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What to Do When You Offend or Disappoint a Reader

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

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?

45 comments:

  1. Good post, Jody! Really interesting about Karen's reviews. I follow her on Twitter and have been reading all the tweets of people who adored the book; never thought about those who might not have liked it! I think it puts things into perspective to remember that even those who are "at the top" (NYT list or whatever other comparison you want to make) don't please everyone. It's not only a good writing lesson, but a good LIFE lesson.

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  2. Funnily enough I was in a bookshop today and picked up Loving off the shelf.

    I haven't been reading the series, but the third book recently cropped up in my "recommended reads" list on Amazon and I had popped over to have a look at what was going on because usually all her books are 5s and (from memory) this one at that time had a 3.5.

    From reading the reviews a theme quickly emerged - readers were rebelling because it looked like Karen Kingsbury was taking the series somewhere the readers didn't want it to go. Even at that point readers were saying things like "If she doesn't make this right in Loving, I'm never going to read another Karen Kingsbury ever again!"

    **Possible spoiler alert***

    So , out of interest I flicked to the last few pages and had a read and all I could think of was "Oh dear, there is going to be a blood bath on Amazon over this."

    I am a big fan of Karen Kingbury's. I think that she is incredibly gifted and I have no doubt these books are up to her usual great technical writing standard. However, these characters have "grown up" across multiple series, many readers obviously feel deeply connected to them and so when she delivered an ending that they weren't anticipating her readers have felt betrayed because they don't believe that the ending that has been written is the right one for those characters.

    As a writer it's certainly been a lesson for me on the fact that you have to take readers on the journey with you so that wherever your character ends up they believe it is the right place for them.

    I feel really badly for her. As an author it would be heartbreaking enough to receive the kind of feedback you're talking about Jodie but to have legions of fans feeling so betrayed about a story choice you've made? That would be beyond horrible.

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  4. Hi Bekah and Kara! I agree, Bekah, the lesson is one that we can implement in any area of life! We will disappoint those around us and it takes humility to recognize it and apologize.

    And Kara, I felt really bad for Karen too. I'm sure it's one thing to disappoint a few readers here and there. But I would feel absolutely sick if I disappointed my readers on such a wide scale level. On the one hand, we can't always make everyone happy. But it also shows that as authors, we need to be aware of reader expectations with our stories and give them what they want.

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  5. Jody I think you handled both of those situations perfectly and with grace. Responding publicly, even to a public review makes your response more about justifying yourself than addressing the issue. Also, issues that are aired in public tend to take on a life their own and can quickly turn ugly. No one wants or needs that.

    It is totally human to want to defend our position when attacked. It is with divine strength that we "turn away wrath with a soft word".

    If you are a public figure - or a customer service rep (been there before!) - you are an easy target for people who are looking to vent about something, anything. People want to be heard. I think your responses allowed these two people to be heard, and allowed them their opinions without judgment.

    It is a life lesson we can all use. Sometimes those very people who cause our hearts to drop are ministry moments that God brings our way - people who need to see Jesus in our responses to them.

    You get a 5 star review on this! :)

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  6. There’s one time when you can—carefully—respond to a reader/reviewer, and publicly at that: when the problem is not personal but factual.

    For example: I recently wrote a how-to book called Anyone Can Make a Kindle Book which, naturally enough tells how to make an e-book from your manuscript and distribute it on Amazon. Also naturally enough, I used a number of screen captures from Amazon to illustrate the process.

    Well, as I was writing the book over the course of several months, Amazon did some updating, which I did not notice (my fault). Some of my screen captures were out of date, and a purchaser noticed and, while praising the book overall, gave me only a four-star review because of it.

    I read the review, updated the illustrations, and publicly commented back to the review that I had done so and asked that any other mistakes be brought to my attention.

    Within a day the reviewer changed his review to five stars, and said that he had done so specifically because I had fixed my mistakes.

    So it can be done, but only under certain circumstances and you must tread carefully.

    As for subjective reviews and comments (even positive ones), I agree with Jody and many others: merely smile and nod and say nothing.

