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?