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On her Livejournal, m/m romance reviewer kassa_rvws  today asks two questions: Do you find one star reviews to be of any value? Do you think books submitted for review by the author are owed a review? She’s asking these questions because after being asked for a review and giving it honestly, she was verbally assaulted in email by the author of the work.

There are so many issues packed into this kerfluffle that I don’t even know where to begin. And it’s something I keep seeing and hearing all across the board, not even just in this genre.  So instead of answering Kassa’s questions, I want to reroute the discussion. The bottom line is this: authors need reviewers, and we need to treat them with dignity and respect at all times, no matter how we are reviewed. Here’s why.

Obscurity will get you nowhere, or, all ink is good ink. I would think that authors would figure this out as soon as they get their first quarter’s royalty numbers, but it doesn’t seem to work that way somehow, and I’m not sure what to blame. I think probably it’s because the myth of bestsellerdom is right up there next to Santa Claus and Jesus. Like SC and JC, the point isn’t even whether or not the myth exists or where the truth lies: the problem is that people want the myth to be true in the full tri-color vision of their dreams, and they will happily ignore reality to accommodate this fallacy. I get asked at least once a week if my husband has quit his job yet. People get upset when they hear my advances wouldn’t pay the monthly credit card bill and that my royalty checks so far might at best fund a modest weekend away. They aren’t upset because they feel my publisher owes me more money; they’re upset at the dent in their reality.

I think authors suffer from this too. I know I do. There’s this underlying sense that if I build it, they will come, and when they don’t come in the full horde of the Second Coming, it’s unsettling. There’s a sense of injustice at the idea that after killing myself to write the damn story, now I have to go and schlep it too? First I have to be so introverted and reclusive that I can make a whole world on paper, and now I have to go and pimp it? Seriously? It feels wrong on a moral level. And yet, especially in the e-book and small genre world, it’s reality. Its actually the reality for all authors who don’t have the push of a big publisher’s PR department, and the number who get that is lowering every single day. And when your main vehicle for promotion is the wilds of the Internet—yes, you’re screwed before you so much as step out the door.

This is where the reviewer comes in.

A reviewer is an aggregator. A reviewer is a maven. A reviewer is your effing best friend even if she hates your book. Because every instance of your cover and your blurb and every pixel of commentary about your work is advertising. Every. Single. One. Even a destructive commentary that designates your hard work as digital toilet paper is ink you didn’t have before they spoke your book’s name. Yes, we want positive reviews. Yes, we want the big love and the five star and the book of the week position. Yes, these are the crown jewels. But there really is value in every review, and authors need to cop to that, and quick.

I do agree that reviewers should be respectable. I think snark has little place in a review. I think destroying a work simply because it’s fun is unprofessional—and I rarely see it done long term. Such things quickly become self-policing. But what authors seem to forget is that it’s not the reviewer we’re after: it’s their readers. The reviewer already has the book. We want the people who don’t know our names. We want the people who never would have picked us up had the reviewer not mentioned us.  Yes, it seems unlikely many will if it’s a low rating. But this, author, is the risk we have to take. And if all reviewers are positive, no reader will believe the reviewer and will look elsewhere. Which brings us to point number two.

The point of publishing a story is not to generate a fan club: it is to share your story. My goal as an author is to share my story with other people who love it. I don’t put out stories so that other people will tell me I’m brilliant and I can therefore feel good about myself. I also don’t suffer from the delusion that every single person on the planet will like everything I write. Yes, I’m always striving to cast the widest net, but I’m never going to achieve some nirvana state where everyone loves me or my work. I put a story out there to share it. And just like anything else shared, there are two points to consider: the giving of a story is a gift, and it must be given freely.

I have grave concerns over authors who publicly argue with readers and reviewers who don’t like their stories. It’s one thing to have hurt feelings and cry to a best friend or a partner; it’s another to shout back at the reviewer, and it’s horrifying to hear this happens to readers. It’s not just unprofessional: it’s rude. These people have paid money. They literally own this story now too. And once they read it, once those words pass into their brain, it interacts with their worldview instead of the author’s. This is the miracle we’re trying to achieve, right here. This is the magic of sharing, of our vision interacting with another mind. To not just believe but expect this to always be exactly as we imagine the interaction will be is beyond juvenile, though it is understandably human. However, to actively berate others for failing to join your personal vision, authors, is treasonous.

