Jessica Day George

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Call Me Thumper . . .

"If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all!"

Sage advice, from the mother of a small, loud-mouthed rabbit.

In recent days, authors have been getting blasted for posting blogs either firing back at negative reviews, or urging people not to give negative reviews at all. I agree with some of this. Let me explain why.

I am not taking a stance against people who don't like my books. Honestly, I don't care. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, every book is not for every reader. As long as you don't get up in my face and rant about how much you hate my books, I have no problem with you. I don't love everything I read, I don't expect anyone else to, either. That's not what this is about. What this is about is professionalism, in my opinion. Or at least, that's what I want to make my blog about. I can't speak for the other authors posting on this topic, or variations thereof, but this is what I want to say.

I review books on Goodreads. Most of my reviews are positive. I review books on Bookshop Talk, the blog I started with a friend, where EVERY review is positive. This is not because I'm afraid that someone is going to come to my house and break my kneecaps unless I do, this is because I love to recommend good books to people. Bookshop Talk exists not to review books so much as to recommend books. We want to spread the love to readers with the site.

But I don't rant about books I've hated on Goodreads because . . . well, that's not my job! I'm an author, not a professional reviewer. You don't have to listen to any of my reviews or recommendations. I'm a writer, and a reader. I love Goodreads because I love making lists. I like having a To Read list. I like sorting through books I read as a kid. It's fun for me.

But it's also true I don't post reviews of books that I've hated because I don't want to look bad. I work with other authors. We meet at conferences and booksignings. We go to dinner together. It would be awkward (to say the least!) to be sitting side by side at on a panel or at a dinner with someone whose book I had torn to pieces online. What if they had seen the review? Authors take it very personally when someone hates their books, it's like calling someone's baby ugly. And if it's another author . . . that's teen times worse. I don't want to be in that situation. I don't want to put a fellow author in the situation of having to pretend that she doesn't know I hate her work. It's not good for either of us.

I have worked with the same editor for five years now, and I adore her. But if I write a book that's not a fit for her, I'll need to sell it to another publisher. How would that reflect on me if the editor I wanted to work with noticed that I had written scathing reviews of a book she loved? A book she had worked on? A book by an author who is a good friend? My rant, posted on Goodreads and forgotten two minutes later by me, could potentially kill my chances with an entire publishing house. Editors and authors don't hate professional reviewers who have panned one of their books (well, maybe they do, but they're not supposed to), because they know that it's the reviewer's job. But it's not an author's job to pan her colleagues' books, and that's where an author can run into trouble. Many authors don't review books at all for this reason, but some of us like to recommend good books, to spread the love, as I've said before. (Also, if you know me, you know that I can't shut up about books.) When I first started out, Shannon Hale gave me the advice that I didn't want to be known as the author who writes mean reviews about other authors' stuff, and I have taken it to heart.


I will admit that I have occasionally hated a book so much that I gave it a negative review. I have mostly gone back over my Goodreads account and deleted those, however. It's not something that I want to be known for: hating certain books. Except for The Grapes of Wrath. I hate that book, and I'm not ashamed to tell the world. John Steinbeck's zombie might come for me, but I don't care. I will take that zombie down with a knitting needle if I have to. Ugh. Ditto The Red Pony. What was wrong with that man?!

But in light of the recent discussions about negative reviews online, I recommitted myself to the decision to "go nice or go home." I'm not going to give good reviews of books I hated. You can always trust me to be honest in my reviews. I'm just not going to review books I didn't like. I might rant to my sister, but not online. I see this as professionalism. You may see it as hypocrisy if you like, as I said, Everyone's different.

So this is my advice to aspiring writers:

You might want to make the same decision.

Editors know what a blog is. They know about Goodreads. If you submit a manuscript, the FIRST THING THEY DO IS GOOGLE YOU. They're looking for a couple of things: to see if you have an online presence, which is necessary these days for promotional reasons. But they're also looking to see if they want to work with you judging by the things you've posted. If you have crazy rants on Facebook where you talk about bringing a gun to work, if your blog is nothing but negative reviews, you could have written the Best Book Ever and they'll turn you down. My husband does some of the hiring at his work, he Googles applicants and has turned down people with stellar resumes based on their Facebook statuses. (Guess what, weirdos: posting the word "kill" over and over or joking about bringing a gun to work will not get you hired!) No one is going to want to read your middle grade book if you're already notorious for your profanity-laden Twitter feed. Editors want authors they can dress up and take out in public, to conferences for librarians and booksellers, for instance. If, judging from your blog, you are liable to go off on a rant about everything and everyone you hate at the drop of a hat, alienating those librarians and booksellers . . . well, you might be in trouble, my friend.

