Cambria, CA
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Catherine Ryan Hyde Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of more than 25 published and forthcoming books, including the bestselling When I found You, Pay It Forward, Don't Let Me Go, and Take Me With You.

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An Open Letter to Authors

Catherine Ryan Hyde

This is a situation that's just popping up everywhere these days. I have fiercely strong opinions about it, and I just can't keep them to myself any longer. I don't know if I can do much to change it, but I'm going to speak my piece. If one author (big or small, indie or traditionally published) reads this and thinks twice before hitting "send" or "post," it will be worth it. If not, may these opinions be some small solace to besieged reviewers.

Recently I tweeted the following message. "Dear authors, Here's what you say to a negative review: NOTHING!"

I stand by that advice. In fact, I'd like to elaborate.

No one has a right to argue with anyone’s assessment of a book.  There is nothing to argue. If the reviewer didn’t like it, that’s his or her opinion. You can’t change it, nor should you try. Any attempt to make others feel their opinion is wrong will backfire, and just make you look like a sore loser.

Case in point, two self-published authors (two cases went viral—how many more are hiding out there?) publicly flamed out recently while trying to make blog reviewers look like fools. The reviewers came out with their reputations intact. Better than ever, in fact. The authors didn’t fare so well. A cautionary tale if ever there was one.

Yeah, bad reviews hurt. I know. I like to vent about them, too. But in private, to a friend. Not on Twitter. Not in the comment thread of the review. Get it out of your system privately and move on. People have a right to hate your book. In fact, a reviewer has a right to be snide in his or her hatred of your work. I wish no one would be snide, too, but there’s no such thing as the snide police. Did you really think you could enforce a no-snideness rule?

Trouble is, in the examples I’ve been seeing lately, the reviewer was not snide. Just honestly unflattering.

I once had a print review in a big newspaper that got many facts about my book wrong. Wildly wrong, as if the reviewer hadn’t read it. It wasn’t a particularly negative review (which is unfortunately often the case in these public flameouts), it just had some take-aways, and some weirdly inaccurate portrayals of the plot and other details. I talked it over with my editor who said, “It’s a selling review.” (Translation: nothing in there to stop people from buying it.) “Forget it.” I did. It rankled. But, you know what I said to the reviewer? NOTHING! Not because I didn’t long to. Because I knew no good could come of it. I’ve also had reviews that were not “selling reviews.” That were unselling reviews. I said nothing. Because no good could come of it.

Blog reviewers are an unfortunately easy target. Unwise authors view them as independent and small, and figure they can attack their credentials as reviewers. “If they’re not authors, what do they know?” “Who are they, anyway”? These are paraphrases of actual questions authors have asked in public.

I have an answer for you. They’re readers. Who could be more important than that? If you make a living as an author, your reader is your employer, in a manner of speaking. Without your readers, you’re out of a job. Every reader has a right to form an opinion of your book. If you think you have any control over that, or need to find some, this line of work will make you deeply unhappy. Try to learn acceptance. If you can’t, think twice before walking further down this tough road.

But it’s not only blog reviewers. A couple of years ago a well-known author (I'm naming no names in this post) went off on a professional print reviewer. The review had been mixed. Really not negative on the whole. But this author trashed her reviewer on Twitter, even posting the reviewer’s email address and phone number so others could do the same. The result? The author lost her Twitter account, and the respect of many. Myself included. And more attention was drawn to the negative aspects of the review.

Offering a book for review is something like giving away a free sample of a product. You’re betting that the product is good, so the sample will bring you more business. But, like any bet, it’s not guaranteed to pay off. If it doesn’t, you have no recourse. Just send off more review copies and hope other reviewers like it. If nine out of ten reviewers like it, be happy. That’s about as good as it gets. Do not try to use it to prove that the tenth is wrong.

Even responding to positive reviews can be overdone. They are not favors. Your opinion is not terribly relevant to them, either. Most reviewers enjoy being thanked. And if the reviewer did a particularly thoughtful job, “got” your book in just the way you were hoping readers would, it can’t hurt to say so.  But be careful of the line here. Your book is your business. Their posted opinions of your book are not.

How many authors need to test these theories in public before the lesson is learned?