Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A sensitive writer writes...

...on the subject of critics and reviewers, in particular online reviewers. This is a difficult subject, particularly in light of recent events, so I have to pick my words carefully...

In the 'old days' i.e. pre-internet, book reviews were generally undertaken by freelancers and professionals. The opinion of the general public went largely unheard, except in terms of book sales: if a book was a smash hit bestseller, then people must have liked it.

At least I assume that's how it worked. I'm still relatively young - 34 - and have no clue how the world worked prior to about 1997. I'm just hoping that I can type this stuff and get away with it.

We live in a different era now. Anyone with access to the internet can post a book review on Amazon and other online vendors. By and large, I think this is a good thing. However, we writers are a delicate bunch, and nothing is guaranteed to cause us exquisite emotional pain than being on the wrong end of a bad review.

Until recently I had been lucky. The reviews of my stuff on Amazon and Goodreads had been generally positive, with a few hiccups - one critic pointed out the inclusion of a field of potatoes in my novel set in the fourteenth century, which caused much private alarm and hasty last-minute editing by my publishers.

Occasional historical mistakes aside, I felt safe and smug in the warm glow of positive critical opinion, and assumed that the conveyer belt of four and five-star reviews would keep on rolling forever.

I think you can guess what happened next. One and two-star reviews started to appear, often coupled with remarks that an over-sensitive chick like me was bound to find hurtful. They weren't designed to be, of course. Several comments referred to the sloppy editing of one of my self-published books. This was perfectly true, entirely unacceptable and entirely my fault. I am now in the process of re-editing and revising the book in question.

One reviewer claimed that I had portrayed a historical character as a 'prancing buffoon'. It was not my intention to do so, and I so I responded - politely - and offered a free book to the reviewer as compensation for her disappointment. This was probably the wrong thing to do. Some wise person said recently that book reviews are not for authors, and it is bad form for authors to respond to them.

But here's the thing - justified or not, the negative reviews hurt. They really hurt, and when someone is hurt their instinctive reaction is to lash out. This is precisely what has happened recently, with certain authors setting up sinister self-help groups, the primary aim of which is to hunt down and harass those who dare to leave negative reviews of their books on Amazon.

I can understand the impulse that has led to the creation of such groups, but what they are doing is wrong. It encourages the idea that reviewers are 'out to get' authors, and leads to an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust. In short, making cyberspace an even more awful place than it is already.

Groups like these make authors look like a malicious bunch who are incapable of responding to criticism in an adult manner. The only decent way to respond to a bad review is to suck it up, take a deep breath, get up from the computer and walk in circles for a bit, perhaps kick the walls and down a stiff brandy or six...but in no circumstances start a hate war on the internet.

Readers might notice I name no names. Cowardly, I daresay, but I don't want to be dragged into the morass. At some point everybody concerned will have to start talking to each other in a reasonable, civilised fashion again.



  1. I feel your pain David. The best thing to do in response to criticism- even the justified ones, is to take a deep breath, work frantically behind the scenes and continue to put out your best possible work. Thank you for writing about this so openly and honestly.
    There was a world before 1997? Don't believe you.

  2. An excellent blog post David. Negative criticism is hard to take especially if you cannot see any justification for it. Every review is just one persons opinion, a very low percentage of readers will take the time to leave a review and a low percentage of readers actually read the reviews as a means to deciding whether to buy the book or not. Readers are more likely to glance at the overall star-rating of your book. A small percentage of poor reviews will not hurt your sales especially if you already have other books out there for sale. If it was your only book on sale and your average rating was sliding lower and lower, then I would begin to worry.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Amy and Adele - I agree entirely with your comments!

  4. Nice blog. I would agree that this is a pretty new issue. In the pre-internet days, authors did get private letters from happy or disgruntled fans, and sometimes had to deal with nasty, inane, or even creepy, stalkerish letters. But at least it wasn't out there for everyone to see. There were occasional hecklers at events too, but I would assume that the people putting on the various cons would be pretty prompt about showing the ones that were over the line the door.

    There are some "bad" reviews that are so nasty and specious that they are not even remotely useful to other readers, let alone the authors themselves. It is indeed tempting to take the trolls on, but probably classier to ignore them unless they clearly are in violation of site guidelines for where the reviews are posted. I will say, that if I am poring over reviews, and I see the ones that are clearly useless and stupid, I report them (if there's a means to do so), and certainly don't take them seriously when I'm trying to decide whether I want to read a book.

    1. Thanks for saying nice things about the blog! As I said, I had to choose my words carefully. There are some dubious characters about, and one of the pitfalls of the internet is that it can be used for the wrong reasons...

  5. A book has to be very good or very very bad for me to leave a review on Amazon. I always try to say why I thought it good/bad and try to be positive and fair. If a book has a great plot but a poor standard of English (my pet hate) I say so in the hope that the author will do something about it which will surely enhance his sales etc. Anything malicious or needlessly hurtful is counter-productive and I can only assume the people who leave such reviews are overly enamoured of their own opinions.
    I make good reviews as a thank you to the author and in the hope that there will be more of the same to come.
    I would endorse what everyone else has said regarding the occasional bad review..you can't please all of the people...etc.
    I imagine that each book is like your 'child' and any criticism can hurt badly. I can only advise that, when you get a bad review, go back and read the good ones. Keep writing David and my best wishes to you.

    Sue Birch (member of Black on White)

  6. Dear David, perhaps I should reconsider writing my historical novel? I'm sure- if I were lucky enough and had it published- I couldn't cope with the nasty criticism you've mentioned. It would kill me, that's for certes. On the other hand, I'm pretty certain I would not be able to resist reading the Internet stuff :-) Still, thank you for raising the subject. The whole thing has become a kind of phenomenon in today's literary world and there should be more such discussions as the one here, on your blog.

    1. Hi Kasia, I wouldn't discourage you from writing and publishing your novel - writers just have to develop a thick skin, that's all! As does anyone who tries to market their creative output, I suppose. It's a cold world.