I almost hesitate to post this, but it’s both instructive and amusing — in a black comedy sort of way — so I will. Another book blogger with whom I’m not familiar (a guy who goes by the nom de plume of Big Al) posted a review of a self-published eBook, The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett. So far, so good. The reviewer described the book’s story as “compelling and interesting,” but ultimately gave the work two stars out of five. On his scale of reviews, he defines a two-star work as “A poor book. Serious flaws, but not without some positive qualities.” Why did he do this? Well, Big Al found the book’s spelling and grammar as being so atrocious that it frequently jarred him out of the story and seriously disrupted what should have been an enjoyable read. OK, that sounds reasonable. I haven’t read the book in question, but if it was that bad, I can see where he’s coming from. I rarely mention spelling and grammar errors in my reviews unless they’re really bad (which I rarely encounter) or if they’re amusing in some way.
But here’s why this episode is of note: the author then started responding on the reviewer’s blog in an extremely offensive manner, making numerous personal attacks against the reviewer. She was then soundly criticized by blog readers for behaving unprofessionally and the like. She kept responding, etc. It got pretty nasty and was a slow-motion train wreck. She and other authors — these mainly seem to be “amateur” self-published authors — have demanded that Big Al take down negative reviews of their books, a common occurrence I’ve heard about from other reviewers.
Let me just clarify my own policy here: I rarely write negative reviews because I tend not to read books I don’t think I’ll enjoy, and I am a fairly choosy reader. If I’m in doubt about a book’s quality, I tend not to read it. But sometimes I’m surprised by how bad a particular book turns out to be, and sometimes I review those books, as a service to other readers if nothing else. It’s rare, but it does happen. I actually have a semi-negative review coming up in the next couple weeks. There are parts of the book I liked and parts I didn’t. Overall, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I thought I would or wanted to. But I would also never remove a negative review of a book. Quite the opposite. If an author demanded I take down a review, I’d call the author on these shenanigans and bring others’ attention to this bad behavior.
I’ve only once had a slightly negative exchange over a review with an author (I gave his book four stars out of five but criticized him on some factual errors in a particular area in which I had some professional expertise and he got a little miffed with me). It happens. My advice to authors (and this should go without saying): if you get a bad review, ignore it! It’s just a book review, for goodness’ sake! But if you must respond to a negative review, simply thank the reviewer for taking the time to read your work, acknowledge — to the extent you can — their criticisms, invite them to check out your next book, wish them well, and go on with your life. Trust me, your professional behavior will do more to win you new readers than any scathing retorts you might be tempted to make. This Howett example has clearly cost the author dearly — who in their right mind would now read one of her books once they’ve witnessed her atrocious behavior? She now needs to use a pseudonym.
I, for one, welcome negative reviews of books, whether or not I agree with them. When I’m considering picking up a book, I’ll frequently go to Amazon and start reading the one-, two-, and three-star reviews. That usually rapidly tells me if the problems those reviewers had with the book will be ones I’m likely to share. Often I can tell that the things that bothered other people will not be things that would annoy me. In any case, all reviews — good, bad, and indifferent – are useful. Reading is, and should be, a communal activity. Booklovers of all stripes need to share information about the things they read. We’re all richer for that information sharing.