More on Author Behavior

girl-429014_640 boxer courtesy of pixabayOne of my recent posts concerned a very public tantrum from an author unhappy that a book blogger didn’t like her book. In the comments of that post Lynne Cantwell theorized that reviewers were subjected to a lot of bad author behavior that never went public. She’s right. I’ll be quick to add that in my recent experience bad behavior is the exception, even when giving a negative review. I’ve had several authors email to say they’d had their book re-edited or proofed again, neglected to send me an updated copy, and that getting dinged on the review for a less than stellar job on the version we received was justified. I’ve had authors email to say my complaints were valid and they were using my feedback to up their game in the future. Authors who do their homework have figured out that a public fight with a reviewer never turns out well.

However, as Lynne posited, this doesn’t mean authors no longer react in inappropriate ways to bad reviews. This post is the story of one such recent experience of mine.

First, a bit of background. I run a site called The IndieView. One of its features is a listing of indie-friendly review sites. For a site to be listed they need to request a listing and meet very specific criteria. A reviewer for one of the blogs in this list wrote a negative review. The reviewer didn’t like the book at all and the level of snark in her explanation of why she thought it was a bad read was high. She even used one of my least favorite methods of showing how much she hated a book, giving it “zero stars.” However, I also didn’t see anything said as attacking the author personally, just the book being reviewed.

The author was not happy. She sent me an email suggesting this site should be removed from my listing. Her rationale was that the person who wrote the offending review wasn’t a very good reviewer. My initial inclination was to just ignore the email, but eventually I responded that the site in question met all the criteria for listing and would not be removed. What I didn’t say, but thought, was that an author should vet a site before submitting or querying to see if the site and its reviewer(s) appear to be a good fit for their book. If the author thought the reviews were written that poorly, maybe she should have given the site a pass.

The author responded with an email that I felt was full of misunderstandings and misconceptions. With the author’s permission, I’m duplicating the email I received and my response, with the hope that others might learn from this. (Note: I’ve edited both emails to remove the names of the parties involved.)

Author Email

Dear Al,

A reviewer can do whatever he/she wants on his/her own space on the internet, i.e. on their own website but when they post “0” star reviews on major websites like Goodreads or Amazon to the only effect of putting the author down, it is cause for concern. This “reviewer” used my book jacket material without quotation or reference to me as the author, violating my copyright. She also used curse words in her review and did not approach the matter in an intellectual manner that all reviewers found on a major indie-reviewer list like yours should. In essence, she was unprofessional and I believe should not be allowed to advertise her services as a reviewer on any decent reviewer list, which I’m assuming you want yours to be. If your website is run down by inappropriate, lazy, and vindictive reviewers it does not add respect for your site or credulity for what you do. Reviews are supposed to help indie books reach into the spotlight and have a chance against traditionally published books, but not if they are run over in a trial and execution by a reviewer. This particular reviewer had nothing nice to say and shouldn’t have said anything at all on Goodreads. I understand she can say whatever she wants on her own personal site, where it would not so much have an effect on my book’s ability to reach the light. She can have her opinions, but she shouldn’t be taking a book down with her. If the book is so horribly unreadable, a private message to that effect might actually help the author more than a public roasting can. To take away my measly income with her free copy of my book and then do such a disservice to me as a self-published author is the dirtiest low thing she could do to an indie author. Please, reconsider removing her from your list

Sincerely,

<first name> “aspiring author” <last name>


 

My Response

<First name>,

Can I have your permission to use your words from this email with your name removed to do a post at Indies Unlimited, a site for indie authors that I’m a regular contributor to? If not, I understand, but I think some of your peers could benefit from my response.

You’re right. A reviewer can do what he or she wants in his or her own space on the internet. They can also post their reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, just as any other reader can, as long as the review meets the rules of those sites. I don’t see this review on Amazon. Possibly it was there and Amazon removed it. One word the original review used twice wouldn’t meet their guidelines. The reviewer’s submission policy clearly states that all reviews will be posted on her blog and also on Goodreads.

