When should an author respond to reviews?
January 1, 2014 5:07 AM   Subscribe

I'm an author. I've seen enough other authors flame out when responding to criticism that I know never to respond to negative reviews. But I'm sometimes tempted to respond to positive reviews of my book on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites-- perhaps with a short "Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it;" perhaps with a longer reply if it seems appropriate. Should I ever do that? If so, when?

I know this is a question that isn't necessarily going to have one Objective Correct Answer, so I'm looking for a fairly broad variety of possibly subjective answers. If an author thanked you for your review, would you be pleased or weirded out? Would an author who responded to many (or all) reviews seem accessible or spammy? Can you recommend a general rule of thumb for when I should reply and when I shouldn't? Do you have an example of an author who responded particularly poorly or particularly well to positive online reviews?
posted by yankeefog to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: (Musicological research here, so fwiw…)

My personal feeling is that it's tacky to answer to reviews, both positive and negative. I do use negative reviews to improve my own corrigenda list which I try to keep updated on my website. Otherwise, ignore, ignore.

Specifically addressing reviews on Amazon, I think that potential buyers will react better to a bunch of positive readers' reviews, and less well to a safely-assumed-to-be-ego-googling author who makes her/his presence known by writing answers. But as you say, this is all hugely subjective, I have no data in support.

If you want some good Karma, write your own positive reviews of other books.
posted by Namlit at 5:34 AM on January 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: In most cases, I really wouldn't, and I'd probably try to get out of the habit of following reviews. This just seems like ego stroking at its most basic form. What are you hoping to get out of this besides letting your readers know that you're watching them and like the attention? An author who responded to most or all reviews would especially strike me as creepy and self-obsessed, even if they were generally friendly and well-intentioned. The key exceptions I can think of are if the reader has reached out to you in some way or if it seems like they have specific questions you're in a good position to answer. Dropping into a MeFi thread where they're discussing your book? Mostly kosher, assuming you're not there to drive the conversation. Leaving a message on a random person's Amazon review? Weird as hell and off-putting to potential readers.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:39 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Responding to positive reviews on Amazon, particularly with a generic "thanks, I'm glad you liked it" kind of response, seems weird to me. I wouldn't do that. To me, it's unprofessional, and I would take that author a lot less seriously.

I recently bought a cookbook, and there was a long thread on Chowhound discussing it. At some point the author popped in to thank people for all the nice things they said and to let them know that she had put some technique videos up on her website. She also responded to some questions that people had about ingredients and that kind of thing. That seemed nice and not creepy at all. I think it's fine to engage with readers, but probably not in response to Amazon reviews, and I would say that you should mostly engage in ways that seem substantive.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:51 AM on January 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The publicity staff at your publishing house probably has some guidance for you on this. I imagine interacting with readers is more effective in some markets than others.

To be frank--if your audience is young or unsophisticated, or if your book is an extension of your expertise, it could potentially be an effective brand builder. But if not, it will probably be ineffective at best or off-putting at worst.
posted by elizeh at 5:54 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like replying even to positive reviews can create an atmosphere where the reviewer and other blog commenters feel like they're being watched - no matter how well-intentioned, it really seems to kill discussions in progress. I've occasionally replied if the reviewer is a friend, but even then, it often just feels weird to me.
posted by Jeanne at 5:55 AM on January 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: On Goodreads, I think the only time an author should respond is to answer specific questions like "will there be a sequel?" or "where can I find an ebook?" I think the most you can do is like a review and even that is usually weird. You can and should respond to friend comments and participation in any discussion forum topics about you or your books is OK, but you should still avoid focusing on what people liked or didn't like about your book. I don't think you should ever respond to any review on Amazon.
posted by Lame_username at 5:58 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: Author here. I wouldn't respond. Seems unprofessional, except to correct serious factual errors and then only in a calm, reasonable tone. Your job is to write. Reviewers' job is to comment.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:58 AM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Interesting thread. I have seen an author respond once to a reader who did seem a little.. twisted...? and out to cause trouble for her. I thought the author's tone was pretty dignified and thought it was a pretty brave thing to do. I could see how it could have gone wrong in a lot of ways though!! That said... having read all the posts above I think I feel a little differently about authors responding in general now.
posted by tanktop at 6:27 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I am a reviewer who often posts positive reviews and I would find this deeply weird and off-putting. It would make me regret having posted my own review, and would probably make me think of the author as someone attention-needy and bizarre.

