How To Lose Readers and Alienate People

Photo by istolethetv on Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I received a free book of short stories from an indie author as part of a blog contest. The author of the book didn’t ask for a review, but I gave one anyway. My review, unfortunately, was not very positive. Neither was it scathing — I had a few issues with what I felt were grammatical problems and a couple minor structure issues. I rated it below-average, but was careful to say that I enjoyed the bulk of the short stories (which I did).

A few days ago, the author (whom I will not identify) emailed me to correct me on my criticisms. She told me that I’d mistaken her stylistic choices for grammatical errors and brought up her college pedigree. She implied I didn’t understand how fiction writing “worked” and made suppositions about my own grammatical predilections. According to her, I had undoubtedly expected a dry academic text and not living prose.

Finally, she informed me that the only low ratings she’d ever received on her work came from males, implying pretty clearly that my criticisms stemmed from my gender. To be fair, she did admit that perhaps her assumption was wrong, but let the implied accusation lie anyway.

This email bothered me. Not only because it made some pretty hurtful assumptions in response to a review I felt was both honest and fair — but because it left me very disappointed in the author herself.

I’m not writing this entry to get any cheerleading. I don’t need (or want) reassurance that I’m not sexist, or that the review was fair. That’s all entirely too subjective to determine sans context, and I have no intention of sharing the review or the subsequent correspondence.

Instead, I want to urge you, writers: do not do this.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t think the book was terrible. I didn’t tear it to pieces. I said it had some problems, rated it honestly, and thanked the author for the opportunity to read the book. Obviously, the author was under no obligation to like or agree with my review, but writing me to inform me that my criticisms were invalid, born of ignorance, and possibly sexist? That’s a different matter.

Not every book that an author turns out is a winner. Some of my favorite authors in the world have turned out volumes I think are turkeys. That doesn’t stop me from reading them. I would probably have continued to read this particular author’s work — in fact, I had one of her titles in my shopping cart, thinking I’d try it out and see if I liked it any better. But that email just guaranteed that not only will she never see another sale from me, but also that I’ll have nothing positive to say about her ever again.

Of course, that might not amount to much — I’m not going to name the author in question, because I have no interest in hurting her reputation. One or two lost sales isn’t a big deal, right?

But to me, this sort of behavior screams one word, loud and clear: Amateur.

Criticism is hard to take, especially if you feel it’s unfair or unwarranted. I look at some of the one-star reviews my favorite authors get, calling them everything short of Hitler himself, and I think about how difficult that must be to swallow — much less disregard.

But that’s kind of what you have to do, if you want to be a professional writer.

Accept that not everyone will love your work or think you’re a visionary. Accept that some people will think you’re pretty damn bad. A few may think you’re the worst thing ever. Fair or not, that’s how it is, especially on the Internet.

By sending this email, the author changed my perception of her permanently. I’ll never look on her work objectively again — assuming I read anything she writes in the future. I’m likely to think (true or not) that she’s only interested in positive reviews of her work. I find it nearly impossible to respect her as a writer, because she sure didn’t respect me as a reader.

Lastly, I fear this will probably have a chilling effect on the indie books I review in the future, as I’ll be disinclined to bring up any negatives for fear of some sort of retaliation. Would you want your readers to feel that way about you? I sure wouldn’t.

Fortunately, not every writer is like this. Only two weeks prior to this incident, I left a review of another author’s work on Goodreads that was pretty far from glowing. I liked the author and enjoyed the book well enough, but I thought it had some pretty significant issues. The author liked my review, told me it was more than fair, and asked if I’d be interested in “beta reading” her next installment. I happily agreed and am looking forward to working with her in the future.

One of these authors will be getting my money, and my positive recommendations, well into the future. The other will not. My ego’s not so large that I think this will make a vast difference either way — but as indie authors, our readers are all we’ve got, and I believe they should be treated with respect. And yeah, that includes me.

So the next time you get a less-than-favorable review and feel an urge to retaliate, ask yourself: is this really how you want to be seen? Do you really want to create an environment where the only readers whose opinions you value and trust are the ones who praise you unequivocally? Do you want to “correct” your critics by telling them they’re wrong to feel the way they do about their work?

Or do you want to be a professional?