The reviewer did use your book description without quotation marks or other indication that they were your words, not hers. She also used your book cover image. You might have a case for copyright infringement. I’m not an attorney, so I’m not the best person to give advice on that. However, I’d be amazed if both items didn’t fall under the fair use exception to copyright laws, especially when applied to a review which is generally going to be allowed more latitude in such matters. I assume if the review had been a five-star, but used your book description and book cover that you’d still be objecting, right?

Some authors have a formal style of writing while others write in a more conversational way. Some authors only use words they’d expect to hear in church, others would make a sailor blush. Reviewers are no different. One man’s non-intellectual and unprofessional is another man’s feisty and plain spoken. As I told you in my initial response, I have very specific requirements for a book review site to be included on my reviewer list. Evaluating and approving of the reviewer’s style is not one of the requirements.

We have a difference of opinion on what the purpose of a review is. In a series of posts for Indies Unlimited I said this:

The purpose of a review is to help a potential purchaser decide if this book (CD, lawn blower, restaurant, whatever) is one they’d be happy buying and reading (listening to, using, etc).

There may be other side effects, but that’s the reason any reviewer, whether a reader writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads or a blogger reviewing on their site, should be focused on. Telling potential readers how they, as a fellow reader, reacted to the book. The reviewer in question did that.

Listening to your Mom’s old adage that if you don’t have anything nice to say then you should keep your mouth shut is good in many situations. Some review blogs (not the one we’re discussing) take that approach. If they don’t like the book they won’t review it and will let the author know why. I understand why some reviewers choose that path. It isn’t the one that I’ve taken, nor the reviewer in question. There are many reasons for that, one being that I’ve personally made the decision to make a purchase many times based on a negative review. (I even talk about this in the comments of the post linked above.) Being an indie doesn’t mean you should be immune from criticism that traditionally published authors are subject to. Once you put your book up for sale it’s competing in the marketplace with all books, regardless of how they got there. In my opinion, reviewers who don’t review books they don’t like are doing a disservice to readers by not telling them why, just the same as he or she would about the books they do like.

I disagree with your contention that a bad review is going to be detrimental to a book’s sales. As I’ve already mentioned above, a negative review is sometimes what convinces me to make the purchase. Many readers are suspicious of a book that only has positive reviews, because they know that not everybody is going to like a book. They’re interested in seeing the reasons why those who didn’t like it felt that way.

I understand a negative review hurts. As I said above, not everyone is going to like any book you pick. Look at whatever book you think is the best ever written. My choice would be To Kill a Mockingbird, a book one Amazon reviewer complained didn’t have enough action or anything to relate to while another one star review said they would give it no stars if possible. Sound familiar? You’ve got something in common with Harper Lee.

My last comment is on your signature where you call yourself as “aspiring author.” No. You aren’t aspiring. You wrote a novel and polished it until you felt it was ready to let out into the world. Actually you’ve written more than one. You’re an author by any reasonable definition of the word. Your time would be better spent determining if this review had anything of value you could use in the future and getting back to work on your next book Seeking revenge against someone who didn’t like your book is never going to turn out well (Google Greek Seaman to see just how badly it could turn out). Give your future readers more credit for being able to evaluate the negative review’s applicability to them and their reading tastes.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

50 thoughts on “More on Author Behavior”

  1. Very helpful, Al. It’s interesting that the author chose not to lash out at the reviewer (or maybe she did and we just don’t know), but tried to, in essence, go over the reviewer’s head to get the reviewer fired.

    We all hate bad reviews, but when you get them, it’s probably a better use of time to write something else, rather than plotting revenge (unless it’s a revenge plot for the next novel).

    1. I found that interesting, too, RJ. It’s less likely to backfire in a big way and you’ll notice I didn’t identify either party, even though the author was okay with me doing so. But in some ways, I think it is a worse reaction because (at least IMO) it seems to imply getting beyond the initial emotional reaction (what lashing out in public over the review usually indicates) and then making a decision to go after the reviewer anyway.

