When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End (Part 2): The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews

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You are an author. You discover a new one-star reader review on Amazon for one of your books, and you read it, eager to find out why the reader was so dissatisfied with your novel. One thing’s for sure, it is scathing:

“Updating old stories is nothing new. It has a name: ‘fan fiction.’ Your book is no different than Fifty Shades of Gray—dumbed down fanfic for pathetic Twi-hards. Congrats, loser. Your book represents the lowest rung on the literary ladder with 300 pages of forgettable characters & bad dialogue. Should’ve known that e-book + self-pubbed = crap.”

Assignment #1: Now, craft a brief response to this reader of no more than five sentences. I’ll wait…

***

Did you do it? Well, then you just made your first mistake and broke one of the cardinal rules of responding to negative reviews.

If you read part one of this blog post (“When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Why Authors Should ALWAYS Respond To Negative Reviews”), then perhaps you took the trouble of reading the comments that followed? No? Well then…

Assignment #2: Read every one of the (as of this writing) forty-nine comments, and all of the responses to those comments, including mine. (I promise I’m not trying to trick you this time). I’ll wait…

***

Almost three weeks have passed since part one of “When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End” sparked passionate—and often vitriolic—discussion everywhere from Twitter to Kindleboards to GoodReader, and all over the blogosphere.

As with any opinion piece, people are certainly welcome to disagree (I mean, that’s sort of the whole point). The initial comments left for Part One of my blog post were positive and respectful, even when the poster disagreed with my proposition—which they very often did. However, about three days after the initial post, the comments suddenly changed, with individuals not just disagreeing with my opinion, but writing long, ad hominem responses, using words such as “bully,” “diva,” “appalling human being” and, my personal favorite, “thin-skinned asshole.” (Honestly, I didn’t even mind the “thin-skinned” part so much, but I guess some part of my mind drew the line at “asshole.”)

And these were just the comments left on the blog site!

By and large, the comments left that contained foul language or ad hominem attacks were deleted by Digital Book World (DBW). On the afternoon of May 21st, the decision was made by DBW to disable the comment function on the post in order to give everyone time to take a deep, cleansing breath. I was given the option to delete other posts that I found objectionable, or that I felt didn’t contribute to the discussion as a whole, and although I wavered (I’m only human, after all), I ultimately declined.

I’d like to say that I declined because I was committed to the high road, or that I believed so strongly in freedom of speech that I was appalled at the very idea of deleting someone’s opinion. In reality, I wanted to use those comments to illustrate to authors what they can expect from negative reviews of their books. Gird your loins, as they say, because reader reviews can be nasty, brutish, and red of tooth and claw (to shamelessly paraphrase Hobbes and Tennyson).

In part one of “When You Wish…” I introduced the idea that readers are customers, and that reaching out to an unhappy reader is all part of providing good customer service for your product. Of course, your “product” is something you yourself created, and I can promise you that negative reviews will sting. You may become angry. You may cry. You may scream with rage. You might howl at God or the universe at the unfairness of it all.

And when I say “you,” I mean Author You. Of course, Business You will do none of those things. Business You recognizes that the reader is the customer. Business You is a dispassionate, steely-eyed pragmatist who only cares about providing excellent customer service.

Many readers commented on the blog and elsewhere that the simple action of a reader changing their review from, say, one star to three or five stars was not proof that they liked your book any better. To clarify:

1)      You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way.
2)      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”).

Why, you ask?

In Business Insider’s “Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Listen To Your Customers’ Complaints,” Ira Kalb notes that the research firm TARP Worldwide found that good customer service “…could be turned into a powerful marketing force to drive sales, repeat business [emphasis mine] and greater profits.”

In his poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling describes what one must do if one wants “the Earth and everything that’s in it.” For the purposes of this blog, think of it this way:

The Earth and Everything That’s In It = Repeat Business (Readers)

So, without further ado, here it is, the Rudyard Kipling Dos and Don’ts Approach to Responding to Reader Reviews, helpfully explained using excerpts from his poem “If.”


DO
acknowledge the customer’s opinion.
If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

Make the reader feel as a person whose opinions are worth hearing, even if—especially if—you don’t agree. Or as SocialSignal.com’s Alexandra Samuel suggests in “Responding to Online Cricicism”: “Don’t just say “thank you”—offer a little concrete acknowledgement of the input.”

A reader of the May 18th post asked: “Do you have any idea why the reviewers raised the number of stars after your response?” My answer was this: “…oftentimes customers (no matter how angry they are or what the perceived offense is) just want to know that someone is LISTENING to them. Some readers have posted in their reviews why they changed the rating or the content, and it’s typically along the lines of: ‘The author listened to me, validated my complaints, accepted my criticism, and now I feel differently about the experience/product.’ The fact that the product is a book and that the experience is reading the book doesn’t matter.”

In response to a similar question elsewhere in the comments, I wrote: “…staying at a hotel is an experience, the same way reading a novel is often an experience. [Having your complaint validated] doesn’t change the way you feel about the incident that sparked you to complain in the first place (angry, embarrassed, disappointed), but it can change the way you feel about the overall experience–which often extends beyond your hotel stay or the moment you close the book.”


