It makes you look humble and magnanimous. And it means that a reviewer who gives your work one star this time might like your attitude enough to try another of your stories, even though they found the first one an abysmal disappointment.

And maybe that second book will be the wombat phone book that wins their heart.

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