Awkward! When Authors Ask Why You Rated Their Books Negatively
Okay, so a really awkward thing happened with an author and I can’t not tell you about it.
The truth is that it happened several months ago, but I didn’t want to write about it immediately because 1) I felt super awkward and 2) the author seemed to be having some confidence issues and I didn’t want her to feel called out.
Also, I’m not going to say who it was in this blog post, but if you really, really want to know who the author was, you should subscribe to my email list so you can hit reply on my weekly Saturday email that shares my posts for the week and I’ll tell you privately. (There are some tips on slaying your reading goals in it for you too.)
There’s an author who has two books out currently––we’ll call her S––and I read both of them. I liked the first one and gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but the second one kind of fell flat for me. It had some good parts, but nothing that really struck me like the first one did, so I gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads. Those were my honest reviews.
I’ve been posting reviews on Goodreads––just stars, rarely a written review––since 2011 and an author has never contacted me about a review before. So imagine my surprise when I open my email and find a message from S.
I’ve pasted the email below, but with names and book titles redacted:
I thought I'd reach out and introduce myself. Since you post your Goodreads reviews on Twitter, and since, like a lot of writers, I periodically search for my book title to see what people are posting, I noticed you gave XXXXXXX a bad rating. It's interesting, since we seem to like a lot of the same books, and care about a lot of the same things. I don't read Goodreads reviews because they tend to stick with me in unhealthy ways (star-ratings are about all I can manage—I'm a sensitive person), so I don't know if you posted a written review. But I am wondering what your thinking was behind the rating, and what it was that knocked off those three stars for you—I'd rather hear it directly from you than read a public Goodreads post, if you don't mind taking a minute to explain. Thanks in advance for the dialogue.
I don’t think S meant to make me feel as awkward as she did with this message, but I couldn’t help cringing as I read it.
The thing is, I don’t think readers are responsible for writers’ feelings. I don’t think readers (or anyone) should be assholes and lambast an author just because they didn’t like a book, but I don’t think readers owe it to writers to rate their books favorably if they didn’t actually enjoy them. My star ratings on Goodreads are an honest reflection of what I thought of the book and I don’t feel like I should lie for an author’s sake or to artificially pad their ego.
Speaking as an aspiring author myself, I already know where I stand on reviews: I’m not going to read reviews of my own books. That’s because I believe if writers are sensitive, they either shouldn't read their reviews or they don't need to write until their skin is thicker. That’s just my two cents.
And I get it, nobody wants to feel like this thing they’ve spent months or years on isn’t being received as well as they’d hoped. But readers shouldn’t be expected to manage authors’ emotions in their reviews.
I debated for awhile whether to reply. And I also had to think of the impact it might have on me if I did reply. Here’s what was going through my head: There's no world in which I could possibly not be hurt in some way from answering that email with the feedback she wants. Consider this…
The book is already published, so it's not going to change.
If S doesn't like what I have to say, she might tell other authors not to send me ARCs for review.
I'm an aspiring author myself and she knows more people than I do, including editors, so I don't want my reputation being hurt right out of the gate.
Simply put, it's too much risk and not enough reward.
S said she wanted my opinion because we seem to be alike and agree on a lot of things socially and politically. This is true and S seems like someone I’d love to be friends with. But even so, people who agree socially and politically are not a monolith. And just because an author thinks someone is in their target audience for a book doesn't mean the person actually is.
The truth is, I desperately wanted to like the book. I even told several people how excited I was that it was coming out before I’d even read it, just based on how much I liked S’s first book. I had high hopes for the book and felt let down for a number of reasons, none of which I have to explain or justify.
And remember how I said I only star reviews on Goodreads and don’t write reviews? That’s because I only post written reviews on this blog and I have a positive reviews only policy for a reason. I'd much rather tell people about the books I love than talk about the ones I didn't. Just because I personally didn't enjoy a book doesn't mean that others will agree and I don't want to discourage people from reading something they might enjoy.
