When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End (Part 1): Why Authors Should ALWAYS Respond To Negative Reviews
By the time the manager of the New York City Grand Hyatt found me, I was hyperventilating with rage. “I just want to warn you,” I said through gritted teeth, “that I’m really pissed, and I’m probably going to end up using every curse word I know and improvise a few more as I go.” As I ranted, the manager’s face was a mask of dispassion. I wrapped up my laundry list of complaints, crossed my arms, and waited. Finally, he said…nothing. The two of us stood there “un-budged,” eyeballing each other like the Zax in the Dr. Seuss poem (except that unlike “the prairie of Prax,” the Hyatt was comfortably air-conditioned).
Finally, disgusted with him, the bell hop, New York City, and myself for wasting $299/night, I stalked off, vowing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” No, wait, sorry—that was someone else. Someone else said that.
Anyway, as I stomped off to the elevator, I vowed that I would never again stay at the Grand Hyatt—or any other Hyatt for that matter! If the hotel had been a novel, I would have rated it like this:
Did our interaction actually start like this, you ask? Short answer: Yes. Did this showdown actually end like this, with the hotel manager doing a Weekend at Bernie’s impression? Well…
If you’re at all familiar with my blogs, you know that I’m now going to parallel park that thought and get down to business (though it might appear to the untrained eye that I’m making a three-point turn and burning rubber in the opposite direction). I’ve heard it dozens of times, from authors to agents to editors to PR folks—all with decades of publishing experience under their belts. Delivered in a tone of absolute certainty, it’s generally followed by grave nods of agreement all ‘round. It is one of publishing’s most dearly held pearls of conventional wisdom:
“Never respond to reader reviews. NEVER.”
“I respond to reviews all the time,” I say, whenever the topic comes up. After a pause, someone will clarify: “Well, of course you should respond to good reviews, just not the bad ones.” My go-to reply: “Are you kidding me? I comment on good reviews every once in a while, but as soon as I find out that I’ve gotten a bad review, I stop whatever I’m doing and run to my computer like my ass is on fire. The faster you respond, the better.” Cue expressions of incredulity and/or pity, well-meant, illustrative anecdotes, even a cautionary tale or two, including at least one of the following:
- “Authors are sensitive people. They don’t like anyone telling them that ‘their baby’s ugly.’” Perhaps best illustrated by indie-published author Jacqueline Howett ‘s ill-advised outburst over what she perceived to be an unfair review of her novel The Greek Seaman, a breakdown so irresistibly entertaining that it went viral, leaving her with enough bad PR to fill the hole to China she’d dug for herself.
- “Authors should write books and not offer opinions.” On anything, apparently, as evidenced by the reader backlash leveled at New York Times bestselling author Douglas Preston after his unfortunate “Wal-Mart mentality” comment—outrage that came in the form of hundreds of scathing 1-star reviews of his novels.
- “Review pages are for readers speaking to other readers, not to authors.” According to this school of thought, readers will be so alarmed upon learning that an author is an actual, living, breathing human being, that any response from her (no matter how benign) would oblige the reader to reach for smelling salts, effectively putting the kibosh on any future discussion in that forum.
This kind of thinking perpetuates the idea that an author’s sole purpose is to park himself behind a keyboard in a dimly lit room, only rarely venturing out into the Sunlit Lands, and then only long enough to lob his newest novel over the fence. Ideally, said author would be bustled as quickly as possible back to his Lair of Creativity before his body’s sudden, desperate attempt to manufacture vitamin D made the poor, pasty fellow lose consciousness.
Listen, authors: I get it, okay? I have firsthand knowledge (many times over) of “the final push”—those agonizing days and weeks as you near “The End” when you’re not eating, sleeping, or bathing (illustrated nicely by this recent text from my friend, Graham Brown, as his deadline loomed: “Looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Not talking to a volleyball yet, but that can’t be far off.”) If you’re a guy, this is the closest you’ll ever get to experiencing childbirth.
However, unless you’re planning to donate your tome to an origami club, I’m guessing that you’ll be offering it for sale. I’m further assuming you’d like to sell lots of books—MORE each month, in fact! In that case, once you type “The End,” it’s absolutely critical that you do two things immediately:
- Stop thinking like an author and start thinking like a businessperson.
- Stop thinking of online reviewers as “readers” and start thinking of them as customers.
