What to Do When You Offend or Disappoint a Reader

There will come a point in time in every writer’s life when the worst happens: You offend a reader.

Lately, I’ve had a few of those completely humbling moments, when I realized that I failed to deliver what was expected and ended up disappointing a reader.

Just last week I was gleefully making my way through some handwritten letters I’d received from readers, basking in their sweet words. And then . . . it happened. I opened a letter and started reading, and with each word my heart began to sink lower and lower, until it was in my shoe. The reader had received a misprinted version of The Doctor’s Lady and was writing to tell me how disappointed she was.

A couple of days later I received an email from a reader regarding The Preacher’s Bride. And this one sent my heart plummeting to my lower extremities again. The reader concluded that I’d treated a particular religious group in the book as “the Satanic anti-Christ figure.” Of course, I’d certainly not intended to do this by any means of the imagination. But I’d obviously really offended this reader, and I felt terrible about it.

Recently I stumbled across the reviews for Loving, the March 27 release of NYT bestselling author Karen Kingsbury. I was shocked to see that out of 245 reviews there were over a hundred ONE STAR reviews. In fact there are more one star reviews than five.

As I browsed through some of the reviews, I cringed. The common theme among most of Kingsbury’s reviews was disappointment. Kingsbury had failed to deliver the kind of story many readers anticipated.

Obviously, I haven’t experienced that kind of wide-scale reader disappointment . . . yet. But, I’m learning that when we put our work out there, when we decide to take that step and call ourselves a professional author, when we ask people to plunk down their hard-earned cash on our product—then we have to expect the reality that we won’t always be able to please all our customers.

As much as we want to make everyone happy, we can’t. It’s not humanly possible.

Most of us realize we’re not perfect. So, we’re not holding our breath expecting perfect reviews or perfect emails all the time.

But, the question I see floating around a lot among various writer loops is, “How do I respond to bad reviews, comment, or emails?”

Here are two of my thoughts:

1. DON'T respond to negative reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online review sites.

Shortly after I was first published, I wondered if I should thank readers if they left a nice review. I eventually decided not to respond on public review sites—for either the good OR the bad. I concluded that the review sites are FOR READERS, not authors. Those who leave a review are doing so because they want to share their enthusiasm or disappointment with OTHER READERS.

In fact, the March Goodreads newsletter for authors said this in regards to responding to reviews:

"Be professional. Reading a bad review of your book is never pleasant, but the best way to respond is to say nothing. Don't comment on it, don't tweet about it, don't acknowledge it. Maybe have a glass of wine (if that's your thing), and try to forget about it.

At Goodreads, history has shown us that responding to negative reviews, even in a very polite manner, can have disastrous effects on an author's reputation and career."

(My sidenote: In fact, if an author tries to leave a response to a review on Goodreads, she’ll get a popup box that cautions against doing so.)

I respect Goodread’s position, and I think it’s one we can adopt across the large range of other reviews sites.

2. DO respond to emails and other personal correspondences.

You are the customer service representative of your writing business (along with all the other author duties!). If someone takes the time to contact you directly (via an email, facebook, twitter, etc), then they deserve the courtesy of a response (unless of course it’s hate mail—in which case ignore, delete, and then go eat chocolate).

In the case of the above example of the reader who had received a misprinted book, I contacted my publisher and asked them to send out a replacement copy of the book, which they're doing free of charge. Then I wrote a letter to the reader apologizing and letting her know the book was on its way.

In the other example of the reader who was upset with my portrayal on the religious sects within The Preacher’s Bride, I again responded that I was sorry to have offended her.

Think about the times when you lodged a complaint with a company about a product. Did you appreciate a quick but kind response that validated your concerns? How would you have felt if you’d been ignored?

I think it’s just good business (and common human decency) to respond to personal concerns/messages that come to us through Twitter, Facebook, or emails.

So what do you think? Do you think authors should respond to online reviews? Why or why not? And do you think authors should respond to personal complaints? Why or why not?

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