I'm thinking about why this is. Maybe because when I say I love a book, I don't mean "hey author, you did a great job! Stand up and take a bow!" And again, not sure why THAT is, because if I posted a positive review of the food at a restaurant, I'd think it was cool if the chef said "thanks, glad you enjoyed it." Maybe it's because the medium is wrong. The review section is for people to read the book to discuss their experience of reading it; the author isn't part of that community - her experience of writing the book is qualitatively different - so it feels out of place.

If I met the author at a cocktail party and told her I'd loved her book, then of course the right response would be a gracious "thanks, glad you enjoyed it" and I would feel lucky and excited to have had the conversation. But in a review section it's just not appropriate.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:32 AM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Can you recommend a general rule of thumb for when I should reply and when I shouldn't?

My general rule for social media and the internet in general: reply when someone seeks you out directly. That means responding to emails and Twitter @messages and Facebook messages whenever possible (I don't claim a perfect track record), but not to reviews or the majority of blog comments etc.

(On rare past occasions when I've waded into to discussions of my work but not directed specifically at me in hope of a reply, I've been struck by how uninterested people seemed to be by my presence. They were having their own discussion, not trying to get my attention. It wasn't really any of my business.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:33 AM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have a book blog and a few authors have left comments or emailed me directly to thank me for positive reviews--I thought it was kind of nice! But it did make me wonder if I'm hurting people's feelings with my less-positive reviews.
posted by leesh at 6:44 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I make most of my income from writing. I don't even read publicly posted reviews, let alone respond to them. There's just no good to be found there. If a reader/reviewer reaches out to me personally and privately, then and only then do I read and respond.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:55 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I've had a few authors either comment like that, or...even worse, add me as a friend on Goodreads. Really weirds me out, tbh. I mean, on the one hand it's pretty cool to have contact with the author like that. And it wouldn't weird me out at ALL if I sent them a fan letter. But then it makes me feel really guilty if I don't like their next book. You know?
posted by Caravantea at 7:10 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I was once thinking of buying a book on Amazon, so I read the reviews. I noticed that the author had responded to lots of the reviews, thanking people for being so kind.

In and of itself, I can see why the author would want to say thank you for someone doing something nice for them. But it weirded me out, making me feel that I wouldn't be able to leave an honest, non-personal review because the author was actually present for the review. It's put my off buying that book completely.

I don't think it's "right" that I'm skeeved by someone doing something nice like saying "thank you" - in pretty much any other situation, I'd be bothered by the fact that the other person hadn't said thank you. It's just the way I feel.
posted by Solomon at 7:11 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I review a lot on Goodreads (and previously on a book review blog), and I've had a lot of authors respond to me about both positive and negative reviews. I'm actually super gratified when an author says "hey, thanks for your great review" - and especially when it starts a conversation. I mean, I think it's pretty cool that I can talk to an author I admire. It is a nice gesture.

When authors respond to negative reviews, it's a little weirder, although it's actually gotten me some editing gigs (I have a few areas of random and specialized knowledge, and my complaining about people's books on Goodreads has led some of them to contact me and ask me to check over their books on the subject, which I'm very happy to do). It doesn't bother me unless the author is really rude or defensive, but honestly, that's pretty rare; people mostly just want to explain themselves, and I get that.

Note that all of this has been done through private messaging on Goodreads. I've never had an author respond publicly to my reviews, and I can see how that would look strange.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:37 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I understand the impulse, but I wouldn't respond to a fan singular. You could use twitter or your website to respond to all of your fans plural<, but being singled out would make me feel watched.
posted by dstopps at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: Author here, and also a reviewer/former book blogger.

Don't respond on amazon. Amazon is a consumer space and it's really best left entirely alone.

If a reader tweets you a positive review, it's okay to respond. "Hey! Thanks! Made my day!" I also occasionally will retweet positive reviews to my followers that I've come across on blogs or on goodreads, sometimes with context: "I really love this review! It's so thoughtful!" I had authors do the same with me and cultivated some genuine friendships this way; it also never failed to give me the warm fuzzies. I consider it a goodwill gesture, but I'm careful not to invade conversations between readers or insert myself into reader space.

I'll sometimes message reviewers on goodreads if they've said something that's really affected me. "Hi! I wanted you to know that what you shared about your family in your review of my book really touched me in a major way. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and respond." But this conversation should be ideally kept largely private.

As for "correcting misinformation," if you write fiction, don't, ever. There will be massive misreadings of your books. The only time it makes sense to comment in order to hand out information is, perhaps, to address a sales question: "Glad you enjoyed the book. Since you asked if there's a sequel, it's due out in July." Anything else will be misconstrued as shit-stirring.

