Sunday, 26 April 2009

Should authors comment on reviews of their books?

This is the latest interesting debate to surface in the genre blogging community.

The article basically asks whether authors that engage in discussion of their books are at risk of (among other things) scaring potential contributors away, and therefore killing the debate. The article cites the example of Peter V. Brett, who recently commented on a review of his novel The Painted Man over at The Book Smugglers as he felt the need to explain the reasoning behind a particular sexual scene in the book. After Peter left the comment, the conversation died a bit of a death - something he admits on his blog.

Now, maybe this was because the conversation had run its course. But maybe it was because readers felt reluctant to get involved once the author had posted a comment of his own. So, do authors kill debate by getting involved in online discussion, or does it depend on the nature of their contribution?

One thing is for sure - this is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2004 Anne Rice took exception to some critical reviews on Amazon of her novel Blood Canticle (you'd think she'd know better - Amazon reviews are usually of little critical value. Harriet Klausner anyone?). The result, inevitably, was a classic interweb shit-storm. Rice was forced to back down and eventually released a statement on her website in an attempt to set the record straight. The whole thing reeked of a hasty PR job, with Rice trying to cast a positive glow on it by saying "The whole experience has been amazing." Four words - stable, door, horse, bolted.

There are more recent examples of where things have got a bit fruity after an author entered the debate surrounding their own work. Paul Kearney took exception to Aidan's 'review' of The Ten Thousand and subsequently attracted some criticism with his reaction, though Paul showed his quality by later making a sincere apology.

The exchange that really springs to mind though is the tasty bit of friction that resulted from Simon Spanton (Gollancz editor) calling out Pat about his review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and requesting that Pat make their email exchange, about the nature of hype, public. Cue a load of anti-Spanton vitriol from angry readers that took exception to the tone of his emails.

The debate then intensified when Richard Morgan himself posted a comment, which included the line "I think you failed to enjoy my book because you just didn’t like it – and I think you’re being too diplomatic, or possibly just too nice, to come out and say that. Or you’re fooling yourself." It's at about this point when you have to step back and just ask, "Hang on, is this going a bit too far?" After the considerable debate engendered by Pat's review, Spanton's request that his emails be made public and Morgan's contribution didn't really achieve much at all; the general reaction was more negative than positive and I don't think either of them emerged from the whole incident with much credit. Then again, Morgan seems to have a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way, nicely illustrated by his recent article about Tolkien and his comments in the ongoing threads about The Steel Remains on Westeros.

Anyway, this is old news. Back to the issue at hand: should authors (or editors for that matter) get involved in debate/post comments on reviews of their novels?

For me, it depends on the tone of their comment/contribution. Brett and Morgan, in their posts, both addressed issues that they felt had been misunderstood and subsequently had cast their respective novels in a negative light. Nothing wrong with that. But whereas Brett's post was dignified and polite, Morgan's was a bit of a rant that included a personal criticism of the reviewer (and as we all know, personal criticism is just not the done thing). It's unsurprising therefore that the reaction to Brett's post was received more favourably.

Generally though, I think it's best for authors to just keep out of it. In this day and age, anyone who has a book published has to accept that it will most likely be discussed online, and that plenty of people will dislike it. Some criticism might be fair, some might not. Some readers might be getting totally the wrong end of the stick. But authors should be thick-skinned enough to deal with it, and to not let it upset them. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that much anyway - the vast majority of readers don't venture online, so online book reviews don't really have much impact on a book's success or failure.

As for the other question - does an author's contribution to a debate run the risk of ruining the discussion? - I think that is much more difficult to answer, as it depends on a number of factors - which blog it is on, how many people have already contributed, the type of people contributing, etc. I don't see any intrinsic reason why an author's contribution would kill discussion. Again, it's largely down to the tone of the comment. Personally, I wouldn't be put off by an author getting involved.