It's not a conspiracy. It's common sense.

I never thought I would bring this up on the blog . . . but I'm going to use a personal example.

A year ago or so, I got a Google Alert about a review of Dragon Flight. I don't normally read reviews of my books, I'm not really sure why I do the Google Alert thing. (Maybe because I feel paranoid that people would be talking about me and I WOULDN'T know?) But I could see from the header of this review that it was bad, and recklessly clicked on it. I'm very glad I did. This was the blog of an aspiring author, and every post was a dissection of a middle grade or YA fantasy book, basically ripping the book to shreds and detailing the "mistakes" the author had made and how the blogger would do it better in her book. She was, apparently, doing it to learn from our mistakes, but it really just sounded extremely mean and condescending. During the course of the Dragon Flight review, she misquoted or used out of context things I had said at a recent conference. I very politely commented on the post, saying that I was sorry she hadn't liked the book, but also setting straight what I had been saying at the conference. The blogger emailed me apologizing and asking how on earth I had ever found her blog, and we exchanged several perfectly polite emails, wherein I gave her the advice that since it was a public blog, anyone could find it. I explained about Google Alerts, and how many authors used them. . . And the next day got ANOTHER one from this same site! She had redone the post, mentioning that I had contacted her, and that in retrospect she had really, really liked Dragon Flight and thought I was an amazing author! While it was very nice, I knew for a fact that it was insincere, and there was very much a sense of "Whoopsie, I got caught!" I mentioned on my private Facebook status that I had commented on a bad review of Dragon Flight, which I know is unprofessional, but it had been an interesting couple of days. Five minutes later an editor friend messaged me to say that she had found that blog within 30 seconds, that she had seen the other reviews and mine, and that she would never sign someone who did that kind of thing on their blog. I passed this bit of advice on to the blogger, who I think has taken down her blog altogether. I'm sorry that that's what happened, I hope that she didn't think I was going to be watching her all the time, or that her potential career was being threatened. I'm not normally policing people's blogs, and like I've said, I don't usually read let alone comment on bad reviews of my books. But because I stumbled on one that was misquoting me, and I felt misrepresenting me and my books, I made the decision to speak up.

This is the kind of things that authors are warning people about, when they advise people to be careful about posting reviews. Being super, super nice and posting nonstop, totally dishonest reviews about how much you love everyone's books isn't a guarantee of a book deal. But posting a scathing review of a book? That can come back and bite you in the rear end!


Katie said...

This was all very interesting. And now that I've read through it, it really does seem to be common sense. I have a friend that wants to be an author, but she was trashing books on her blog, and the fans of one of the authors found her post and started trashing her in the comments and it was this whole debacle. She would have done well to get this advice a long time ago.

Jaleh D said...

I hardly post any reviews on Goodreads, mainly because I read too many books to say something about all of them. I make my lists and give them stars. My blog is for sharing things I want to, well, share. Things I enjoyed and think others will too.

I have to laugh, because I didn't much like Grapes of Wrath either. (boring and pointless, at least to me) But I don't hate it. Lord of the Flies is the book I hate. Gag. Regardless of whatever merit it may actually have.

A Backwards Story said...

I love that you wrote this entry. I'm very careful to only review books I like on my own blog because I want to one day be a published author myself. I respect other authors and feel that if I talk about books I dislike, people who read my review might decide not to read that book. What if they love it? It's not fair to them or the author who poured blood and sweat into those pages. My opinion is just that--mine. I won't pass a bad opinion on to others, but I'll try my hardest to get other people to read books I love!

Thank you for sharing this. More people need to share our mentality :)

Kim said...

This is a great and very timely post.

