This is a good lesson and you should heed it. The internet is full of examples of authors who haven’t, and it makes for painful reading. The toughest advisers at Author School go further and say you shouldn’t read reviews at all, but writing is a strange and lonely business and surely you do it because you hope your words will connect with people in some way? Reading reviews is probably the only way you’re going to find out if you managed it, and you’re a stronger person than I am if you can resist nosing round the dark corners of the internet to see what people you’ve never met have said about something you wrote.
So I don’t reply to reviews. Ever. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to sometimes.
A one-star Amazon review is never a pleasant thing to read, but I don’t feel any wish to answer the ones that are just poorly-spelled slaggings-off – if you can’t spell disappointed, dude, I ain’t bovvered. A complimentary review will make me deliriously happy for a day. I’ll probably email it to my mum (mums are tolerant of this sort of showing off, thankfully), and then I’ll go back to fretting about the person who hated the book instead because authors are weird and insecure like that. I don’t have a particular urge to comment on a kind review though, and I think I’d be a bit alarmed if eg Gillian Flynn popped up to gush her appreciation for my thoughts on Gone Girl.
No. The reviews I long to respond to most of all, the ones where I actually have to sit on my hands to stop from answering, are the ones that I agree with. They’re usually well-written and thoughtful, and the reviewers have engaged with the book in some way, but they have a few critical observations. And the worst thing is those observations are usually spot on.
Wait! I long to reply. I know the beginning was slow – you should have seen the thirty other beginnings I wrote! If my editor hadn’t wrestled the manuscript off me I’d probably have written another thirty. And I can’t promise it would have got any better! The ending felt rushed? I wrote it in a deadline frenzy of caffeine and late nights that recalled my university finals – sorry if that transferred to the page, here, try some ProPlus, it’s amazing stuff!!! You’ll have noticed that when I imagine responding to these reviews, I use a lot of exclamation marks. That fact alone reminds me of the wisdom of not replying.
Before I wrote books I worked in publishing for a long time. As part of my job I’d get asked to read a manuscript and say if I thought it had potential to sell to foreign publishers or become a film or that sort of thing. I’d sit in editorial meetings and airily say things like, ‘Yeah, it’s a good idea, but I just think the writer’s been really lazy in developing it.’ Or ‘The author hasn’t even tried to make that ending convincing.’
I really did think that – that the author just hadn’t tried hard enough. What an idiot. Now I understand that the author has probably tried pretty hard, but at some point they had to accept this was the best they could do with the time they had. I also understand that the author is nearly always more aware than anyone else of the faults of the book they wrote.
However I also believe that, like a person going on about how much they hate their fat arse, only a fool points out their own shortcomings to others. It’s better to keep smiling, wear the full skirt instead of the skinny jeans, and hope no-one notices the bad bits except you.
If you did notice though, and said so in a public forum, know this. I heard you. I probably agree with you. I’ll try harder. But I’m not telling YOU that.
*Actually the first lesson of Author School is that there is no Author School. Sorry. But you should obey this lesson anyway.