It Isn’t Just Your Story Anymore: Authors, Reviewers, and the Power of Ink
On her Livejournal, m/m romance reviewer today asks two questions: Do you find one star reviews to be of any value? Do you think books submitted for review by the author are owed a review? She’s asking these questions because after being asked for a review and giving it honestly, she was verbally assaulted in email by the author of the work.
There are so many issues packed into this kerfluffle that I don’t even know where to begin. And it’s something I keep seeing and hearing all across the board, not even just in this genre. So instead of answering Kassa’s questions, I want to reroute the discussion. The bottom line is this: authors need reviewers, and we need to treat them with dignity and respect at all times, no matter how we are reviewed. Here’s why.
Obscurity will get you nowhere, or, all ink is good ink. I would think that authors would figure this out as soon as they get their first quarter’s royalty numbers, but it doesn’t seem to work that way somehow, and I’m not sure what to blame. I think probably it’s because the myth of bestsellerdom is right up there next to Santa Claus and Jesus. Like SC and JC, the point isn’t even whether or not the myth exists or where the truth lies: the problem is that people want the myth to be true in the full tri-color vision of their dreams, and they will happily ignore reality to accommodate this fallacy. I get asked at least once a week if my husband has quit his job yet. People get upset when they hear my advances wouldn’t pay the monthly credit card bill and that my royalty checks so far might at best fund a modest weekend away. They aren’t upset because they feel my publisher owes me more money; they’re upset at the dent in their reality.
I think authors suffer from this too. I know I do. There’s this underlying sense that if I build it, they will come, and when they don’t come in the full horde of the Second Coming, it’s unsettling. There’s a sense of injustice at the idea that after killing myself to write the damn story, now I have to go and schlep it too? First I have to be so introverted and reclusive that I can make a whole world on paper, and now I have to go and pimp it? Seriously? It feels wrong on a moral level. And yet, especially in the e-book and small genre world, it’s reality. Its actually the reality for all authors who don’t have the push of a big publisher’s PR department, and the number who get that is lowering every single day. And when your main vehicle for promotion is the wilds of the Internet—yes, you’re screwed before you so much as step out the door.
This is where the reviewer comes in.
A reviewer is an aggregator. A reviewer is a maven. A reviewer is your effing best friend even if she hates your book. Because every instance of your cover and your blurb and every pixel of commentary about your work is advertising. Every. Single. One. Even a destructive commentary that designates your hard work as digital toilet paper is ink you didn’t have before they spoke your book’s name. Yes, we want positive reviews. Yes, we want the big love and the five star and the book of the week position. Yes, these are the crown jewels. But there really is value in every review, and authors need to cop to that, and quick.
I do agree that reviewers should be respectable. I think snark has little place in a review. I think destroying a work simply because it’s fun is unprofessional—and I rarely see it done long term. Such things quickly become self-policing. But what authors seem to forget is that it’s not the reviewer we’re after: it’s their readers. The reviewer already has the book. We want the people who don’t know our names. We want the people who never would have picked us up had the reviewer not mentioned us. Yes, it seems unlikely many will if it’s a low rating. But this, author, is the risk we have to take. And if all reviewers are positive, no reader will believe the reviewer and will look elsewhere. Which brings us to point number two.
The point of publishing a story is not to generate a fan club: it is to share your story. My goal as an author is to share my story with other people who love it. I don’t put out stories so that other people will tell me I’m brilliant and I can therefore feel good about myself. I also don’t suffer from the delusion that every single person on the planet will like everything I write. Yes, I’m always striving to cast the widest net, but I’m never going to achieve some nirvana state where everyone loves me or my work. I put a story out there to share it. And just like anything else shared, there are two points to consider: the giving of a story is a gift, and it must be given freely.
I have grave concerns over authors who publicly argue with readers and reviewers who don’t like their stories. It’s one thing to have hurt feelings and cry to a best friend or a partner; it’s another to shout back at the reviewer, and it’s horrifying to hear this happens to readers. It’s not just unprofessional: it’s rude. These people have paid money. They literally own this story now too. And once they read it, once those words pass into their brain, it interacts with their worldview instead of the author’s. This is the miracle we’re trying to achieve, right here. This is the magic of sharing, of our vision interacting with another mind. To not just believe but expect this to always be exactly as we imagine the interaction will be is beyond juvenile, though it is understandably human. However, to actively berate others for failing to join your personal vision, authors, is treasonous.
But perhaps there’s a sense that a reviewer who is given a book didn’t pay, and therefore the author is owed? Now it’s time for point number three.