DO
be gracious.
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…”

Remember, a customer took 5-10 minutes of their day that they’ll never get back to post their review of your product. In 10 minutes, I could make popcorn and be on my sofa, ready to fire up an episode of Game of Thrones. I could be running a hot bath, or be halfway to the dog park with my two dumb-as-bark-beetles wiener dogs.

In “10 Ways to Win Back an Unhappy Customer,”AllBusiness.com observes: “Most people, especially disgruntled ones, can spot insincerity a mile away. That’s why it’s important to make sure that the sincerity in your voice and body language matches the sincerity of your words.”

Of course, your reader won’t be able to “see” your body language or “hear” your voice in your response, but be careful that your written “tone” can’t be interpreted as defensive, combative, condescending or patronizing in any way.

And guess what? You might be wrong. “You don’t know everything,” writes Olivia Hayes in her piece “How To Handle Negative Blog Comments” for IgniteSocialMedia.com, “and readers know that. Make sure you approach the situation with that in mind.”


DO
wait until you’re level-headed and calm to respond.
“If you can wait and not be tired by waiting / Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies / Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…”

In in her piece “Moldy Tweets: Take a Deep Breath Before Responding to Negativity,” Meghan Keane describes an apartment management company whose knee-jerk response to a twittering tenant’s mold complaint was to (wait for it) sue the tenant! “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization,” the company explained.

Well, of course, the story blew up all over the internet. Ms. Keane best summarizes the lesson here: “And there are two things that [customers] will now associate with the brand: Twitter and mold.”

Quick: When I say “Douglas Preston,” what’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you said “Wal-Mart mentality,” you get five stars.


DON’T
engage in debate with the customer.
“And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise / If you can dream – and not make dreams your master / If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim…”

While there are exceptions, in general correcting any errors or inaccuracies in a reader’s review will only put them on the defensive, making your goal of neutralizing the situation that much harder. “When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher,” warns Ron Kaufman, writing for mfrTech.com in his article “10 Tips for Effectively Handling Customer Complaints.” He goes on:

“When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.”


DON’T
ignore negative reviews.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same…”

The bad review (Disaster) you see is better than the twenty good ones (Triumph) you don’t, and the sooner you respond to—and hopefully neutralize—the negative review, the less likely it is that there’ll be an effect that Business Insider’s Ira Kalb calls the “word of mouth pyramid” (“Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Listen To Your Customers’ Complaints”). Citing research done by customer service research firm TARP Worldwide, Kalb notes: “96% [of unhappy customers]…tell 9 to 10 others within a week about their poor treatment.” Of course, you haven’t treated anyone poorly by writing a novel they didn’t enjoy, but you can be sure that if they feel that strongly about it, they will tell at least a few people, either in person or through social networking sites like Facebook.

Remember, your balanced response will not only reach the reader who posted the review, but all other readers and potential readers of your books. In Darren Rowse’s piece “Ignore It and It’ll Go Away?–Responding to Criticism Part 2,” he writes: “The person attacking you might not change their opinion but they have readers who might. Being attacked isn’t nice – but sometimes the way you respond is an opportunity in itself.”


DON’T
take it personally.
“If you can…watch the things you gave your life to broken / And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools…”

Sure, a negative review feels personal, especially if it includes what could be characterized as personal attacks, but remember that the reader wouldn’t know you if they tripped over you on the sidewalk, so the only person who can make the situation personal is you. Responding with respect goes a long way towards gaining their trust and convincing them that you are not their adversary.

And remember that as an author, your name is no longer just the words on your driver’s license; it’s as much your brand as the Golden Arches or Coca-Cola. So not only is getting worked up over negative remarks “a waste of time & energy” according to Gala Darling of iCiNG.com (named by Fashionista Magazine as “one of the 10 most influential style bloggers in the world,” and by the New York Times as “a Web-tethered gadabout”). In her piece for ProBlogger.net (“How to Deal with Negative Comments On Your Blog”), she points out that if your name is your brand, “…[responding negatively] is about the most unprofessional thing you can do.”


DO
make it right if you can, however you can.
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss; And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss…

Explain to the reader how they can get a refund from the online bookstore, or (if you’re independently-published) offer to refund their money yourself, or provide an e-book gift card. Gently propose several solutions, while continuing to validate their complaint, and let them choose one (or none). As Geoff Galat writes in his E-Consultancy piece “How to Extract Actionable Insight from Online Customer Feedback,” most customers “appreciate knowing their comments didn’t fall on deaf ears.”


DO
“take it offline.”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone…”

If you and the reader exchange more than one or two comments after their initial review, attempt to move it off the forum as quickly as possible. Several times, I have offered a reader my email address, and asked that they please contact me that way if they wished to continue a discussion. In her piece “How to Deal With Negative Comments,” Liz Strauss at SuccessfulBlog.com writes: “Take it offline. I’ve found that engaging in an e-mail conversation with someone who I’m butting heads with is very helpful in resolving the situation.”

