How to Respond to Reviews

You did it!

You wrote a thing, and you published it. It’s out there for the world to see. You want people to read it. You’re asking people to read it. You’ve sent all your favorite people free copies, hoping they’ll read it, and you even arranged for book tours and blog posts. Maybe you paid money for ads. You sent copies to major review outlets (and, ouch, the postage!) and the reviews are coming in.

Now what do you do?

Some writers will tell you that they don’t read reviews. I think what they mean is that they don’t read reviews on Amazon, where the review policy is open to broad interpretation of usage, oversight of reviews ranges from minimal to meddling to erratic, and there is, regrettably, an established habit by certain trollsters to leave one-star reviews for anyone or anything they have a grudge against (literary fiction by women, for instance.)

There is also some questionable usage even on sites like NetGalley or Goodreads, which are established to create literary communities of readers. When I spotted a 2-star review of A LESSON IN MANNERS on Goodreads, I looked up the reviewer, curious about what sort of books this reader likes, and wondering how they came across mine. Their profile said they live in the Philippines, joined GR in 2018, and there is one book on their entire booklist: mine, with its 2-star review. Huh. There’s a second reviewer who gave LIM 2 stars, and when I checked their profile, I saw they gave Alice Hoffman a 1-star review. Ouch! So, I’m in good company as far as books not enjoyed by that reader. Perspective helps.

What really gives you cachet in the Literary World are reviews in venues that are written by professional reviewers who are paid to read and fairly evaluate your work. You know, those little rags like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Book Page, that sort of thing. Those give you huge bragging rights. (Did I mention that LIM got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly? Oh, I did? Lots of times? OK, then.)

It’s also well worth your time to read reviews of your book that come out in regional publications with paid reviewers, like local newspapers, literary societies, and the like. These folks work hard, read widely, and are taken seriously by readers, if not the publishers who are cutting paid book reviewing staff because why pay for quality book reviews when everyone just goes to Amazon. If you can get these reviews, they are also gold. (Props to Rob Cline of the Gazette, who reviewed both LIM and THE NECESSARIES! Sorry they cut your review job, Rob!)

It also helps to have reviews in legitimate review publications where reviewers are not paid but are literate folks who read in this genre and have informed opinions. The Historical Novels Review, for instance, or the Midwest Book Review, for another. (Did I mention that Jodie Toohey wrote a terrific review of The Ness for the MBR Reviewer’s Bookwatch? What, I didn’t? Well, you can read it here!)

How many times you want to check your book on Amazon, or Goodreads, or wherever else it appears where people can publicly discuss and rate it under the democratic principle that every reader’s opinion gets equal weight and every voice is heard–that’s a decision every author has to make for themselves. I occasionally visit my books, but as they tend to generate neither wide discussion nor furious backlash, there are rarely hard feelings (The Ness still has only 1 review on Amazon, but it’s a 5-star review, so, good average–yay!). More often, there’s a warm and pleasurable shout-out from a friend far away (hey, look, Chrishawn put my book on her to-read list! Hi, Crishawn! How have you been?).

But then again, as somebody who’s been in and around and observing and reflecting on the Literary World for some time, I’ve learned the First Rule of letting your work free in the world, and it is this: Once you’ve released it, it’s no longer yours.

That’s right. Your name is on it, and you own the copyright, and you need to file taxes on any royalties the book earns, so, technically, yes, it’s your intellectual property. But philosophically speaking, your creation no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the World. It belongs to the Reader.

And it is theirs to read, dog-ear, think about, argue with, talk back to, claim, and own. Also write in, if they wish (*gasp, gasp*).

It’s called reader response theory, and it’s a thing. The full and rather mind-bending argument goes like this: the text the reader constructs and creates while reading, when bringing their own history and experiences and preferences and inferences to the task, is actually a *separate entity* from what the author created given their own history, experiences, etc. It’s not the same text. The story of mine you read is not the same story I wrote; you are creating your own Melusine’s Footprint as you read. Mind-bending, I told you.

But I digress. On a less theoretical but still practical level, the book is in your reader’s hands, and ergo belongs to them. They get to say whatever they want about it.

Thanks for reading my book!

There’s only one thing you need to say in response:

THANKS FOR READING!

You can put your own twist on this. Thanks for reading so carefully! Thanks for responding to my story! Thanks for your thoughts on my poem! It’s all the same, and it boils down to one response, the only reaction that is apropos: Thanks!

I learned this lesson in the harsh austerely beautiful and sometimes unforgiving landscape of masters-level creative writing workshops, and then again as a snot-nosed newly minted PhD who thought the proper use of my distinguished degree and extensive training was to discern quality for other folks. I liberally left poor or tepid reviews in the interests of fairness and intellectual snobbery. A few of these authors, even of the tepid reviews, graciously responded, “Thanks for reading my book!” Which taught me a thing or two about being a good literary citizen that I should have remembered from workshop, but somehow hadn’t.

Now that I’m in real editorial positions, like the Indie Review Editor for the Historical Novels Review, my policy across the board is to decline to read or review books that I know I cannot enthuse about or endorse (because, frankly, I’m getting older, and no longer have the same urge toward intellectual snobbery, nor the time to take on less-than-exciting writing because my TBR stack is so huge already). As a result, the thanks I get from authors are usually warmer. You get it! they may say. You really got my book! Oh, thank you!

That’s the kind of response, as a reviewer, I want to hear. That’s the kind of response, as an author, I want to give to reviewers. The guiding ethos about responding to reviews is of a piece with the rules about leaving reviews: Be honest. Be fair. Be polite.

Goodness knows that’s a vanishing commodity in the intellectual, civic, and public discourses we see taking place elsewhere. Let’s keep some civility in the literary world, at least.

And, stay tuned for future installments in this review series in The Writing Well: How not to respond to review requests, up next (based on something lousy I did recently and want to share with you), and maybe some tips on how to find reviewers. Not that I have any secrets, cf. the amount I spent on postage for review copies yielding the single Amazon review of The Ness, above. But it’s worth thinking about.

If you have your own thoughts, please comment or email me! This text is now yours.

Thanks for reading!

How to Respond to Reviews

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