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  7. This is a touchy subject for sure. My plans are (and I hope to adhere to these when the day comes), not to respond to online reviews, not even to read them or pay attention to them. But you're right. Letters, emails, comments through twitter, fb, etc. should be responded to with as much professionalism and politeness as we can muster. I think your responses were totally awesome.

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  8. I think this is excellent advice.

    Question for you - when a reviewer posts a review on their blog, do you respond in the comments with a thank you, or do you usually stay out of that as well?

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  9. In my opinion, you handled both dissapointments with grace and dignity and your advice for handling online opinions and personal messages is right on. As a customer, if I have a complaint I am going to take it to the customer service rep and hope they can fix it or at least explain to me why it is the way it is. But, if I have an opinion or a review, I am not looking for an answer or a fix - I am just sharing my thoughts. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your experience with us.

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  10. Very good advice, Jody!

    Thanks!

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  11. Loving all of your comments today, everyone!

    Peter I appreciate you sharing your experience. Sounds like one of those times when it was beneficial to interact with a reader's review. But as you said, those cases are rare.

    Katie, as far as blog reviews--I'm still undecided on those. So far, I have made it my policy to thank those I know. Many friends post blog reviews as part of a blog tour, influencer role, or simply to support me. And in those cases, I like to let them know how much I appreciate their efforts. I'll usually leave a brief comment thanking them or send them a personal email to that effect. (Same thing is true if I see that a friend has posted a review on Amazon or elsewhere. I'll try to personally and privately thank them.) In these cases, I know they're trying to help me out, and so I feel differently about the review than one from a complete stranger.

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  12. Sounds like you have a good policy, Jody! I'd also bear in mind that plenty of fabulous books get bad reviews at some point. In some cases, I believe it says more about the reader than the book - but then, I'm a Thomas Hardy fan!

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  13. It's times like these that I remember my sixth grade teacher. (which isn't really hard since it hasn't been that long because I'm only 15) She always reminded us that we could never please everyone no matter how hard we try. I proved this to be true in my HS life. Because of this, I think no one who has good intentions needs to feel guilty for offending someone. Which includes you! :)

    P.S. I love your blog. I just needed to say that. :">

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  14. Hi Jody. I'm lucky enough to get a number of comments when I post my weekly column.. err, blog. Most of them are positive, but there is that occasional negative comment that indeed makes my heart sink. I think that's the price, as one of my readers noted, for "putting yourself out there" which is what writers do. Thanks for the advice, the temptation is always to respond to any and all comments, regardless of the venue. Keeping it on a personal level makes a lot of sense.

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  15. I quite agree with you in both circumstances. If it's not directed at you, you are not obliged to respond, and if it's bad, you're probably better off, especially if you're like me and tend to get a bit passionate and defensive and over the top...

    Personal messages, yes, reply, but keep your head about it. Maybe write a draft and save it and come back to it later when you've had a bit of time to think and cool off if it was a BAD message, and then just make sure you're responding in the best possible way before you send it.

    There's not much we can do, we're all going to get good and bad feedback no matter what we do with our lives, and so we just have to deal with whatever comes our way.

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  16. Wow, Jody. You hit on one of a writer's greatest fears. It's very risky to be in the public eye; probably one of the scariest things I've done, especially when "words of affirmation" is my love language (wry grin).

    Sometimes I remind myself, "After all, not everyone liked Jesus! So how would I think they will all like me?"

    So you walk in obedience, doing what you know to do to the best of your ability, and trust it to Him.

    Waving and grinning,

    Rhonda

    P.S. - I do like your advice on how to deal with it.

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  17. Jody, I believe you are the queen of diplomacy, and your post today is spot-on.

    If there's one thing I'm learning while on this wild ride to publishing, it's to attempt to take the "high road" when at all possible, a personal creed of mine anyway. It doesn't lessen the sting of criticism, but to respond in a public forum would be opening a whole 'nother can of worms.