Likewise, once you acknowledge and address the concerns of the original reader review—get off the site. Opinions are like—well, you know. Other individuals may chime in on the original reader’s post, but ideally the discussion will end once you’ve assuaged the reader. And if it doesn’t? Well, treat follow-up comments like a private discussion between two people on the other side of the door. Sure, you can put your ear to the keyhole to listen in, but after you’re done “listening,” you simply tip-toe away.


DO
move on.
“And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!”

Please recognize that for every reader who didn’t enjoy your work, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands out there who have. A reader’s opinion is always worth listening to, but there is a limit to the amount of time or energy you should spend on fixating on a negative review.

“Don’t wallow in other people’s negativity,” writes Therese Pope in her article “Book Marketing Tip #1: How To Handle Negative Online Criticism” with Zenful Communications. “I have seen this happen often with self-published authors. They become frustrated, throw in the marketing towel, and give up altogether.  They take the criticism to heart and go into hiding.”

I myself have known authors who have fixated on one particular review for weeks. Not only is this unhealthy, it’s bad business. Even Business You recognizes that Author You is the one creating the product, and there is no value in allowing the heart and soul of Author You to become so completely crushed that you can’t create.


DON’T
confuse humility with servility.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch…”

Groveling often triggers a contemptuous response—a far cry from the considerate and constructive exchange with the reader you’re hoping for. AllBusiness.com says it best in in the piece “10 Ways to Win Back an Unhappy Customer”: “It’s not necessary to open with an apology, mostly because you won’t know what you’re sorry for, and those mea culpas often come across as insincere anyway.” It takes a strong person to reach out to an unhappy reader, and by projecting unperturbed positivity without coming off as a kiss-ass will go a long way towards gaining their respect and encouraging a productive dialogue.


DON’T
attempt to convince the customer that they actually liked your novel.
“If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you / If all men count with you, but none too much…”

Unless you’re writing children’s picture books or middle grade, your customer is very likely a grown-ass adult. They don’t need you to tell them to exercise 30 minutes a day, include more roughage in their diet, or like your book. They don’t care if it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, or that everyone you know loved it. And they definitely don’t want to hear that (true story) a reader emailed you to say that when she found out she couldn’t get The Frog Prince on her new Nook, she returned it and drove three hours round-trip to the closest store that sold the Kindle.

Think of it a little like beer. I personally don’t care if some microbrew won a blue ribbon in a German beer-tasting contest. The only thing I care about is whether or not I like the taste of it. In other words: If you want someone to tell you what a literary genius you are 100% of the time, go ask your mother to read your novel. Don’t make Jaqueline Howett’s mistake of dismissing a reader with: “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.”

DON’T promise what you can’t deliver.
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …”

In “9 Tips On Handling Customer Complaints,” BizInformer stresses: “In the eyes of the person complaining, you’ve already failed. Don’t add fuel to the fire by promising something you can’t deliver.”

So take the time to make sure what you’re promising is accurate. If you’re not familiar with the online store’s return policies, don’t assure the reader that their money will be refunded. What’s that Eminem lyric? “That’s what happens/When a tornado meets a volcano.” Doesn’t matter if you’re the tornado or the volcano here; this scenario will end badly if you promise something and it doesn’t materialize.

Speaking of things that I can’t deliver, I had originally intended to include “case studies”—in-depth descriptions of those original negative reviews—but this post got a little War & Peace, so I’m saving it for future posts, the first of which will be published on Monday, June 11th. Stay tuned–and thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

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 3 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #1.”
Read Part 4 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #2.”

Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

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34 thoughts on “When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End (Part 2): The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews

  1. As a customer, I’m a fan of good customer service. No matter where I go or what I do, I’m experiencing the moment, and reviews are generally reflective of a person’s memories about their feelings about an experience. At least, this is how it goes in my life. Dealing with people can give me happy fuzzy feelings or a angry feelings or sad feelings…and this is how ratings normally go.

    I liked that Elle would approach the 1-star reviews with as much class as the 5-star reviews. This seems like true customer service, to me. No bullying. No haranguing. No returning hostility with more hostility. Just treating reviewers as people who would like some respect. These types of interactions can color reviews differently! In real life, feelings change…and reviews change.

    It seems reasonable to me that authors would need to adapt to the modern business model created by self-publishing and electronic insta-opinion \likeology\. I’m guessing that self-publishers now have to consider themselves business owners as well as artists, and deal with the public with more immediacy. Bleh. Good luck to you all!! :-)

    • “I liked that Elle would approach the 1-star reviews with as much class as the 5-star reviews. This seems like true customer service, to me. No bullying. No haranguing. No returning hostility with more hostility. Just treating reviewers as people who would like some respect.”

      Despite all the comments on this post and the previous one for “When You Wish…” I’ve not understood the use of the words “bullying” and “intimidating.” I’m not sure what these words are based on, as bullying or intimidating a reader would certainly NOT end in any sort of positive outcome. Generally in my experience, people courageous enough to post reviews–good or bad–aren’t the sort who are easily “intimidated” in any case.

