Should Authors Stalk Review Sites?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Review sites are for readers. Let's just get that out there up front. The reviews are NOT intended for authors (for feedback, instruction, critiques, etc.). When a reader posts a review, he or she is doing so to inform and enlighten other readers about the book. Or at least they should be.

But even though reviews are intended for readers, most authors (myself included) check the review sites on occasion to see what readers think, to find out the number of stars, and the rankings. Some may even stalk their reviews daily (or hourly!).

And just why are authors drawn so magnetically to the reviews on their books?

I can think of a number of reasons. First, the reviews bring immediate gratification, and in an industry where everything takes so long, that instant "reward" is hard to resist.

Also we're writing to bring readers pleasure, and so we have a deep need to make sure that we're actually doing what we set out to do. We want reassurance that we're on track, that our stories are resonating.

But is it healthy for a writer's mental well-being to stalk the review sites? Should authors work harder to stay away? Are the review sites really the best place for us to find the reassurance we long for?

A couple of weeks ago, I read Lynn Austin's newest book All Things New, set in the south during the reconstruction era after the Civil War. I found the book just as well-written and meaty as always. So I was somewhat shocked when another reader (who claims that Austin is her favorite author) left her a two star review saying that story bored her and that she felt like it was written by someone else.

I had a much different reading experience. I genuinely enjoyed it and thought it was one of her most interesting books yet. But the other reader said, "I kept hoping the story would finally take off, sadly the book finished and I was glad it was all over!"

Of course, this kind of contradiction has happened to me too. In fact, one day last week I came across a blog review claiming that my first two books were much better and had more depth than my newest book, Unending Devotion. That same day, a reader emailed me to say that Unending Devotion was my "best book yet."

Who's right?

We could go on and on with contradictory reviews. Even the most popular, best-selling books elicit a wide range of reader reactions, usually a large number of both five and one star reviews.

If we're checking Amazon or Goodreads or blog reviews, then we're going to eventually hear a lot of negative stuff.

The trouble is, we tend to take lower ratings very personally, whether we want to or not. We let the negative comments dig in and discourage us. Even if we have thick skin, those comments still seem to worm their way inside. And sometimes they hurt, even fester.

We start to feel unsettled and insecure. We may even begin second-guessing ourselves and our stories, let the reader opinions confuse us, and lose confidence in our voice. Perhaps some of us may wonder if we're really cut out for a writing career after all.

Yes, reading reviews on our books can eventually weigh us down, depress us, and take the joy out of writing.

In the days before the internet, authors couldn't rush off to see what readers thought of every intimate detail of their books. If an author got lucky, they would get a book review in a newspaper or magazine from a coveted critic. Or maybe handwritten letters came in from time to time applauding them. But that was it.

For the most part, authors could write in blissful unawareness, without knowing what readers were thinking about their stories. Sales statistics were the primary way of determining how an author was doing (and actually they still are!).

But now due to the internet, readers have a very strong voice. And it's only growing stronger. There aren't just a couple of coveted critics anymore who are writing reviews about our books. There are hundreds of critics.

Yes, there are many benefits to online reviews. But in this modern age, I'm realizing that we as authors need to protect ourselves from too much criticism (and perhaps even too much praise). When we take the reviews too seriously or look to the reviews for our worth, we start to lose faith in ourselves.

We have to remember that subjectivity plays a huge role in the writing world, that we can't please everybody, nor should we even try. People really do have different tastes in what they like, in what they consider a good story, and what they prefer to read.

Reviews don't define us or our writing. We can't let all the voices out there distract us from listening to our own unique writing voice and following the passionate stories birthed in our hearts.

Writers, do you read the reviews on your books? Why or why not? 

And readers, do you think authors should be reading online reviews? Why or why not?

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