When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End (Part 3): Author-Reader Contact Case Study #1
To recap from Part 2 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews“:
- You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way.
- You are responding to negative reader reviews in order to neutralize the negative feeling the customer has about Business You (often known as “the author”) and Your Product (better known as “your book”).
Do you remember why? If not:
The Earth and Everything That’s In It = Repeat Business (Readers)
Here it is, case study #1. The case studies are often long, and I have decided to break them up into separate posts (mostly to relieve my aching carpal tunnel, and so I can, you know, actually finish another book one day).
CASE STUDY #1
Original reader review (Amber): The writers [sic] use of the words retard, retarded, socially retarded and mentally retarded were all used within the first chapter. I have a 3 year old daughter with downs syndrome [sic], I find her repeated use of these very hurtful words extremely tasteless.
Elle’s response: Hello, Amber. Thank you very much for posting your comments. I am very sorry to hear that you were offended by content in the book. Although I disagree with you regarding how real people should (and do) use slang, curse, or offensive words in our society, I am grateful that you took the trouble to post your thoughts here. In a work of fiction, it is important to me to let characters speak or think the way real people speak or think. My own son has Goldenhar Syndrome as well as Asperger’s Syndrome and so, like you, I am more attuned than most parents to the negative words in our society and language (“freak,” “nerd” spring to mind immediately) that might be used against him. In any case, although we disagree, I wanted to send you much appreciation for taking the time out of your day to review my novel and to voice your opinon [sic].
Amber: I appreciate your reply. Here’s a video that says it all. I am my daughters advocate and my job as a mother is to make sure she is treated equally. “Retard” is not a slang word, there is no nice way to say the r word. If I can get just one person to actually think about what the r word means and how hurtful it can be maybe they won’t say it anymore. This video shows how hurtful words can be. www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q
Elle: Hi, Amber. Thank you for this video link. Indeed, as I know very well, you as a mother are the strongest advocate for your child–from 3 to 13 to 30! Again, I love that you sat down and communicated your thoughts so that we could continue this interesting (and important) discussion. I was thinking about doing a blog post on this topic (how writers handle slang/cursing/violent or offensive language in their own writing). I wonder if I might persuade you to contact me via email so that I can more fully explore your opinon [sic] before I do so. I’m not sure I have the right answer (or any answer at all), but I do know that, as a writer, the individuals in my book are like real flesh-and-blood people to me. At the same time it’s important to understand that they are NOT me. They are individuals with their own thoughts and feelings and personalities, their own life experiences, prejudices and self-esteem issues, their own families and taste in clothes and food. I often describe writing as “being body snatched by a [sic] incredibly vivid hallucination with a typewriter.” (Sure, there might be a psychiatric diagnosis for just doing what the little voices in your head tell you to do, but right now it’s all I have!) I very much hope to hear from you at email@example.com.
Amber (via email): I would love to continue our discussion about the use of taboo words.
Elle’s response: Hi, Amber. Thanks so much for emailing me, it’s very good to hear from you. I apologize for my poor turnaround time; [redacted personal content] so I’m a little behind on my emails. [redacted personal content] Would you mind if I contacted you via email tomorrow (Monday)? Or perhaps it would be easier if we spoke on the phone? If we do the latter I could simply take notes. I will, of course, allow you to preview the blog entry before I actually post it, so you can correct any factual errors I have made, or edit for content.
DO acknowledge the customer’s opinion.
“Thank you very much for posting your comments. I am very sorry to hear that you were offended by content in the book.”
DO be gracious.
“…I am grateful that you took the trouble to post your thoughts here.”
DO wait until you’re level-headed and calm to respond.
Out of all the negative reviews I’ve received, this one was the most heart-wrenching and difficult—not because the reader’s comments were difficult, but because I could so easily understand “both sides.” I was able to not only sympathize with the reader, but to empathize with her in a very personal way. Even so, I did wait until the next day to respond, and wrote several drafts (even soliciting opinions from family and fellow-writers) before I posted my reply.
DON’T ignore negative reviews.
I have often been asked if I would have responded to this review if I hadn’t also been the mother of a special-needs child. Short answer: I don’t know, because I am, and once you are it’s difficult to see the world through any other experience. My longer answer would be that I’m sure I would have, but I would not have pretended to empathize in any way with the reader.
DON’T engage in debate with the customer.
I could have replied: “Well, actually, it’s used once in the first chapter and twice in the second chapter, but in the first chapter the character is talking to herself in her head, and in the second, two friends in a car are referring to King Charles II of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty: ‘The House of Habsburg-Lorraine was completely inbred. All that inbreeding…some of them had jaws like bulldogs. Charles the Second couldn’t even chew his food because his grandmother was also his aunt. And he was insane, mentally retarded, and impotent.’”
But what would be the purpose of doing that? You are attempting to acknowledge and validate the customer’s distress, not giving them a lesson in proofreading or craft. It’s their perception that’s important, not yours.
DON’T take it personally.
Although the reader uses the words “the author” and “her,” she didn’t actually know me; that is, she didn’t know “R. Elle Renee Lothlorien”–the person my mom still calls “Rhonda Renee!” when she’s mad at me, the woman who is semi-addicted to veggie-chips and Berry Berry Kix, and who belongs to an all-girl’s vintage jazz performance troupe.
No, she is simply upset with my brand (Author Me, aka “Elle Lothlorien”) and my product (my novel The Frog Prince). Ironically, now that we have had several personal contacts via email over the last year, I find myself getting bristly when friends or family attempt to defend me by attacking her. “Hey!” I’ll say, cutting them short. Then I’ll give them a tongue-lashing that sounds something like this: “That’s Amber you’re talking about. Expressing your opinion is never wrong if you do it right.”
DO make it right if you can, however you can.
“I was thinking about doing a blog post on this topic (how writers handle slang/ cursing/ violent or offensive language in their own writing).”
DO “take it offline.”
“I wonder if I might persuade you to contact me via email so that I can more fully explore your opinon [sic] before I do so… I very much hope to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
DON’T confuse humility with servility.
“Although I disagree with you regarding how real people should (and do) use slang, curse, or offensive words in our society, I am grateful that you took the trouble to post your thoughts here.”
DON’T attempt to convince the customer that they actually liked your novel.
“I’m not sure I have the right answer (or any answer at all), but I do know that, as a writer, the individuals in my book are like real flesh-and-blood people to me. At the same time it’s important to understand that they are NOT me. They are individuals with their own thoughts and feelings and personalities, their own life experiences, prejudices and self-esteem issues, their own families and taste in clothes and food. I often describe writing as ‘being body snatched by a [sic] incredibly vivid hallucination with a typewriter.’”
Revised reader review:
*update* The writer told me her views and why she used these words and though I don’t agree with her use of the r word I do like her writing style. I have changed the rating from * to ***. I still hope in the future she may rethink her use of the r word.
Amber (via email 11 months later, when I contacted her for permission to use her review and portions of our correspondence): Here is a picture of my beautiful daughter [redacted], who turns 4 this Sunday. You can add this to your blog with my review if you would like. This little girl (who happens to have an extra chromosome) is my entire world. Everything I do is for her. I’m trying to help change things for her so she can have the best life possible. Some people may not understand why it is so important to be thoughtful of what you say, but I do and someday so will [redacted]. Someday she will understand what the R word means, I dread that day. I can’t stand it that one little word will be so hurtful for her, but it will be.”
Elle: I am so proud of you for speaking your mind and not budging from making the world a better place. It’s hard to soldier on sometimes. I can’t remember if you recall, but my son was also born with medical problems. Some days it’s just hard to get one foot in front of the other, but what else is there? What choice do we have? Hang in there, Amber. You’re obviously a great mother on a mission!
Reader: …By the way, just finished sleeping beauty awakes, loved it
Read Part 1 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Why Authors Should ALWAYS Respond to Negative Reader Reviews.”
Read Part 2 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews.”
Read Part 4 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #2.”
Note: Whenever possible, I have communicated with the readers who posted the reviews I will discuss, especially where those reviews resulted in one-on-one personal communication between us via email. In those instances, I have obtained permission from the reader to use the content of their communications with me in order to illustrate the points contained in parts one and two of this blog post. Where readers posted their reviews on Amazon using their real name (a public forum), I have likewise used their names in the case study. Where readers have posted their reviews on Amazon using a pseudonym, but revealed their real names to me in subsequent personal emails, I have redacted their name, as well as that of any other personal information, including names of relatives, name of city/town/state where they reside, etc. I have likewise redacted any personal information exchanged between myself and the reader when/if a relationship of a more personal and less business nature was subsequently established.
In Amber’s case, due to the very personal nature of her emails to me, I not only obtained her permission to blog about our communication, but sent her a draft of this case study in order to give her the opportunity to edit, change, or further redact. Her response was short and to the point: “I like it ”