      It’s my hope that people will withhold judgment until after they read at least a few of the case studies. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/when-you-wish-upon-a-star-you-get-the-pointy-end-author-reader-contact-case-study-1/

      Thanks so much for taking the time to post your thoughts.

  2. This is a great series. I spent four years managing retail stores before my current day job and before I started writing seriously, and it was a given that the most important thing you could do to build your reputation was not to avoid getting customer complaints – this is the real world, after all – but to deal with them promptly and courteously and effectively.

    Now I *do* see that writing is different from retail because whereas in retail we buy in products and sell them on, when we write it’s our own product we’re selling on – so it’s not like we can go back to the manufacturers and say sort it out. We can’t rewrite the book to suit each reader. What we can do is ask ourselves why a reader bought our book who clearly wasn’t our intended customer (about half the complaints) and then do something about that – be it change our cover, our pitch, or our metadata, or we can address the real issues with the book (the other half).

    I was really struck by what you said in thefirst post about feeling bad for the customer – that’s exactly right. I hate the idea someone’s spent money on something they don’t enjoy, and I definitely tend to take the blame on myself – either the product was duff or I didn’t pitch it right – either way I want to say sorry.

    There’s a further issue, though, at a more theoretical level. Much of the \don’t respond\ mentality comes from a critical theory perspective to do with the death of the author and the idea that once a book is out there it belongs only to the readers and is nothing to do with the author, and for me that’s just plain wrong (imho anyway, I won’t go into a long disquisition on critical theory) – authors are a key part of the discussion of a text and we need to reclaim that position.

    • “…the most important thing you could do to build your reputation was not to avoid getting customer complaints – this is the real world, after all – but to deal with them promptly and courteously and effectively.”
      I too spent many years in customer service roles, and I agree that dealing with dissatisfied customers quickly and graciously is the best thing you can do.

      “…authors are a key part of the discussion of a text and we need to reclaim that position.”
      Interesting, and I think that it’s more of matter of changing a way of thinking that has been “set in stone” for decades. A comment left on part one from “Beth” was very interesting to me, and something I had never heard of before. She wrote:

      “I follow a lot of webcomics as well as read a lot of books, and in webcomics, the creator is usually very much a part of the community. They respond to comments on their pages, visit conventions to meet their readers, address concerns readers have, and sometimes revise the story when readers find errors or point out weaknesses in the story that the creator hadn’t noticed. It’s very similar to what you describe, Elle, and in no way does the webcomic creator chill the discussion. If anything, it encourages readers to make their opinion known, because they know they will be heard. I suppose people could argue it’s a very different medium, but I’m not sure it is. I suspect a lot of the difference is that reader engagement has been present in webcomics since day one, and it’s only recent in this instance. My hope is that it’s just adjustment to a new reality that we’re seeing, because when both parties adjust to it, the dialog can be really valuable.

      Interesting, no? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I like your Dos and Don’ts, although I’m still not convinced that it suits my personality to respond to a negative reviewer, except in one specific circumstance that I’ll bring up in a bit. For one thing, I think \tone\ can be so easily misunderstood on-line and a reviewer who is suddenly confronted (as they may feel) with an author’s response may feel extra defensive. Maybe even guilty if they acted trollishly. The anonymity of on-line interactions just seems to bring out the troll in many people, as evidenced by many of the commenters in the last post. (Where did they get that you \bullied\ people into submission? Maybe they’ve been reading too much Fifty Shades. Yeesh.) At any rate, I think troll-type reviews (and commentaries) are usually dismissed by most people. That kind of vitriol gets old, fast.

    Here’s the thing, though: I believe that some negative reviews can be good for a book. I don’t mean in that \this proves the reviewers aren’t just family\ kind of way. I don’t think negative reviews give a greater validity, for instance, by proving that \real\ readers read it. Sometimes, though, negative reviews cwork to steer non-target audience readers away from the book; thus, preventing additional negative reviewers. And that’s exactly what reviews are for. Not for my ego-stroking. To steer some readers toward, and some away, from a particular book.

    I’ve gotten one 2 star review (on Amazon) on my book. It looks like the biggest thing the reviewer objected to was my use of humor. She called the humor juvenile and felt a one-night binge for a (recovering) alcoholic was unbelievable and she listed it as a DNF. Well, ouch.

    I could have argued the one night binge comment. Of course it’s possible for someone to have a slip one night and return to sobriety the next, but big deal. Why dispute that?

    The \juvenile\ humor part is what really got me, as you can probably guess, but you know what? Humor is one of the most subjective qualities in writing. Some readers–this one, obviously–just won’t like mine. And here is where it is a good review. It tells people who might not like a wise-cracking, sardonic humor to avoid this book. That benefits both those readers and myself.

    I got a similar review on GoodReads, a 1 star this time, who also disliked the humor and wished the character (a psychotherapist) had acted \more professionally\. Maybe she was looking for an angst-y Kellerman-type character. Whatever. Her comment will at least steer similar readers away. As it should.

    I guess the only time that I, personally, will contact readers who are critical is if they’ve pointed out an aspect of the book that is in error and that I have fixed. I’ve done that, and received appreciation for the reach-out and for the corrections, too. I make a point to publicly express that I am 1) willing and eager to fix errors (formatting, grammar, plot, etc.) and 2) really appreciate being told about them. I want a better product for my readers.

