By Olivia Folmer Ard
In this digital age, an author’s internet presence can make or break her.
Reputation, success, overall career—these are just a few of the things on the line when we power on our computers and plug into the virtual world. We’re all familiar with the horror stories about authors reacting badly to online reviews of their own books—Kathleen Hale stalked a Goodreads user who left a snarky one-star review, going so far as to physically visit the woman’s home, and Richard Brittain took stalking a step further when he tracked down a cheeky 18-year-old and bludgeoned her with a wine bottle after she criticized his work on Amazon.
Simply put, our kind does not always fare well in the digital realm.
We creatives are a sensitive breed, acting as protective mother hens to our word-children. Without proper discipline and restraint, things can turn ugly, and fast.
But I’ve noticed a growing trend of self-published and independent authors who struggle with having a good presence on the opposite end of the spotlight. Instead of losing control with a reviewer of their own work, they lose control when they step into the reviewer’s shoes.
Authors should be a shining example of leaving stellar reviews, be our opinions positive or negative. We know firsthand how much work writing, revising, editing, promoting, publishing, and marketing can be. Whatever our opinion, it can—and should—be handled with grace. Here are a few basic guidelines to ensure this happens.
Were you given a free copy? Acknowledge that!
In this industry, receiving free review copies happens a lot. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, but it’s important to be transparent about these things. Let’s say you give an honest five-star review of your critique partner’s book, but neglect to include a disclaimer that you’re acquainted with the author and received a free copy. Now, let’s say someone figures out you’re connected with the author. Suddenly, that five-star review isn’t looking so shiny. At this point, it doesn’t matter if you were honest in your review. It doesn’t even matter that you barely know the author and have only been Facebook friends with him for three weeks. You weren’t forthcoming about the situation, and now the whole ordeal seems suspicious. People may not feel they can trust you anymore. And they certainly aren’t interested to learn more about YOUR work.
Use professional language!
The three S’s—slang, snark, and swearing—are fun to employ, especially when you’re discussing a book you didn’t enjoy. But when writing a review, especially one intended for public online display, you should avoid all of them. You’re not just a funny Goodreads user anymore—you’re criticizing or praising a colleague. Decorum and respect are in order here.
This goes double for authors you’re acquainted with, even in such nebulous ways as “I think we bumped into each other at a workshop five years ago.” In these cases, you must avoid writing the review as if it’s a personal letter. No, “Suzie, this was so good—much better than the first draft. Post more about this book in the group next Wednesday!” Instead, shoot for, “In The Great American Novel, Ms. Smith’s skills as a writer and storyteller are only improved from her stellar debut, The American Novel.”
Be honest, but kind!
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you enjoy a fellow author’s personality, online presence, or cute cat photos—their work just isn’t your cup of tea. That’s okay! If you choose to review their books, be honest in your reactions; however, before you hit “send” on a two- or three-star review, check yourself. Did you write your honest thoughts in the best possible way? Did you, in emotionally neutral words, explain the issues you found with the story or did you just say “this book stinks”? Did you come up with at least two things the author did well to “sandwich” your complaint?
If you said no to either question, reconsider posting this review. There’s always a way to express an opinion without being downright mean. It isn’t always easy, but we’re writers, after all—if anyone is able to temper honesty with kindness, it should be us.
Can’t say something nice? Don’t say anything at all!
They may say they don’t care if you give it one-star, but let’s get real here: we all care about that. Consider this the Golden Rule, Author Edition. I’ll admit, this one is extremely difficult to pull off. How do you say to the nice author you met online, the one who’s helped you out so much, “I know I promised to read and review your book, but trust me, you don’t want my opinions on public display”?
This isn’t fun. It stinks. It stinks even more if, like me, confrontation is your kryptonite and fibbing is distasteful. Each situation will vary, depending on how long you’ve known the author and how developed your friendship is. They may never ask you when you’ll post a review, and if that’s the case you’re off scot-free. But if they check in with you to see how the reading is coming, it’s best to let them know how you feel before posting a fully negative review for their work.
Couldn’t finish the book? Say so!
Whether you didn’t have the time, the story disinterested you, or the writing was just plain awful, it’s important to let those reading your reviews know if you didn’t complete a book. Further to the point, include details. What page were you on when you stopped reading? What Kindle %? Did you skip around a bit before giving up? This helps others struggling with the decision to keep reading or not decide whether they should persevere, and it’s also a courtesy to the author. What if the problem you had with the book was resolved one chapter over from where you stopped reading? If that’s the case, you’ve unintentionally misrepresented the world and possibly led potential readers astray.
Avoid the “I would have written it this way” trap!
Nothing is more insulting when another writer rolls up their sleeves and turns into an armchair quarterback in the Amazon review section. You might wish a character handled a certain situation differently, and it’s fine to say so, but don’t list all the ways you would have written it better. You’re leaving a review, not teaching a course. What you would have done is irrelevant, because this isn’t your book. Not only will you damage your relationship with the author (if you have one), potential readers may lose faith in the author’s credibility and authority. It also makes you look snobby and unprofessional, and if others find out you’re a writer, they most likely won’t be checking out your work.
Don’t participate in a publicized blog tour if you can’t give a positive review!
It happened to me. I signed up to participate in a release blitz for an exciting new novel, I downloaded the free book, and . . . I couldn’t finish it. Couldn’t get past 10%. I wasn’t an author at this point, so I had no qualms about leaving a review on Amazon (with my did-not-finish information front and center), but I couldn’t bring myself to post the review on my blog. Not on a day when I knew the author would be doing her best to sell, sell, sell. I could have opted out and posted a promotional blurb instead, but I didn’t want my followers to think I recommended the book, so I did the not-so-comfortable thing—I emailed the tour coordinator and told her I wouldn’t be able to participate.
Most coordinators will tell you it’s fine if you have a negative review and they’d still love for you to participate. As an author, I strongly recommend bowing out. It’s a bad idea to showcase a negative review of another author’s work on a day when lots of traffic will be coming through.
Write the review you’d like to receive!
If your review is positive, make it more interesting than “Good book!” If your review is negative, make it more constructive and kind than, “This book sucks!” You’re an author! How much do you crave well-thought-out, elegantly written reviews? How much do the hastily written, vague one-star snark attacks hurt? Write the positive review you’d choose to include in your promotional material. Write the negative review you’d actually be okay with, one you’d find yourself nodding along with thoughtfully and saying, “Yes, I see where she’s coming from.”
Study these guidelines. Learn them. Implement then. Your fellow authors will thank you!
Olivia Folmar Ard is a secretary, history nerd, and all-purpose geek. She’s the author of The Bennett Series, and Readers’ Favorite 5-Star recipient ‘Tis the Season. She is pursuing a second degree in sociology. She and her husband JD live in Central Alabama, where they look after two crazy cats and care for their small daughters. Website/Blog: http://oliviafolmarard.weebly.com/Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/oliviafolmarard.author Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/oliviadeard Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/oliviadeardGoodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/oliviadeard Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/oliviadeard