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When Reviews Go Bad

Amy Leibowitz Blog marketing politics reviews self care social media writing writing encouragement

While pondering what to write this week, I posed the question to other readers and writers on what they were interested in seeing. One colleague suggested "self-care in a culture of ad hominem attacks." This is timely, considering I'd just read another colleague's admonition to authors not to engage with reviewers on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.

Reviewing is a tricky business on both sides of the coin. Perhaps it's easier for big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling (see also: the drama surrounding her tweet about muting dissenters). Or maybe it's just as challenging but those authors appear to us almost untouchable.

In any case, there's a particularly delicate balance between reviewers and authors when it comes to small presses, indie books, and niche genres. On the one hand, authors with small reach rely on blogs, Goodreads, and Amazon to get the word out. On the other hand, that means having to engage with reviews in a way that well-known and large-press authors don't.

So what's an indie author to do in the face of potentially terrible reviews, especially when having to sift through for positive reviews for marketing? And what happens when a review is less about the book and more about the reviewer's perception of the author as a person?

I've been on both sides of this, as an author and as a reviewer. As a writer, it's tough at times to sit on my hands and not speak up, especially if the reviewer has significant details wrong. As a reviewer, it's difficult to be honest when a review request has come from a person I respect and whose work I love.

My first piece of advice, in agreement with my colleague, is that authors should not engage with reviewers. Send an email to thank them for a blog review, but put nothing more in there than simple appreciation. Don't like or comment on Goodreads or Amazon or any other public book space. Reviews are for readers. Being able to graciously step away says a lot about us as authors.

Second, don't read the reviews at all if possible. I send the link to positive reviews I've done. I let authors know if I can't give a book a good rating or review, and I don't send the links. It's a tough conversation to have, but I respect the author even knowing my reviews aren't for them. If you can avoid actually reading them, perhaps even designate a colleague or two who can help you sort through to find good ones to promote, that will cut down on stress.

Third, when the review gets personal, see it for what it is. Is the review actually personal, or does it just feel that way? Many of us are highly sensitive along with being creative. It makes our work better, but it leaves us vulnerable to feeling discouraged, to imposter syndrome, and to internalizing criticism. Take a deep breath and ask yourself if the reviewer simply didn't like the way you wrote or if they used intentional language to attack your personhood.

If something in the review was personal, try to tease out whether that was at a societal/bigotry level or a personal one. "There was too much gayness in this book" is a societal prejudice. It's not about you, but may be about a marginalized group you're part of. That speaks more about the reviewer (and society as a whole) than about you as a writer. Find an outlet for your (justifiable) anger, perhaps some form of activism. Also, keep writing those stories with "too much gayness" (or whatever other subject).

Finally, if the review (or blog post or other source) directly attacked you, either by name or as "the author," that's the best time of all to step away. It's so hard! Some authors have resorted to getting their friends to respond. Don't do that either. A review attacking an author is never, ever really about you. It is about the person who wrote it and whatever feelings they thought were acceptable to express in that form.

It's important to make sure that what's being said doesn't cross any legal lines. Slander, libel, and harassment should go through proper channels if you are able to report them.

None of that makes it hurt less, though. Here are a few suggestions for self-care in the face of cruelty:

  1. Step away. Take a break. Have tea, take a nap, soak in the tub, color a picture. (I absolutely love the Color Therapy app for this purpose.)
  2. Work out your frustrations at the gym, around the block, or on your treadmill.
  3. Engage in one of your hobbies or discover a new one.
  4. Call a friend. Vent about it. Let your friend take care of you. Do this in private, not in a public internet post (learned the hard way, I assure you).
  5. Funnel your sadness and anger into writing new things. One person was a bonehead? Their loss. You do you, and keep telling the rest of the world your stories.

Of course, I should also add that if this is triggering difficulty with your mental health, please see your care practitioner to address your needs. Not everything can be solved with simple self-care techniques.

What other things would you add to the list?

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