    Thank you for broaching the subject, though. It’s certainly not as knee-jerk as Don’t-make-eye-contact-with-your-readers! proponents might have us believe. \Be gracious\ is the best reminder of them all and it shouldn’t be limited to business relations.

    • “I like your Dos and Don’ts, although I’m still not convinced that it suits my personality to respond to a negative reviewer…”
      If you recognize that, you’ve already thought about this a lot more than most people! It’s certainly NOT for everyone.

      “I guess the only time that I, personally, will contact readers who are critical is if they’ve pointed out an aspect of the book that is in error and that I have fixed. I’ve done that, and received appreciation for the reach-out and for the corrections, too. I make a point to publicly express that I am 1) willing and eager to fix errors (formatting, grammar, plot, etc.) and 2) really appreciate being told about them. I want a better product for my readers.”

      Yes, that is certainly ALWAYS something worth reaching out to the reader for! When I read what you wrote, I immediately thought of this comment in a 2-star review I received: “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 SIDE 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.”

      Talk about GOLD, right? I fixed every error the reader caught, and wished I could have done more than to post a thank you in the comments!

      “Thank you for broaching the subject, though. It’s certainly not as knee-jerk as Don’t-make-eye-contact-with-your-readers! proponents might have us believe. “Be gracious” is the best reminder of them all and it shouldn’t be limited to business relations.”
      Indeed. Thanks so much for taking the time post here!

  4. I find your two BLOGs on this subject very interesting as well as the replies.

    I am sorry that you were subjected to the uncalled-for bad language. My opinion on this is that other readers will recognize it for what it is and chalk it up to someone who can’t hold an intelligent conversation nor support their opinion without trying to use shock techniques. These I would certainly not respond to.

    I would take the rest on a case by case basis but have no reservations about responding to negative criticism or positive criticism.

    Thank you for your thought provoking BLOG.

    • Thank you, John. I appreciate your kind words. The bigger problem isn’t that it offends me or hurts my feelings, but that it discourages reasonable people from posting comments for fear of being flamed themselves. That’s what tended to happen at a certain point with Part One. By and large, the comments here and on the case study have been more level-headed and reasonable!

  5. As a guy who’s made his living in entertainment for a couple of decades, I can appreciate both your insights and your advice in this piece. I won’t bother repeating the observations others have made, but I can confirm that my own experiences in the media I produce absolutely support your position.

    With one caveat… Every time you interact with your audience, you’re playing a high-stakes game. Every community has its haters and its trolls. When you open the door and speak to them directly you run the risk of encouraging them. Or worse yet, empowering them. Judging by the response to your post, I’d say you’ve had an excellent demonstration of that danger.

    But THAT SHOULDN’T STOP YOU. Go in to it with your eyes open, knowing a few fools will take the opportunity to snipe. Doesn’t matter. By responding in a professional way you enhance your personal brand – and you might even pick up some useful insights into your audience.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. Keep up the great work.

    • “With one caveat… Every time you interact with your audience, you’re playing a high-stakes game. Every community has its haters and its trolls. When you open the door and speak to them directly you run the risk of encouraging them. Or worse yet, empowering them. Judging by the response to your post, I’d say you’ve had an excellent demonstration of that danger.”
      Agreed. I responded to many comments I normally would have ignored, in order to make a point about how keeping calm is what you need to do, not matter what is written, or how your words are received. Deep breaths! :-)

      “But THAT SHOULDN’T STOP YOU. Go in to it with your eyes open, knowing a few fools will take the opportunity to snipe. Doesn’t matter. By responding in a professional way you enhance your personal brand – and you might even pick up some useful insights into your audience.”
      I posted a response to a somewhat unkind review, and although the original reviewer never replied, a totally different reader wrote: “I am thinking that the author’s response dramatically shows the difference between Whiskey Tango* and class. Well done Elle!!!!”

      An author (who I was not acquainted with) wrote to me after reading a different review of one of my books and my response to it: “I can take lessons from your level-headed and cheerful response to a review like that. I myself prefer to drown my sorrows at such things in copious amounts of cheap wine and Spanish cheeses.”

      You’re right: “By responding in a professional way you enhance your personal brand…”

      Thanks for posting!

      *”Whiskey Tango” is a joke from the book.

  6. Interesting blogs. I like the concept of readers as customers. I haven’t yet had a terrible review. I did have a review that criticized me because the title of my book led the reviewer to imagine a different book — one I did not write. The comments were actually quite positive and the rating was average so I didn’t think it was worth commenting on. I did comment on a review of an anthology where the author reviewed all the stories except for three. What the three authors of the stories, including me, had in common ,—beside writing exceptional stories —was that all three of us were male. After I calmed down, I wrote the reviewer suggesting that her behavior was sexist and inviting her response noting I intended to bog about this. She replied that she was sorry if I was offended but she only reviewed female authors. (I did not say I was offended.) With trepidation I did blog about her review and response. I invited the anthology editor and other to respond. The overwhelming majority of responders agreed with my assessment and I had more responses than anything else I had ever blogged about.

