How to spark a book brawl: Talk back to your reviewer
Published: May 17, 2011
A book brawl recently drew attention from the blogosphere, and it’s a perfect example of what an author should never do: Never talk back publicly to a reviewer who criticized your work. The author who ignited the brawl, Jacqueline Howett, probably had no idea what she started. In the aftermath, even if her sales are strong, her brand will suffer. In Howett’s case, even the review deemed ‘favorable’ at Amazon is a complete slap in the face, a satirical soft-porn concoction apparently missed by whoever screens reviews at Amazon.
Kay B. Day
Howett’s firestorm started at a book review blog, Big Al’s Books and Pals. It’s likely the review would’ve gone unnoticed by most of the world outside the book industry—even reviews in top flight publications aren’t exactly top-of-the-fold content.
Big Al wrote a brief review of Howett’s book The Greek Seaman. If you read his review, you’ll realize it wasn’t a rip-the-book opinion piece. The review was actually complimentary in some regards. Al, however, took the author to task for “Numerous proofing, typo and grammar issues.” The reviewer linked to the author’s blog and placed a clickthrough link to a purchase point.
Most authors would’ve celebrated the upside, and after nursing minor wounds would have likely put the negatives out of mind. Not Howett. She made the mistake of visiting the blog, and not only did she accuse the reviewer of not reading the correct copy of the e-book, but she posted brief reviews from online bookseller sites in the comments thread.
Eventually Howett demanded that Al remove his review and she resorted to some salty language a real seaman might use. Naturally the reviewer refused her request and a discussion of more than 300 comments ensued.
A couple of examples of Howett’s writing were analyzed by many. The reviewer cited this sentence to support his criticism: "Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."
If you visit Howett’s blog, you’ll see she does have “proofing, typo and grammar issues.” Those appear in what might be called her post-mortem on the book brawl. That analysis is posted on her blog and if she meant to improve her lot, she failed.
Authors routinely get angry at critics—that’s to be expected. Authors do not routinely attack a reviewer on his own turf, however. The reviewer seemed fair enough—he even penned a blog post trying to explain the criteria he uses to assess a book.
In the September/October 2003 issue of Poets & Writers, Mary Gannon explored the concept of reviews with critics. In terms of technology, that article is positively ancient, but Gannon noted book reviewers were often “under assault”—by authors no less. She wrote, “In the inaugural (March 2003) issue of the Believer, a monthly literary magazine, novelist and coeditor Heidi Julavits wrote in her introductory essay, ‘I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake.… I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications.’ ”
If we were to accept that premise, we’d have to accept the complete irrelevance of book reviews.
Howett’s brawl has no happy outcome, as evidenced by the review selected as “most favorable” at Amazon. If you read the review, you will come to realize (as the screeners did not) the writer is using misspelled words to satirize Howett’s work and 304 people voted the review “helpful.”
Whether you’re published by a traditional house or you’re an emerging indie author, never pick a public fight with a reviewer. That is especially true if the reviewer happens to be correct about your technical skills. However, even if the review seems unfair in other ways, it’s best to simply walk away and focus on your work. The most powerful sales tool for any book is word of mouth, and all an author like Howett does is inspire those mouths to repeat the wrong message. In her case, that message spread far beyond the U.S., even occupying thoughts of writers at papers like The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.
Sometimes an author may thank a reviewer publicly—I’ve had that happen on occasion when I wrote about a particular book I liked. In that case, I’d say keep it brief.
I came across a quirky quote as I read various sites about the Howett brawl. The French poet Louis Aragon wrote in his Treatise on Style, pt. I (1928): “I demand that my books be judged with utmost severity, by knowledgeable people who know the rules of grammar and of logic, and who will seek beneath the footsteps of my commas the lice of my thought in the head of my style.”
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.