Responding to Reviews

This past weekend, I was at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona. On Saturday, I was on a panel called “Responding to Reviews.” The authors and artists gave some great advice and I thought it was worth sharing some highlights. The panel is below. In the photo below you see Educator KellyAnn Bonnell, yours truly, writer and game designer Shanna Germain, Jennie Breeden, writer and artist of The Devil’s Panties, and game designer Ben Woerner.


Of course, as an author or artist, when you get a review, positive or negative, it can be problematic to respond with much more than a very polite, “thanks for sharing your opinion.” This is pretty common advice and the panel generally agreed with it.

The panel moved on to discuss what constitutes the most helpful reviews. The panelists cited reviews that give clear examples of what worked for them and didn’t work for them in a book. Also helpful is when the reviewer can cite why something worked or didn’t work. I noted an example of a reviewer mentioning an element of my novel Children of the Old Stars that didn’t work for her. That inspired me to create an important plot point in Heirs of the New Earth that addressed the issue.

The panelists also noted a frustrating tendency of some reviewers to review the artist rather than reviewing the art. As an example, a person might see a statement by a character in a story and assume that reflects the author’s politics or personal preferences, then attack the author’s perceived philosophy. Unfortunately, these reviews are never helpful because they’re never about the work. They’re just a case of the reviewer having their buttons pushed and then venting.

Related to this, KellyAnn discussed the issue of evaluating reviews. She noted that she generally ignores the top 1% of positive reviews and the bottom 1% of negative reviews as outliers. It’s the stuff in the middle that often has the best constructive criticism you can use to help you evaluate your own writing.

Another aspect of the panel was simply coping with poor reviews. Ben noted that there’s an actual physiological response that causes us to look at bad things and remember them vividly. It makes sense as a survival instinct. Don’t go back to the place that hurts. It’s one of the reasons bad reviews tend to sting so badly and stay with us. Shanna noted that she keeps one of her favorite positive reviews handy and reads it over any time a bad review comes in. It helps her to remember the good work she’s done and move on. Jennie noted that sometimes a bad review comes in and if you sit back and think about it, it’s clear the reviewer is having a problem in their own life.

I finished up this part of the discussion by noting that I like to look at the reviews of my favorite authors and remind myself that very successful authors get bad, good, and neutral reviews too.

Are you a writer or an artist? If so, I’d love to hear what you think is helpful in a review. Likewise, I’d love to hear how you cope with the bad reviews. Are you a reader? What do you look for in reviews when you buy books? Do you look at the reviews?

10 thoughts on “Responding to Reviews

  1. Jack Tyler says:

    Sounds like I missed an excellent discussion here. You’ve gotten me thinking, and I’d like to offer a couple of observations:

    1. I have always been told over my 50+ years as an aspiring author to never under any circumstances respond to a review. If it’s negative, it makes you look whiny, and if it’s positive, it looks like you’re cultivating sycophants. Any opinions on that?

    2. I’ve never had a reviewer attack me for the views of a character, but if that happens, isn’t it really a positive review? You’ve gotten that reader so spun up that they couldn’t contain their emotions, and isn’t that what we’re all doing this for?

    3. I think the casual access provided by the net has moved us away from the days when reviews were the purview of professionals, and we’ve lost the spirit of what a review is. Basically, a review is an essay explaining the essence of a book that has already been published. These so-called reviews that take an author to task over every error in punctuation, spelling, and misuse of tense are in fact critiques. These are the things that will help an author polish her product BEFORE it lands on the bookstore shelf, and are the purview of editors and proofreaders. A book review is supposed to help me as a reader select a book I’m going to like by pointing out the things that make the story “flow,” the author’s skill in painting word pictures, and highlighting her strengths, be they dialogue, descriptions, or richness of the character development. If a reviewer wants to mention structure, they can say “there are some issues with tense that could cause some moments or confusion, but they don’t (or they do!) detract from an otherwise excellent story.” Anyone who goes line-by-line taking the red pencil to an already in-print work does no one, reader or writer, a service, but does manage to expose himself as an internet troll in reviewers’ clothing.

    My two cents duly delivered, I’ll retreat to my cave and await responses. Thank you for discussing such a worthy topic, and the work you obviously put into clearly articulating your views.

    • Thanks for all the great thoughts, Jack. Here are some of my thoughts.

