Hello, dear author. So you’ve wandered into the wild, woolly world of book reviews. You have a book out, or many books out, or a book coming up, and reviewers are already talking about it. You like what some of them have to say. You don’t like what others have to say. That book is your baby. You put so much time and work into it. Why doesn’t everyone appreciate that?
Because all they care about — all they should care about — is the end product, and once that’s out in the world you have no way of controlling how people respond to it. Nor should you try. Trying is what gets you labeled as an ABB, or an Author Behaving Badly.
Thanks to social media giving everyone direct access to everyone else in a chaotic environment filled with thousands of voices, author/reviewer relationships are fraught with complexities, politics, and power imbalances. Things get ugly, sometimes.
But they don’t have to.
Bbs, sit down.
And let’s talk about how to do this shite right.
- But seriously, my book is my baby!
- B-but…I read a bad review of my book!
- But the review had a spoiler! 😱
- So when can I engage with reviews?
- What if a reviewer emails or DMs me to tell me they love my books?
- What if a review is racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist, full of fatmisia, etc.? (new!)
- What if I make a new Amazon/GR/etc. account to comment anonymously? They’ll never know it was me, tee hee! (new!)
- What if I want to talk to reviewers about possibly reviewing my books?
- Once a reviewer agrees to review me once I can add them to my ARC team, right?
- A reviewer agreed to review my book and then didn’t!
- A reviewer on my ARC team keeps requesting/claiming books, but not reviewing them.
- A reviewer got something about my book — *hushed voice* — wrong. (new + updated with quote tweets from insightful contributors!)
- A reviewer said I crossed their boundaries! (new! + bonus: a partial explanation of author power over reviewers)
- What if a reviewer is crossing my boundaries? (new! + bonus: how to handle interactions with underage reviewers)
- But what if setting boundaries upsets reviewers and they refuse to review me anymore? (new! + bonus: This Is A Fucking Business, Do Not Sex At People)
- A reviewer called out my book on social media and now everyone’s slamming it.
- But that reviewer has more followers than I do! They’re totally bullying me! They’re the ones punching down!
- But they didn’t even read the book! They’re slamming it on the blurb and excerpt and cover alone!
- …they don’t have to read the book? What?
- What if it’s not me defending my book and lashing out at reviewers? What if it’s my fellow authors?
- …but what if it’s my readers lashing out?
- Wouldn’t it be better for me to go silent and wait for it to blow over, rather than risking saying something? (new!)
- In. Fucking. Conclusion.
Your book is a product. A product you put a lot of heart, time, and work into, but you know what? You don’t go around shopping your babies to people for money, so stop acting like someone who doesn’t like your book just gave you a tenner, then told you had an ugly baby. They paid for a product, whether with money or with the cost, time, and labor involved in giving you free exposure by reading the book and then reviewing it. They have paid for the right to have any opinion they want about the product you put out.
If you really want to stick with the baby analogy, then think about the fact that the production cycle is that baby’s childhood. Once that book is published, it’s an adult. It’s out there to stand on its own. It has to take its own lumps. Sure, as the parent you feel those lumps; you wonder if you raised it right. But you can’t go rampaging in like an angry PTA mom when someone says your adult child isn’t performing well at work; nor can you go rampaging in as an angry author when a consumer who paid for a product says that product didn’t live up to their expectations.
Separate yourself from the book. Cut the apron strings. Get over yourself. Let it go, forget about it, and go write your next book, because there’s not much you can do now that this one’s out in the world. What will happen will happen. C’est la vie.
If you’re going to survive in this industry without giving yourself an aneurysm or making your anxiety ten times worse, you need to learn to let go as best you can.
Then stop reading your goddamn reviews.
…all right. Okay. I know you won’t. I still read my reviews sometimes, I just don’t talk about it. And I generally try to stay on the positive ones; they’re a good pick-me-up. Even those, though, I don’t talk about.
That’s the thing. You can read reviews all you want, but you can’t engage with them save for in very specific circumstances. Don’t like a review on GoodReads. Don’t flag it for removal unless it actually meets the guidelines, such as posting derogatory things about you as a person/author rather than reviewing the book. Don’t comment on the review. Don’t send your fans to comment on the review defending you. (I actually have a policy in my street team that anyone caught attacking negative reviewers gets booted from the group.) Don’t seek out tweets about your book and reply to them (particularly if you or the book aren’t mentioned by name; if you’re stalking reviewers on social media for the idlest sideways mention of your book, that’s fucking creepy and intrusive). If you happen to have friendly conversations with a reviewer, do not bring up their review or try to chat about it. Don’t get all stroppy and complain about bad reviews in public. Don’t even brag about good reviews in public.
You know why?
Because reviews are not for you.
They’re for other readers.
Now, reading your reviews can still be a good thing. They let you get a feel for who your primary audience is. The good ones can be a major boost on a down day. Some of the bad ones (some — some are just a matter of personal preference and you can’t please everyone) may clue you in to some things you need to work on, whether it’s your writing or whether you’ve included some harmful rep and need to do better in how you portray that. A lot of reviewers put a lot of emotional labor into unpacking rep, and if they do that for your book the least you can do is appreciate it.
But never, ever respond to it directly.
You really don’t belong in reviewer spaces unless you’re explicitly invited. Honestly, you shouldn’t be on GoodReads at all — not as an active participant where your books are involved. Where your books are involved, you are a ghost unless answering reader Q&As directed at you. No one wants to feel like you’re hovering over them, breathing down the back of their necks in a space intended for reviewers. In more mixed spaces like social media, engagement works a little differently, but your best bet is to still be as hands-off as possible.
So? Spoiler tags exist on GR for a reason. Hell, sometimes spoilers boost sales instead of ruining books for people; it depends on the person, and the only people who get to be annoyed with that reviewer are readers who hate spoilers. Not you. As the author, your job is still to STFU and not engage.
1. On social media, but only if the reviewer tags you directly when linking or discussing the review. Then it’s all right to like, RT, etc. If you want to say “Thank you! <3” go right ahead. If you want to engage in debate and discussion, though…don’t do it, fam. Just don’t. And if you disagree with what the reviewer said? Sit on your goddamned fingers.
