Some Necessary Context
In recent years there have been a number of brouhahas involving book bloggers and amateur (in the sense of not being professional) book reviewers. You can see a post I wrote about three years ago that addresses several of these kerfuffles. Note: This was written several months before the opportunity to become an agent landed in my lap, and before my first book was published. At the time I was casually reviewing books with a friend on our book blog Libri Ago, but that ended when I decided to switch gears in my career to agenting.
My career has taken several twists and turns to land me where I am now. I started out in journalism, transitioned to editing nonfiction, then worked as a bookseller and freelance writer/editor, became a published author, and finally, a literary agent. Each of these positions has given me a different perspective and insight into the process that leads to the creation of a book, and I like to think that it has helped me have more empathy for people who participate in each stage of the process.
What I really think about Goodreads
Confession: I like Goodreads. (You can view my personal account here.) I enjoy seeing readers’ opinions on books and understanding why people loved or hated—or most often liked—certain books. I love discovering new books, especially those that are a bit older but most definitely new to me.
I use it frequently, though not nearly as often as I used to since it’s hard to find time to read books that aren’t a) written by a client, or b) a manuscript I requested from the slush pile. It’s a great place to keep track of what I’ve read, though perhaps more importantly for me, as a ginormous to-be-read pile. There are currently 464 books sitting on that list. o.O
When I go to the library or bookstore, I pull up the Goodreads app on my phone so I can see what other people are saying before I decide whether to spend my very precious free time on a certain book. In particular, there are reviewers on Goodreads whose opinions I’ve come to trust. It took some time to find them, though when one would comment on another’s review of a book that I agreed with, I could find other readers with tastes similar to mine. There are also reviewers whose opinions are the antithesis of mine, and I read their negative reviews because I know that what they hate might well be something that I’ll love. So when I’m at the store, I can quickly scroll through what some of them have said about a particular book and then decide whether I want to look into it a bit more before making my decision whether to purchase it or not.
My personal preference for reviews are those that cite examples of either things they love, or problematic areas that made them not like a book. Some of these reviews can be snarky, and plenty use gifs to illustrate their emotions as they read the book, but seeing as I’m a tad snarky myself, it shouldn’t be surprising. The reviews I do not like are those that attack an author personally. Fortunately, for the most part, those are few and far between.
The “good” in Goodreads
Opinions are just that—opinions. Goodreads is a forum that allows readers and bloggers to share their thoughts on what they’ve read or want to read. Book bloggers, who are often devoted readers, can be some of the most opinionated people on the planet when it comes to what they love and hate, as far as literature goes. They might not always express them in terms that people would consider nice, but it is their right to form whatever opinion they like, and not my or anyone else’s place to say that they are wrong to do so. Even if a review is a bit over-the-top in its snark, as long as it offers reasons as to why the reviewer feels that way and possibly shows excerpts as to why they reallyreallyreally didn’t like a certain book, I’d consider it a worthwhile review.
Authors don’t have to like a review, or even a particular reviewer (paging Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), but they do need to respect a reader’s right to feel however they do about their work, and bloggers are readers. There will always be some people who hate a book, for whatever reason, and those opinions are just as valid as readers who love a book sooooo much they swoon at the thought of it, or even if it changed their life.
How it affects me as a writer
Thus far I’ve had two books published, both nonfiction humor. My personal brand of humor is not universally loved. (Why the heck not? I’m funny, people. FUNNY, DANGIT.) Both of my books are hovering slightly above 3 stars at the moment, and I’m good with that. Of course I’d love a few more gold stars for my books, but it is what it is. I agree with some opinions that readers have expressed, and not with others. I even—gasp!—agree with (or at least understand) some of the negative points made in various reviews.
I learned a long time ago while working as a copy editor at a newspaper that when you are producing work for public consumption, you have to take criticism with a smile and suck it up, even when your feelings are hurt. (I wrote up a longer essay on this awhile back.) But even after learning that lesson, I’m still not impervious to criticism. Sometimes it really stings, and when it does, I call my friends Chocolate, Ice Cream, and sometimes even Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough to help soothe my battered ego. And then I get back to work, because dwelling on the negative is what leads to drama and kerfuffles (yes, I’m using that word again, because I like it). Just say no to real-life drama and read about it instead.
It’s been said by many people before, and it will continue to be said whenever there is an author-blogger dustup, but authors just need to let it go [cue musical number]. Better yet, for the neurotic among us (myself definitely included), find someone you trust to read the reviews for you and then filter which ones you see. I know several authors for whom this works really well.
Now that I’m an agent
While my first clients’ books have yet to hit shelves (June 2015, baby!), I hope that they know that I’m their first line of defense against negative reviews. Not “defense” in the sense that I’ll defend their honor against the eeeevil critics, but in the sense that I’ll always be there to support them and will listen to their ranting and railing and gnashing of teeth, all without judgment. No one likes rejection—which is essentially what negative reviews are—but I’ve been through it too, so I can offer support and hopefully be a calming influence when they’re upset.
I’ll also be there to step in as their own personal Jiminy Cricket, letting them know when it isn’t wise to post something online or say it in front of others. I’m fortunate that Jean Sagendorph, who started out as my agent and has since become a boss/co-worker, has mentioned to me on a couple of (rare) occasions that I might want to rethink discussing something on social media, as it probably won’t turn out well. Each time, she’s been right; sometimes it takes a person outside the situation to see that what the writer is doing isn’t a good idea. In the notable recent case of an author stalking a blogger, the author received warnings from several individuals that she shouldn’t continue down that path, but she did it anyway and landed herself in a heap of trouble.
In the end, it’s not my—nor anyone else’s—place to tell readers that they’re reading the wrong way, or reviewers that they’re reviewing the wrong way. I just hope that they keep reading and expressing their opinions, whatever they might be.
And now for some (related) humor
I present Sandra Bullock googling herself, which is hilarious and poignant at the same time. The conclusions she comes to are particularly powerful when you substitute “writer” for “actor” and “books” for “movies.” Watch it and try not to tear up.
One last thing: I’m tempted to disable comments, because I’m not interested in rehashing the current author-blogger drama here, but I’m okay with allowing them so long as the discussion stays with the topic and doesn’t veer into accusations or justification for either party. If, however, the convo gets derailed, I’m closing up shop, er, the comment section on this post. Capiche?