  2. Prior to submitting a request for a review I visit the their site to see if my work may be of interest to them. I know if they are looking for hot sexy YA, I don’t even contemplate it. I pay attention to covers, how they review, and if they write the type of review I would like to receive. I ask for an honest review and I hope I get one. Everyone won’t like what I write, however I look forward to feedback from an intelligent reviewer. I can grow as a writer if the same weakness is repeated from different people and I pay attention. Vitriol would be ignored and the source considered. It can’t be easy an easy job to give a well rounded review. I say thank you very much for the gift of your time and thanks for editors.

  3. Very good, Al. This author at least didn’t go off her rocker, yet, but definitely should heed your advice: “Your time would be better spent determining if this review had anything of value you could use in the future and getting back to work on your next book Seeking revenge against someone who didn’t like your book is never going to turn out well (Google Greek Seaman to see just how badly it could turn out). Give your future readers more credit for being able to evaluate the negative review’s applicability to them and their reading tastes.”

    And this is important as well in my opinion: “I assume if the review had been a five-star, but used your book description and book cover that you’d still be objecting, right?” She unfortunately lashed out in anyway she could think of saying the reviewer infringed upon her copyright by using those items. She was hurt, but I don’t believe she doesn’t have a leg to stand on (I’m not a lawyer either) because who screams infringement use when they get more than 3-stars in a review?

    Again, ranting about a bad review in public never bodes well for the author and in my opinion just makes them look bad. I’m with you,
    Al, I read the 1- and 2-star reviews to see why people don’t like a book and I’ve bought a few because of them to see if they were that bad.

    Thanks for writing this Al.

  4. I really liked your response, Al. It’s not only interesting that the author went over the reviewer’s head, as RJ pointed out, but the author repeatedly wrote that reviewers have the right to say what they want…apparently as long as it wasn’t something not-so-great about the author’s book. “Professional” in indie-land goes all the way around. From taking what you can from negative reviews and moving on, to checking out reviewer websites (which MANY book bloggers suggest that you do) before you submit. If the reviews on that site are snarky, well, that’s probably what you’re going to get.

  5. I have a one star review from a lady who said the book was just stupid. And dumb. And that people just don’t act that stupid. In my own book description, I believe I called the book stupid more times than she did. I used part of her review as a positive line from “What the critics are saying”

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go google Greek Seaman and make a cup of coffee!

    1. Once you go down that rabbit hole, it may take a long time to get back, Kenyon. 🙂

      I like your approach. Since I wrote this I noticed a lukewarm (3 star) review of mine was getting a ton of up votes on Amazon. That’s not unusual for when a book is on a free run, which this one was, but the numbers on this one were higher than normal. I eventually discovered that the author was quoting a positive line from my review (I said good things about the plotting, bad things about a few writing tics and the copy editing/proofreading, or lack thereof). Apparently people were seeing the quote, looking at the book and the full review before making a decision. Based on the books ranking, when I looked, many were downloading it.

    1. Thanks, again, Kenyon. I learned a lot of that incident. One thing I’d do differently, if I was writing that review today, is give specific examples of some of my issues in the review.

  6. Since I have not read the review in question I will comment in principle only. I agree with most of what you say, with one exception.

    I, too, received a review that, while still OK, caught me by surprise. The reviewer found an inconsistency that had slipped past everyone else, even my wonderful editor. It took her out of the story and was reflected in the rating of the review. I thanked the reviewer for pointing it out, corrected the error and added a comment to the effect that I had done so.

    If a reviewer hates a book they have every right to say so. BUT – and here’s where I disagree, there are standards of public behaviour I think everyone ought to be subject to. A review id public. It ought to be be delivered in a professional manner, and that means the language used ought to be socially acceptable. I realise that standards for what is socially acceptable vary. I’m an old f**t that cringes when I hear the f-bomb in public places. So shoot me. Just the same, if a reviewer wants to be taken seriously they would do well to keep their language civil. Reviews are public. Failure to do so reflects on the reviewer more than the book under review. If you wish to be labelled “professional” you must act in a professional manner – and that means keeping your language socially acceptable.