2. If the reviewer directly engages you in discussion about the review/book. Let the reviewer make it clear first that they want to discuss the book, and let them bring up what they want to talk about. Do not argue with them during this conversation, do not get defensive, do not correct them because you don’t like their interpretation. However, this goes both ways. If you aren’t comfortable discussing your books with reviewers, you’re allowed to demur and slip out of the conversation. You both get to set boundaries here, and I do this frequently. I appreciate the reviews, but I only read them when I want to read them — and sometimes? Reviewers wanting to have a conversation about how they feel about my book or what I should have done can be as invasive as me jumping into reviewer spaces to respond to their reviews. Caveat: If you are uncomfortable discussing reviews with reviewers when they bring it up but they want to discuss something problematic/harmful in the book with you, you should at least thank them for bringing it to your attention, tell them you understand and hear them, and tell them you’ll take their insight to heart and revisit that part of the book to see how you could have done it better. (You may find opportunity to revise and re-release here, especially if indie.)
3. If you’ve been called out for bad rep. Even then, you do not engage with the review(s) or reviewer(s) directly. You write a blog post or tweet thread or public FB post acknowledging that you’ve heard what people have said and you understand why they’re hurt, upset. Do not name a specific reviewer; do not link to a review; do not quote any reviews; do not sub-blog to allude to things someone can use to figure out which review(s) prompted the blog. If you do any of this, you’re painting a target on them. Address the concerns broadly, discuss what you’re going to do to do better, apologize, detail any plans regarding the book in question (if there are any). If you’re speaking about rep from your own experience, discuss how this reflects your life but you understand how it can hurt others; do not dismiss others’ concerns as invalid as if yours is the only truth of a particular representation, or claim that their truth is somehow undermining your truth. Say that you feel there’s room for both stories that reflect your experiences and stories that reflect theirs, but you understand why someone might not want to read based on their experiences.
Keep in mind that engaging with reviews is different from engaging with reviewers. If you’re posting silly shite on Twitter and reviewers respond in a friendly fashion, it’s entirely okay to goof off with them, joke around, be silly, just be humans fucking around about corgis or cat butt or glo-ups or dating fails or whatever. Just remember that as an author, you always have more power than reviewers and that will color your interactions, and how safe they feel with you. Endeavor to be aware of that and to make your interactions, no matter how idle, a safe space for them free of pressure or expectations.
Also remember that just because you’re friendly, they are not obligated to give you a positive review or even to review your books at all. There must always be a separation, and when they’re reviewing they need to be able to isolate you as the person they play around with on social media vs. you as the author whose book they’re reviewing.
You, also, need to be able to isolate them as a person vs. them as the reviewer. Most of the reviewers who joke around with me and tease on Twitter? I have no idea if they read my books or not. I’ve had people tell me they read my books and I’m completely surprised, because I don’t keep track and don’t assume. You must keep that separation.
Say thank you! It doesn’t even have to be long and involved. They’re not trying to be your BFF. They’re just saying they loved your work. Acknowledge it with a heartfelt thanks, don’t get weird about it, and it’s as simple and easy as that. If they say something about your books personally touched them, tell them you’re glad that you were able to speak to something that mattered to them. Just be polite, be appreciative, and that’s all you need. Unless they have questions, which you can answer pleasantly and factually or deflect if they’re inappropriate (it happens).
Do not, however, take this as an invitation to discuss their review, critique their review, etc.
Say thank you, and shut up.
Okay. This is the hard one. Because this is what you’re justified in calling out.
It’s still better if you don’t, unless it’s from a major review outlet like Kirkus or PW. Kirkus and PW are businesses that profit off their reviews. You, as an author, are one of their consumers as much as readers are. Therefore you have the right, as a consumer, to go on Twitter with a shitty -ist/phobic review from outlets like that and say “Do you believe this fucking shite?” and call on the community to demand these outlets do better.
In the case of independent reviewers and bloggers, you can often do more for yourself by gracefully walking away.
I know taking the high road sucks. Don’t look at it as a sacrifice. Look at it as an investment in your public image (and an investment in your spoons; stress over this shite literally shortens lifespans). Even if a review contains bigotry, you still don’t want to be seen as that author haunting reviewer spaces looking for something to pounce on. That is the only reason I say to ignore it for your own benefit, when bigotry and privilege fully deserve to be called out — but I’m thinking about you in the long run. I fully expect you to scream in sheer fury to all your peeps…in private. I would and have, too. Go in your FB PMs or Twitter DMs or Slack and scream your heart out.
Then kick that reviewer off your ARC team, block them on social media, and move on without saying a word.
(There are people who, I think, will disagree with me here because respectability politics are fucking balls…and I completely get why they’d disagree and why they’d choose to call out bigotry. In the right scenario I might, too, but for the most part this is the choice I would make as a very, very tired man who’s worn out to the point of being conflict-averse. There’s also the fact that some people would use this as an excuse to attack reviewers who call out the authors’ own bigotry, saying that by calling out harmful content in a book they’re being -ist/phobic when they’re not because the author is incapable of being objective enough to see past their own privilege…and I can’t condone that invasion on reviewer spaces seeking retaliation under false premises. Authors who use their privilege and twist the narrative around marginalization to start pile-ons against reviewers who call out problematic content? Are a whole other problem, as is saying “I can’t be X-phobic, I’m [wholly separate] Y marginalization.” If this is your grounds for leaping to defend your book? Don’t.)
(P.S. Hard exception if that reviewer @s you in their review or emails it to you. The above scenario is presuming you sought the review out yourself on GR, Amazon, etc. If the reviewer actively brought it to your attention, targeting you with bigotry, that’s a direct attack and you are absolutely within your bounds to defend yourself from it.)
What if I make a new Amazon/GR/etc. account to comment anonymously? They’ll never know it was me, tee hee!
…yes they will. Don’t underestimate reviewers, or overestimate yourself. You’re more obvious than you think, and reviewers are a.) masters at dealing with sock puppets, and b.) particularly skilled at spotting consistent characterization.
Just don’t do it. For any reason.