Consider this thought from Patricio Robles piece “How Do You Handle Feedback?” on Econsultancy.com: “[T]he opinions of paying customers (or potential customers you attempt to sell to) should be treated like gold, even if the feedback feels like lead.” Or this from Michel Stefan’s, et al, “Making the Most of Customer Complaints” in The Wall Street Journal: “…it’s crucial for companies to realize that the way they handle customer complaints is every bit as important as trying to provide great service in the first place.” Authors are consumers too, so this advice seems so obvious, so benign, because neither Robles nor Stefan are specifically referring to selling books. But with just a few, choice word substitutions…
- The reviews of paying readers (or potential readers you attempt to sell to) should be treated like gold, even if the criticism feels like lead.
- …it’s crucial for authors to realize that the way they handle negative reader reviews is every bit as important as writing a good novel in the first place.
How high are your hackles now? C’mon, somebody’s got to be sputtering invective-laced dissent at their computer screen right now. Just why is it so hard for authors to accept a customer service concept that’s universal in every other industry? Because while it’s true that business concepts can generally be applied to anything from beer to blankets to books, for an author (especially a traditionally published author), “the customer” can be a moving target on the long road to the bookshelf. Agents, editors, marketing directors, PR folks, bookstores, libraries, distributors—you’re out to please them, so they’re sorta like customers, right? Wrong. And confusion on this point will definitely not serve you well, so I’ll make it easy for you:
Customer = Reader
If you mosey over to Amazon and take a peek at the The Frog Prince or Sleeping Beauty, you’ll find that, on average, 86% of Amazon reviews for The Frog Prince and Sleeping Beauty are in the 4-star/5-star range (out of 78 and 47 reviews, respectively as of this writing). But that’s not to say that I haven’t received negative reviews blistering enough to ignite dry brush. Here’s a quick taste of some of the best of the worst–two of which will be explored in more detail and expanded upon in posts to follow:
“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.”
“…the story line of actually meeting a pseudo prince in Denver is embarrassing, at most… I lived in Denver for 5 years and I find the descriptions of the restaurants, bars to be a bit well… bizarre.”
“…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.”
“I hated this book! Boring story, stupid plot, and the characters were flat. Do not waste your money!”
Of course, you won’t actually find any of these reviews there now—at least, not exactly, and not with the 1-star ratings they were originally given. Why? Because when I got my first 1-star review back in 2010, I didn’t close my eyes, “wish upon a star,” and hope it would all go away. Frankly, I was appalled—not at the reader, or the content of her review, but by the fact that someone had paid money for my work, disliked it enough to write a negative review, and I was keeping their money! I don’t know about you, but if I was on the paying end of that raw deal, it would leave a taste in my mouth worse than chewing on a bad peanut.
So I took action.
I responded to every bad review I got, even if I had to do deep breathing, sleep on it, or wait a few days until my head was in a better place. (I responded to good reviews too, but there are only so many ways to write “I’m glad you thought my book was so awesome” before you kinda/sorta start to feel like a suck-up.)
Would you be surprised if I told you that every negative review I’ve responded to that resulted in a dialogue [this is key] with the reader ended with them 1) deleting their review altogether; 2) amending their review with more favorable language; 3) Increasing their rating at least one “star,” but more typically by two, three, or even four?
In fact, never has my attempt to reach out to a reader resulted in a negative outcome. Deafening silence, sure, but never negativity. What kind of “author voodoo” did I cast on these unhappy readers that turned them into happy, review-revising fans? In my next post “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews,” I will explain the whys of the “dos and don’ts” for authors considering responding to their negative reviews. In Case Study #1 and #2, I will describe—in painful, mortifying detail—two of the worst reviews I’ve ever received, the often heated communication from readers that followed (although the “heat” was one-sided and never came from me), and the final outcome.
Oh, and that hotel manager from the Grand Hyatt? After I nearly bit his head off in the lobby that unfortunate afternoon, he comped my room, gave me a $200 bar credit, and sent wine, fruit, and cheese up to the room every day for the rest of my stay. Of course, with all that alcohol the rest of the week was a little on the hazy side, but when I checked out that Sunday, my review of the Grand Hyatt had changed to this:
[Many people posted here or emailed me expressing curiosity about what exactly happened at the Hyatt that caused me to become so angry (and for them, in turn, to respond in the way that they did). On 6/22 I blogged about the incident here.]
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.”
Read Part 4 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #2.”