    However, were I to receive a review that used language that I find offensive, hateful or unprofessional I would ignore it, just as I do when I hear that f-bomb in a public place. To respond in kind, or to make a bigger issue out of it only brings me down to the same level. It won’t change the offensive behaviour; rather it will cause it to become more deeply defended and entrenched.

    1. Yvonne, thanks for the comment. I both agree and disagree. 🙂

      I agree that how a review is taken by those who read it is going to be influenced by the language used and, at least IMO, professional and unemotional language is the better way to go and what I try to do in my reviews. That’s in spite of having no issue with such language in many contexts. However, just as there are authors who use language like that in their books, which many people don’t like, I think it is a valid choice. Just as there are book review sites known for their snark. It will limit the audience, but might also result in a much more committed audience.

  7. Strange, I’ve been given to bursting forth with the f-word, and I hate when I hear it in public. Of course, I don’t use it randomly in public, unless it’s on a public golf course.

    However, reviews give people a way to rant. People who are rude while driving are usually nice in person. A rude reviewer, to one’s face would probably say, “Oh, yes. I read your book. It was…nice.”

    FB, Twitter, all of it gives people a chance to say things they would never say in person. I don’t know if it’s a good thing.

  8. Excellent post, and I think you handled the situation well. It is very easy for authors to view reviews as a tool for sales. Reviews good or bad serve the book, but that’s a side effect of their real purpose, and many eager authors have forgotten that fact. (or never quite got it to begin with.)
    The bottom line is, reviews are for readers. They are meant for readers. They are written for readers. And I think that’s how it should be. If you can glean some valuable critique from them, even better, but really, they aren’t designed for that either. That’s what critique is for.
    Reviews help readers choose books. Period. And some reviewers have their own “following” which is often based on their personality, humor, and voice as much as our readers are. Cussin’ reviewer probably has that style and lots of followers who like it just fine.

  9. Nice article, as always, Al, and informative as well.

    I have never understood the idea that people should only post a review if they have something good to say. If the whole world did that, then reviews would be essentially useless. Negative reviews, as you mentioned, can be helpful. On my first book, I received a One Star review that said it was so sappy, they couldn’t even finish it. About a month later, I received an email from a reader who wanted to thank me for writing the book and she told me that she bought it specifically because of that one star review. She liked sappy.

    Some negative reviews are just placeholders that don’t mean anything, of course. Another One Star on that same book said it was, “The dumbest book ever written.” (Maybe I should mention here that this book has received good reviews as well, I’m just highlighting a few of the stinkers.) There’s not much for me to glean from that, but a few other reviewers said that they thought the book wandered and meandered in places, and gave specific examples. That was very helpful, and I’ve used that feedback in my current books.

    In short, all authors or artists should grow a thick skin on release day. That’s when the book stops being “ours” and belongs to the world, and the world has the right to comment on it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shawn. You know I loved that book, yet I can completely understand how there could be someone who felt there were places that were too sappy for them. (Not all guys are closet romantics like we are. 🙂 )

      1. I think that I, like many newbie authors, really did hope that I had written some great American novel that everyone would universally love. When I discovered that wasn’t true, I just accepted that fact and went on writing, trying to improve with each book and story. I think that’s the step that some authors miss – acceptance of the idea that some people are gonna think our kids are ugly.

        By the way, Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time as well. 🙂

  10. In my opinion, “respect” is key in your dealings with anyone, be it an author or a store clerk. There’s no excuse for swearing in a review any more than there is at the hapless person behind the counter. Honesty should be tempered with kindness, not nastiness. Do we really want to support a culture of cyber-bullying? I don’t, and I bet most reviewers don’t, either. Certainly, you don’t, Big Al: I know, because I enjoy your well-written reviews.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Linda. I agree with what you’re saying about respect. Had the review attacked the author personally, my attitude about this *might* be different. This wasn’t swearing at the store clerk or the customer service representative because someone in their company got something wrong. This is swearing at the faulty product, in your own home, and then throwing it as hard as you can into the garbage pail.