That’s totally okay, but make sure you do everything you can to find out what their review submission guidelines are. Many reviewers are affiliated with blogs, and those blogs will have a page telling you how they prefer to receive review requests. Follow those instructions to the letter, and be polite. You are not blessing them with your book. You’re asking them for a favor, one that involves labor on their part.
If it’s just a reviewer you like who isn’t affiliated with a blog and doesn’t have review request instructions on their GR profile, find the most comfortable medium to approach them politely. Do not ask them in public; that puts them on the spot to respond to you, and they may feel cornered to say yes because a no might affect their public image or invite retaliation. Email is often the best medium because it doesn’t demand an immediate response — though if you have to DM or FB message or GR mail them, ask first if they have time to talk before you dive in. Respectfully inquire if they’re open to review requests, and if they say yes, ask if they’d be interested in hearing about your book.
Only if they say yes to that are you free to jump ahead with the pitch, but try not to be too aggressive. And tell them why their review is important to you. Let them feel appreciated, rather than just another person you’re mass spamming, but do not pressure them. It’s okay to say you value their opinion. It’s not okay to say you expect that opinion to be positive. Also make it clear that if they just aren’t interested, it’s totally okay. You understand. Smile and thank them for their time anyway.
Seriously. Thank them. They could’ve ignored you for crawling up in their space.
Here’s a few other tips when asking for reviews:
1. Give reviewers a timeframe up to your release date. That timeframe lets them know if they can fit you into their review schedule. Keep in mind they may have other priorities and while they may choose to shift those priorities to fit you in, you don’t get to demand it.
2. Make that timeframe reasonable. 1-3 months before release is reasonable. 1-3 days is not. It’s on you to do the planning needed to get your review copies out in time, not on them to jump to accommodate your poor planning skills.
3. Clue them in on any other expectations. If you’d like them to send you links once they post their review, let them know in advance. If you’d appreciate cross-posting to Amazon, GR, and B&N, let them know.
4. If you’re sending out ARCs, try to make sure they’re publication-ready. Don’t expect reviewers to forgive an error-riddled, non-final document. They don’t know if those errors will persist in final publication; if they rec a book with multiple issues that persist past publication based on the assumption that you’d correct them, that affects their reputation and the social value of their reviews. Be considerate of that.
5. Ask reviewers what format they prefer. Don’t just throw a file at them and expect them to make do.
6. Have a media kit ready both for the review and any interviews they may invite you to participate in. This includes backlist with links, photo, and bio.
No, I —
Do you like getting spam?
Then why would you send it?
Agreeing to review one book is not an agreement to review all books in perpetuity. Ask permission before you add them to your ARC team group or mailing list. You can ask directly when talking to them, or if you use a sign-up form for ARC requests for one book, add an option that says “Would you like to be added to my ARC team for future releases? YES/NO”
If they say no, don’t fucking do it. You may approach them regarding your next book and ask, but do not put them on your ARC team by default. Or add them to your newsletter, either.
This happens. People run out of time, or life comes up, or the book lost their interest, or — you might never know the reasons. It’s not that big a deal, even if it can hurt to lose a review if you’ve been struggling to get your numbers up.
It’s okay to send one polite follow-up email…usually a couple of days after release with ARCs, or just a few days after whatever time they specified they’d review by. Just say hey, just checking in on your review, no worries if life got in the way or if the book just wasn’t for you. If you do have a review ready, let me know when you post it so I can RT you!
The important thing is to frame it in a positive way without pressure or demands. You understand shite happens, you know? And understand sometimes books just don’t stick. But you’re offering to share dual exposure when they get the review done, as while their review benefits you…you can also pay it forward by directing readers to their reviews. When many reviewers make money from affiliate links and ad spots, this can be a great way to show you support reviewers and you’re not just using them for your own exposure. This turns a nagging “hey, where’s my review” email into “sorry for being a bother, if you don’t want to review that’s okay, but if you do, please let me support/promote you, thank you for your time.”
Just don’t send more than one follow-up. If they don’t answer the first and don’t review, count it as a loss and don’t harass or get hostile. No subtweeting, either. I’m looking at you. Yeah, you. If they respond intending to review but still don’t? Again, write it off. You’re not going to get anywhere by aggravating a reviewer who might have other things to deal with.
So remove them from your ARC team.
Just don’t be an arse about it.
Look, you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life. Maybe they signed up thinking they’d like your books, and it turns out they don’t but they don’t know how to say so. Maybe they signed up thinking they’d have time to be on an ARC team, but they don’t. Maybe they had time, but things got really fucking rough. You just don’t know. You don’t get to judge. Just quietly remove them from your ARC team, and move on.
Ideally, when someone joins your ARC team they should be aware of a strikes policy anyway. Say if they skip over reviewing five books in a row, they’ll be removed from the ARC team. When they’re on four strikes, gently let them know if there’s one more strike they will be removed. Gently. Say you’re checking in on them, are things okay, are the books just not for them, do they need more time? If they give you feedback, like you’re not offering enough lead time before release dates, take it to heart. If they tell you their life just fell to shite and they really want to review, just not right now…forgive their strikes, wish them well, and tell them they’re welcome back on the ARC team when they have time and spoons again.
(There may be caveats to the strikes policy anyway. For instance, I write in multiple genres. If someone who reviews my contemporary M/M ARCs skips five straight queer horror releases in a row because they don’t do horror, that doesn’t count as a strike. Be aware of your readers’ genre preferences if you write across genres. Don’t punish them for avoiding things that aren’t their cup of tea. Even if they love you as an author, they’re not obligated to absolute loyalty to everything you produce.)
Yes, you’re going to get some people who just join your ARC team for free books with no intention of reviewing. Once they hit their strikes and end up removed, they’ll move on and won’t really care. But most people are eager to review when they join an ARC team, and understand the commitment involved.