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  18. I personally wouldn't take to the "air-waves" voicing my disappointment over another reader's disappointment in me or my writing. You can't change them, just deliver a quality product and be humble about it. But, to play "Devil's Advocate"... Look at The Bloggess and her reaction to 1 negative review, she took to Twitter, but she can, because she's The Bloggess. ;)

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  19. Not something you hear talked about often, but very interesting to think about. I think you're absolutely right about simply being professional and treating our writing careers like the businesses they are.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  20. Oh, Jody, those letters sting. I'm so sorry you received them. And you're right - everyone gets them. And you're UBER right when you point out that we should NOT respond on a public forum that can quickly turn into an e-fight. Personal correspondence works best and allows the writer to understand more clearly where the reader is coming from. Whether their comments have foundation or they are people who seem to find fault no matter what. Hugs and keep on writing!!

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  21. Some very solid advice here, Jody. We should never react to public reviews. Sure, we're human, so we should feel free to share our opinions with our husband or call up a girlfriend (I like Goodreads advice about the wine too!), but we should never respond publically. But I do think a response is deserved for personal notes. Now, depending on the tone of the letter, a cooling off period might be advised. And it's good to remember that anything on the internet could essentially become public, so even those personal emails need to be treated as if they might go public.

    Great topic!

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  22. Once again, Jody, you've broached an important topic and handled it well. You've shared honestly and said "This is how I've handled it" and then invited us to join the conversation.
    I've enjoyed reading others' insights too.
    I've already committed to not responding to negative reviews. I have learned though, that if someone posts a negative review--particularly if it is a personal attack (and I've read reviews like those) you can ask someone else to comment for you, instead of doing the responding yourself. That's always an option and that is the advantage of having a "safety net" of writing comrades.

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  23. Not too long ago, I read a honest, but unflattering review about a Christian fiction book I had recently purchased. I was shocked to find that in the comment section, the author had responded to the reviewer by asking her to never read any of her books again, thank you, she didn't want anymore bad reviews. Though I wasn't the one the author was speaking to, the comment disturbed me and tainted my impression of her character. I may not buy another book from this author again, even if I enjoy the book. Responding to a bad review is the worst thing an author can do.

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  24. Gellie, I love teen writers! I get so excited when I see young writers already pursuing their passion!

    And Gwendolyn. Eeek. I think it really does do more damage to respond to a negative review. As you said, now you have a WORSE opinion of that author because of her response. If you feel that way, I imagine many other readers read the review and now think less of that author too.

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  25. I dont think you should respond to bad reviews, its their opinion and we all have a right to our opinions. I am sure you get more good then bad ones because your books are great. You just cannot please everyone, there are many differences in people and what one likes another may not...
    Paula O

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  26. I personally would never leave a feedback that would hurt the writer. I was taught by mom and G-Mom if you can't say something nice don't say anything. Your books are great. God bless you and all your writer friends. Patti in VA

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  27. Thank you, Paula and Patti, for the kind words about my books! I've been very blessed so far to have most of my readers responding so kindly! :-)

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  28. Great post, Jody. I especially like the part about eating chocolate! You've made some key points here. I've had moments where I've felt about an inch tall. No fun. But Bad reviews are rough and part of the business of art. I used to review all books, but in the last year or so, I've decided that as an author, I only want to post a review if its really positive. There's nothing fun about hurting another persons feelings.

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  29. I don't think that authors should respond to online reviews. I think it's okay to respond to personal complaints, but only to a certain extent. The thing is that there are always going to be some overly sensitive or bossy know-it-all types who will be the first ones to tell you if you do something that they don't like or agree with. If you respond to them once, that's usually enough to settle things with them. But there are some people, though, who won't let it go; I've seen plenty of online "trolls" who will keep responding with more and more complaints because they're trying to provoke an emotional response. I don't think that the people you described were necessarily trolls; I also think that the way that you responded was the right thing to do. But it can be tricky to figure out how to deal with people like that sometimes.

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  30. I think your suggested responses are very wise. Just what I would expect from one with such a good heart. :)

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  31. I think you have a very wise policy. And I'm sure the reader of your misprinted book will remember the class with which you handled her complaint.

    As far as bad Amazon and GR reviews--sometimes these sites are just safe zones for unhappy people. Maybe they can't tell their sister-in-law off, but they CAN trash the book they just read.