I'm aware that a lot of readers and writers are more gunshy than I am about this--people who dislike when authors "like" their reviews, for instance (which I also do, because it moves those reviews I like up the ranks on GR and shares them with those who follow me on there). Having been really active on both sides of the coin, though, I recognize that the belief of most readers that authors aren't reading reviews (either in print--which my editor sends me--or on places like goodreads, which puts my review front and center on my author portal) is mostly a fallacy. I leave 90% of my readers alone, but if I can send positive feelings out into the world about the work someone's put into a review, I think it's worth it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:08 AM on January 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody.

There's a pretty clear consensus here and I will listen to it. In certain very specific contexts (like ArbitraryAndCapricious's Chowhound example), I'll participate constructively; as oliverburkeman suggests, I'll reply when specifically contacted; but as a general rule, I will keep my mouth shut when it comes to individual reviews.

You all have saved me from embarrassing myself. Thanks!
posted by yankeefog at 8:08 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I think we sometimes forget that authors are humans too, with emotions and egos just like readers. I see no problems with authors saying "thanks" to readers who find their writing stimulating, engaging, or just fun.

I recently found an author (John Scalzi) I truly enjoyed. I researched his name, found his blog, and sent him a note thanking him for his great books. I did not expect a reply. When I got one, it was a nice, succinct word of thanks. Sure, it was a small gesture on his part. But for me, it made my day!
posted by pxharder at 8:11 AM on January 1, 2014

But what if you posted something about your appreciation on a public website that Scalzi reads, and he commented on your post -- would you find that weird?
posted by escabeche at 8:45 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I work for a bookstore and have a lot of author interactions in my personal and professional sphere, and I think PhoBWanKenobi sums things up pretty well.

I generally write positive or neutral reviews, but one author messaged me after I left a one star rating on Goodreads. She had a good reason, which is that I had read an Advance Reader Copy of her book and then left the single star before the book was even released, without reviewing it beyond that rating. Kind of a jerky move on my part. The author specifically asked for my feedback, and didn't ask for me to change my rating, but I ended up removing the rating for a while, since I wasn't planning on actually reviewing the book. She was a little too hands-on, maybe, but overall it was understandable, and I don't hold it against her.

I think the key for leaving responses to positive reviews on Goodreads is to respond to specifics. Did someone pick up on an idea or theme that most reviewers missed? Did they have a personal experience that ties in perfectly and left you a little dewy eyed? Is their review amazingly well-crafted and a labor of love? Then feel free to leave a comment or send a message saying that you appreciated those elements. I've gotten some author responses to things like that, and they transcend the social media spamming that a lot of new authors do.
posted by redsparkler at 9:02 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I have had authors respond positively, negatively, and neutrally on my reviews and posts about their work and it freaks me out. I am much less likely to post about books now because of this--admittedly, it's the negative responses that really keep me from posting, but the last author-response I got was a positive one and I still felt weird about it.

So keep in mind that if any action of yours causes fewer people to post about your book, then you're losing potential word of mouth and search engine SEO.
posted by telophase at 9:20 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I think it's fine to engage with readers, but probably not in response to Amazon reviews, and I would say that you should mostly engage in ways that seem substantive.

As a reader, I think this is true. I once wrote a review on Goodreads in which I remarked that the author's description of one of the (fictional) places in the book reminded me of a real, relatively little-known place in my hometown. The author commented on my review that she had been to that place and that was in part her inspiration. I thought that was kind of cool - but I was a little embarrassed, as the review was not entirely favorable. But, she did thank me for reading the book (she didn't reference my opinions), and I thought it was a substantive response about her writing. So not too freaky.
posted by bluefly at 10:19 AM on January 1, 2014

Best answer: I don't really like authors commenting publicly on my Goodreads reviews, even simple thank yous for reading/reviewing the book. I did not write or post the review for them. I did it for other readers and for myself. The author may get positive consequences out of my review that they're grateful for, and I'm happy for that, but their feelings--even of gratitude--are irrelevant to my review and my review space. I know my review ends up as part of their marketing machine, but that's not on my mind, and I don't want it to be on my mind, when I'm reading or reviewing.

