How -Not- to Take a Review

Recently I posted about how to take a critique, since I know all to well how hard it can be to see your work red-lined after an edit or sit there listening to someone tell you all the problems they had with your work. It’s hard, but very helpful in making your writing the best it can be, be the critique from a friend, writers’ group, professional editor, or your publisher.

Coincidentally (I’m doing my best not to use “ironically” incorrectly, so coincidentally it is) not too long after I posted that article, I got an irate email from an author I recently wrote a review for (as I am a reviewer over at ePublish a Book) demanding the review be removed.

*Before continuing, I would like to say here that this article is in no way meant as an attack against said author. There will be no mention of the author’s name, her book, or links to the review in question. Instead, as with most of my blog posts, I am attempting to use personal experiences to give advice and clear up misconceptions about writing, editing, publishing, and reviewing. All of the following is meant to help those with misconceptions about how the review process works, and I am more than happy to answer additional questions left as comments, tweeted, or emailed to me.*

Now to start, I fully admit I can be a critical reviewer. I do my best to never be unfair, rude, or mean, but I am completely honest in what I think about the books I have read. If you get a good review from me, you have fully earned it. Still, even if I didn’t like a book, I do my best to point out what the author has done well. Unless there is absolutely nothing redeeming about a book, you will not see a review that is only disparaging either.

As that’s my goal as a reviewer–not lampooning ok books and only gushing about great books–I tend to write many mixed reviews: reviews along the lines of “I liked the story, but the prose was needlessly flowery” or “The characters were amazingly realistic, unfortunately the plot didn’t live up to their well-constructed depth” (Neither of those are from actual reviews, but you get the idea). The review in question was likewise mixed.

Obviously the author wasn’t pleased with the critical parts of the review, as not long after it posted I received an email along the lines of:

Take it down. If you are going to punish an effort, at least tell people first.”

Now, I won’t post the rest of the emails back and forth (there were quite a few with me telling her I wasn’t going to take it down and how reviews generally worked) since that would make for a needlessly long blog post and I don’t think it’s entirely professional to divulge the entirety of private correspondences when they aren’t exactly flattering, but I would like to hit on a few points for anyone who might have some misconceptions about requesting reviews.

1. Unless you are paying for a review, you have no control over what the reviewer writes about your book. As much as I might like to, as it says on my reviews and editing services page, I accept “no money or gifts from authors seeking reviews.” Now, the reason I don’t accept money or gifts is not because I hate gifts nor because I believe reviewing is a job that no one should get paid for. It’s because it’s a conflict of interest. There are some “reviewers” out there that you can send money and they’ll give you nice blurbs to put on your front cover, but I am not one of them. If it were possible to buy a good review from me it would  undermine my credibility as a reviewer. How would people know if I actually thought the book I’m reviewing is a good book or a book I hated but was paid to say good things about it? If I think it’s a good book I’ll say so, if it’s an ok book, that too. If I think it’s a bad book, well, sorry, you’re getting a bad review. Since you aren’t paying me, you don’t get to decide what I say.

2. No control means you do not get to edit the review nor determine whether or not the review is posted. Going back to the “at least tell people first” part of that first email, later emails made clear that–in the event that the review was not glowing–the author expected to get a copy of the review before it was posted to edit (or at least approve) it. While I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of giving an author a copy of what will be posted (though I’ve never heard of that happening outside of the aforementioned reviews-for-hire) it would not give the author the power to pull the article or edit it (e.g. “I don’t like what you say here about my book, can you make it nicer?”) so mostly that would just give the author time to see the review the day before everyone else does.

3. This fact (the author not getting to edit or having to approve a review) is, as far as I know, an industry standard. I can’t say I’ve talked to the entire industry, but no one I have talked to (reviewers/editors I know) has ever given someone asking for a review a copy of the review before hand, nor have they allowed edits. As an author you give them your book and wait until it’s posted. Assuming that you are going to get some say over the review shows either you have no idea how reviewing works or you have only ever paid for reviews/asked for people to give you good blurbs for the dust jacket. Basically, if you act as though you get a say, it makes you look unprofessional.