Reviewing books is a lot of work, and reviewers don’t have to do it. I’d like any author who wants to argue me on this point to try to carry on their job and/or their writing and then read the same amount of books and offer the same length and depth of feedback as reviewers give before they try to argue that reviewers “owe us” for free books. Writers better than anyone should know that to take the time to write anything down with any kind of cogency takes time and mental effort. To do this over and over again with books takes not just time and effort but devotion and probably love as well. Reviewers should never be mocked; they should only be loved. Once again, the focus here is not on the reviewer, but on the reader. They provide a service we cannot replicate in any other way. They become focal points by which our work is aggregated. Their readers come to them because they trust the reviewer and value the service they provide. If they dislike the reviewer, they will leave. They will also, believe it or not, frequently disagree with their reviewer. If even one person follows a link given on a post (which most reviewers give) and purchases the book despite the bad review, you have a sale you would not otherwise have had.
If these reviewers stop reviewing, we lose audience. We lose networks. We lose contacts. We lose sales. These people pay us in ways that would take me several blog posts to fully articulate. But they give us something else too: opportunities for growth.
Reviews are mirrors, and all of us could stand to lose or gain a few pounds. Even the most banal review is an insight into what our work looks like when reflected through the eyes of a reader. Not all reviews are helpful; sometimes all we learn is that the reviewer isn’t our reader. But if most or even many of our reviews are negative, we as authors should pay attention, because clearly our attempt at communicating our vision did not go as we had planned. This is not the reader’s fault, but our own. Of course, the real truth is that sometimes we have no choice: frequently, the work is what it is. But there is so much to be learned in reader response, and all reviewers are at heart readers with megaphones. It’s a hard lesson to hear what might have not worked in your story, yes, but that doesn’t mean the criticism doesn’t have value. And yes, very low reviews are hard. It’d very difficult to accept that anyone doesn’t like our work, because it feels like they’re attacking us. Sometimes the reader really did miss the point and simply isn’t our reader—but has a megaphone. But the truth is that any author who can’t manage that pain offscreen has no business being in the game.
This is your job, author. Act professional. I get very angry with my peers for coming all this way to publication and then being completely ignorant about business. I’d like to think that people who can imagine whole worlds would be better at seeing the broad net it takes to lure and retain readers, but perhaps that’s the problem: our imaginations have created a wider audience than our reality, and instead of meeting that vision we’re angry and lash out at those we’ve decided are at fault. But the truth is that when we submit for publication, there’s more than just the contract we sign with our house. We give a contract to a reader. We say, this is a story I have made and which I offer to you. Even when it’s on a blog or a website or given away free, it’s still a contract, but when there’s money involved, it’s even more serious.
Readers give money. Readers give time. Readers give trust and hope to us, and in exchange they want a good story. That’s it. We can’t always give it to them, and they know that. Yes, some are more adult about sharing their displeasure than others. But as the professionals in the room, it’s our job to maintain our grace and dignity at all times. Yes, sometimes we have to suck up some hurt feelings. Yes, sometimes good work will be unfairly reviewed. But not always, and not without penalty. Authors need to keep in mind the long vision, which is reaching as many readers as possible for as long as possible. Everything else is a distraction.
So, to answer Kassa: one star reviews are helpful, because all reviews are helpful, and all ink is good ink. No, you don’t owe us anything, even if we give you a free book. You are not our whore. You are not our servant. You and all reviewers are our allies in an effort which should at all times be undertaken out of love and mutual respect. You owe your readers (and ours) honesty and integrity. You owe us nothing, because if you do, then your review will be tainted, and the readers will know, and they will leave, and the real aim of the game is now dead.
Any author who stoops to shouting back at reviewers or readers isn’t adult enough to play the game and needs to go home. Teenage girls belong in high school hallways, not the publishing industry. Unprofessional authors spoil the party for everyone, and like all bullies, they need to be dealt with. I took two hours I did not have to write this post because it’s that important to me to call out authors who bully reviewers and readers and demean my profession. Any author who wants to argue with me? Bring it.
Readers, reviewers: please never let the bad apples distract you from the party. I’m glad you’re here, and I will continue to work hard to give us all the best time possible when you chose to dance with me. I promise that when you find my dancing lacking, I will treat you with respect, even if you do, by accident or on purpose, hurt my feelings. Because like you, what I love is the dance, the wonder that reading and sharing gives us. That is why I am here. That is why I have come. They are not just my stories now. They are ours.
To Kassa and to all reviewers (and readers) who have been unjustly maligned by an author? I apologize for my peers and humbly ask you to continue to review, and to read, and to share our stories with each other. Thank you for all that you do.