Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Reviews: How Should Writers Respond?

I’ll begin with a confession: I haven’t closely followed the recent Goodreads reader-writer wars. What I gather through my informant—a niece who’s quite active on Goodreads and has a love for books so deep that she recently organized a campaign to get a book un-banned in her former school district—is that certain reader-writer discussions over reviews escalated to the point that Goodreads declared a new policy of removing comments that target authors personally, comments that were aggravated when authors jumped into the fray by responding to reader reviews.

Slow down, people, and take a deep breath. Reader response is part of what you signed on for when you decided to publish a book. To rail back at unfavorable reviews is more than unprofessional; it’s downright childish.

As a writer, you should covet the responses of readers, good and bad. As it happens, this month I’m leaning heavily on reader responses to guide the pre-production polishing of two of my novels—Cold Spell, a literary crossover in women’s fiction, and No Returns, a middle grade novel co-authored with the lovely Gail Giles. So I’m in a good place to offer these tips for authors who want to know how to best approach the reviews they get from their readers, both before and after publication.

·        Check your ego at the door. Your book is not you. It’s not your baby. Not everyone will love it or even like it; as author Cindy Dyson points out, if someone doesn’t hate it, you’re probably not doing your job. Your book is the product of your best creative efforts, and yet it can always be better. You did set out to write the best book you could, didn’t you? Then your attitude toward each and every reader response should be gratitude.
·        Every response is a gift, but that doesn’t mean that you have to use it. Upon close examination, you may decide a particular comment isn’t right for you or your book; if that’s the case, stash it away. I know this is tough when the review is published online, but reviews are what they are. Learn what you can from them, and move on.
·        Whether a review comes from a beta reader or is delivered after publication, be methodical in your approach to it. Set your emotions aside. Read the comments. Sort them. Wait. Repeat as necessary. Use both sides of brain: analyze, and also let your intuition have at it.
·        Consciously hold back your defenses. Criticism is not an attack. Keep in mind that if you’re any kind of a reader yourself, it’s the rare book you’ve found flawless.
·        Consider where the comments are pointing. Often a reader’s response is only an opening to an area that needs work; the real problem may lie elsewhere. For instance, if a reader says your character isn’t memorable, that doesn’t mean you should give her spiked purple hair and a third eye. It may instead mean that you need to reveal more of her complexities and vulnerabilities.
·        Never dismiss a comment out of hand. Make response notes for yourself, in which you carefully and objectively consider each response, good and bad, and decide whether to act on it, either in a revision or your next project. Sometimes,  a comment is merely a reflection of taste.
·        If you solicit comments from beta readers, allow time in your production or submission schedule to process and act on them. If the comments come in the form of post-publication reviews, don’t argue them, and don’t rewrite the book. Your project has met the world. If you released it before it was ready, you’re a better and wiser writer now, and you’ll learn from your mistake. If your book deserves to be forgotten, it will be. Prudence, judgment, discernment—all of these boring attributes serve a writer well.
·        The only response you should have for your readers is “thank you.” (See point number one: cultivate an attitude of gratitude.)