Reviews Are Not About You, Take 2

So, Jon Stock, author of the Daily Telegraph post I linked to earlier today, responded to me on Twitter today. Based on our conversation thus far, he seems like a decent fellow although, in my opinion, terribly misguided. His rationales for considering it part of his job to contact reviewers fall into three basic categories. I’d like to address each of these and explain why none of them actually pass the sniff test.

  1. But…sockpuppets!

    One of the reasons he cites for contacting so-called “hostile reviewers” is that they might be sockpuppeters. Presumably, this requires the author’s attention because the person in question is out to sabotage the book’s sales by “review bombing” it. The author must put a stop to this because it is unfairly tanking the book’s review average on Amazon.

    Setting aside the question of how common this is (I think it’s pretty much equivalent to voter fraud in frequency) and the degree to which low review averages actually harm sales (not nearly as much as many authors believe based on my observations of recent bestsellers), what is the benefit to the author of finding the sockpuppet? If this person is truly out to destroy your career, I’m betting large wads of cash that he/she is not going to respond to your inquiries and is certainly not going to change or take down the reviews as a result of your polite inquiries. In fact, odds are pretty good that your stalkerish behavior will induce the sockpuppeter to create even more sockpuppet accounts with which to review bomb your book because you have proved you’re a whiny jerk.

    In short, then, sockpuppet=ignore.

  2. But…spoilers!

    Stock’s next rationale for contacting the reviewer in the instance he describes in his article was that it contained spoilers, and not just for one book, but for all the books in the trilogy. That actually seems like a pretty fair reason from contacting the reviewer–if for no other reason than to ask them them to add a spoiler warning to the review.

    Except…okay, here’s the real truth about reviews, especially on Amazon: most book buyers don’t actually read them. How do I know this? Because my short story, The Reiver, gets repeated reviews complaining that it’s short. Even though its length is disclosed in the product description (at the beginning, no less). Even though at least a dozen, if not more, reviewers have given it low ratings for being, in their opinion, too short. Surely, if people who were buying (or in this case, downloading for free) a book for which they had read the reviews, and many of those reviews complained that the book was short, they would not feel compelled to post their own review complaining that the book was short.

    Beyond this, however, how many of you have read a book more than once? Even though you KNEW how it was going to turn out? Stock says that since his book is a thriller, the plot is so important that knowing who gets killed will ruin the experience. But I have never yet had my enjoyment of a good book (emphasis on good) spoiled by knowing how it was going to to turn out. I’ve read some mysteries and thrillers multiple times, even though I clearly know “whodunnit” when I start.

    So, while I do think it would have been nice if the reviewer had labeled her review as containing spoilers, in the final analysis, I don’t see this as a legitimate reason for making contact. Especially since I firmly believe that people who want t a particular book are unlikely to be dissuaded from doing so by a few plot spoilers…unless, of course, you as the author really believe that’s all your book is about.

    But…it was about me!

    The third reason the author in this case gives for contacting the reviewer is that the review called him a misogynist and a serial killer. Now, I have to give him credit here in that he’s right–that’s certainly what the review title says. However, the review makes it clear that it’s the content of the books that has informed her judgment on this subject…and I don’t think that any rational person would actually believe the reviewer was suggesting the author is, in actual fact, a serial killer, although they might well believe she was suggesting he was a misogynist.

    Look, I get it. No author wants his character impugned based upon what he writes. But in the final analysis, you have to ask yourself why it matters. Is your professional reputation on the line because one Amazon reviewer called you (insert slur here)? Is this a hill you need to die on? My answer, plainly, is no. I’m not willing to make it more about me by engaging with the reviewer, however unfair or personal the comment may be.

I can, however, think of one time that I tracked down and contacted an Amazon reviewer and I think I was right to so. Someone left a review on Hot Under the Collar on Amazon. It was a lovely, 4-star review. It was also not for my book, but for another book with the same title. So, here’s the one situation in which I think it is “not creepy” to track down the reviewer or, failing that, to comment on the review. Because the other book deserved that four-star review, not mine.

