Fans are the lifeblood of a writer’s career. We need them to buy our books, to tell their friends how much they enjoy our work and to basically act as our mobile PR attack force. But there can be a downside to some fans as well. I’m not talking about those who stalk their favorite writer or actor or artist. I’m talking about those who take it upon themselves to become the enforcers for the author, going on the attack any time they think someone has slighted the author in question.
Just as fans are the lifeblood of a writer’s career, reviews are as well. Reviews are also the bane of our lives. To say we have a love-hate relationship with them is to put it mildly. A good review is like a pat on the back. It tells us we’ve done what we set out to do. We created a book or story that pulled the reviewer in and made them care about what happened next. A bad review is like a blow. It is like telling new parents that their baby is ugly. No one wants to hear that.
Add a rabid fan together with a bad review and you have the makings for a perfect storm. I watched the beginnings of the storm clouds as they gathered yesterday. A friend had posted a review that, to be honest, wasn’t really bad. In fact, it was a very constructive review. It told what she had problems with in the book and why. There was no attacking the author and the reviewer even went so far as to say she’d enjoyed the earlier books written by the author. Okay, so it wasn’t a glowing review. But it was honest and the reviewer added that just because the book didn’t work for her, it might for someone else.
Enter the rabid fans. Instead of posting their own reviews of the book in question, they decided to comment in the response to the original review. Suddenly, the review was being down-voted. When the reviewer responded to their criticism, one of them continued the debate. Finally, after someone else entered the “discussion”, wondering if the fan was actually a sock-puppet, the person commenting admitted that she had not read the book in question but was attacking the review out of a sense of loyalty to the author.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been known to grouse to what we jokingly call The Coven when I receive a bad review. The Coven — Sarah, Cedar and Kate — will listen, tell me to quit reading my reviews and just write. There have even been times when I’ve answered the call by author friends to leave a review of their work when I have time. Sometimes these calls have come after there has been a negative review. But never have I felt the need to attack another person’s review because they didn’t absolutely adore a book by an author I happen to like.
There are several problems inherent with this sort of behavior. The first is simple. If readers feel like they might be attacked for putting up a review that doesn’t meet someone’s arbitrary definition of what is acceptable, they will quit leaving reviews. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do look at the number of reviews a book has, whether the reviews are heavily weighted to the 5-star or 1-star level and what the overall rating is.
For me, as a reader, if I see a book with nothing but 5-star ratings, especially if there aren’t all that many reviews, I wonder if the reviews were left by friends and family of the author. After you get more than a couple of reviews, chances are you’re going to get at least a 3 or 4-star review. Why? Because not everyone is going to think your prose is classic-worthy. If the book has nothing but low ratings, I will look at the preview because I have to wonder if the low ratings are because of price or topic or for some reason other the quality. But that’s just me.
I am also suspicious if the only (or the majority of) reviews I see are those listed in the product description. Almost always, those reviews are ones the author or publisher have paid for. Call me cynical, but unless a book totally sucks, a paid review isn’t going to give it a basement level review. Add in another level of cynicism if the only customer reviews are 5-star.
But, as an author, there’s another concern I have when I see fans going after reviews like I did today. That sort of behavior reflects badly on me, as the author. There are going to be those who will wonder if I at the very least “suggested” that my fans go attack the reviewer who dared give anything but a glowing review. Frankly, the last thing I want to do is make potential customers — and reviewers — think twice about buying my books.
If you just have to respond to a review, at least have the guts to do it yourself, as the author. Personally, I don’t see any reason why you would. There is nothing to be served by telling a reviewer that you don’t agree with what they said or, worse, that you don’t appreciate the fact they didn’t give a glowing review. It will only leave a bad taste in the reviewer’s mouth and will make them think long and hard before ever buying, much less reviewing, anything by you again.
That said, if you do respond, stay classy. As my grandma used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” An example of what I mean can be found here. The review was pretty specific about what the reader found wrong with the novel. The author, instead of going on the attack, thanked the reviewer for taking the time to leave the review. Over a series of posts, they discussed calmly and reasonably what the various concerns were and, in the end, the author actually convinced the reviewer to consider trying another book in the series. (Note, the author even pointed out that if the reviewer had purchased the book less than seven days previously, he could get a refund.) In other words, he stayed a class act and scored points as a result.
Another example — and unfortunately I can’t share specifics with you because I haven’t been given permission to — is from another reviewer I happen to know. They’d given a book a poor review because the set up simply didn’t work based on the reviewer’s personal experience. A very worried editor contacted the reviewer. The editor laid out their concerns about what was said, never once asking the reviewer to amend or take down what they’d said. The editor’s concern was for her author, who was reacting badly to the review. All the editor was trying to do was make sure she understood what the reviewer’s concerns had been so she could then explain them to the author and, hopefully, help the author avoid them in the future. In this case, the editor did several things right. She acted as a buffer between her author and the reviewer. She didn’t make demands or carry on in public about how bad the review had been nor did she send the “troops” out to downgrade the review. Most of all, she was doing her best to protect not only her author’s feelings but her career by making sure she understood why the reviewer had concerns so she could judge whether they were valid and, if so, help the writer avoid those problems in the future.
Indie or “pro”, writing is your profession. That means you have to act like a pro. Part of that is keeping an eye on what your fans are doing in your name. If fans who are part of your inner circle are going around making life miserable for folks who paid for your books but who didn’t love what your wrote, you need to rein them in. If they aren’t part of your inner circle and are going around saying they are acting in your name, you sure as hell need to contact them and tell them to cease and desist. The last thing you need is to be fighting battles they started, battles you may not be prepared for.
An example of what can go wrong happened to our very own Sarah. She had a “fan” running around telling people, including her agent and editor, that they were collaborating on a project. It took Sarah some time to clean up that particular mess. It was compounded by the fact this person was also representing herself on social media as Sarah’s right hand and enforcer, calling out folks when they said or wrote things she didn’t think Sarah would approve of. Even though she wasn’t a moderator, she actually tried doing this in Sarah’s forum. So you have to keep an eye out and an ear open or you may find yourself with a mess you can’t easily clean up.
Fortunately, those sorts of fans are the exception and not the rule. But lately it seems like I’ve seen more and more of them on social media as well as on Amazon and similar sites. It’s great as an author to have fans who really do love your work. But it isn’t good when their “love” works against you by running others off or by scaring away potential readers and future fans.
So, just as employers and administrators of volunteer opportunities have to be aware of what their people are doing, authors need to keep an eye out as well. Readers are our customers. Reviewers help get the word out. Anything that might run readers off needs to be stopped sooner, rather than later.
I guess it basically comes down to this. As writers we need to grow up, grow a set and realize that not everyone is going to love what we write. If we can’t accept that, then we either need to stop reading our reviews or we need to stop publishing. We can’t throw ourselves on the metaphorical floor and pitch a fit every time someone says our baby is ugly. Or, if we do, at least we should have enough sense to do it in the privacy of our homes and not where anyone can take it as carte blanche to go out and “protect” our reputation against the evil infidels.