  • Dang, this post is spot on! Thanks so much for putting this up – I wholly agree. I’ve been struggling with doing a review on a particular book (the one you and I have bantered about a couple times, in fact) and for the same reasons. I think the writer is brilliant, has a lot of talent, and is very original, which is difficult to say given today’s fantasy fiction climate. But I also think he seriously dropped the ball on a couple key things, structure and pacing most of all. But I still hung in there till the finish, and was impressed enough with how he ended it (and what he did with the characters) that I still would like to read more by him, even in the same series.

    What I can’t figure is whether to review the book just on my blog, just on goodreads, both or neither. Haven’t quite made up my mind on that one, and for the very reasons you’ve posted here. Not sure how far of a limb I want to crawl out on for that.

    And as a prospective author, I too have been taking careful note of the backlash I’ve seen on various reviews on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. It is very sobering. One of many sobering realities of being “out there” in the public eye that I really need to digest before I actually get there.

    Thanks for posting!!

    • I certainly can’t speak for your friend, but I’m planning on turning out a fantasy book early next year, and I would want any and all reviews to be honest, even if they’re very critical. I don’t want people to be “nice” and give praise they’re not genuine about. And if there are big issues with the book, I’d want to know about them! Praise is nice for the ego, but not actually useful for improving one’s craft, IMO.

      Also, hoping to shanghai you into being a reader for me when the time comes. 🙂

      • I would LOVE to be a beta reader for you. That would be awesome. Will see about doing a couple of serious book review blogs over Christmas break; I’d like to blog about the one, at least.

        And YES to having honest beta readers telling you when they know you can do better! That’s what I keep telling my readers. I’m about to start branching outside my writer’s group for beta readers after January, and I think I’ve lined up a nicely brutal trio. Time to cry in private while no one else cares. 🙂

  • Generalmalarky

    As an actor, this sounds incredible to me. In a class or in the rehearsal process, you do your level best, lay your soul out emotionally and physically and then hear it criticised, and then you say “thank you”. Anything else is on par with pooping yourself mid-scene.

    • Thanks, General, I’m going to be chuckling over that line all night.

  • I have the unfortunate habit of being rather…thorny when people read my fiction. I don’t know what book you read, but some things ARE stylistic as opposed to actual grammatical errors. And some things are just errors. It is a shame that the author tried to turn it into a “Well, you’re a dude and dudes don’t like my writing” sort of thing (among other things), and I’m sure it was pretty bewildering for you.

    • Totally. I’m not really that much of a stickler about grammar, especially in fiction. All I can say is that they didn’t feel like stylistic decisions to me — they felt like tense problems. It wasn’t even my biggest issue with the author’s work.

      And it can definitely be tough to take criticism you don’t feel is fair and refrain from getting defensive about it. I’ve been there, and will be again.

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  • David A Ludwig

    Good article and observations–even if you get called on a “grammatical error” that you did intentionally, that doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t sit right with the person calling you on it. Doesn’t make them wrong and there’s even a chance there’s valuable information there even if it isn’t “use correct grammar”.
    For me the difficulty comes in when I get criticism that I don’t know how to use–and I know if I’m going to succeed as a writer that problem has to be on me. Some criticism I can ignore because I don’t feel it is relevant (unless I keep getting the same criticism over and over) and other criticism is obviously constructive and I can immediately see not just how to fix the problem in question but learn from it moving forward.
    Unfortunately the larger category of criticism in my experience ends up being, “Am I right or is this critic right?” I don’t know if there really is a problem I need to address, or the fix seems cosmetic and I can’t identify the underlying source of the problem.

    • Deciding which criticism to take to heart can be tremendously challenging. Sometimes readers may be pointing to a legitimate flaw in your writing; sometimes they may just be measuring your actual work against the book they wanted to read instead. Giving out useful criticism can be as hard as taking it, and I don’t know that there are any clear answers beyond trying to be as fair as possible.

      Thanks for the comment, David.

  • StartYourNovel

    Who in their right mind would expect nothing but positive reactions to his or her work?

    Only recently did I come to the realization that, if I want to make it as a writer of any kind, I have to treat each of my blog posts or stories as projects, rather than babies. They’re not my babies and they never will be.

    I would like to point out that it is a very human thing –and an entirely normal thing, if not a clever one– to react to a critique of your work as if it were a critique of your person and your lifestyle choices or whatever.
    One’s mind needs to mature a great deal to tell honest criticism from an ad hominem assault.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It IS hard to separate your ego from your work, but that’s what you’ve got to do if you want to be a serious writer.

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