As a blogger, I like authors to interact with readers. It's fun and it's one of the best things about the online community. But it should be through the correct channels; ie, a guest post or a Q&A session. The comments section of a book review probably isn't the best place - especially if the author in question is looking to vent steam at a negative review. Then again, there's nothing like the smell of flamewars in the morning...

Tia has also given her thoughts on her the issue. Feel free to add your own, I'm interested to see how other folk feel about this issue.


Gav ( said...

This is a though one. On the one hand in this internet-open-communication-social network-age it's good to interact with people that you wouldn't normally reach - twitter is an amazing example of that.

But on the other hand, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Once a book is in print - it really isn't your baby anymore - you, and those around you have done your best to polish what were a jumbled bunch of ideas into a narrative that hopefully is going to find people that'll enjoy it. It has to speak for itself.

The way I see a novel isn't going to change if you come on my blog and 'explain' what I was having problems with - it's how I saw it. That doesn't mean that the next person isn't going to see it differently. They are.

I love the idea of writers reading reviews - I hope they just take them for what they - a persons opinions. The reviewer doesn't really have to justify their review and a writer shouldn't justify what they've written.

If they want to do something about what they've written they need to work on their next book and make that work better/improve on points of weakness/carry on exactly like they were.

So I guess my thoughts are - commenting on reviews is probably best left to readers. Commenting on other things and pimping your book as much as possible is highly recommended.

Mark Chadbourn said...

I totally agree that writers should never leave comments on a review of their work. Frankly, it has nothing to do with them. The writer's business ends when their book hits the shelves. Reviews are the business of readers - it's their debate, and it doesn't matter what the writer thinks. The work should stand on its own, without the author having to chip in with "explanations".

Having said that, I think you're being disingenuous by suggesting online reviews have no impact because they're only read by a small proportion of the buying public. They have a massively exaggerated importance on these terms. They're read by the movers and shakers who do see them as some kind of seers, voicing the thoughts of the silent majority.

One bad review by a respected reviewer can cost an author thousands of pounds, perhaps even their livelihood at the extremes. Here's an example: foreign editors often check online reviews when they're considering buying a book. A bad review will make them think twice, because all editors are essentially putting their jobs on the line when they make a purchase with the company's money. Bad reviews can subtly make them doubt their own opinions, or think that it's a poor investment because the public might agree with the reviewer. Better to err on the side of safety and do nothing.

I know this to be true because I have been told by more than one editor. Whether they admit this in public is a different matter. I also know a good review has the same effect - because, according to one of the editors in question, I made one significant foreign sale through the reviews of my books on SFSite by Nathan Brazil. If I ever meet him, he gets a big drink!

For that reason, I can understand why authors do pitch in. Sorry for the long response. This is a big issue, with lots of nuances

James said...

Gav and Mark, thanks very much for your posts - really interesting to hear your thoughts.

I never really considered the impact of online reviews in terms of foreign sales, so that's a really interesting and valid point - thanks for bringing it up, Mark!

gav ( said...

Well I guess it does make sense now that Mark mentions it.

A lot books must cross over from America to the UK and vice versa due to 'buzz' and interest. An internet search has to be a good indication of how well a novel is going down.

Take Mark Newton's novel. It hasn't got an American publisher yet but after all the buzz it's getting I'd be surprised if a few people don't spot it!

Adam Whitehead said...

I'm surprised you didn't pick up on Scott Bakker's recent posts on about the perceived sexism in his books, which turned into a bit of a train wreck when it turned out he'd been participating in the debate earlier under another name. Owch.

And then there was the recent case of the person who told Joe Abercrombie his idea on how he could have ended Last Argument of Kings better, to the latter's bemusement.

ediFanoB said...

I read this post and the comments with great interest.
On one hand I liked the comment from Peter V. Brett. On the other hand I think a blog is place for blogger and their readers. A lot of authors have their own blogs. That means they can pick up discussions and comment on their blogs. In order to share information I like the way Peter V. Brett is going with his pingback.

downtown guy said...