But perhaps there’s a sense that a reviewer who is given a book didn’t pay, and therefore the author is owed? Now it’s time for point number three.

Reviewing books is a lot of work, and reviewers don’t have to do it.
I’d like any author who wants to argue me on this point to try to carry on their job and/or their writing  and then read the same amount of books and offer the same length and depth of feedback as reviewers give before they try to argue that reviewers “owe us” for free books. Writers better than anyone should know that to take the time to write anything down with any kind of cogency takes time and mental effort. To do this over and over again with books takes not just time and effort but devotion and probably love as well. Reviewers should never be mocked; they should only be loved. Once again, the focus here is not on the reviewer, but on the reader. They provide a service we cannot replicate in any other way. They become focal points by which our work is aggregated. Their readers come to them because they trust the reviewer and value the service they provide. If they dislike the reviewer, they will leave. They will also, believe it or not, frequently disagree with their reviewer. If even one person follows a link given on a post (which most reviewers give) and purchases the book despite the bad review, you have a sale you would not otherwise have had.

If these reviewers stop reviewing, we lose audience. We lose networks. We lose contacts. We lose sales. These people pay us in ways that would take me several blog posts to fully articulate. But they give us something else too: opportunities for growth.

Reviews are mirrors, and all of us could stand to lose or gain a few pounds. Even the most banal review is an insight into what our work looks like when reflected through the eyes of a reader. Not all reviews are helpful; sometimes all we learn is that the reviewer isn’t our reader. But if most or even many of our reviews are negative, we as authors should pay attention, because clearly our attempt at communicating our vision did not go as we had planned. This is not the reader’s fault, but our own. Of course, the real truth is that sometimes we have no choice: frequently, the work is what it is. But there is so much to be learned in reader response, and all reviewers are at heart readers with megaphones. It’s a hard lesson to hear what might have not worked in your story, yes, but that doesn’t mean the criticism doesn’t have value. And yes, very low reviews are hard. It’d very difficult to accept that anyone doesn’t like our work, because it feels like they’re attacking us. Sometimes the reader really did miss the point and simply isn’t our reader—but has a megaphone. But the truth is that any author who can’t manage that pain offscreen has no business being in the game.

This is your job, author. Act professional. I get very angry with my peers for coming all this way to publication and then being completely ignorant about business. I’d like to think that people who can imagine whole worlds would be better at seeing the broad net it takes to lure and retain readers, but perhaps that’s the problem: our imaginations have created a wider audience than our reality, and instead of meeting that vision we’re angry and lash out at those we’ve decided are at fault. But the truth is that when we submit for publication, there’s more than just the contract we sign with our house. We give a contract to a reader. We say, this is a story I have made and which I offer to you. Even when it’s on a blog or a website or given away free, it’s still a contract, but when there’s money involved, it’s even more serious.

Readers give money. Readers give time. Readers give trust and hope to us, and in exchange they want a good story. That’s it. We can’t always give it to them, and they know that. Yes, some are more adult about sharing their displeasure than others. But as the professionals in the room, it’s our job to maintain our grace and dignity at all times. Yes, sometimes we have to suck up some hurt feelings. Yes, sometimes good work will be unfairly reviewed. But not always, and not without penalty. Authors need to keep in mind the long vision, which is reaching as many readers as possible for as long as possible. Everything else is a distraction.

So, to answer Kassa: one star reviews are helpful, because all reviews are helpful, and all ink is good ink. No, you don’t owe us anything, even if we give you a free book. You are not our whore. You are not our servant. You and all reviewers are our allies in an effort which should at all times be undertaken out of love and mutual respect. You owe your readers (and ours) honesty and integrity. You owe us nothing, because if you do, then your review will be tainted, and the readers will know, and they will leave, and the real aim of the game is now dead.