      1. I think I want to start a campaign for kind swearing! 😉

        But yeah, I don’t necessarily equate cursing with unkindness or nastiness. Sometimes it’s simply funny. I do agree that mean-spirited personal attacks on authors should be discouraged, though. Good discussion you started here, Al!

        1. Thanks, David. There’s a discussion going on right now at The Passive Voice and the original post at Joe Konrath’s blog that I think is applicable, not only to your comment, but the subject of language in general.

          For those who haven’t seen it, mega-selling author Lee Child (who is one of the signers of the Authors United petition) sent a response to one of Konrath’s recent posts, which was turned into a new post. Along with the discussion about the actual subject of the post, there is a lot of discussion about the “tone” he took, which is essentially “smack talk” that happens between friends. Konrath took it that way. But many are taking offense at it. I understood it was smack talk and didn’t take offense, but understand how some might.

          Lots of discussion on both sites and I think it points out two things. One, the way things are put doesn’t always translate the same for everyone. Humor and satire (which is the way I’d interpret the “tone” of the “offensive” part of Child’s response) is going to be different based on culture, age, gender, and lots of other things. (I was going to say it was a “guy” thing, but realized I have lots of female friends who I talk to and they talk back in the same tone, so that’s not the whole story.)

          I think the discussion also goes to the reason I try to keep language that could potentially be interpreted this way out of my reviews, although there have been a few books that I though deserved it. (Not the one mentioned in this post.)

          1. Yeah, it’s a topic dear to my heart and I’ve had countless run-ins with those who disapprove of cursing on principle, which is all kind of ironic given I don’t curse all that much in my regular life (while vehemently defending the rights of those who do). Some of my characters sure curse like goddamned sailors, though! But yeah, it’s an interesting discussion, for sure, and perhaps more nuanced than most of us (well, okay, me) give it credit for.

  11. The author in question is right; people can say anything they want in their little corner of the intarwebz. And as far as I’m concerned, that “little corner” includes the post-your-review boxes at Amazon and Goodreads, as well as on one’s own blog. Sorry, folks, but freedom of speech and freedom of the press don’t apply only to opinions you agree with.

    I really liked your response, Al. Especially the part where you suggested that the author could better spend her time using the advice to improve her book — or even write a new one.

    1. Lynne, I have no issues with speaking your mind. I agree that opinions should be expressed. What I object to is the manner in which they are expressed. There is no excuse for foul or insulting language. A negative opinion can be expressed more effectively and believably with civil language.

      1. I agree with you 100% about personal insults, Yvonne — profane or not. And in general, in terms of public behavior, I also agree you should watch the profanity in *any* comments you release into the public arena. If you want to garner respect, you should behave in a professional manner — and that typically means dialing back the cursing to zero.

        *Unless* it’s part of your professional schtick. And I suspect, in this reviewer’s case, it is.

        We can debate the state of public discourse today (and maybe we should! 🙂 ). But in the case Al is citing, I’m betting the author could have avoided the problem entirely by vetting the reviewer’s site herself before submitting her book for review.

          1. It behooves the author to thoroughly research the reviewer and her/his blog to make sure they write the kind of reviews you want of your book. If reviewer writes snark or uses foul language in her reviewers and you don’t approve of either, definitely don’t submit a book to that reviewer.

    2. Thanks, Lynne. This comment generated a lot of good discussion. I’ll add two comments. First, I agree with your response to Yvonne. I had a couple friends look at the review to make sure they agreed with my take on it and both said, “had the author looked at other negative reviews on the site, he/she would have realized this was a possibility.” I don’t remember if there was cussing in others I looked at about parts the reviewer didn’t like, but definitely strongly worded. However, in the author’s defense, the review site was relatively new, so it is possible there wasn’t as many examples at the time the book was submitted.

  12. Al, I love the fact that you asked the author if she would still have complained about usage if the review was a 5-star (and I was wondering that myself as I read). No matter how any author couches this, it’s still sour grapes. Take your lumps and move on. We’re not going to please everyone and that’s one person’s opinion. Take a breath, cool down, check to see if there’s anything valid in the criticism and go from there. It’s not the end of the world. We’ve all gotten ugly reviews and lived to tell the tale. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. That’s the way I saw it and I believe I made a comment much the same when copyright issues came up on another post. Whether or not there are valid issues of copyright infringement, if the thought of complaining wouldn’t have occurred for a positive review, the author needs to step back and reevaluate their motivations.

