Question of the Week: Should Writers Read or Respond to Reviews?

Many writers (and actors, and other artists) claim never to read reviews of their work. The conventional wisdom is that most of them are lying, but I understand the impulse not to read them. Negative reviews can spoil your day, and positive ones can make you insufferable.

I read my reviews. On Amazon or Goodreads, I’ll hit “like” on both the positive ones and on the middlin’ or negative ones that include some intelligent or constructive remark.

On personal websites or forums, I’ll sometimes drop a comment on those same positive or constructive reviews, but I limit myself to “thanks” and factual answers to questions or criticism. For instance, if someone says, “I hate that Radovan and Jeggare spend most of this book apart,” I might reply, “Then you might like Queen of Thorns better, since they’re together almost all the time.” For the folks who actually prefer the boys to follow separate stories, I can suggest Master of Devils or about half of Prince of Wolves, so that one works out either way.

What I never want to do is to take issue with someone’s opinion or to suggest that he or she has missed the point, because I’ve seen what happens to the writers who make that mistake. It’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. And if you deliver that opinion in a less than courteous manner, my remark to that effect probably won’t change your mind.

That said, I’ve had some lovely exchanges with readers who first came to my attention because of reviews or forum comments. (And, yes, I’ve had to decline to read someone’s manuscript or perform similar favors a few times, but no one has been a jerk about the “no” so far.) And while I can’t say that any one opinion has made me change the way I write, an accumulation of similar opinions has sometimes encouraged me to try something different or to do something I’d only considered before. For instance, the strong positive response to the third POV character in Master of Devils gave me the courage to try it with another third POV character in King of Chaos. Likewise, while we’d considered but ultimately didn’t label the chapters “Radovan” and “Varian” in Prince of Wolves, enough people mentioned that would be helpful that we began to do it by Queen of Thorns.

That preamble got a bit out of hand, so cutting to the question: Under what conditions, if ever, do you think writers should response to reviews of their work? Is there a difference between responding to a reader’s review and a critic’s review? Should writers correct factual errors in reviews? Should they suggest that the reviewer would like a different title of their work based on the review?

7 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Should Writers Read or Respond to Reviews?

  1. I think as long as the author can maintain a professional tone, there is nothing wrong with correcting factual errors or making suggestions for different books. It’s important not to get defensive or respond to baiting, though, because the author usually ends up looking worst in those exchanges.

  2. I’ve blogged about this myself; it’s a great question.
    Generally, I think engaging readers (and reviewers) is good. hccummings has a good point in the previous comment; if you can’t maintain professionalism, don’t do it.
    The best response (if one MUST be made) to a negative review that doesn’t offer constructive criticism is “I’m sorry you didn’t like X; I hope you’ll enjoy some of my other writing more.” Period. Reviews like that are like scabs: if you keep picking at them, they’ll keep bleeding and take longer to go away.
    Thanking people for reviews you appreciate – either positive or negative — is an excellent idea.

  3. Thanks for writing about this Dave. I do pretty much exactly what you do and have received a lot of positive feedback from readers and reviewers. That said, I think it’s probably hard for a lot of authors to do because it all feels too personal. My advice is typically that if you feel any emotion at all, other than perhaps curiosity or delight, do NOT post a comment.

  4. I think the issue is probably how to read the reviews as well, to be honest. I have a very clear mindset when I write my reviews and try to be as constructive as I can, while making very clear if I like something or not that it is just my taste. I point out where I think things have gone wrong, but would never belittle a game or book, however not every reviewer is careful of thoughtful enough and we see very often the “I don’t like it and therefore this is shit” sort of review (which I hate passionately).

    I think engaging in conversation with a reviewer that gives constructive, but not necessarily positive reviews is a good thing.

    Engaging with the troll reviewer is more dangerous, but keeping it in a asking tone – as in literally asking them the reasons behind their opinions – could render good results.

    And, quite frankly, some reviews are worth ignoring because they’re so blatantly bad and stupid that they say more about the reviewer than about the product.

  5. The general rule should probably be: one professional reply, no flame wars. I remember TH getting into painful post battles with some readers back in the day when people used newsgroups – ugly things, and actually made me think twice about reading more of his work. More recently: anyone remember when this was covered by webcomic artists on Strip Search? http://youtu.be/x_ogR4fkRMk?t=14m44s

  6. Being a reader who have had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with writers (yourself included, of course), I must say I do enjoy the interaction. It is always nice to see that an author respects their audience but still retains creative control over their work and don’t just write to please the readers but because they have stories to share with the world. But I have to agree with you: explaining your work to anyone, even someone who wrote a favourable review, is literary suicide. A reader, in his/her brain, rewrites the novel he/she reads according to personal experience, expectations, background and beliefs. We can never been inside the writer’s mind and that’s part of the magic. We love the mystery and we love trying to understand the book we hold in our hands. So being polite and courteous with one’s audience is amazing, but let us keep the mystery and, most of all, let your words and your characters and your stories speak for you.

Care to comment?