J. Neil Schulman took rather heated offense when I said that his book Alongside Night was boring. It turned out to be pretty dang funny, but no one walked away with any good opinions about the fellow.

Neth said...

It's all about how it gets done - it can be done well and it can be a complete train-wreck. I think that it can be difficult to do it well, which is why authors should be cautious.

My own experiences are varied - I often get nice emails from authors thanking me for the review - typically there isn't any comment about the content. Sometimes an author will leave that comment at the review itself, which is also fine. It gets tricky when it goes further.

I'll point to two examples on my blog - in this review, Scott Bakker commented a bit and then disucssion exploded. It was good, healthy discussion, but at such a high-level that I'm guessing that 99.9% of readers couldn't really follow it (myself included).

In this 'review', the author started constructive and degraded into petty insults. It was linked a few times as an example of why authors shouldn't comment on reviews. I definately consider it an example of #reviewcommentfail.

Ryan said...

Personally I don't have a problem with authors discussing their books. It's great to hear their take on something that maybe was misinterpreted. Doesn't mean you have to just go on their take.
One example is Joe Abercrombie, and we ALL know he loves to hear his name, but a reviewer, can't remember who, did a review of Last Argument. Part of it said more or less the ending sucked. What kind of ending is that, Joe.
Joe, comes on and says, it's an ace ending. It ties in the first chapter in book one with the final chapter in the last book. At which point the original reviewer says, oh, yeah, I'd forgotten how book one started. Now it makes sense.
Seems w/o Joe's input a lot of would-be-buyers may not have picked up said trilogy based on a reviewers memory lapse. Now, with the about face they might. Puts food on the authors plate and consequently more good books for us.
I for one love to hear the little intricacies of what an author is doing with his/her world.
Some say if they're doing it right explanation wouldn't be needed. Some of us may just need that extra push in the right direction.

Jebus said...

I think it's great fun! I reckon authors should comment and start discussions all they want - even the petty ones. It's not like they get the chance to defend themselves anywhere else so why not in the Democratic Republic of Innuendo and Rumour - The Interwebs - allow a bit more lee way and let readers, authors and reviewers all have fun little stoushes that largely get ignored by anyone who doesn't care or even has no idea they exist.

Alexander Field said...

Fascinating topic for me, I love it when an author stops by my blog. But I do think that an author commenting on his own review is a bit strange, perhaps even over the line...even though Brett's comment is polite and makes a good point, I'd almost rather the reviews were left to the readers. And thanks for the links to Pat's little spat with Simon...hilarious!

Best : )

James said...

Thanks for all the comments, really good to hear your opinions.

Neth, thanks for the examples. The second one is a classic example of an author getting involved when they should just keep quiet.

Larry said...


That discussion with Bakker was perfectly intelligible to me ;)


After reading this, I think I'm going to end up writing a post that'll reference your post here. I disagree in some of the particulars, but the reasons why aren't usually the ones argued. Guess I better just shut up and write it before I fall asleep and forget! :P Good article, though, just a few nitpicks, as is the norm for me with most anything.

James said...

Praise from Larry - I must have done something right!

Seriously though, thanks Larry - look forward to see your own article on the matter!

Neth said...

agreed on looking forward to Larry's post - and Larry, you were one of the 0.1% I was referring to who followed the argument ;)

James - yes that is a classic example, though I could go even further with responses from POD authors when I wouldn't review their work...but that is a whole other subject

James said...

Neth - I know what you mean. Some of the queries/requests I've received from POD 'authors' have ranged from obnoxious to hilarious. Few of them seem to have any idea of how to write a polite email.

The Mad Hatter said...

Great discussion. I for one love it when the authors get involved, but I do think their point of view is best displayed on their own blog. But it is usually quite entertaining when they get involved.

barfly said...

haven't seen this mentioned, all apols if i'd missed it: author comments/explanations/book chatter would much depend on the author, no? some folks are just the kind of peeps that can contribute well to such discussions, others not so much. fortunately many of the authors mentioned here are of the former clan and not the latter.