Monday, January 6, 2014

Editor's Notes #3: Don't Take it Personally

When I read a book, I read it because I hope to enjoy it. I have no preconceived notions about the author, because in 99% of my reading, I don't know the author. Even if the writer is a familiar name, I rarely know about his or her personal life. The author doesn't know me, either. 

When I leave a 4- or 5-star review, does the author send me flowers? No. Chocolate? No. A colorful handmade card? No.

Why? Because the author doesn't know me. My review is simply one more affirmation that a book has been written well, with good editing and an interesting story. My review tells others that, in my opinion, they might also enjoy that same book.

But what if I leave a 1-star review? Does the author send me a condolence card? No. Does he or she promise to do better next time? No. And no, still no chocolates . . . not even to make me feel better about having wasted my time and money on the book.

Why no chocolates? Why no wooing with wine or aged Scotch?

I'll tell you why: because the author doesn't know me. 

Let's recap for a moment. 
  • I don't know the author, so I don't assume a decently written book was penned with me, specifically, in mind. 
  • I don't know the author, so I don't take offense if a book is written poorly, because I don't think it was written that way to spite me.
  • The author doesn't know me, so she doesn't assume I've given a good review because she's pretty, or because we support the same charity, or because I am flattering her into watching my chickens for me while I take a weekend trip.
  • The author doesn't know me, so he doesn't take offense if I give his book a bad review because—
Oh, wait. The author did take offense. 

Good review = my book is spectacular.
Bad review = the reviewer is an idiot.

Sadly, this seems to be a disturbing trend among many self-published authors. Without doing a lick of in-depth research or fabricating a few statistics, I will hazard a guess that most, if not all, writers who jump in and bash reviewers are newer authors. Certainly they're emotionally immature, but I'm going to assume they are immature writers, a.k.a. new to the business of publishing. Perhaps no one has told them their behavior is likely to cost them the very people they're trying to attract.

Once again, I found myself on a Goodreads thread which addressed the very topic of this post, after I'd already chosen my subject. The group was talking about feeling guilty when they don't finish a book, and whether to leave a review or not, depending on whether the "did not finish" status was due to personal taste or a badly-written book. As you can imagine, this brought on several differences in opinion—and along with it, a perfect example for my post.

We begin with author "A" who stated that as a writer, she prefers an honest review, although as a reader, she hesitates to leave an unfavorable review because if someone gets hurt feelings, they may retaliate and slam her work.

Then we have author "B" who was quick to reply that a book review isn't even needed in all cases; simply stating a strong opinion on one of the boards was enough to get his own books slammed with one-star ratings by people who had never read them. 

B's comment, in turn, opened the door for author "C" to tell about a very recent book review in which she gave a two-star rating and was verbally attacked by the book's author ("X") on Goodreads and other places across the internet. 

[I feel I should note here that I don't know any of these authors personally, so my post is based on reading the original review and author's reply, with no previous bias.]

In C's opinion, the book was actually deserving of a one-star rating, but she tried to be diplomatic and kind, because it was obvious to her that a lot of work had been put into the book. However, it had a lot of problems with it, and C outlined those problems in her review, apologizing more than once as she clarified exactly what was wrong. Author X replied with a tantrum worthy of any three-year-old. When I read her toxic post, I was stunned at how vicious and personal it was. 

She started off by telling author C that her review should not have even been "allowed," citing the fact that C admitted to not finishing the book. X felt that C could not possibly have understood the book at all after reading "only a quarter of it"—a statement which was confusing in itself because C's review mentioned quitting at the 60% mark. X then went into a lengthy explanation about her book, her ideas, her characters, her personal beliefs, and life as we know it in her universe. Her attack  response was so "out there" and rambling that it made her look like and sound a crazed child. Yes, child. Not because of her beliefs, but because the whole thing reeked of, "I know you are, but what am I?" and "You're stupid," "No, you're stupid," "Your face is stupid." Picture that . . . one-sided only.

I can't go into specifics about her rant, because it would be too easy to trace the details back to her profile, and I'm relatively sure my own opinions on her tantrum would be written off to a disagreement of lifestyles and eating habits, whether I like dogs more than cats, or whether I think Gregorian chants are the only "pure" music out there. Yes, those things would be about as relevant as the rest of her argument.

Author X will probably never learn that not everyone who disagrees with her is evil, or even wrong. Not everyone who doesn't like her book—and there are guaranteed to be many, as with any author and any book—is a moron who "doesn't get it."

I told another author friend of mine about the whole tantrum, sending her a link so she could read it for herself, and she was (predictably) stunned by X's behavior but made an astute observation about X's 1075-word essay reply:
If she had written the book properly to begin with, she wouldn't have had to explain so much in her rebuttal to the other person's review.
Author C's review was not personal. Had she given a four- or five-star review, I highly doubt that X would have attacked her for showing favoritism. Would she have scuffed her shoe on the ground and said, "Aw, shucks, I know you're only saying that because we both love garden gnomes"? Not a chance. She would have assumed she earned the stars because her book was good. So why is it that a bad review gets blamed on the reader/reviewer rather than the writer?