4. By asking for a review, you are taking the chance of getting a bad review. Going along with the fact that you don’t get a say in what is said in a review if you don’t pay for it, you have to accept that it is possible you won’t get a good review. If you’re extremely worried, try reading other reviews the reviewer you’re contacting has written. Anyone who reads my reviews will see that I don’t often gush about how wonderful a book is, and will point out anything I especially don’t like even in books that I generally like. If you want a review that’s 100 percent amazing you can cut and post to your website, you should either hope your book is completely brilliant or find a reviewer who writes more 100 percent positive reviews. I aim for totally honest reviews as a matter of principle.

5. If you absolutely will only accept a glowing review, ask upfront if the reviewer will refrain from posting a bad review. Now, first off, I DO NOT SUGGEST YOU DO THIS. It again comes off as unprofessional, but if you are absolutely insistent on not having any bad reviews up anywhere of your book, ask up front about it (otherwise it probably won’t cross the reviewer’s mind [see: not industry standard]). Personally, if someone asked that, I’d pass on reading their book entirely. Perhaps there’s someone who’d agree to it, but I’m certainly not one of them. It’s your choice over whether or not you’ll accept a bad review, but you have to accept you’re also passing up a possible good review in your quest to have nothing bad ever written about your book.

6. There’s no such things as bad publicity. Ok, so there is technically (say it comes out that you’re a serial killer or that your book causes brain aneurysms), but in general the old adage is true. So you got a critical review. So what? Not everyone is going to love your book. Ask someone what their favorite book is. They could gush, it could be critically acclaimed, and… there will still be people out there who slam it. Part of being a writer is accepting that fact. If you have a thin skin, you don’t have to look at anything posted about it, but it’s going to happen. Anyway, it’s better to have a so-so review on a heavily trafficked site to get your name out there than it is to only have a couple glowing reviews somewhere no one’s ever going to see them. Who knows, perhaps someone will like the sound of your book, no matter the review, and buy it. They aren’t going to if they’ve never heard of it, even if you have some people gushing about it.

7. A bad review isn’t punishment. Going back to the first email, I’m not sure what effort the author was talking about (requesting the review or publishing a book) but as it isn’t hard to request a review (just send an email) I’m going to assume “punishing an effort” refers to the book. First, as an author you unfortunately don’t get any points for effort. It would be sort of awesome if you did, honestly, but your work is going to sink or swim based on its own merit. If a book you wrote in a week is great, you’re more than likely going to get a great review, if a book you spent three decades working on and edited fifty times is bad, you’re still going to get a bad review. Second, a bad review–like a harsh critique–isn’t personal. The reviewer isn’t trying to punish you, discredit the work you put into the book, or attack you as a writer. They’re just honestly giving their opinion of the book they’ve read.

8. If you disagree with a review, it’s ok to say so, but ranting won’t help you. So you’ve decided to go ahead and ask for a review, and it unfortunately is overwhelmingly negative. FIRST, take a couple of hours, an afternoon, a day, however long it takes until you can think about it rationally. Bad reviews sting, I understand, perhaps even more so than critiques. However, it is not the end of the world. One bad review isn’t going to stop people from buying your book or make people think you’re obviously an awful writer.

Now, it’s hard to get any part of reviews changed (they’re opinions, so there generally aren’t factual errors to dispute and if the reviewer didn’t “get it” you at least have to take partial blame for not writing clearly enough for them to understand) but if there’s something you strongly disagree with, go ahead and contact them about it. You’ll likely get a “sorry, that’s how it is” email back, but it’s possible your reviewer will at least talk to you about why they felt a certain way, if you’re nice. Sending several angry emails and making demands will not get you anywhere. We get it, many reviewers are writers too, we know how you’re feeling. That doesn’t change the fact that our reviews need to hold up to certain standards, otherwise it undermines our credibility.

If you feel a review is unnecessarily rude or unfair, you can likewise email the writer’s editor and nicely try to make your points. As they posted it, it’s likely they too will support their writers (if they thought it was awful, they wouldn’t have put it on their site) but most will at least be willing to explain their decision, and if you’re lucky they may be sympathetic. Ranting at them about how awful and unreasonable a reviewer is being about a review they chose to post isn’t going to endear you.

And so, I hope that helps anyone who is unclear about the reviewing process. Like authors who want a pat on the head while editing, authors who want a pat on the head from a reviewer (and assume they’re going to get one) just makes for unhappy authors and unhappy reviewers. Never a good thing.

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