    Also, I recently read Deanne Gist's Maid to Match and LOVED it! I left my review on GR's and read through a few of the other reviews. The ones who gave it lower stars routinely knocked it down for being "Christian" fiction! Hello? It IS Christian fiction!

    Sorry, just my thoughts... :)

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  32. Jody - I would certainly agree with your post. I would also suggest that a variety of reviews/responses would indicate a wide variety of audience which is exactly what you want as an author. Every reader doesn't love the same type of book or method of author. What I think is beautiful another may not be attracted to at all. That doesn't reflect on the author as much as on personal taste. I love Lisa Wingate's books but there was a series of hers I just couldn't get into. It didn't make me stop reading her. It just made me put down that particular series. No author should be put in a box by the readers. We write what we are inspired to write and do it the very best we can. In that - we can count ourselves successful.

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  33. I like the idea of doing this privately, and not for the world to see. I've seen some amazing threads between authors and readers, and it never ended well. It's tough to realize we can't please everyone, but that's reality. Thanks for your thoughtful opinions. I wholeheartedly agree.

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  34. Excellent post, and a great reminder NOT to respond (unless it's a letter to you directly). I would cringe if I had 100 out of 245 reviews as 1-star, too. My sympathies to KK. Ouch!

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  35. I have to agree with this from the position of having this happen to me. I posted I will admit a very bad one star review of a book that ha, to that point, only received 5 stars. This was not just a personsl taste for me but backed up by 9 members of my book club. I said it was a hundred pages too long several said it was two hundred pages too long, there were mistakes in usage and overly purple prose. I posted my review and moved on. The author however felt the need to in my opinion poke me about my review, it flipped a switch in few that really ticked me off. My posting of that review was honest and okay maybe a little more abrasive than need be but it was due to the outrage of all the 5 stars that were't a true representantion. So I responded back to his comment now rudely and defensively and then he responded more rudely and let's just say it didn't end pretty.
    Eat the chocolate, sip the wine just walk away you can't please everybody. Don't buy into the hype the good or the bad, listen take notes for the future and move forward.

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  36. Well said. This is so valuable for those of us who have yet to face such wonderful/difficult conundrums. I am sorry that you've faced reader disappointment. I know that I haven't always enjoyed every book that I read, but I also don't make a habit (read never) balk about it openly. Because I know that my opinion is just that. I value other people's opinions and I don't want to sway their reading experience before they even get a chance. That's me as a reader. As a writer I appreciate the advice for how to respond to readers with the same polite manner. Thanks for a wonderful post, as always. :)

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  37. Really interesting post, Jody. I agree that responding publicly to a bad review is a bad idea. No good can come of it.

    As for responding to positive blog reviews, I do tend to respond in the comments. It comes from a genuine place -- I'm always happy when someone reads what I've written, elated when they enjoy it, and over the moon when they love it so much they write a rave review about it. It feels natural and respectful to let the reviewer know how much I appreciate their time, and how happy I am that they loved the book.

    I'll also respond to positive reviews that aren't necessarily raves, where they liked-but-didn't-love the book, or recommended it despite a couple things that didn't work for them. Again, I genuinely appreciate their time and honesty, and want to acknowledge that.

    What's lovely about responding to these blogs is they've often turned to Twitter conversations, and started online relationships with people I very much enjoy -- a definite boon.

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  38. This is great advice. I had the odd experience of offending a beta reader with one of my books recently. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what I'd done wrong since none of my other betas had expressed an issue. I had to finally accept that my book wouldn't be for everyone, even among my friends.

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  39. Is it really your responsibility to apologise if you've offended someone with your work? "I'm offended" is such a non-complaint. What exactly do they want you to do, rewrite the book? I admire you for standing by your work and your choices, but I really don't think you should have to say the word 'sorry' just because somebody says the word 'offended'. Because if you believe in your work, surely you're not remotely sorry that they disagree with what you've written? It seems disingenuous to me.

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  40. I think it's more to express an understanding of the person's viewpoint. You don't have to agree with their feelings, but it's always good to show that your intent was not to offend, to show a little humility and maintain a positive relationship with a reader.

    It's like when you say "I'm sorry" if someone loses a loved one. You're not saying it because you were responsible, you're saying it to show empathy and understanding of their feelings.