    • “I did not say I was offended.”
      Ah-ha! Yes, this is a tricky point, and one I think is best covered by this “Don’t”: ““It’s not necessary to open with an apology, mostly because you won’t know what you’re sorry for, and those mea culpas often come across as insincere anyway.”

      Very good example! I wonder that the reviewer didn’t mention in her review that she only reviewed female authors. But perhaps she thought most of her readers already knew that???

      Thanks so much for the interesting example!

  7. I find the idea of an author contacting me – as a reader – over a review to be very distasteful. I really don’t care for it even with a positive review. To be contacted over a negative review will place that author directly into my \NEVER READ\ list. The thing that authors should remember is that reviews are NOT for authors. I am not writing anything for you. Ever. I am not a beta reader, I am not an advertising opportunity. I read a book and wrote a review for my fellow readers only. If you as an author happened to get something from it, congrats. It still wasn’t for you. The facts are that once you release your book \into the wild\ you have lost control over it. I feel like the author who contacts me to discuss my negative review has let me know that they have no confidence in their work to let it stand on its own. You have just confirmed my initial opinion of you as a writer. Just…stop. Just stop. Stop contacting readers unless you are doing it with the sincere intention of trying to get to know that individual as a person and a possible friend. It will work better for you in the long run. So, please stop. Author who stalk (and stalking is what we readers call it, no matter your intention) reader reviews give all authors a bad reputation.

    • My dear Ms – oops, Mrs J, I have the exact opposite view as you do about an author contacting me. I find it to be personable, makes them real to me, maybe doesn’t change my mind about the book, but I know that my review has been read and possibly even given the author some ‘food for thought’., but having said that, I don’t understand why people – like yourself – are so adamant on this subject. Why does it matter to any of you if the author writes you or not? There are real problems in this worlds. Reviews, authors who care and books, are not among them.
      Sincerely,
      Ms Michelle

      • MsMichelle,

        I’m happy you feel that way. I don’t. I think it’s a poor analogy to compare disliking being contacted by someone – like the author trying to fix reviews here – to “real problems in the world.” If we are to continue in that vein, I would suggest you may be wasting time in responding to me instead of righting some of those horrible world problems. There do seem to be quite a few.

        As I stated earlier, I do not write reviews for authors. I am not a beta reader. I am not an editor. Those are the professionals who should give the “food for thought” to an author. It’s a sad state when the writing profession has sunk to the levels of chasing individual reader reviews.

        I don’t have any problem for an author to contact me because he/she found my review interesting and they want to be my friend. I have quite a few friends who are authors. But they do not talk to me about their books. They do not try to sell me their books. They do not try to explain to me what should have been explained to me in their book. They are simply friends.

        Again, it is a sad state when authors have to go around defending their books. The book should stand on its own. If it cannot, it was poorly written and deserves the negative reviews that it receives.

        Authors can do what they please. Contact all the reviewers you wish. But don’t start crying later with the backlash hits. Most readers do not want to be contacted by an author over a negative review.

    • “Stop contacting readers unless you are doing it with the sincere intention of trying to get to know that individual as a person and a possible friend.”

      I find this a very unusual observation. Although I HAVE made contact with many readers who then turned into friends, I never make that the MOTIVATION for contacting them or for providing good customer service. I’m thinking about how I would feel if I complained, say, at a department store about messy restrooms. I would consider it strange if the manager apologized for the messy restroom, promised to fix it…and then asked me if I wanted to go bowling on Thursday or said, “I’d really like to get to know you better…do you like Sodoku?”

      I do NOT recommend this as a sound customer service strategy.

      “Just…stop. Just stop…It will work better for you in the long run. So, please stop.”

      I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept that you and I differ on this very critical point, and will respectfully have to agree to disagree at this point. I’m not certain that any further dialogue on this point will be constructive. Thanks again for taking the time to post your opinion.

  8. I find this whole idea interesting, but ultimately, I still don’t think authors should contact negative reviewers, and my opinion on this subject is formed from having been a negative reviewer. Not long ago there was an incident where an author asked me to review his book–he sent me a copy, and specifically asked me for an honest review. I agreed. I’ve done this dozens of times in my blogging career, and it works out well for everyone 95% of the time…

    Well, I hated the book. And I mean, I found no redeeming or likeable qualities in it whatsoever. Now, it is typically my practice to rate the book and leave a few comments about it on goodreads before I write my review and set it to post whenever it’s due. Mere hours after my goodreads rating went up, the author contacted me via email. He was gracious, apologetic, and sincere. I believe he was absolutely everything your advice suggests that he be. He asked for specifics as to why I disliked the book enough to give it one star. He was professional. He was clearly a nice guy and a great businessman and all that jazz. Here’s the problem: I still really hated his book.