Any author who stoops to shouting back at reviewers or readers isn’t adult enough to play the game and needs to go home. Teenage girls belong in high school hallways, not the publishing industry. Unprofessional authors spoil the party for everyone, and like all bullies, they need to be dealt with. I took two hours I did not have to write this post because it’s that important to me to call out authors who bully reviewers and readers and demean my profession. Any author who wants to argue with me? Bring it.

Readers, reviewers: please never let the bad apples distract you from the party. I’m glad you’re here, and I will continue to work hard to give us all the best time possible when you chose to dance with me. I promise that when you find my dancing lacking, I will treat you with respect, even if you do, by accident or on purpose, hurt my feelings. Because like you, what I love is the dance, the wonder that reading and sharing gives us. That is why I am here. That is why I have come. They are not just my stories now. They are ours.

To Kassa and to all reviewers (and readers) who have been unjustly maligned by an author? I apologize for my peers and humbly ask you to continue to review, and to read, and to share our stories with each other. Thank you for all that you do.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 9th, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I've been attacked that I was trying to "kill the competition", was "mean", "envious of a great talent", have no "spine", am "gormless" (I had to check that one in a dictionary, hey, I learnt a new word!) - I've been told to "shut the fuck up", been told I "don't have the right to review" because I'm an author, too.

There's a major shitstorm brewing about this exact issue right now, and I've seen a writer lynchmob come down like a ton of brick on a reviewer who didn't like an - honestly atrocious - book.

Today alone, I've been mobbed and cajoled to not hang out with that person, because I could be next. Somebody said to me I might jeopardize selling to the pub in question. I see my friends stagger away, hurting and shocked, because one writer whipped up a supporting lynch mob in response to - perfectly justified - criticism of a book.

I was told that opinion attacked the author (it didn't) and the publisher and I would be "collateral damage".


I'm *this* close to hanging up my reviewing gloves and put the time and energy it takes me to review a book into writing. It takes me around 10 hours to write a review. In that time, I could write a chapter.

*whew* Sorry for the rant. I just get so pissed off at authors being bitches. As if our fight wasn't hard enough already - no, now we have to attack our own troops, our own *best* supporters, the people that sacrifice so much time and effort to *promote* our books. I sometimes feel ashamed to be an author, and do wonder, every time I have to deal with the fall-out, whether I shouldn't shut the fuck up and leave it. Promoting people's books only to get kicked in the 'nads?

I do expect to find my joy back in reviewing, but right now, I'm not feeling it.

Sorry for ranting, thanks for listening :)
Mar. 9th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
Will listen anytime. I understand that this happens, and it happens in the big leagues too, but we don't have room for this horseshit. I have my amazon gear and will stand ready, because goddamn it I WANT to be reviewed. Because I would like to be read.

Sorry that happened to you too. I will grant that published authors do walk a finer political line, but yes, we still get to have opinions. You have a right to review too.

(no subject) - vashtan - Mar. 9th, 2010 09:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidicullinan - Mar. 9th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - vashtan - Mar. 10th, 2010 09:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 9th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the link, Heidi! :D
Mar. 9th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
Kassa rules. I hate that she had that happen to her, and this unprofessionalism has got to stop.
Mar. 9th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
I love this. PLEASE POST IT AT META_WRITER. Seriously. You've just put it so very very well. *loves*
Mar. 9th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
Loves you back! Okay, two tics while I re-remember how to do that.....
(no subject) - chris_smith_atr - Mar. 9th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidicullinan - Mar. 9th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - chris_smith_atr - Mar. 9th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidicullinan - Mar. 9th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 9th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)
This was an interesting post... very 'under the hood'. I'm not a reviewer, and I write just small things for myself (I lack technical skills to write well), but I am a reader and found this really enlightening.
Mar. 10th, 2010 03:01 am (UTC)
Mar. 9th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
*clears throat* hehe well thank you. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's so flattering that a subject I wrote touched such a cord that you felt compelled to take time out of your extremely busy day. Thankfully I can say that and still not be sucking up :D.

Your post is very eloquent and highlights some really brilliant points such as authors knowing the business. As I've said we hear about authors behaving badly enough and often enough that clearly this is a missed course somewhere. Authorship 101, the reviewer, a necessary evil!