      1. I think the panelists generally would agree with you, but there can be some very rare, exceptions. One could be a “review” posted directly on an author’s site (for example, if the author offers a direct download and has a comment section). In that case, a polite “thank you” can be welcome, but little more. Another case might be if someone makes an error of fact in their review. Again, a very polite correction that helps readers could be appropriate — and only if it really matters to anyone considering the product. (For example if you created a game and someone warns people of the dangers of the game’s lead pieces, but the pieces are not, in fact, made of lead… that might be worth mentioning.)

      2. You make a great point and, again, I agree that engaging readers through your fiction is a good thing. Again, you typically shouldn’t engage a reviewer who attacks you personally. Nevertheless, it can still be frustrating when a reader infers your entire political belief system based on a single line by one of your fictional characters written ten years ago. At some level, you just kind of let that one go. A related area that we touched on, but I didn’t mention in the blog is when people accuse an author of racial or sexual appropriation. One case that was discussed was an author being accused of appropriating an African-American woman’s point of view. As it turns out, the author in question *was* an African-American woman. A response to something like that can fall into the category of a correction of fact. That said, as you know, some of Owl Dance is written from the point of view of a Persian woman, which I’m not. If someone accused me of appropriation and backed it up with good facts, that could actually be useful. Again, I wouldn’t necessarily respond directly to the review, but my response would be to pay attention, research more, and get the character better in the next book.

      3. Again you make a great point. I did have one reviewer who pointed out every little mistake they found in one book. It proved to be a great resource when I edited the book for the second edition! Seriously, I think it’s best if when a person writes a review, they keep their fellow customers in mind and give some ideas about who might or might not enjoy the work. If the work needs serious work, it’s fair to say that, but more detail isn’t necessarily helpful to fellow readers.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jack, and the good discussion points.

  2. When I get a positive review, I click the “like” or “this was helpful” buttons, but don’t contact the reviewer directly. Unless it’s another writer I recognize, and then I’ll think about “following” them.

    • Good thoughts, Deby. I do tend to click “like,” etc. as well. Though I have heard a few writers who’ve suggested that might be problematic as well. I think that comes from Amazon’s policy of giving more weight to reviews with the most likes. If the reviewer is someone I know, I might send them a private “thank you” note. If it’s someone I know and admire, then yeah, I’d probably “follow” them as well. If nothing else, it might make it easier to see if they write a helpful review about something else I’ve written.

  3. Bernard Betelgeuse says:

    I’m sorry I missed that panel. Sounds like nearly all bases were covered. I would like to add that I think that a review (at least a professional review) should be written by someone who likes the kind of story they are reviewing. I remember back in the eighties (I think) I read a movie review (in a major print newspaper) that began (likely paraphrasing from memory) “The only thing worse than a Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie twice”. I knew I could ignore the rest because the reviewer already didn’t like Arnold S. movies, so was inherently less able to inform.

    Can’t add much more except a big “Yes” to all of the above (though I think I agree with you, if I understand you correctly that some reviews can be responded to if there is a need (and as long as it is not one’s ego talking; I have seen sooo many blogs by writers defending their egos more than their works).

    So that’s my tuppence. 🙂

    • Thanks for dropping by, Bernard, and yes we seem to agree on all the important points. In an ideal world, I definitely agree that a professional reviewer should like the genre they’re reviewing. That said, I think the best professional reviewers have a broad range of genre tastes and try not to let personal bias weigh them down. Even so, some have no choice about what they review because the person paying them has assigned them a certain book or movie. In that case, I hope they do the same as the reviewer you mention who stated the bias up front. At least then, you know what you’re in for!

  4. dm yates says:

    Very informative. I enjoyed reading this. When I buy anything, I read the reviews – good and bad- and make my judgement. But so many negative reviews have nothing to do with the product. A friend of mine got a 1 star and the reason? The reader had trouble with her e-reader.

    • Thanks, Donna. Those reviews that have nothing to do with the product are the worst! As it turns out, my daughter recently downloaded an app that grades restaurants on how well they handle allergy issues. One thing I like is that the user actually cannot assign star ratings themselves. Instead, it asks a series of questions, then assigns a star-rating based on the answers, in an attempt to make the star-ratings much more uniform and consistent with other users’ experiences. I thought that was very clever and certainly worth considering as a way to make Amazon and Goodreads ratings better.

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