On the other hand, I've had a number of positive interactions and conversations with authors who privately messaged me to say thanks. These messages were specific and because they was private, I felt that their saying thanks wasn't just something they did to boost their requisite public social networking presence.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 10:25 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

authors should never respond to reviews.

think of the act of writing as prometheus bringing fire down from olympus as a gift to mankind. prometheus didn't hang around their cookfires saying things like "i'm glad you appreciate this" or "have you tried the dry rub on the mammoth" because 1) he was an aloof, titanic olympian who didn't care about the reviews of mortals, and 2) he was busy with the eagle eating his liver.
posted by bruce at 12:21 PM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: From the outside, seeing an author comment on a review almost always looks bad. However, I can think of one exception.

David Graeber frequently responds to reviews, often in great depth, or for multicomment back and forth debates. It's really weird on one hand, but then on the other, he gets SO into it, I kind of respect it in the end. He's kind of acknowledging the reality that the reviewer is talking about someone who can really read it - he is a person, with feelings and ideas, and he acts like one. Especially online reviews, they're kind of like talking about someone at a party as if the person wasn't there. He's the guy who overhears you blowharding about him at a party, and instead of politely ignoring it, he walks straight up to you and says, "I heard how you went off on a 500 word rant about my lack of understanding of barter history, and I'm here to tell you, I spend over 500 hours in the library researching this topic, and you are totally full of shit, and here's why:"

So in the end I respect it.
posted by latkes at 1:08 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like responding to anything other than a direct email or Twitter message makes the author seem too much as though she's been eavesdropping, which makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

However! I think if someone reaches out to you personally on email or social media to tell you they loved your book, it's lovely and appropriate to respond, because you've been invited into the conversation.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 1:27 PM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with the consensus. I had an author respond to a glowing review that I put on Goodreads and I found it startling and uncomfortable. And I would never review one of her books again because of that. All she really did was say, "Thanks, glad you liked it!" and I still found that inappropriate. My Goodreads page is my space and I felt very exposed and concerned that an author whose book I liked less might see my less positive reviews and either feel bad or confront me about it.

I've also tweeted at authors I like and been happy when they tweeted back but that was me reaching out to them. I think it's great when authors engage in friendly way with their readers (Seanan McGuire is particularly good at this) but it has to be in appropriate ways.
posted by Aquifer at 2:30 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with the consensus. I had an author respond to a glowing review that I put on Goodreads and I found it startling and uncomfortable. And I would never review one of her books again because of that. All she really did was say, "Thanks, glad you liked it!" and I still found that inappropriate. My Goodreads page is my space and I felt very exposed and concerned that an author whose book I liked less might see my less positive reviews and either feel bad or confront me about it.

I'd keep in mind that goodreads markets itself to authors as a way to connect with readers in almost precisely this way--public reviews are housed on a communal book page which is linked on every author's homepage, and which tells you the number of reviews and ratings you have, updated almost in realtime. This creates a very different idea of ownership of reviews posted there for authors versus for readers. They've gotten better in some ways about making clear unacceptable behavior (you are now warned not to respond to negative reviews), but if an author is indicated as being a "goodreads author," chances are they are aware of any reviews written about their works, positive or negative. Of course, many readers don't realize this--and don't realize that GR courts authors by promising reader interaction, allowing them to update and correct information on "their" books' pages, and so on--which creates an interesting tension between the two groups.

All of this is exacerbated by the almost completely hands-off way most publishers approach social media marketing (they might say "be on goodreads!" but I've never heard one provide guidelines for authors), but OP's initial impulse, and behavior like thanking reviewers for reviews, is more easily understood in light of this rather than something that any author is doing to intentionally encroach on what is clearly a reader-oriented space.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:08 PM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In regard to Amazon/GoodReads:
For negative reviews, as you know, just don't go there... though I *have* encountered an author somewhere (can't remember who now) that apologized that the book wasn't to their taste and either offered the reader their money back, or to buy the book from them, or some such thing. It was unusual, and though it seemed to be working well for that particular author, with positive reactions by other commenters, it's a risky tactic, both financially and otherwise.

For positive reviews, I *have* seen authors offer short thanks or other comments - think "customer service" rather than "emotional reaction" and that'd pretty much describe the style. I've been thanked for a couple of extremely positive reviews, and asked (in a pm that with a personalized, not cookie cutter feel) if I would consider posting a short mention on Amazon, too. I was happy to do so. If I like an author enough that I've posted an exuberantly glowing review, I'm going to want more books from them - and positive words leads to sales, which leads, in most cases, to more books. Win for me.