    His email made me feel the following emotions: guilt, frustration, and uncertainty. Guilt because, yeah, he’s a nice guy and a one star rating is statistically punitive. Frustration because now I felt I had to send him a critique as to what I hated about the book, which felt like something a beta reader ought to have done, which is NOT my job or my area of interest. And uncertainty because now I was sitting on this really negative review that was about to go live in twelve hours, and my integrity as a reviewer was at stake. If I changed the rating or even reworded the review, I felt like I was being dishonest or caving under emotional pressure. Being honest and reviewing the book and only the book is extremely important to me.

    In my response, I explained my reasons for disliking the book. I gave him a nice version of my critique in the email, but I also attached the negative review (unchanged) that was going on my blog. I told him that if he’d rather I not post the review, I’d honor his decision, but my goodreads and amazon ratings would stick no matter what. He thanked me and told me to post the review, and he apologized again. At the end of the experience I felt harassed and stressed. And keep in mind: I did not pay for this book. If I were a paying customer reviewing for the hell of it, instead of for my blog, those feelings of stress would have doubled because I would not have asked for this contact from the author to begin with.

    Contacting a reader like this can stress them out for several reasons. 1) Reviewers review for other readers, not for you. If we inadvertently end up promoting your book, that’s a bonus for you, but overall that isn’t my goal. Imagine you ate at a restaurant where the food was just horrible, and a few days later you were telling your friend about it, and all of the sudden the owner of said restaurant popped up out of nowhere to interrupt your conversation. He apologizes and asks you questions and offers you a refund. That’s great, but you didn’t ask for it, so now you feel stalked and a little creeped out. That’s what you’re doing when you respond to book reviews. 2) We are not reviewing you, or even \Business You\. We are reviewing your book. That meal we ate was still vomit inducing, and there is no changing that fact. I still hated that author’s book. Making me feel guilty and conflicted served no purpose, and in the end no one benefited.

    • “Reviewers review for other readers, not for you.”
      On sites like Goodreads, I would agree with you. However, Amazon is a “store” where my product is sold. Amazon gives authors tools through Author Central specifically to read and respond to customer reviews.

      “We are not reviewing you, or even \Business You\. We are reviewing your book.”
      Again, I respectfully disagree with you. Otherwise, no customer would ever leave any conversation in which they’ve complained to a manager satisfied. It’s an experience, in my opinion, just like any other, although with a book it feels more personal–for both reader and author.

      Thanks for posting your thoughts. I hope you’ll take the time to read some of the case studies in the coming weeks. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/when-you-wish-upon-a-star-you-get-the-pointy-end-author-reader-contact-case-study-1/

      • You seem to have your mind set that contacting people who dislike your work already is a good thing. Have you ever actually worked in Customer Service?? I have, for years. And very few of your comments sound like customer service. It sounds like harassment. It makes me sad. Maybe it might be a better idea to focus on honing your craft rather than chasing Amazon reviews. I’ve never been contacted by my favorite author. But I manage to be a repeat customer of hers. Strange, huh?

        • “Have you ever actually worked in Customer Service?”

          Six year managing three different movie theaters. One year as a firefighter rookie on the wagon (fire truck) and five years as an Emergency Medical Technician at a fire and rescue department outside Washington, D.C. Several years as a waitress at Friendly’s, Ruby Tuesdays, cashier at Bradlees department store and Lowe’s and a Mobil gas station. Six years managing several hundred clinical research studies at the University of Colorado. One of the presentations I gave stressed that the clinical researchers and their staff were our “customers,” and outlined “best practices” for providing excellent customer service when no actual money was exchanged.

          That was a very long way of saying “yes.” Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

            • “And yet you still think this is an advisable course of action?”

              Clearly I do, or I would not have written the opinion piece. In what industry is “be gracious,” “make it right,” “don’t take it personally” NOT good customer service. I am afraid I do not understand your business argument.

              Thanks again for taking the time to post.

      • Well this is certainly an interesting discussion, and I guess there are multiple sides to it. My number one goal in leaving this comment was to make you aware of how it can feel to be a reviewer. While you may think that the reviews are there for you to respond to, a lot of reviewers don’t see it that way, and so we may be taken aback, and stressed out, when you respond to us. Even if you do so very nicely. It’s a simple fact that we aren’t sure of your motives when you respond, and there might be a lot of guilt or uncertainty. You set yourself up in the role of customer service person and problem solver, but most of us didn’t intend to bring our problems to you to begin with.

        That said, I think you have the best on intentions, which is fantastic. I just hope that authors are one hundred percent aware of the pitfalls of starting a dialogue with someone that might not want one.

        • “Well this is certainly an interesting discussion, and I guess there are multiple sides to it.”
          As I am discovering. ;-)

          “My number one goal in leaving this comment was to make you aware of how it can feel to be a reviewer.”
          And I definitely recognize and appreciate that. Perhaps my response did not reflect that; if that’s the case I do apologize!

          “While you may think that the reviews are there for you to respond to, a lot of reviewers don’t see it that way, and so we may be taken aback, and stressed out, when you respond to us.”
          I do understand that. It is never my intention to cause someone distress, but it’s certainly possible that it has happened (although I have no way of knowing this). What I DO know is that every reader I have contacted, and who responded in kind has expressed gratitude for the contact (no matter how negative or vitriolic their review, or what their complaint was). It shouldn’t be surprising then that I should believe that reaching out to these readers has satisfied their grievance.

