What Should Authors Do With Reader Reviews?

There’s a lot of debate among authors about how much you should read your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (although there’s a definite consensus that you shouldn’t respond to reviews).  Some authors say they never read their reviews and I can understand that.  It can drive you crazy if you feel like you have to satisfy every reader.  There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like your work.

At the other extreme, I have a friend (who writes in a different genre from me) who I think must have read every review ever written about her book.  She’s looked up other reviews of the people who gave her one star so she knows what other things they don’t like.  While I can totally understand that impulse (wouldn’t you want to discredit or at least discount someone who didn’t like your work?), I don’t think it’s a good idea to get that worried about reviews.  Like I said, someone will always dislike your work.  Does it matter who they are?  Plus, I simply don’t have that kind of time.  I’d rather be writing my next book.

That said, I’m not in the camp that says you should completely ignore reviews.  They are particularly useful when there is a consensus of opinion. In the reviews of my last book, a couple of comments cropped up in a number of reviews and I thought they had merit.  It’s not as if any book is perfect or any writer can’t improve his or her craft.  One of the ways you get better is to get feedback.  And readers are a great source of feedback.

I come from a playwriting background, which is pretty unusual in this business.  When you write plays, you have staged readings where you invite an audience to a reading of the play (in which the actors read from the script rather than have it memorized) and then ask for their feedback afterward.  Getting that feedback is very valuable.  It tells you when the pacing of the play is dragging, when you’re confusing the audience, or if they find a character unsympathetic.  Of course, you have to discount some of the audience comments you get — not everyone is going to like everything about your play.  Sometimes you say, “thank you for your comment,” and move on.  I know that if Shakespeare had a reading of Hamlet, there would be people telling him they didn’t like the main character because he was too indecisive or that they thought the language was too hard to understand.

Readers’ comments are similar.  They can help you figure out what really works about your book and when you’re confusing or (God forbid) boring your readers.  I’m grateful that my readers’ comments have been overwhelmingly positive.  I’m grateful that people are buying my book 🙂  Yeah, the negative comments bother me.  But just about everything helps me become a better writer.

What do you think?  I’m interested in other authors’ opinions as well as readers’.

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2 thoughts on “What Should Authors Do With Reader Reviews?

  1. I don’t envy authors and their dilemma of how to handle reviews. I do write reviews and I read a lot of reviews in trying to decide whether to buy a book. If it’s an author that I’ve read before, and liked, I don’t pay much attention to reviews.

    I’m not an author. When I write a review, I’m mostly focused on other potential readers – what would I like to tell them about the story that would help them know whether to invest time and money in a story.

    But sometimes I also include a message to the author. I try to (kindly) mention something that I hope is helpful. I can only imagine how hard it is to put yourself out there as an author, and I try to be sensitive to that.

    Since I read a lot of reviews (especially the 3-2-1 star reviews), I see reviews that must be very hurtful to authors. Some of these reviewers just seem angry and are taking it out on the author. Sometimes it seems that some pet peeve of theirs was set off by the author. The best examples of this are the reviews where the reviewer is accusing the author of having some (in their minds) devious Christian agenda. A character prays to God for help, and suddenly a reviewer accuses the author of trying to brainwash readers. It’s really sort of ridiculous – especially in historical fiction where people were probably more religious than they are today.

    As a reader and reviewer, I would encourage authors to at least scan the reviews – looking for the occasional constructive criticism and ignoring the rest. Maybe the best course would be for the author to have a friend or family member scan all the reviews and just show the negative ones that seem to be reasonable or negative reviews that seem to be trying to help the author improve in the future.

    I hate those reviews that are so nasty (“This author should never write again”, “This is the worst thing I ever read”). I just don’t think authors need to see that. In the most negative review I ever wrote, I encouraged the author (who I think must have been a teenager) to write on fan fiction sites to hone her craft before publishing.

    I enjoyed your book, and I’m looking forward to the next one!
    Jennie

  2. Hi Jennie,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, and I’m so happy you liked my book. The next one will be coming out soon.

    I agree with your approach to reviews. I do find them helpful when deciding whether to buy a book, but sometimes you see reviews that seem unnecessarily negative. I think most authors are trying their best and have put a lot of work into their books. If you’re going to leave a one or two star review, it should have a thoughtful analysis of what the author could have done (a lot) better. That would benefit both the author and other readers. But sometimes you do get rants or pet peeves. And sometimes I wonder if the person read the same book I did 🙂

    On balance, however, the review system is a Godsend. If a book has enough reviews, they usually balance out, and they can be so helpful when you’re selecting what to read. There are too many choices!

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