I'm also an independent reviewer. I contract with a homeschool magazine to provide honest reviews of products that include curricula, supplements, DVD and audio, fiction and nonfiction; homeschool-related in that it covers anything that might be used by or benefit a homeschool family. I also personally connect with various companies on my own. I'm given the product, yes, but the expectation is that I provide a comprehensive review - which may not necessarily be an positive one, though I do try to provide an idea of what families or circumstances it might be a better fit for.

Sometimes, the feedback has let publishers to improve what they're doing - when they can listen to constructive criticism with a good attitude and use it for improvement, not take it personally. There *have*, on occasion, been those who don't deal with it well - especially if it's 50 reviewers all saying similar things. Same kind of "meltdown", but generally over email (or phone, in the case of the review facilitators). Those are the times we feel embarrassed for the publisher; it doesn't reflect positively on themselves or their product. It's that whole "emotional reaction" or "customer service" angle again.

On the other hand, I *really* appreciate it when a publisher reacts to my work in a thoughtful, mindful way, regardless of whether my review was overall positive, negative, neutral, or just sort of "it's (whatever) but ultimately not for me". I'm not out there to "get" them, and I try very, very hard to be considerate with my wording. I know that's not the case with most Amazon or GoodReads reviewers, nor would it be reasonable to expect it; they're not professionals. And in some cases, they're not even polite.

Thoughts in general:
It puzzles me a little that one might consider their publicly published reviews on GoodReads "private", because just by the setup, it's clear that the whole purpose is interaction about books. If one is using it as a personal log that they do not wish others to read, I'd suggest reconsidering the method.

I just looked on GoodReads, because I was curious if it was possible to set reviews as private. It's not. Under "edit profile", the settings tab, there is a section titled Privacy that allows one to set who may see their profile. It also states, "Book reviews are always public and will appear on book pages throughout the site regardless of privacy setting." If one is using it as a personal log that they do not wish others to read, I'd suggest reconsidering the method.

The reviews *may* be commented on by anyone desired - though if one is the author, I'd really recommend careful consideration and some time (hours or days or weeks, not minutes) before replying.
posted by stormyteal at 5:00 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I saw an author taking the time to respond to reviews by random people online, I'd think it looks bush league and unprofessional and I'd consider not purchasing because the person would seem less like a real author or more like someone just sitting with their laptop in their bed.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:18 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. This has been really helpful.

And I would just briefly add that PhoBWanKenobi is spot-on. My introduction to Goodreads was through the Goodreads Author program, which really does frame the site as a way to interact with readers. It wasn't until this thread that I realized just how differently readers see it.

So, at the risk of repeating myself: thanks, all. You've given me some much-needed perspective.
posted by yankeefog at 3:53 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless the reviewer is addressing the author directly, I think the author should never respond to a review, for most of the reasons mentioned above: it seems needy and/or narcissistic, as well as unprofessional, and it shuts down conversation, etc.

A few points I wanted to mention: I'm a librarian, and have left some critical (and occasionally scathing) reviews of books various places online (as well as the very occasional praises to the high heavens).* I was immensely relieved that one of our visiting authors made no mention whatsoever of one review I'd left, even though I suspect the author knew about it.

One of my co-workers wrote a critical (but, I thought, fair) review of a book for a professional journal. The author's agent took umbrage and wrote a response to the review, which the journal also published, and which prompted a followup response from my co-worker. The whole thing was ugly and uncomfortable, even if carefully-worded, and certainly didn't endear me to the author or her agent. I felt bad for my co-worker and was relieved then that I hadn't published any reviews professionally, because I didn't want that sort of headache. I've never read anything by that author since. (And no, "my co-worker" is not code for "I/me.")

*very occasional; I have complaints even about things I love immensely.
posted by johnofjack at 9:58 AM on January 2, 2014

If an Amazon reader/reviewer makes a subjective comment about one of my books, there's no point in responding. If someone says they didn't think the book was well written (I just had one of those yesterday!), no comment from me is going to make them think otherwise. However, I write non-fiction (biographies), so I will sometimes respond to people who dispute facts in my books or question my research. And as tempted as I am sometimes to respond to especially petty comments with something along the lines of "SOZE YER MUTHER!", I work very hard to respond in a calm, impersonal factual way. (On Amazon anyway. Corner me on a usenet group and you're likely to get a much different response!) I understand that some folks find it ego-stroking for authors to follow their reviews on Amazon. But I think to ignore feedback on your writing, especially from the very people who are paying to read that writing, is death.
posted by pbutler111 at 6:30 AM on January 21, 2014

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