Even if you have to remove them, show a little humanity in doing so.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Happens. Ignore it. It’s not the end of the world, even if it invites a negative review. If you confront them about it, you risk antagonizing them over a minor oversight and looking like a jerk, hovering over their reviews and policing the content just so you can snap them up and correct them. Same if you comment on their review; just don’t do it. If they confront you about it (they likely won’t — and no, a review is not confronting you about it, stay the fuck out of their reviews), you can gently point out what the text actually said vs. what they’re confronting you about, but keep it light and positive. Say you totally understand how it could be read that way, especially if deep in the book zone and reading quickly. Do not go on the offensive with a triumphant “Ha HA!” Andy Samberg-style and gloat over their wrongness.
This is only, though, in the case of an actual error — not just an interpretation. If a reader gets upset with you because a bisexual character never actually says she’s bi when it’s actually explicitly stated in conversation on page 42, then if a reviewer directly engages you with criticism about it you can say “Oh, I must’ve buried that a little too much in banter, but it’s right there on page 42. Sorry I didn’t make it more obvious!” But if you have a headcanon model/actor picked out for how a character looks and a reviewer picks someone totally different? Huuuuuuush. Let them have their interpretation.
There may be a small exception if what they get wrong is character gender, gender identity, etc. in ways that may be harmful…but honestly, I’m not the best person to speak on what your options are with this. Misgendering people is not okay, authors invading reviewer spaces is not okay, but it’s not my lane to determine the best course of action there. What will likely happen is that another reader may catch it and comment on it, saying “Hey, you misgendered this character.” If not, though…honestly, I think it would be better if you (respectfully, this is emotional labor) ask a trans or nonbinary author or reviewer what would make them most comfortable in this instance and how they would prefer it was dealt with if it was their book or review. This one’s not my place. One thing I can speak on, though, is whitewashing — like say in that headcanon scenario up there I’ve written a Black character and they headcanon him with a white actor. I wouldn’t speak to them directly about it, but it’s likely I’d already have aesthetics or covers in place showing this character is Black, so it’s out there to counter the whitewashing and I’m not going to get into it with strangers about it.
ETA: A better answer regarding misgendering from a more authoritative, qualified trans/nonbinary source (included with permission):
As a reviewer, I also sometimes explain why I use a particular pronoun in my reviews & occasionally onhere.
As a reviewer, I publicly boost things in author's notes abt pronouns.
As a reviewer, I talk abt the importance of honoring chars pronouns in reviews & why its imp.
— Corey Alexander (@TGStoneButch) March 26, 2018
If I get asked by a reviewer what pronouns are appropriate, I will answer.
If I think there is likely to be confusion, I might make a public statement about pronouns I suggest reviewers use for the char. I may anticipate this ahead of time & do an authors note in my next book.
— Corey Alexander (@TGStoneButch) March 26, 2018
Also: I've found, as a non-binary reviewer of trans &/or enby lit: sometimes the blurb &/or the text of the book…misgender the char.
As a reviewer, I make the choice I feel best honors the char's gender. The author may feel differently. I don't want them DMing me abt that.
— Corey Alexander (@TGStoneButch) March 26, 2018
(Thanks so much, Corey!)
And a little more insight on reader-to-author communications, and how authors can respond positively:
She was great about getting back to me quickly. So I do appreciate guidance/support.
— Jen (@JenReadsRomance) March 26, 2018
Oh, for sure. But I still felt like a jerk for asking (Shouldn't I just know!?) and appreciate that she was quick, gracious, and neutral with her reply.
— Jen (@JenReadsRomance) March 26, 2018
(Note the remark about being gracious and neutral – a good standard to set if readers/reviewers reach out for clarification. Thank you to Jen, as well!)
Then back the fuck up and leave them alone.
If a reviewer tells you to leave them alone and you’ve been flailing around where you don’t belong and making them uncomfortable, you cease and desist immediately. Treat it as a legally binding restraining order, back off, and do not communicate with them unless they initiate communication first. Don’t haunt their spaces just “casually” talking to someone else in their vicinity. Don’t try to plead your case. Just back off and don’t engage with them.
Look. Authors have stalked reviewers, threatened them, caused them real life bodily harm. All over a bad review. This kind of shite is why authors are often seen as invasive presences, unpredictable when reviewers never know if that nice, friendly author who was so kind to them on social media will turn into a real danger to their lives and well-beings at the first two-star review.
And this kind of shite is part of what creates the power imbalance between authors and reviewers.
You may think you’re being friendly and kind, but in the backs of reviewers’ minds they always have to be aware that if they say one wrong word about your book, you could completely lose your shite all over them to varying degrees of damage and pain. There’s also the constant question of if you have ulterior motives; if you’re being nice just to be nice, or if you want something out of them and you’re playing an angle. Reviewers are constantly walking on eggshells around authors, creating a state of near-permanent tension and wariness. If you think that doesn’t give you power over them, you don’t understand how power imbalances work.
You might say “But I’m not like that!”
…but are you really sure?
The thing is, if you were like that you might not even be aware of it. You might not even realize what you’re doing is making someone feel threatened or wary.
So they second they tell you that yes, you are that author making them feel unsafe?
Retreat to a safe distance, let them have their space, and do not invade on them again. Weigh the situation to determine if an apology would be welcome. Sometimes an apology is the right thing to do, but sometimes an apology is just another way of invading on them and making them feel obligated to respond to you when they don’t want to hear from you at all, not even in conciliation and acknowledgement. Practice good judgment and be sensitive to their needs when determining whether it’s appropriate to apologize before exiting stage left, but either way you will be fucking exiting stage left and not coming back unless invited.
If you’re a professional, you’ll care more about their safety and well-being than you do about whatever it is you want out of the interaction.
Gently distance yourself. You’re allowed to do that, and you can do it while still being a professional and not being a jerk to that person.
Look, there are boundary-crossing people in any group. It happens. Some people are just rude; some people function by a different standard and aren’t aware that by your standards they’re being invasive; some reviewers are just really young and really enthusiastic and get a little carried away in expressing their love of your books, and they don’t deserve to be slapped down harshly for that. Most of the time this isn’t actively malicious or attempting anything weird, but even if it’s not intentionally invasive you still have the right to set down boundaries if it’s making you uncomfortable.