Sometimes I wonder, who has the time to give negative reviews of books?! It takes a heck of a lot of time to write up a positive review (which are the only kinds I write--if I don't like a book, I don't review it at all), so why waste the time writing a negative one that has the potential to be hurtful others as well as yourself?

Thanks for your wisdom, Jessica!

Amber Argyle said...

I LOVED GRAPES OF WRATH. Just had to put that out there.

But I have to wonder, what do you do with the books that you don't like? I mean, I like to list that I read them on Goodreads. So if you don't like them, do you just not add stars or comments?

Abigail said...

I must say, I found your anecdote highly amusing (if also rather sad). After reading this I looked over my own Goodreads list out of curiosity, but most of the authors I read are dead and all I have to fear is either, like you said, their zombies coming back to get me or people wondering how I can be so base as to dislike Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I liked the two-pronged thrust of your post - the necessity of writers realizing that their story is not going to be loved by all, and the responsibility of readers to keep a civil tongue. I often research books on Amazon by comparing the one star reviews to the four and five star ones. Generally if the book is good, the hate-reviews are written in all-caps with a great many exclamation marks and a general attitude of vehement disgust. If the book is bad, the one-star reviews are usually sensible and it is the five-star reviews that have capital letters, exclamation marks, and a great deal of irresponsible gushing. The comparison can be very interesting!

Jessica Day George said...

By the way, there have been several other great posts about this lately by Shannon Hale, Holly Black, Ally Carter, and John Scalzi, on their blogs.

Oh, and Amber: if I really loathed a book, I just quietly disappear it from my Goodreads list.

lisa :) said...

Hello Ms. George,
This is my first time stopping by your blog and I'm very intrigued by this discussion. I've been book blogging for just under a year and I go back and forth on this issue quite a lot.

I generally only blog about books I enjoy, but I also have a LibraryThing and a GoodReads account and I've been known to post reviews of works I did not care for there. Personally, I don't see what's wrong with reviews in which a reader states that they did not like a work. I think there is a certain amount of integrity to be gained from eloquently explaining reasons for not liking something as well as reasons for liking something. As a reader, I can find negative reviews helpful if they are well written. I can think of one book in which another reviewer rated it poorly but explained that the narrative voice and offbeat style of storytelling were not to her taste. I appreciated both aspects of that novel and ended up favorably reviewing the work - however, had I not read the other review (which told me a bit about the book) I may never have picked it up.

That said, I don't see any value in "reviews" that blatantly berate authors or shamelessly attack a work. I think there is a bit of a fad on some bookish sites to post snarky reviews which seem only written as self-edifying tributes to the reviewer. I don't agree with this practice and feel that opinions about a work should be separate from a critique of the author him/herself.

As a book blogger, I've had several authors ask for my reviews in exchange for copies of their books. For me to promise a review and then not write one seems selfish. It could be that authors would prefer to have no response from me than have a less than glowing review, but for my own integrity I would rather honestly evaluate what I did not like about the book and perhaps also highlight things that I did enjoy (there's usually at least SOMETHING I liked). I've also found it helpful to include in my review who I feel would be a better audience for the book in hopes that it could better suit a different reader.

Also, with the amount of books I read every year, I rarely write a review for everything I read. I would hate for people to assume that a work I did not review was one that I did not enjoy. For what it's worth, I read Dragon Slippers (back before I was blogging) and I really loved it, but I was swamped with work the month I read it and never jotted out a review.

Thanks for bringing up this issue though, I think it's important for all reviewers to realize that words cast into cyberspace can have impact far beyond the sites to which they are posted.

(And thank you also for writing such lovely books! I'm ashamed at how many of yours are still on my TBR list, but I do still count myself as a fan!)

lisa :)

Geoffrey said...

I don't understand. Are you saying there are people who don't like your books? What are they, Nuts? :)

Good thoughts, and much to think about. Most of my book-blasting has been in verbal discussions with friends, with a bit on Facebook discussions. But recently I have thought that there are better ways to say I don't care for certain books without being so snarky about it. After all, I wouldn't want nasty things to be said about my own writing, even if those nasty things said were basically true. So thank you for this reminder to us all.

Oh, and I just read your post about your new book. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I already love "Tuesdays at the Castle".