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  41. Good point, Paul. You summed it up extremely well!! Thanks for chiming in! Yes, I'm not sorry for what I wrote. But I wanted to acknowledge her specific hurt and concern. And to express that I didn't mean my words to offend anyone, but I was "sorry" if they somehow offended her. Acknowledging reader concerns does take some humility, but in today's internet culture, I'd much rather be known as an author who cares about readers and responds to them, than one who doesn't.

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  42. Hi! I was googling Karen Kingsbury randomly and came across this.

    Just wanted to confirm, having read/ looked at many of her books, that the Bailey & Cody relationship was built up--very deliberately--for a long time. Even when Bailey dated others, there was always that "something" missing. So readers invested their time as well as their money to follow the story.

    Karen's explanation for jerking the rug out from under her readers after about 10 (?) books (Brandon appears only in the last two or last few) is that she spent a day at the beach asking God about it, or something like that. I don't agree with that way of thinking. God does not divinely tell fictional writers what to put in their books; I don't think that that's happened since Scripture was written! :) Rather, God gives WISDOM, and had she carefully read reviews on the next-to-last book or so, she could have righted her mistake. The last book or so is a tortured attempt to undo ALL the bonding Bailey and Cody shared over the years.

    In addition, Bailey ends up with a movie star, much as Katy (another character) did, and it would have been refreshing to allow a rich girl with a "perfect" family to see past the immense struggles Cody had been through (losing part of a leg, alcoholic mother, his own past) and love him regardless. So for those rooting for Cody, there was a lot of betrayal.

    This was deliberate and had lots of warning. No judgment on her as a person (I think she must be a wonderful person), but you shouldn't have to worry about making the same mistake, not if you accept wise input and if you have anyone in your life to tell you if you're too "married to the truth" and not developing a story line well because "This happened in real life."

    Now I want to check out some of your writing!

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  43. Hi Anonymous! Thanks for jumping into the discussion and sharing your thoughts about Karen's last book. She's definitely been hitting homeruns for quite a while with her books. And it's interesting to analyze what happened with this book and try to figure out just why it didn't resonate with readers. I think it's always important to listen to the input of editors and others so that we make sure we stay on track with our stories!

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  44. Karen is a dear, cherished friend of mine so I will keep my response germane to your question--how should authors respond or should we respond at all? Your advice is spot on, first off. I have always cautioned authors not to respond to criticism online. I take note of the criticism that helps me to be a better writer. The good praise always comes or else why did a publisher invest in us in the first place? I allow those good things said to buoy me up and keep me writing for those who took the time to exhort my story. If emailed (usually it's about a mistake that managed to slip past me and the battery of editorial experts who helped me publish it), I do respond in private, but, as you have so advised, extending the same grace extended to me by my Lord. However, I once was distressed when it seemed a reviewer was reporting incorrect facts about, not only me and my books, but other writers who have a more literary bent. When enough writers were under attack, finally, we were able to contact the online book seller. The reviewer was contacted via telephone. As it turned out, she was a bitter writer who had never gotten published. She apologized profusely--she seemed shocked that she had left such an enormous wake of wounded authors. I was called personally by the bookseller's rep and, in front of me online, she removed the offensive reviews.(They were not book reviews but attacks on my character.) Since then I've noted reviewers who have wrongly accused me of using profanity (I use zero) and explicit sex scenes (nada--never), and I just say a prayer for them and continue on. While I gingerly offer advice to an author to ignore the bad reviews, I'm apt to share of my one exception. But if it seems that we are under some sort of slander campaign, we have a duty to our readers to protect our reputations and preserve our honor in the eyes of our readers. Again, this has happened only once.

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    1. Hi Patricia!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post! I appreciate it! I like your advice to take note of the criticism that can help us become better writers. And I'm sure in that specific situation, confronting a particular reviewer was appropriate. I'm a fairly young author and have limited experiences! But I can imagine that at some point in my career there may come a time when I'll need to confront someone--especially as you say with a slander campaign. I would hope I'd have the grace and tact to handle it as you did! Thanks again for sharing! Blessings!

      Jody

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