Give polite, noncommittal, non-revealing answers to inappropriate questions. Edge around uncomfortable claims of closeness, etc. (like reviewers claiming they know you and you’re BFFs because the content of your books speaks to them). Politely detach from conversations, saying you have to go handle real life, etc. Close your DMs for a bit if you need to. Make the choice to only respond to things said in public instead of in private. (This may be a good policy to have, period, especially with younger or underage reviewers. If you are a grown-arse adult, there are very, very few reasons why you should be having private convos with underage or significantly younger reviewers.) Let email chains remain focused only on practical information, then let them trail off. If someone’s crossing your boundaries, you can make it clear what kind of communication is acceptable and professional without going off on anyone or being cruel to distance yourself from someone.
And if someone is really going too far, like sending you photos of the macaroni portrait they made of your face and hung up in the shrine where they repeat the spells that they hope will make you love them forever and be their Ultimate Writer Love Boo Boo?
Block. Just block them and walk away. Filter their emails directly to spam, cut them off on social media, completely disengage. You don’t have to confront them, especially if that makes you feel unsafe. You don’t have to say a word; you don’t owe anyone any explanations.
Just block and go.
If you were professional but firm about preserving your boundaries, if they get upset that’s not on you. Most reviewers 100% understand boundaries because they are constantly fighting to protect their own from you. The rare few who don’t? It’s going to happen, but for the most part you can manage it with a minimum of fuss. If you’re nice to someone only because you hope they’ll review your books, that’s kind of fake and shitty anyway. Professional politeness and friendliness with people you hope will review is one thing, and entirely normal. Allowing a false sense of intimacy to keep a review outlet is really, really fucking messy.
I’m going to give you a few real examples here learned from my own shitty, shitty mistakes. When I first showed up on the M/F romance scene, people went wild at the idea of another new penis in the henhouse. (We’ll talk again some day soon about the undue adulation given to male authors writing in any subset of romance.) I was rather pounced on by some reviewers who tend to collect authors like trading cards and vie with each other for the status of who’s closer to which author.
Me being new, a dork, and afraid of upsetting anyone…I tried to be everyone’s friend. I had no idea I was allowed to protect my boundaries because I was afraid of being seen as a shitty mean dude if I pushed back. I ended up forming a fast friendship with one person…but that friendship turned immensely, unhealthily codependent, eating all my spoons until I had no time for other friendships and no energy for writing — and when I was uncomfortable and asked for some space, the person would not leave me alone.
Then the gifts started showing up at my house.
The more I asked them to stop, the more expensive the gifts got, and the more uncomfortable it made me. I got freaked out and I ghosted them completely, and ended up getting pulled into this group of bloggers who watched with me as the first person started making fake accounts to get back into my street team (IP addresses are pretty damning) and trying to be friends again on Twitter on a new ID before going off on frothing tirades when I figured it out and stopped responding.
And that wasn’t the end of it, either. Because this blog group that had taken me under their wing to shelter me weren’t really much better. They were possessive, invasive, continuously prodding at trying to figure out who I really am like it was some huge conspiracy instead of a simple matter of privacy, pulling me into these immensely sexually charged conversations that made me hugely uncomfortable but that I went along with anyway because I thought I had to be accommodating. Everyone wanted me to be The Sex Dude, so I went out of character and tried to be The Sex Dude so people would like me.
I hated it. I’m still embarrassed by it. And a lot of those sexually charged convos involved racial fetishization, not to mention making me privy to someone’s infidelity like it was a cute little secret between us, just…a lot of things. I finally asked for it to stop, and said I was uncomfortable with the racial fetishization, the casually racially insensitive remarks, the flirting, the knowledge of infidelity when I knew their partner by proxy, etc. I said it had gone too far.
(You may notice a common theme in certain things considering recent events re: Riptide, and that theme is Do Not Sex At Me, I Do Not Like It. Being an author is my job. I don’t like being sexed at in my job, either by people in positions of power above me or people in positions of power below me, regardless of the subject matter I write about. Honestly this should be a good rule of thumb for everyone. Do Not Sex At Anyone, This Is A Fucking Business. I’ve heard horror stories about authors hitting on really young reviewers. Gross.)
Anyway. Back to the story.
The group of bloggers immediately launched a campaign to smear my name, saying I was a crazy person who called their ringleader a racist when she’s just an innocent victim. I’m still blacklisted at several review outlets because of this.
Yet here I am. Still here. Still writing. Still have a career. Still making a respectable bit of money with my books. Living proof that getting blacklisted by a few reviewers because you pushed back against inappropriate relationships isn’t the end of your career.
In another, wholly separate instance that was more subtle but still ended catastrophically, I let a reviewer cultivate a false sense of closeness and intimacy between us because I again didn’t want to be the mean guy. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them; we had an actual friendship, just…that friendship went further than I ever wanted it to. I let them guilt my phone number out of me; I was silent when they were horribly cruel to me both publicly and privately for years; I let them neg me into a complete lack of confidence in my books; I let them wholly shape my social media experience, when every post was written (or often deleted without posting) to avoid “How fast is _____ going to pounce on this, and how ugly will they be?”
Overall, I let them assume a place of importance in my life that I didn’t want them to have because I didn’t trust them beyond casual friendship and I didn’t want them to cross my boundaries. The discrepancy in what they expected out of our relationship and what I wanted when it came to distance (among other things) led to a massive blowup, because when things went sour between us I stopped being accommodating and drew a hard line, and retreated to the other side of it. I’m sure they’ll never review my books again, and I’m okay with that.
You may see that situation as someone being pushy with me and forcing an intimate friendship on me. And there are extenuating factors, like how emotionally manipulative and often cruel they were.
But think for a moment about how shitty it must feel for them to realize a friendship they thought was super-close and important to them was actually basically held under duress, all because I didn’t know the right way to stop being passive and draw a line in a way that didn’t feel like punching down from author to reviewer. My permissiveness created a situation that hurt both of us in different ways.
These are not “poor me, look how mean these invasive reviewers were” situations for me.