  13. I both write and review. I review books on my blog an have posted over 100 reviews on Amazon. I tend to be lenient and kind to my fellow authors but I do not refrain from criticism if it is called for (“this book will not delight English teachers or grammar Nazis.”)
    I have never given a one star review, but in one case I gave a book two stars only on the off chance that the book, which involved human trafficking, might have some social value in calling attention to the subject. The book was actually well written but it totally gave me the willies.
    Authors do need to develop some skin. You are offering your work to the public and not everyone is going to like it. Many very famous and well-loved authors started off with drawers full of rejection letters. I was shocked the first time my book received a one star review on Amazon, but I have come to the conclusion that the best reaction to such a review is no reaction.

  14. I can’t really add much to the above comments (reviews are for readers, all reviews have validity, etc.), but can’t help but notice the “copyright” issue seems to be coming up more frequently when authors dislike a review. If I were a reviewer I think I’d seriously consider adding a notice on the submission page that by hitting “submit,” the author agrees to allow posting of their cover and brief excerpts from the book.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melinda. I thought the same the last time this came up. I’m fairly convinced in most instances that the cover falls under fair use, if unchanged, and I’m positive that short quotes do. But a notice that by submitted you’re granting permission might still make sense and definitely does if you’re going to do something to the cover (as in the last example of this) or extensive excerpts.

      1. Really good idea. I once saw a check-box on a review site that gave the bloggers “permission to be negative.” Yikes. Makes me wonder what kind of comments they’d been subjected to to warrant that.

  15. Al, do you often finish a book and give it a one star? I think this is a bit of a conundrum. A one star to me is it was so horrible I couldn’t finish it.
    I recently read a book by an Indie that I didn’t care for. If it was a trad book I would have put up a two star, but I will not do that to a fellow indie. I know how much work goes into a book, so no review. I’m not a professional reviewer, just another reader with strong opinions. 😉

    1. No Lois, I give very few one star reviews, nor do my other reviewers, but it does happen. Actually very few high volume reviewers do. One of my first posts at IU talked about this and the reasons for it (https://www.indiesunlimited.com/2012/10/03/stars-stars-everywhere-are-stars/). I’ll sometimes read the first few pages of a book and discard it, but that’s rare for me. Other reviewers are more prone to that. So that does figure in to the scarcity of one star reviews on my site, but the other factors mention in the linked post are, I think, bigger reasons. 2 star reviews are much more common (in the life of my site we’ve given more than 4 times as many 2 stars as 1 stars) and 3 stars are very common (10 times as many of those compared to 1 stars).

      I’m sure my percentage of 1 star reviews is lower than many Amazon reviewers because I won’t review a book if I don’t finish it, however I also don’t abandon a book very often. Many one star reviews I do see on Amazon actually say they didn’t finish the book.

  16. When you publish your book you place it in the public domain. That gives everyone and anyone who purchases a copy, or who borrows one from a library, the right to form an opinion about it. It also gives them the right to comment, and that is all a review is: their comment The reviewer, or commentator, has the right to publish their view where and when they choose, but she or he are not under any obligation to like or agree with what you’ve published. That’s part of the hard reality of being an author: not everyone will like your work.

    At the same time, reviewers should at least avoid being abusive, even if they strongly dislike a book. There is no excuse for rudeness. But if they continually adopt such a style, their own credibility will soon diminish and those who read reviews when looking for an interesting book will tend to ignore theirs.
    We don’t all get five star reviews all the time because not everybody connects with and totally loves our books. I’ve been fortunate to get largely very good reviews for my books, but I had one very critical review of my first book which, ironically caused a sales spike that sold me an unexpected hundred or more extra copies. Even so, I considered what the reviewer had to say, and learned from it.

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