It’s Not About You…Unless You Make It That Way

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (do people even understand what that means anymore?), I feel the need to talk about authors responding to reviews. Yes, again. My apologies in advance for beating the dead horse, but apparently, it’s like the old man in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not quite dead yet.

Why do I say this? Check out these links:

Finished with your reading? Depressed, shocked, and horrified yet? Thought so.

Before I go on, I’m going to be completely honest here. I have responded to reviews. I believe I have always been polite and respectful in doing so and that no one would accuse me of “behaving badly” in those interactions. However, I was wrong to do so. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And the reason I was wrong is because the instant I posted a comment on a review of my book, I made it about me.

And that, my friends, is the reason authors shouldn’t comment on their reviews. Over and over, I hear authors say that that reviews should be about their books, not about them. But then they persist in making it about them by commenting. It doesn’t matter whether the comment is polite and respectful or mean and nasty. It doesn’t matter whether the review is positive or negative, or whether author is trying to change the reviewer’s opinion or not. The second the author puts his or her oar in, the book is no longer the issue; the author is.

I’m the first to admit that it’s difficult to sit on your hands in the face of a bad review. It is also hard to sit on them in the face of a glowing one or if the person who has posted the review is someone with whom you have a friendship that extends beyond the context of author-reader. In the latter case, it almost feels rude not to acknowledge and thank the reviewer for their kind words. The problem is, those kind words aren’t for you. (Neither are unkind ones, by the way.) So unless the reviewer explicitly invites you into the discussion, you need to keep your grubby fingers off the keyboard. Whatever your relationship with the reviewer, it’s not your relationship with everyone who will read the review and potentially want to discuss the book. But if you’re there, hovering like Big Brother, any discussion of the book is likely to be stifled because people know they’re being watched. And whether you’re perceived as nice or mean, it’s probably pretty likely that people won’t feel they can be truly honest as soon as your presence is perceived.

Should authors be allowed to discuss their books with readers? Absolutely. It’s just that reviews aren’t the place to do it. Use your own website/blog for that stuff or guest posts you’re explicitly invited to do on other blogs. Otherwise, shut up and let the discussion be about your books. Because that’s what you want.

Announcements and Changes to the Schedule

If you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, you may already have heard that I accepted an offer from Entangled Publishing last week for two books in their Brazen line. These are category-length contemporaries, released pretty much exclusively in digital format, although there could eventually be a print version. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Entangled, they’re a relatively new publishing house, but are behind some recent major success stories, including THE MARRIAGE BARGAIN by Jennifer Probst and WRONG BED, RIGHT GUY by Katee Robert, both of which hit both the New York Times and the USA Today bestseller lists. Needless to say, I feel like I’m hanging out with the right crowd :).

Want to know more about the first book I sold to Entangled? I’ve got the blurb and the first chapter up here.

So, I’m super thrilled about this, but–you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?–needless to say, it kind of throws off my planned writing schedule for the next six months or so. When my agent submitted my proposal to Entangled, I figured it would take them several months to get back to me, since I’d heard through they grapevine that they were swamped with submissions. Plenty of time, I thought, to finish INCARNATE, its accompanying prequel, and A MATTER OF INDISCRETION (the third Lords of Lancashire novella) before I had to turn my attention to finishing the manuscript I’d sent, should the publisher even want to contract it. Needless to say, life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Obviously, finishing the books I’ve contracted to Entangled is now my top priority. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue working on the projects I’ve planned to self-publish since the beginning of the year, however, their release dates are likely to slip into 2013. I know, I know. Bad writer, no cookie!

Anyway, I’ll be adjusting my “Coming Soon” page to reflect the new order of business. Because I’d like to wrap up the Lords of Lancashire series so I can get the print anthology out as soon as possible, A MATTER OF INDISCRETION may be the first order of business once I’ve met my deadline for Entangled. On the other hand, I was pretty well into INCARNATE and really having fun with it when I had to shift gears so… (Did I mention I’m a Gemini and I’m hopeless when it comes to making decisions?)

If you have preference for what you want me to tackle first, let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll keep you posted :).