These are examples of messy, dramatic, unprofessional situations that could have been avoided if I had had the backbone to stop trying to be a people-pleaser and enforce my own boundaries. Yes, there was also some component of the pressure placed on people of color to Be Nice to White Folk Or Else no matter what said white folk do, but I still had plenty of opportunities early on to set down professional boundaries and get out. I didn’t. I was passive, I was permissive, and I was as instrumental in creating these messes with my silence as they were with their invasiveness.
As the author in these situations, I had the power regardless of racial dynamics, etc. And sometimes passive inaction abuses that power as much as action. It was my responsibility to use that power to set appropriate boundaries that protected those reviewers, and I didn’t.
A lot of authors don’t.
Learn from my mistakes, and remember the power dynamic when reviewers are getting too close for your comfort. Remember that even if they’re making you uncomfortable, you have significant power to hurt them, and it’s in both of your best interests for you to gently but firmly put boundaries in place that protect both of you.
Look. I get wanting to be liked, but this isn’t a popularity contest even if social media can make it feel that way; you’ll do much better with your career if you focus on building your marketing strategy vs. focusing on being everyone’s BFF on Twitter. While this is a business that lends itself to friendly communications and casual relationships, it is still a business. You’re allowed to treat it as one even in friendly interactions with reviewers. You’re allowed to stop trying to please everyone, and stop trying to be everyone’s friend.
You’re allowed to protect your boundaries.
If you lose review outlets because of it, that’s tough, but there are many more out there and it’s not the end of your career.
But you can’t always expect people to respect your boundaries if they don’t know where they are beyond the typical professional courtesies that should be inherent and mutually understood.
Maintaining professional relationships that respect both the author and reviewer is a two-way street.
We all have to do our part.
Okay. Is the call-out justified?
No, seriously. Did you get up in your feelings about why shouldn’t you be able to write this thing people told you you probably shouldn’t write, and wrote a hurtful book outside of your lane?
I’m not saying that to mock you. It happens. Look, some of my older stuff has some internalized shite that I didn’t do enough work to unpack despite it being #ownvoices, and critiques of that stuff are entirely valid. If someone called it out on social media, they’d be right.
It would suck. It would suck hardcore and I’d be cringing and have a ten-minute meltdown with no idea how to handle it, but I’d have that meltdown in private. I’d let my friends soothe me. I’d talk it out with them.
And then I’d publicly address the harm done like a fucking adult, thank the people who brought it to my attention, apologize to anyone I’d harmed, and unpack the issues in the book to understand them better and understand my readers better.
Before you claim those mean reviewers are bullying you, remember that you are still the content provider and still the person who has power over them; you are also someone who can marshal fans, publishers, agents, authors, and other reviewers against them. You’ve already hurt them once and by lashing back, you’re doing so again in more than one way. You’re breaking their hearts over an author they might have really loved treating them like dirt, and in refusing to acknowledge the harm done or even scorning it, you’re digging the initial wound even deeper.
Now, is it possible that someone might call out your book just to be a spiteful shite and hurt your sales, when there’s no real reason to do so? Sure. But honestly that doesn’t happen very often, and before you claim it is happening you might want to really stop and self-examine your book, your privilege, and yourself.
But that reviewer has more followers than I do! They’re totally bullying me! They’re the ones punching down!
No. They’re doing their jobs, and you still don’t understand power imbalances.
If that same reviewer with more followers said something positive about your book, you’d be glowing. You can’t expect reviewers to be dishonest about a book because of the breadth of their following versus yours; it’s a double standard that involves unequal treatment of authors based on flawed criteria. Some bestselling authors with monumental sales barely have 300 Twitter followers. Some authors with abysmal sales have 250,000 Twitter followers. Some bloggers whose reviews reach millions on BlogSpot and GoodReads may only have 150 friends on FB or Twitter — and some with thousands of followers don’t have much influence and reach among readers and reviewers, whether because they’re engaged across a broader spectrum on a personal account, or for any number of other reasons. Followers =/= influence, attention, or traction.
The point is, it just doesn’t matter when determining power between author and reviewer, or when dictating how reviewers are allowed to rec, rate, and review. It’s a non-issue. A straw man.
And it detracts from the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is that a reviewer’s job is to review honestly and as they see fit without interference from the author or the author’s associates — not to only post glowing praise. Those reviews will be analytical, will be driven by their feelings and life experiences, will discuss what worked for them and what didn’t. Those reviews can attract new readers, or they can ward away people who might have been harmed by content in the book.
Those reviewers are doing you a favor.
Let’s take this example. I? Am freaked out by exhibitionism. Honestly that’s none of y’all’s goddamn business, but we’re talking about triggers and real examples work better than weird hypotheticals. I’m totally unbothered by things that would make you recoil with your skin crawling, but exhibitionism is a hard fucking no for me. I will vom; it’s a hard-coded trauma trigger I can’t really control no matter if somehow there’s some lovely message buried in the book. No “lovely message” will stop me from feeling wrong in my own skin for days. I prefer to avoid that. So if there’s a book coming out with exhibitionism, it could be by an author I adore above all others and it would still end up on my nope shelf so fast the pages would singe.
In an ideal situation, the author would have included a content warning so I’d know from page one, not read the book, shelve it nope so I wouldn’t accidentally stumble on it later and forget why I’d skipped it, and move on with my life. In a non-ideal situation, no content warning. If I’m lucky a reviewer I read has read the book and mentioned the exhibitionism, so I still know to skip it. If I’m not lucky I pick up the book, dive in, and ten or thirty or two hundred pages in suddenly I’m sick and trying not to short-circuit my Kindle with stomach acid. Not only do I have to put the book down, but now I have to write a DNF review to warn anyone else who might face the same issues.
If I’m the first DNF reviewer, well, then I’m doing you a favor. I’m saving you from a ton of other reviews from people with the same trigger who would stumble across it, have the same reaction, and leave another DNF review — possibly one with poor star ratings, vs. the no-star non-rating I would leave.
The point is, one bad review can save you from dozens of other bad reviews.