What's true of many authors whose work I enjoy is that I LOVED one or more of their books, but feel meh about others. That's the case with S, as well as Harper Lee, Joan Didion, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Ned Vizzini, and more. There are plenty of books by authors that I've rated highly, but didn't feel all their books were the same quality. While I can't speak for other readers, there are very few authors whose entire canon I love with equal fervor. That's normal. Honestly, the only one I can think of is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and that's a tall order.
But not liking one (or more) books by an author doesn't necessarily mean I'll stop reading their work. I believe authors write differently at different points in their careers, so depending on where they are (and where I am in life) determines whether their work will be interesting to me at that time.
There are also books I hated on the first read that I re-read years later and adored. (I would say I'd be willing to give the book in question a re-read in the future, but I still feel icky after corresponding with the author, so I'd rather direct my attention elsewhere.)
All that to say, I just didn’t feel it was the best use of my time or energy to give her a critical analysis of her book and why it didn’t resonate with me. I did decide to respond and kept it as classy as possible:
Thanks for reaching out and sharing your concerns.
I didn't post a written review on Goodreads because I only write reviews for magazines and I have a positive reviews only policy. Meaning, I have no interest in telling people why they shouldn't read a book and would much prefer to tell them why they should. For that reason, the only place you would find a potentially negative review from me is in the star rating on Goodreads. Any written reviews I've published will be positive. You can read more about my policy here.
To that note, I recently read and loved ZZZZZZZZ. It was one of the last books I read in 2017 and really liked it. Actually, I run a book club and choose the title for discussion. Everyone who came to the last meeting thoroughly enjoyed it. I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, which you can see for yourself if you care to look.
That being said, my reasons for not enjoying XXXXXXXX as much is not a discussion I'm interested in having. I'm one person and my feelings are entirely subjective. I also wouldn't say the book was bad––there were, like many books, parts I greatly enjoyed and others I didn't. Nonetheless, I stand by my rating and have no desire to justify it. I understand it can be upsetting to see a rating that isn't as high as you'd hoped, but I don't think me sharing my thoughts will be a productive conversation for either of us. If Joan Didion or Jhumpa Lahiri cared to look up all my ratings for their books, they'd discover something similar to what you have.
Regardless, as an aspiring writer myself, I know writing is an act of bravery. I realize it can be difficult not to take things personally, but your writing isn't for everyone and just because someone loved one book doesn't mean they'll love every book. That's normal and natural. I hope one (or a handful, or even a hundred or a thousand) negative reviews wouldn't discourage you from writing. I'll be looking forward to your next book.
I think the feedback you're seeking is best reserved for beta readers, critique groups, and readers who willingly give it. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a trusted friend read the Goodreads reviews of XXXXXXXX and report back to you with the constructive criticism, that way you don't have to see any assholery or ignorance.
I hope this helps.
All the best,
Interestingly, S did reply and clarified a bit on her request. While I do wish I’d known her intention for asking me from the beginning, I still couldn’t see myself actually responding in the way she hoped. Here’s what she said to my message:
Thanks for your response, and for the suggestion that I have a trusted friend read Goodreads reviews for me. I'm actually not interested in taking the general temperature of my readers' responses to the book, though, as I don't think it's constructive or even possible to attempt to write in a way that pleases a general audience. I was curious about your individual response, since we seem to have similar taste, and share similar viewpoints, socially and politically. I respect your position, though, and wish you the best with your own writing. May your readers rate your future books well.
I should add: thank you for reading ZZZZZZZ and selecting it for your book group. I actually find it unsurprising when someone dislikes that book, so am always pleased to hear that someone has enjoyed it. I appreciate you passing it along to others.
S does have a point that we’re alike socially and politically, so if she chooses to reach out to me with a review copy of her next book to give her feedback before it’s published, that’s something I’d happily consider.