'Tis the season for authors behaving badly. 2012 is starting out with a bang as the new crop of YA authors learns that just because you aren't writing for grown-ups doesn't mean you shouldn't act like one. Yes, I know that's a cheap shot at YA authors, but Golden Word Syndrome seems to hit this clique particularly hard. Granted, there are some older authors (and historically, some big name ones) who were so convinced that their immortal words were written in ink harvested from the precious tears of angels that they thought it was appropriate to go off on a negative reviewer, but it used to be that this shit would go down in a literary magazine or the New York Times, and then at least it would be well-written and entertaining. Instead, we are seeing the first generation of published authors who grew up with blogs and Facebook and Twitter and are used to shooting off their damn fool mouths the moment they experience an instant of butthurt. Unused to being in the public eye (even if it's a small public), they haven't figured out yet that venting to your circle of friends isn't like venting to everyone in the world who reads your books, and who are likely to send your rant viral on Twitter, Tumblr, and Goodreads.
Leigh Fallon, who wrote a Twilight copy-and-paste called Carrier of the Mark, tried to sic her fans on a negative reviewer. (Details here.) One Internet-storm later, she issued a decidedly insincere apology and will hopefully think better of pulling this kind of thing in the future.
Julie Halpern, a published author with several books under her belt (and therefore with no excuse not to know better), responded very, very badly to a negative but perfectly reasonable review. Her response was to write an angry screed which read like a slam book entry by a thirteen-year-old about what a pathetic loser the (young) reviewer was and how her review was, like, totally mean and unfair and trash. And writing negative reviews is destructive and "DISCOURAGING PEOPLE FROM READING."
She has since deleted her post, but the Internet never forgets.
I could cite several other recent epic failures by authors, but my favorite blog of unfiltered vitriol already did, and I think you see the pattern here.
Dear Authors: Don't do this
Publishers call this the Author's Big Mistake: do not, under any circumstances, respond to a review. Not a negative review, not a positive review.
Even if you respond to a negative review with grace and humility or self-effacing humor, you look like someone rolling over and showing your belly in the hopes that people will stop picking on you. If you respond angrily, well, you become a fandom wank entry. If you respond by temperately addressing the criticisms in a reasonable manner, you appear argumentative even if that's not your intent, and people will argue with you, and you'll look bad no matter how calm and reasonable you are.
Likewise, responding with gushing 'Thank yous' to a positive review makes you look like a suck-up (and nowadays, causes people to suspect you have a relationship with the reviewer). And there's not much you can say other than 'Thank you' that doesn't make you look like a shameless self-promoter interjecting yourself into review threads to pimp your books.
(Note: Before anyone brings it up, this doesn't apply to fan fiction, where the rules are different. Reviews are essentially the "payment" a fan fiction author receives, and most reviewers like getting responses from authors. Though the rule about not responding angrily to negative reviews still applies. But the essential distinction is that fan fiction reviews are for the author; reviews of published books are for other readers.)
Responding to reviews like a professional: don't try this at home
Now, of course, authors break this rule all the time. And it doesn't always backfire on them. Because publishing is becoming much more of an interactive experience, with authors encouraged to have an online presence in which they respond to their fans, it's inevitable that authors will engage with fans and critics. Sometimes they see a horrible, nasty review that is so unfair and inaccurate that they bite all the way through their tongue and then have to respond. Sometimes they just think that they can step into a conversation without bloodshed. And sometimes they're right. Fans like talking to authors! But responding to a review is always fraught with peril.
An (in)famous example of an author responding to a blistering review in a humorous manner is John Ringo, of OH JOHN RINGO NO fame. He managed to make light of it and walked away unscathed, but this isn't a trick you should try at home, kids.
I have, a time or two, had authors respond to one of my reviews, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly on their blogs. I haven't had anyone lose their shit and go off on me, and for the most part, even the responses to some of my negative reviews were pretty mild, so I wouldn't say any of them lost points in my eyes. (At least, no more than they lost for writing the book I was thumping against the wall.) But really, authors, you shouldn't do this. Authors I've seen get pissy over criticism -- Maggie Steifvater, Jim Butcher, N.K. Jemisin, Laurell K. Hamilton, the list goes on -- always make me think that (a) they are way too damn thin-skinned for someone living what most of their critics dream of (being a published author), and (b) why has their agent not taken them aside and told them not to do this?
Consider the endless torrents of abuse heaped on really big-name authors like Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, and so on. I'm sure they're not unaware that people say really mean things about them and their books. I'm sure they have all been annoyed, possibly even hurt, by something someone has said about them at some point. But to my knowledge, none of them has ever lashed out or responded even in a quiet, passive-aggressive manner. They just keep writing.
John Scalzi (one of my favorite authors whose books are not my favorites) is very much out there with a public presence and a willingness to engage with fans, and he also has sage advice and a very grown-up response: own your one-star reviews. In a way, he is responding here to negative reviews, and he's doing it with self-effacing humor and grace, but without looking either groveling or insincere. But again, this isn't a trick you should try at home, kids.
We're all friends on the Internet
And yet, fans want to talk to authors. Fans want to engage with authors. And many authors, especially young authors, former fans who not long ago were the ones eagerly fawning over their favorites, want to engage with their fans. And this is a good thing, isn't it? We can't all be Thomas Pynchon, writing epic literary masterpieces for decades while never allowing so much as a photograph to escape into public. Even the super-big-names like Rowling and King interact with their fans to a degree.
Is this blogging/Twittering/social media world in which readers and writers can talk to each other directly a good thing? Would you like it if an author responded to your reviews? Would you tone down your reviews if you knew the author was reading them? If someone "calls out" an author for some kind of failure, should the author respond, or is that always a no-win proposition?
And if you are a published author, feel free to chime in. :)
But really, no one cares
For all the drama that author outbursts like this cause, it's worth keeping in mind that it really doesn't have much effect on their careers. You'll see people saying "I will never buy your books because of this!" and for years afterwards, an author's notorious flame-out will be brought up every time their name is mentioned, but the fact is, most book buyers, even today, don't really trawl Goodreads and Twitter threads reading about authors. Only a very small percentage of an author's readers will ever know anything about that author, no matter how Internet-infamous he or she is. Think: Cassandra Clare or Orson Scott Card. Names that will provoke ire and wrath and fandom outrage forever online. Walk into a bookstore, and no one knows or cares. They have big Hollywood movie adaptations coming out. So sorry, fandom, but don't overestimate your own importance in the grand scheme of things. Reviews do not have the power to damage an author's career. Really, they don't. Every person who says they will or will not buy a book based on your review is insignificant, saleswise. Even a scathing review in the New York Times might hurt an author's feelings, but it won't hurt her career, so just remember that your review on your book blog or Goodreads is solely for the benefit of those who read your reviews; don't imagine you are actually shaping public perceptions or holding an author's fate in your hands.
Should authors respond to reviews?
If you were/are a published author, would you respond to a review?
How much do reviews affect you?
Previous Saturday Book Discussions.