Believe it or not, reviewers are not these evil harpies waiting to jump on a book and downrate it just because their friends downrated it. People don’t want to read books that aren’t right for them. You don’t want people who aren’t your audience reading books and leaving bad reviews. If you’re just getting a smattering of bad reviews, be grateful for them. Not only are they lending you authenticity — nothing but glowing reviews looks fake — but they’re warding off more people who would inevitably give you a bad review as well and bring down your average. They’re not somehow turning off people who would love the book if those dirty reviewers just hadn’t opened their mouths.
That’s really not how this works.
You are not going to somehow magically convince someone who doesn’t enjoy reading the subject matter of your book that yours is the one that will change their mind, as long as you find a way to force the book on them or trick them into reading it. To think so is just plain hubris.
Let readers make their own choices.
They know better than you do what they want, what they like, what hurts them, and what doesn’t.
And as far as power imbalances?
Yes, it is possible for reviewers to slam down on authors from a position of power — when it comes to race, sexuality, gender, gender identity, ability/disability, etc. If a cis reviewer is panning a trans book for being trans then that is punching down from the reviewer to the author. If a white reviewer is panning a POC book for being POC then that is punching down from the reviewer to the author.
Yet if a reviewer pans a book for being harmful (particularly to their personal marginalization) or just not being for them and the sole reason you think it’s punching down is because the reviewer has a larger audience than you?
In author/reviewer interactions, it’s almost always authors who have the power. Saying otherwise is like saying a man’s male privilege doesn’t exist just because the woman who called him on that privilege has more Twitter followers.
Not only do authors generally have fans who will attack the reviewer, but the author often has community cachet, other authors they can call on, and publisher backing. The potential for authors to activate a pile-on is much, much larger than the potential for reviewers to activate a pile-on, no matter how many followers that reviewer has. Authors can get reviewers blacklisted with publishers, as the recent SH debacle showed. Also, if reviewers love your books, they can be terrified that one wrong whisper means you’ll never give them ARCs again and you may badmouth them to other authors they love.
The worst thing a reviewer can do to you is write a bad review and dare to post it publicly. You can do far, far worse to them — and it’s particularly shitty of you to do so as retaliation for them either having a dissenting opinion or pointing out the harm your book can do.
Google “Julie Lonewolf” if you don’t believe the harm you can do.
The fact that I need to include a trigger warning for suicide on that suggestion should tell you everything.
Negative publicity is not going to sink your book unless your book is seriously, actively harmful, and even then there are people who will read it anyway, either because they don’t care about the harm to people outside their demographic or they’re just trolls who like to watch everything burn. Like I said before…if negative reviews are warning people away from reading based on a certain issue, they’re saving you from more bad reviews had those people decided to read and been caught off guard.
And if the negative reviews are a matter of personal preference, then get over it. They happen to everyone. Sometimes those negative reviews will even pique sales, because what’s bad to one person may be intriguing to another; it’s still exposure. Fuck, some pretty prominent review blogs have panned a couple of my books, and I just shrugged, griped to a friend, and moved on. That’s how this industry works.
By getting up in your feelings with reviewers over negative reviews, not only are you affecting your own reputation and losing review outlets, you’re forgetting one very important thing.
Reviewers often look up to authors.
I’m not saying this as if authors are exalted beings, but here’s the thing: reviewers love to read. They love finding new books to fall in love with, and finding authors who consistently deliver what they adore reading. They don’t enjoy downrating authors they love. They often do so with sadness and a heavy heart; even if you’re new to them, they picked up your book thinking it was something they might love and if they didn’t, it aches. These things are coming from a place of love. They’re looking to you to provide content that they can have deep, lasting, wonderful feelings about. When that content doesn’t deliver those feelings, that magic, it’s a disappointment — but not yet a major blow.
That major blow comes when this author they gave a fair chance to decides to attack them for being honest with their feelings, and suddenly someone they might have looked up to and might have given another shot with a different book is punching down at them.
That is a massive responsibility to be aware of in your interactions with reviewers.
Learn a little humility.
Gain a little distance.
And practice a little kindness.
And? They don’t have to read the book.
I’m serious. They don’t have to. That’s what blurbs and excerpts are for: to let people decide if they want to read a book or not. If you’re upset that the blurb is turning reviewers off, don’t take it out on reviewers. Talk to your publisher, if you think the blurb is misrepresenting the book and giving readers the wrong idea. If you are the publisher, come up with a better one that more accurately depicts what the book is about.
Or if the blurb is accurate and people are still upset, ask yourself why. If the excerpt or cover upsets them further, ask. Yourself. Why. If a lot of people are trying to tell you that what they read/saw hurt them deeply enough that they’re not coming back for more, that’s not them just not getting the book because they didn’t read the entire thing. That’s them reading the warning signs for what they are and backing away.
And what may be a warning sign for them might not be for someone else. Your book will never be universally loved, but it’s also extremely unlikely to be universally hated. People will have different reasons for not reading the book, and their reasons are not somehow sabotaging your book. Your book has as fair a chance as anyone else’s (taken objectively and out of market conditions affecting marginalized demographics, but that’s another issue regarding how well your publisher is handling market challenges that can and have been successfully overcome to blockbuster effect as publishers come to understand the value in diverse audiences). Some will love it, some will hate it, some will be ambivalent. You have to get over that.
If someone calls you out for bad rep, though, listen. A lot of these people are speaking from their lived experiences. If it’s not your lived experience, you have to be ready to accept that you got it wrong, and if you’re writing multiple marginalizations then getting one marginalization right is not your defense against getting another one wrong. Nor are people “silencing” a book about Marginalization X or an author from Marginalization X if their issues are with the portrayal of Marginalization Y. If you’re a queer man who writes a book that’s spot on with queer male rep but deeply misogynistic, for example, the people decrying the misogyny aren’t homophobes. Not how this works.
If it is your lived experience, you have to be ready to accept that others from your marginalization are no more a monolith than you are, and your feelings and theirs are equally valid.
And if it’s just a matter of the subject matter not being right for some people but a content warning would have saved them from that, ask yourself why the fuck you couldn’t include such a simple one-page courtesy. If you won’t do it for the sake of your readers, do it for the sake of yourself so your book’s release doesn’t turn into a shite avalanche. Sometimes a content warning is seriously all people need to say “oh, okay, not for me, but the rest of you can enjoy.” It’ll save you a lot of trouble.