          “That said, I think you have the best on intentions, which is fantastic.”
          I thank you for that, and I very much appreciate your comments and the argument you have made. I’m sure many people will read it an agree with you!

          Case Study #2 will hopefully post today. (If you thought the comments in Parts 1 & 2 were heated, wait ’til you get a look at the #2 review! :-D )

          I would very much welcome your thoughts and feedback if you have time to read it.

        • I’m not sure I understand why a reviewer would be “taken aback” or “stressed out” by an author contacting them about a review in a friendly manner. Surely, when you write reviews you must assume that the author may, at some point, read that review. But are you concerned that you may be “stressing out” that author when you review negatively? No, of course not. Nor SHOULD you be.

          But if an author DOES read that review and responds in a friendly, sincere manner, I fail to see why that would stress you out.

          That said, as much as I love Elle, I’m not sure she’s right about responding to reviews. She has certainly given me food for thought, however, and it will take me a while to make a final decision about her idea.

    • This is exactly how I feel. I also review and blog and had this same thing happen to me. I felt horribly stressed, frustrated and uncomfortable. I ended up not posting the review. I also told the author that I would not be willing to read anything else by them. I am not a beta reader.

      And I’m glad to know that authors feel that posting a review at Amazon is an invitation to be contacted. I will make sure not to post any more reviews at Amazon. Hopefully that will kill the issue in my case.

      • “And I’m glad to know that authors feel that posting a review at Amazon is an invitation to be contacted.”

        Amazon is a store, and gives its “vendors” (i.e. authors) a tool called Author Central in order to make it easier to read and respond to customers (i.e. reviews) all in one place. I do not recommend that authors post responses or comments on Goodreads, for example, as this is not a store where one’s product is sold, and therefore the purpose of the site is completely different from that of a “storefront” like Amazon where one’s products are for sale.

        “I will make sure not to post any more reviews at Amazon.”

        If author contact makes you uncomfortable (which it certainly seems to–and this is neither a good or bad thing, it just IS), then I think perhaps this is a good strategy for avoiding such encounters.

        Thanks again for posting.

  9. I think there’s another reason to respond to negative reviews: to understand better why the reader didn’t like the book. I recently reviewed a book and said that I found the protagonist “unlikeable”. The author contacted me, and asked what it was about his character I didn’t like. We ended up having an in-depth discussion of anti-heroes and flawed heroes, and although I didn’t change my review in any way, I did agree to read the next book in the series to see how the character had developed – not, I must stress, as a result of our conversation or anything I said, but because the series is about the way the character evolves and deals with his personal issues. The author and I have subsequently become regular correspondents.

    • “I think there’s another reason to respond to negative reviews: to understand better why the reader didn’t like the book. ”

      Absolutely. As I write in the piece: “And guess what? You might be wrong. “You don’t know everything…and readers know that. ” There’s no end to what I’ve learned from corresponding with my readers!

      Thanks for your comment!

  10. Interesting that comments have been closed for part one of this series.

    Probably others have made this point, but I’ll add my voice anyway. When I read customer’s reviews of a book, I expect to see reader’s opinions of the book. I’m not interested in whether they feel that they got good “customer service” from the author in the form of a refund (or whatever) for a book they didn’t like. I want to know whether they liked the book, and why.

    By interfering with negative reviews, you are gaming the system. What you’re doing is as dishonest as paying people to write positive reviews and delete their negative reviews. What you are doing (and recommending that others do!) is immoral and shameful.

    • I’m afraid that I’ve decided at this juncture not to engage any further with people who choose to use name-calling as a debate strategy. In my experience, when a discussion begins on such a heated, emotional level for one individual, it rarely is constructive. Tell me that you disagree with me, fine. But just like in a face-to-face encounter, using highly-charged words such as “immoral” and “shameful” is only done to ratchet up the emotional temperature of the conversation–NOT to provoke meaningful dialogue between two people. If you would like to comment at some point using different language, I’d be happy to read and respond.

      Thanks for reading.

  11. I think the primary difference between customer service/customers and authors/reviewers is that in the former, the customer has asked for the service provider to engage. A reviewer has not spoken directly to an author, has not requested changes to the piece, and usually has not asked for a refund. A customer at a hotel, restaurant, clothing store, etc., has gone to a manager and asked for a change. They have sought out rectification for the problem they saw in the product, and thus begun the conversation. As others have mentioned, the reviewer speaks to readers. The customer at the clothing store is speaking to a manager, which, to complete the analogy, is the author, not the reviewer, therefore the two are completely unlike. To compare them is to compare apples and oranges. They are entirely separate conversations.

  12. I’m not sure I agree with this. I’ve seen many reviews on Amazon for other products besides books in which a bad review was followed by a comment from the manufacturer of the product asking if there is anything they could do to alleviate the customer’s dissatisfaction.

    Now, obviously, there isn’t much an author can do in that regard, except perhaps offer a refund, but I don’t think we’re talking apples and oranges at all.

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