I followed a link today to a blog post with an open letter to indie authors. There's some harsh language in it, but the post is chock-full of good advice about how to behave yourself and act like a professional in all areas of your writing & publishing. It covers a lot of ground, and I encourage you to read it from top to bottom, but there is one section that specifically deals with bad reviews and how to deal with them. The title (paraphrased) is basically, "Not everyone will like your book. Down a shot. Accept it. Move on."

This same advice goes for authors when working with an editor. An editor doesn't have to "like" your book to edit it. I think it helps, because it makes the work more enjoyable. And so far, I've enjoyed the writing of each person I've worked with. But each time the red pen comes out and I say, "This could be changed up a bit," I'm not secretly thinking, "You're so stupid. I hate you. I hate every word you've written." 

It's my job to tell an author when something needs strengthened, removed, or spelled correctly. It's not an emotionally charged moment for me to use the Red Pen of Doom. It's just the tool I use for my job. If I hire someone to clean my house, I'm not going to accuse her of calling me a slob because she mopped. I hired that person. She did her job. Even if I didn't realize it, my floor was dirty and in need of a good mopping. What does that mean? means my floor had dirt on it. It doesn't mean I'm evil. It doesn't mean she thinks I'm evil.

Similarly, if an editor is hired, it's that person's job to know more about editing than a writer knows. If a cover artist is hired, it's his job to know more about drawing and colors than a writer knows. If a live band is hired, they should play better music than Uncle Fritz, who's had six months of tuba lessons. It's nothing personal. 

If you, as a writer, put your work out there (whether pre-publication or as a finished work), it's open to praise or criticism. Sometimes both can go hand in hand. Sometimes the scale tips to one side or the other. If you're prepared to accept praise, you should be equally prepared to accept criticism. Unless the review clearly states, "I would have given a good rating, except this book was written by my daughter, and she never finished cleaning her room when I told her to, so I'm withholding my love until that time," then you should assume the reviewer has something valid to say. 

As an editor, I occasionally turn to my own editing guru—my personal Obi-Wan—for advice when I'm stuck. She's always kind, but doesn't compromise what she has to say when I've done something incorrectly. The door to her email inbox is always open if I need the answer to a tough or obscure question, and I've sent her passages of my work to critique, knowing she'll never give me a trophy just for working hard. Her evaluation has nothing to do with Lynda, the person, or even Lynda, the editor. It only deals with the WORK of Lynda, the editor.

Rather than taking the critique personally, I've used it as a means to become a better editor. Obi-Wan's uncompromising honesty has earned my respect, and a friendship has grown as a result.

Writers, it's no different for you when a reviewer points out errors or inconsistencies in your work. Your WORK, not your SELF. Read the review, grit your teeth, swear under your breath, draw a stick figure of the reviewer and scribble a mustache on it. Whatever it takes to get the knee-jerk reaction out of your system. Then walk away from it, give it some time, and come back to it later to see if it has any value. More often than not, it will.

Whatever you do, don't take it personally. It's not about you. Really.


  1. This is the sad, sad truth.
    No one sends us praises or chocolates or other goodies for leaving a fantastic review, so why should we be attacked if we leave an honest one that the author doesn't agree with? That author's reaction and behavior is completely unprofessional. As a reader, if I see an author attacking a reviewer, I will definitely not read any of her work.

    Taking it personal, I suppose its difficult not to—even if the author knows better, but vent to your friends and keep it out of the public's eye. I mean, this does seem quite accurate after all: ***Good review = my book is spectacular...Bad review = the reviewer is an idiot.*** Hahaha, gotta love it!

    It really isn't personal (unless an immature person is retaliating like author A pointed out) so it's best to keep your head high, read, and learn from it.

    1. It *is* sad, because that author (and others like her) will learn the hard way that the internet has a long, long memory. People always remember a tantrum-thrower.

      Getting angry or frustrated is a valid thing, but throwing a fit in public? Bad form, especially for someone whose business relies on that same public for his or her bread and butter.

  2. All feedback is a chance to grow as an artist, take it. If something bugs you, or you feel like it was unwarranted, go find a friend talk crap for a bit and move on. Our public image as authors and especially as SP authors, is very important. The problem is people assume they can change someone's mind or maybe the minds of people reading the review. What actually happens is you make yourself look like a unreasonable person, lacking in basic social skills.

    1. One thing I know is this: nobody has ever changed ANYONE's mind in an internet argument. I guess basic social skills aren't so basic for some people.


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