If your book is hurting people, you’re better off owning it, discussing it, and apologizing before taking a look at the nuances of the issue…than you are jumping to the defensive and telling people they just don’t understand their own life experiences enough to choose whether or not to read a book that has already harmed them just through exposure to part of its content.
What you’re asking them to do is pay a toll in pain and suffering, the cost of satisfying your need to feel validated, before you’ll give them permission to walk away without retaliation.
Don’t do that.
Don’t be that arsehole.
And don’t be that arsehole who treats readers as if they were too ignorant to know what they wanted before you came along to show them.
Ask them to stop embarrassing you, then, because they’re making you look really, really bad. Their actions are getting you labeled as an ABB.
Your friends are getting you — and themselves — blacklisted for attacking reviewers and being entitled jerks amassing a squad to go after reviewers. What amazes me is that this happens again and again and again. Everyone’s willing to talk about problematic books as long as it’s not their friend’s book. When it’s their friend’s book suddenly it’s all defenses up, no, you don’t understand, all those other books about ______ are bad but this one is good because it’s my precious friend, my precious friend could never hurt you, my precious friend would never do that!
How about you, precious friend, hitch up your britches and handle things yourself by directly addressing the issues in a polite, respectful, and empathetic fashion? Your friends are basically enabling you to hide from culpability while also bullying reviewers and heightening tensions in this community, when things are already tense enough. Set a better example.
And hold your friends to a higher standard.
Tell them it’s okay to be honest with you when you’ve fucked up, as long as they’ll help hold you up while you square your shoulders, buck up, and own it. I’m not asking your friends to denounce you as terrible. I’m asking them to give you the emotional support you need to do the right thing, instead of hurting more people to protect yourself.
Ask them to stop, too.
(I like that word.)
Say “Oh my god, y’all. I love you so much for your support, and I love that you’re willing to defend me, but really, it’s okay. Every book gets its bad reviews and I’m okay with that. I’m not upset. I don’t want to be the cause of in-fighting between readers and reviewers. I love that you care so much, but this isn’t who we want to be. Let’s respect each other’s spaces and each other’s views.”
Not everyone will listen to you. You can’t control what other people do, especially if you have a large fan base. Getting angry at your fans won’t help — they love you and they’re here to support you, and won’t take it well if you lash out at them for that because their overenthusiasm might affect your reputation. Show them love, but also ask them to join you in practicing kindness toward differing opinions.
That’s all you can do. Some will listen, some won’t, but at least by saying something you’ve shown you don’t condone reviewer bullying and you’d like to promote fairness in the community.* With luck, your readers will respect you enough to want to follow that example.
*all bets are off in the case of –ist/phobic trolls targeting you for your marginalization; if your fans want to rip them to shreds to save you the emotional labor and exhaustion, have at it. Just don’t forget to report the trolling –ist/phobic accounts, and remind people to guard their spoons as engaging with trolls is painful and draining.
Wouldn’t it be better for me to go silent and wait for it to blow over, rather than risking saying something?
No. Oh god no. No.
It might be tempting, but it’s not better.
When readers bring things to your attention in a public space, everyone is watching to see how you respond. People want you to acknowledge the harm you caused; more, they want a reason to keep believing in you when their faith has been so completely shaken by something hurtful. A non-response seems like you’re more interested in protecting yourself — and the longer you go without responding as demands for some kind of statement increase, the more that silence seems like contempt.
This was immensely evident during the SH debacle re: co-authors and friends. Dead silence left people hurt, upset, betrayed, and when statements finally came they were viewed as inadequate, treated with skepticism, because in the period of that increasing and damning silence any tenuous good faith left was eroded.
If you don’t want to speak hastily and risk hurting people further, you can say “I’m listening. I’m going through everything you’re saying and I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. I just need a little more time to read everyone’s thoughts and process this so I can better understand. Your concerns are valid, and I just need to work through the best next steps to take. Thank you for being brave enough to speak.”
Just, you know, actually mean that. Don’t say it just to buy time.
Though it does buy you some time, so you can craft a well-thought-out, non-defensive, non-blame-shifting statement that shows respect to the people who spoke up and the people your book may have hurt. You don’t want to speak off the cuff in a moment of panic and say something regrettable, but you don’t want to ignore people, either. If you acknowledge people and try to be thoughtful about it, they’ll understand that you need more time to process the situation.
Just don’t forget that the most important words in any such statement are “I’m sorry.”
So…what? I just have to treat reviewers like human beings, respect their space, and remember that sometimes my presence as an author is as overwhelming as a fucking hammer to the face?
Look, it seems like we go through this cycle every week. A reviewer points out an issue in a book, and suddenly some sector of Booklandia is at war. Sometimes it stays confined to its particular circle — M/M, litfic, YA, etc. — and sometimes it just explodes everywhere. Sometimes the explosion happens because authors’ fans pile on that reviewer. More often, that explosion happens because the author goes on the defensive, shuts down any criticism, doubles down on their privilege, and goes wading in where they don’t belong to attack people who don’t deserve it, often charging right out of their lane to do so.
We keep dragging through this mess, when we don’t have to.
Are reviewers perfect? No. No one is. But if you respect their space, they’ll generally respect yours — and that’s a good place to start for the bare minimum before we look at improving deeply strained community relations.
But going on the defensive and lashing out never helps anyone.
Going on the defensive is a matter of entitlement, and it’s insulting to anyone harmed by a book. It’s insulting to the time and energy reviewers often put into books, frequently for no pay or pennies in affiliate income. These people are giving you free labor that drives consumers to put money in your pocket, and it’s pure ego if you think the joy they get out of reading one of your exalted books is enough to give you the right to attack them, or to expect anything from them other than whatever fair and honest review they choose to give for the time they invest. And if you think their review is unfair?
You don’t get to judge that. You don’t get to tell them their thoughts and feelings are invalid just because it stings that they didn’t love your book enough.
Drop the ego.
No one owes you anything.
Let reviewers review, and go back to your blank page and write something goddamned beautiful, something powerful, something amazing.
Something worth reviewing.