As I said, I'll be linking this post on my side bar for your very thoughtful and well spoken arguments. I think the thing to always remember is just because readers dislike one book, they could adore another by the same author. This has happened to me too many times to count.
Mar. 10th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
I'm glad you've gotten so much attention over this, because it's important. You're worth it. Because I know as a reader I respect reviewers more who don't just blanket-love everything.

Someday we're going to be at the same writer's conference or something, and I'm buying you a drink.
(no subject) - kassa_rvws - Mar. 10th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidicullinan - Mar. 10th, 2010 04:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - vashtan - Mar. 10th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidicullinan - Mar. 10th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
For nonfiction, I always look at the one-star reviews. I see what the objections are (and they're typically based on a bias, such as "this is the correct way to train a dog and this author doesn't agree with me), and if I share the biases, I might pass on the book, but if I don't, I'll probably read the book. I'm not sure if I'm explaining this very well, but the one-star reviews help me decide.

For fiction, I never really read reviews. Either the concept appeals to me or it doesn't. I love Diana Gabaldon, other people can't stand her. That's just taste, not a statement on Gabaldon's talent or story.
Mar. 10th, 2010 03:05 am (UTC)
Yeah, there's so many ways a review can be utilized, even a negative one. I've bought a lot of works based on such reviews.
Mar. 10th, 2010 02:58 am (UTC)
As always, well said.

Asshats. I shouldn't be surprised anymore should I?
Mar. 10th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
It's a little worse in the subgenres I think sometimes because there's both the illusion of isolation. That and all the social networking on the net has made us all bolder to give our two bits, this essay included.

But, yeah.
Mar. 10th, 2010 05:06 am (UTC)
First of all, I love this. All of this. I'm not getting reviews (yet, hopefully :) ), but what you have said is so important to readers, writers, and editors alike.

Secondly, in a moment of oddly coincidental timing, stand-up comedian Stephen Lynch was Tweeting today, posting links to reviews from his UK tour. They're not good, and he's owning them. It's not a perfect comparison, but it made me think of this post (despite being jelly brained after an entire day of scraping popcorn off a huge vaulted ceiling).

The good is as important as the bad. Not only does it make each positive review that much sweeter, but it also keeps you aware of the fact that some people are not going to dig your writing. And hopefully, they give you a reason why they didn't dig it.

Wow this is a ridiculously long response. Summary- You're awesome and thank you for writing this.
Mar. 10th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I like the owning the reviews, the good and the bad. That's very rounded, I think. I do get the negative reaction. It's very human. But somehow we dropped the bit where we take those hurt feelings to the bar or our bff in email and don't think we're entitled to bitch out a professional peer.

So very, very sorry about the ceiling. I feel your pain.
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:11 pm (UTC)
Why reviewers don't often say “This sucks”. JO WALTON
Mar. 15th, 2010 10:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Why reviewers don't often say “This sucks”. JO WALTON
Many salient points. Yeah, I can't really review as an author. I have a right to, but it's not worth it to me to exercise it. I do some, but I fall into that category of saying nice things only. And sometimes I feel pressured into supporting things I actually don't like. Politics. Always a good time.
Mar. 30th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
I don't read reviews very often, because it seems to me that an awful lot of them are not really reviews--they're more like middle-school book reports.

That's not a reviewer's fault; it's the style of the review site. I just do not see the point of printing the (publisher's) summary of the book, then having the "reviewer" resummarize the storyline, and add that she liked or didn't like it. Yeah, it's publicity, but it is not a review. I'd rather get a critical review (and 'critical' does not mean 'negative') than one of those bland say-nothing pieces. We all love it when a reviewer really gets what you were trying to do and tells everyone to go buy the book, but reviewers need to understand that their job is to explain WHY they liked or didn't like a piece.

I'm not talking about any reviewers commenting in this thread; you all know this. But there really are a lot of reviewers who don't know the difference between a review and a book report, and there's such a sensitivity about the issue that any attempt to tell someone that she's not reviewing well is taken as a criticism of how she rated the book.

I generally don't review a book unless I wholeheartedly loved it. This often results in looking like I'm cheerleading for my friends... it's not coincidence that I've made friends with people whose writing I admire.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )