Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
The case study I want to share with you this time is that of “Michelle” (the pseudonym she used in her online review). Michelle was unhappy with my novel Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up! The initial dialogue took place over the course of five days. Please note that for the sake of brevity I have not included my response to her online review; it is a cut-and-paste version of the same as the response I emailed to her, which is included below.
Case Study #2*
Michelle’s original review:
I read Sleeping Beauty and really liked it. It was different and quirky so when I saw the title Sleeping Beauty WAKES UP, I bought it, thinking it was a sequel. Now, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been duped by Mz [sic] Lothlorien and I don’t like it. Apparently, it’s the same book as Sleeping Beauty but with an alternate ending. Gee, I wish I would have seen that in the description of the book somewhere. So, watch out people. This could happen to you…or maybe I’m just dumb enough to think that 2 books with 2 different titles are different books.
Michelle’s email to me (the same day): I guess I need a wake up call because I actually thought that two books with two different titles would tell a different store but No! I was wrong and I paid money for it. It is wrong, wrong, wrong of you to put both of these books on Amazon…and where ever [sic] else it might be, deceiving buyers by letting them think they are not buying the same book…with different endings. Even movie DVD’s show you the alternate endings for free. I’m pissed and will never read anything written by you (twice? three times) ever again and I think you should be ashamed of yourself for this deceit.
Elle: Hi, Michelle. Thanks so much for your email. I see you left feedback on Amazon too, and I appreciate you taking the time to leave your commentary. Always appreciated, good or bad. I am sorry that you felt “deceived,” but I did put this wording in the PRODUCT DESCRIPTION for both books:
***NOTE TO READERS*** In April 2012, in response to readers who desired a different outcome, I wrote SLEEPING BEAUTY WAKES UP! What is it? Well, it’s the same plot idea with one, small, seemingly insignificant change in Chapter 11 that causes the story to naturally cascade in a different direction with a drastically (for romance) different ending. If you get to the end of this novel and are dissatisfied with the outcome, you’re welcome to read SLEEPING BEAUTY WAKES UP! available here: Sleeping Beauty WAKES UP! (A Romantic Comedy/Suspense)”
***NOTE TO READERS*** Sleeping Beauty WAKES UP! was written in response to readers who were dissatisfied with the ending of my bestseller, Sleeping Beauty (published September 2011). Sleeping Beauty WAKES UP! is a “standalone novel,” which means that if you’ve never read Sleeping Beauty, you are not at a disadvantage. The good news is that if you get to the end of this novel and are dissatisfied with the outcome, Sleeping Beauty is available with a drastically different outcome (well, for the romance genre at least).
Having written these disclaimers, I’m wondering if you read somewhere else that it was a sequel? I even tried to cover my bases by blogging about it and doing an interview for USA Today where I explain that approximately there is [sic] new material in the book, but that it IS the same story. If it’s been less than 7 days, you can contact Amazon for a refund (they’re pretty generous with issuing refunds). If it’s been more than 7 days, I’d be happy to refund your money myself if you can tell me your PayPal account address. Or I can send you a complimentary, signed paperback copy of SLEEPING BEAUTY (the original version) when it comes out in a few weeks. Please let me know how I can assuage your disappointment. I am always terribly unhappy when a reader is!
Michelle: Well, obviously I didn’t see or notice the Product Description, or I certainly would NOT have downloaded and paid for your book twice. I was looking forward to reading more from you…but not now. I’m not trying to be rude or mean but honest. I still really dislike the fact that I paid for your book twice.
Elle: I appreciate your honesty, and I do understand that you don’t intend to read any other books I might write. I am not taking anything you’ve written as “rude or mean”; I am simply trying to make sure you get a refund one way or the other. I am not happy to have any reader’s money unless they are happy with the product. In my last email I wrote: “If it’s been less than 7 days, you can contact Amazon for a refund (they’re pretty generous with issuing refunds). If it’s been more than 7 days, I’d be happy to refund your money myself if you can tell me your PayPal account address.” Or you can shoot me a payment request via Paypal. If you’re comfortable sharing your address, I’m happy to send you a money order.
Michelle: Oh, Elle, I do appreciate your correspondence and I’m over it now…It was just a passing irritability on my part. I don’t know if I’ll attempt to get a refund and I’m sure I will read more books by you. I was just having a ‘day’, but you’ve been so kind and understanding that I’m good now! Keep up the good work – because I get the firm impression that you are a good person!
Elle: Well, I’m sorry that you were having a bad day. [Redacted personal content] …every person is entitled to his/her opinion, and I don’t take it personally! I’m a writer, but I’m a businessperson too, and good customer service means listening to what people have to say–good or bad. Or, as I tell my friends: “If I wanted someone to tell me what a literary genius I am, I’d just have my mom read my books 100 times.” Please let me know how else I can make this better!
Michelle: Well, darn! Why did you have to go and be so nice after I wasn’t ‘so nice’ at all? Thank you for the gift card and probably more, the understanding and accepting my apology. I did apologize didn’t I? I’m pretty worried that I’m going to get slayed for my review…but then I’ve earned it. I just didn’t read the ‘fine print’ and at least the review started out nice. [Redacted personal content] I’m terribly terribly sorry for the confusion and for taking time out of your day to write me, but that won’t prevent me from using my gift card! Thank you, again. Let’s both have a great weekend and you don’t need to do anymore [sic] than you’ve already done, for me…unless you happen to remember to let me know when your next book comes out – but I’m pretty faithful about checking my favorite authors – and I did love Sleeping Beauty (great premise!), so no need to do that either. Just know that I appreciate and respect all that you’ve done and maybe someday…we’ll meet!
Elle: Yes, by all means enjoy the gift card! No worries, I understand. And yes, you did apologize, but it’s not necessary…
Michelle: I will go back and fix the review, mainly because I was wrong and most other reviewers might think I’m stoopid! And, I will mention how nice you’ve been to me during this ordeal… I need to ask you something though. I don’t know anything about the Frog Prince. A lot of haters there? More importantly, should I spend my $5.00 gift on that book or wait until your new one comes out? More thanks for helping me with all this.
Elle: You’re not “stoopid!” Opinions are just that: opinons. Everyone is entitled to theirs! [Redacted personal content] The Frog Prince is much more of a romp. It’s very funny, but it’s also much more lighthearted than SB. [Frog Prince summary redacted for length] I would say read some of the reviews and see what you think, but out of the two books, it is the one that people are rabidly affectionate about….
Michelle: …Ok, I love that you’ve taken the time to write me and accept all the confusion with such grace. I’m off to be nice on Amazon, about SB, and read FP reviews – again! I was trying to explain SB to my [friend], yesterday, and I couldn’t. It’s just not a book that is easily synopised (<is too a word!>). But, I think she’s going to d/load it. See, I’m trying to get you new readers! Keep writing! Off to finish current book so I can read FP. I cannot wait!
Elle: [I emailed Michelle an excerpt from The Frog Prince, which I'm redacting here for length]
Michelle: Ha! You made me LOL, or the FP [The Frog Prince excerpt] did, and really, that does not happen often with books. I read the reviews on FP, and someone else said the same thing – that they didn’t lol on many books but did on this one. I’m sold and will get download [sic] the book tomorrow. I love what you sent me. It’s cleaver, quick witted and unique.
Elle: Hope you like it. (Warning: It is NOT a sequel to Sleeping Beauty).
Michelle: Oh Hush! I’m going to pay for that even more, right? I don’t care. Now, it’s become funny…
Although it turned out well, I did not handle this correctly at the outset, which is the reason it took multiple emails to diffuse the situation. How did I bungle it? See the quotation marks and the underlined word below:
I am sorry that you felt “deceived,” but I did put this wording in the PRODUCT DESCRIPTION for both books…
Yes, I acknowledged her opinion, but by throwing quotation marks around the word “deceived,” and using the word “but,” I effectively withdrew my apology, threw her distress into question, and entered into a debate with her—a big no-no!
I know why I did it, of course. I was in a blind panic, because hers was the first review posted for Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up! and the very thing that I had feared would happen—that readers would think it was a sequel to Sleeping Beauty—did happen, and happened very quickly. I truly was trying to find out if she’d read somewher that it was a sequel, but my timing was ill-advised and coupling it with my hollow “acknowledgement” of her concern was inappropriate.
In short, this is a perfect example of what not to do!
DO wait until you’re level-headed and calm to respond.
See “DON’T engage in debate with the customer.”
Seriously, by the time I saw her review online, I was a veteran of almost two years of reading and responding to negative reviews. It wasn’t her words that upset me, it was the panic at having biffed a book launch so badly.
Does that matter? NO. I was not calm or level-headed, and I responded to her immediately because I thought time was of the essence. It wasn’t. The likelihood that someone else would have made the same mistake in the next 24-hours was slight, and I should have simply done a little research to see if there was incorrect information floating around on the internet somewhere, and then “slept on it” and responded to her when I was calmer.
I didn’t. Instead I broke one of the rules, responding immediately (and badly), leaving her—rightfully!—angry and leaving me with a bigger customer service mess than I started with.
DO acknowledge the customer’s opinion.
Please see “DON’T engage in debate with the customer.”
Do you see how quickly one stumble, breaking one DO or DON’T rule, can quickly lead to a cascade of fails? Fortunately, I redeemed myself in my next email to her, where I finally got it right:
I appreciate your honesty, and I do understand that you don’t intend to read any other books I might write.
In fact, you can see how quickly the tone of the conversation turned after I got out of my “defensive crouch” and put the focus back on her—where it belonged.
DON’T take it personally.
Your reader is a human being—just like you. Consider this explanation from Michelle’s email:
It was just a passing irritability on my part….I was just having a ‘day.’
Raise your hand if you haven’t had “a day” before where the indignities piled up until you snapped. Yeah…I don’t see any hands.
For all I know, Michelle had had the worst day of her life, and was looking forward to an escape by reading the “sequel” to a novel she’d already read and loved. In short, I was probably at the tail end of “a series of unfortunate events” that she’d had that day.
By treating your reader with genuine kindness and understanding, (and not taking it personally), you’ll be surprised by how often your overture will be gratefully accepted. Think of it this way: yours might be the only kind, positive reaction they’ll have that day—or that week or that month.
Oftentimes, after a reader’s anger has waned and you have “made it right,” they will turn the blame for the situation back on themselves, as happened with Michelle:
I will go back and fix the review, mainly because I was wrong and most other reviewers might think I’m stoopid!
Thank you for the gift card and probably more, the understanding and accepting my apology. I did apologize didn’t I?
I’m terribly terribly sorry for the confusion and for taking time out of your day to write me…
DO NOT LET THAT HAPPEN. Whatever their complaint, it is your fault (even when it isn’t). There’s a reason “the customer is always right” has been a stock phrase for decades. They should never have to apologize for giving you feedback. When this happens, move fast and decisively to alleviate their “guilt”:
And yes, you did apologize, but it’s not necessary…
You’re not “stoopid!” Opinions are just that: opinons [sic]. Everyone is entitled to theirs!
…every person is entitled to his/her opinion, and I don’t take it personally! I’m a writer, but I’m a businessperson too, and good customer service means listening to what people have to say–good or bad.
DON’T ignore negative reviews.
Here’s the bottom line: Despite the steps I took to reduce the possibility that readers would think Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up! was a sequel, it wasn’t good enough, and I had failed my readers. If I ignored my negative reviews, how many other customers would have ended up feeling cheated? Sure, most of them would probably have just sucked it up and went about their business, but at least some of them would have left negative reviews, blogged it out, or posted a warning to their friends on their Facebook page. Diffusing it before it gets out of hand is critical.
In the end, I redesigned the cover, made the “***NOTE TO READERS***” much more prominent in the Product Description, and changed the title (the one that shows at the top of the product page and in searches) to “Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up! (Alternate Ending—A Romantic Comedy-Suspense)”–all thanks to Michelle’s review.
As far as I know, no other reader mistook the novel for a sequel after I made these changes, and although there are only seven reviews posted, they are all happy, five-star reviews, including Michelle’s (more on that in a moment).
DO make it right if you can, however you can.
Please let me know how I can assuage your disappointment. I am always terribly unhappy when a reader is!
…I’d be happy to refund your money myself if you can tell me your PayPal account address.
Even though I had not actually done anything but hear her out and acknowledge her complaint (well, eventually I did after the initial misstep), Michelle responded:
Oh, Elle, I do appreciate your correspondence and I’m over it now.
…you’ve been so kind and understanding that I’m good now!
Once the tone of the conversation shifted, I knew it was appropriate to do what I did next: I sent her a $5 Kindle gift card.
DO “take it offline.”
Although I did respond to the online review itself, I also responded to Michelle’s email right away, knowing that she would likely get it first. Since I fumbled so badly at the start, this was a good thing!
Here’s what you don’t want in the comments section of your review page:
Well, obviously I didn’t see or notice the Product Description, or I certainly would NOT have downloaded and paid for your book twice. I was looking forward to reading more from you…but not now.
I was very fortunate that Michelle emailed me at the very beginning. Otherwise, my first overture to her (and her very understandable negative reaction) would have been read by every potential reader coming to the site!
DO move on.
I am not taking anything you’ve written as “rude or mean”; I am simply trying to make sure you get a refund one way or the other. I am not happy to have any reader’s money unless they are happy with the product.
If Michelle had not responded to this email, what would I have done? Answer: I would’ve just let the whole thing go. Why? Because, I’d listened to her complaint, validated it, and offered to make it right. If a customer has nothing further to say on the topic, and they don’t want to take you up on your offer to make it right, then what does that mean?
It means it’s time to get back to writing the next book.
Frankly, it probably also means they want the whole thing (and you) to go away. “Persistent cheerfulness” is not the same thing as “stalking” or “bullying.” Once the customer ends the dialogue (even with silence), the conversation is over.
Fortunately for me, Michelle did respond.
Customer revised original review, reposted with changes:
—The review below is what I wrote before Mz Lothlorien so kindly explained that the fact that this was the same book with the alternate ending, [sic] is explained very clearly in the description of the book. She then helped me get a refund from Amazon, which I did and she’s been very helpful throughout all my confusion about the book, and so I now am changing my review back to the first two lines, below. The rest of my original review was thoughtless and I was wrong and I do apologize.
I read Sleeping Beauty and really liked it. It was different and quirky so when I saw the title Sleeping Beauty WAKES UP, I bought it, thinking it was a sequel.* Now, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been duped by Mz Lothlorien and I don’t like it. Apparently, it’s the same book as Sleeping Beauty but with an alternate ending. Gee, I wish I would have seen that in the description of the book somewhere.
Of course it’s nice that Michelle changed her review, but I was glad that she simply revised it (rather than deleting it in its entirety), and kept the original reason for her unhappiness in the revised review. Why does this make me happy? Because it shows readers that you are willing to acknowledge their concerns and “make it right.”
It was at the end of our correspondence regarding Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up! that I realized that Michelle was fun, funny, and also very opinionated (like someone else I know). In short: I liked her. So I was very happy to get an email from her out of the blue about five days later:
Michelle’s email (subject line “Five Frogs”): Ok, I meant 5 stars…but I know how you like your frogs. I don’t know if you’ve read my review yet [redacted personal content]…but I just wanted you to know that I LOVED [The Frog Prince]. I don’t know why, but after our emailing frenzy, last weekend, I was expecting erotica…but I really really liked the book anyway…
Elle: I did read it. I loved it. Honest: Just the way I like ‘em. [In response to Michelle “expecting erotica” with The Frog Prince]: BWAH-HAhahahahaha ! Wow, that must’ve been a, er, letdown, a little bit of a deflating experience. I’d imagine it left you a little, uh, limp with disappointment. Oh, dear god, that was funny! Still can’t stop laughing…
Michelle (after I emailed her with a request to use her review and our correspondence for this blog): I really like the fact that you read and respond to the negative—well, if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t be writing…(my bad!) but [that you] don’t take it personally.
Wrapping It Up
Let’s circle back to the beginning of this post, and try to tie this all together.
- Customer = Reader
- You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way. You’re simply trying to make one customer happy. If you can do that with each customer, you will find yourself with a loyal (often rabidly loyal) fan base.
- 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”).
I received a two-star review for The Frog Prince a while ago. It read in part:
I don’t normally go into this much detail when I have an issue with a book, but I’ve noticed that the author seems to be monitoring comments and feedback, AND SEEMS REALLY RECEPTIVE TO BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN [emphasis mine]. I admire that very much and so I hope that the above provides some helpful feedback about specifically why this particular reader (me, in case you weren’t catching that reference) rated this so low.
Trust me, I caught “that reference.” And I did respond to that reader’s two-star review; however, the reviewer chose not to reply. (Take home message: Conversation OVER.) The two-star review is still there, and in many ways it’s better than any five-star review you could ever hope for. Why? Because it was like winning an “Excellent Customer Service” award; it’s a flashing billboard for other potential readers to see. The errors the reviewer found were easily corrected, and I was able to post a thank you–again, for other potential readers to see.
Yes, you’ve written a book. Yes, you’re an author with a very different kind of product (i.e. not a car or copper wiring). But you’re also a businessperson whether you know it or not. And you can’t possibly reach out readers unhappy with their purchase of your book unless you are seen as approachable and receptive to criticism.
There Is No Spoon
When she first reviewed and emailed me, Michelle used very strong words, words like “deceived,” “duped,” and “pissed.” She very emphatically stated: “…I think you should be ashamed of yourself for this deceit.”
I hope you will pay particular attention to the extracts below, which I have taken from her emails. (All words in CAPS and bolded are my added emphasis.)
Thank you for the gift card AND PROBABLY MORE, THE UNDERSTANDING…
Just know that I APPRECIATE AND RESPECT all that you’ve done.
Ok, I LOVE THAT YOU’VE TAKEN THE TIME TO WRITE ME and accept all the confusion with such grace…
I REALLY LIKE THE FACT THATY YOU READ AND RESPOND TO THE NEGATIVE—well, if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t be writing…(my bad!) BUT [THAT YOU] DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.
How did we get from “…I think you should be ashamed of yourself for this deceit” to the reaction above?
One of the best lines in the movie The Matrix comes from “The Spoon Boy” who tells Neo: “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
I’ve been reading the reaction to the “When You Wish…” series on Twitter, Kindle Boards, GoodReads, and the blogosphere for over a month now. As I have said before on this forum and elsewhere, I expected strong disagreement when I posted the first “When You Wish…” What I did not expect was the ferocity and vitriolic nature of the response, and the rapidity with which my argument was twisted and made unrecognizable (often by individuals who didn’t even link their readers to my original post so they could read it for themselves, but instead took it upon themselves to “summarize” my position–laughable!).
I have been struck by the words used to describe me, including “bully,” “stalker,” and “intimidating.” For starters, bullying, stalking, and intimidation are all possible criminal offenses, not useful customer service strategies. You cannot “bend the spoon.” In other words, you can’t control what customers think, say, or do; you can only control how you respond.
The Time Suck
Several authors have noted in the comments on this forum and elsewhere (Twitter, Kindleboards, etc) that even if my strategy of responding to negative reviews worked, it’s a “ time suck.” My response to that is two-fold:
First: If you’re Stephen King, well, yeah—you’re probably not going to have a whole lot of time to personally answer every reader. But most of us aren’t Stephen King or James Rollins or Stephanie Meyers.
Second: Just how many negative reviews are you expecting to get? Unless you’ve written the worst book in the history of literature, you’re probably getting only a smattering of negative reviews spaced out over time, and sandwiched in between good ones—just like the rest of us (come on in, the water’s fine). Does responding to every negative review take time? YES. So what’s the point?
To recap from Part 2, you get “the earth and everything that’s in it,” also known as: Repeat Business (Readers)
Happy Word-Of-Mouth With a Side Of Honesty
What are the most effective way to get “repeat business” and new readers?
Andy Sernovitz’s Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking came out on April 30th, and almost immediately hit The New York Timesbestseller list. Sernovitz notes: “The best way to make money is to MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY; the path to profits is through HONESTY, RESPECT, and LOYALTY… [emphasis mine]”
It’s important to note that in publishing, it’s the “pre-publication buzz” and “word-of-mouth” and not marketing that turns most books become bestsellers; think The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey. (You can see word-of-mouth at work in a fascinating chart on this GoodReads blog post “Anatomy of Book Discovery: A Case Study” by Patrick Brown.
Not book signings. Not click-ads. Not guest-blogging. Not YouTube trailers.
- Making people happy.
Once you have a loyal customer/reader, you are on your way to building a fan base and a following. More extracts from Michelle’s emails:
…unless you happen to remember to LET ME KNOW WHEN YOUR NEXT BOOK COMES OUT – but I’m pretty faithful about checking my favorite authors…
I was trying to explain SB to my [friend], yesterday, and I couldn’t. It’s just not a book that is easily synopised (<is too a word!>). ; ) But, I think she’s going to d/load it. See, I’M TRYING TO GET YOU NEW READERS!
I need to ask you something though. I don’t know anything about the Frog Prince. A lot of haters there? More importantly, SHOULD I SPEND MY $5.00 GIFT ON THAT BOOK OR WAIT UNTIL YOUR NEXT ONE COMES OUT?
Keep writing! OFF TO FINISH CURRENT BOOK SO I CAN READ FP [The Frog Prince].
I’m sold and WILL GET DOWNLOAD [sic] THE BOOK TOMORROW.
It took all of thirty minutes over several weeks to respond to Michelle’s emails, and now I not only have a repeat, loyal customer/reader (“make people happy”), but she’s telling her friends about my books (“word of mouth”).
When I contacted her yesterday in order to give her the opportunity to read over this piece before it posted, she wrote: “…go ahead & post it. I trust you!”
How did we get from “…[I] will never read anything written by you (twice? three times) ever again…” to “I trust you?”
I would like to think that I’ve earned Michelle’s trust through Andy Sernovitz’s strategy of “make people happy” and “honesty, respect, and loyalty.”
- Customer service is not achieved through bullying.
- You cannot make readers happy by intimidating them.
- You will never stalk someone into becoming a fan.
- There is no spoon.
Thanks for reading.
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 3 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #1.”
*Whenever possible, I have contacted the individuals whose reviews I 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 Part 1 and Part 2 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 identifying or 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, especially when/if a relationship of a more personal and less business nature was subsequently established.