Guest Post: Author Pam Jenoff on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Reviewing the Reviewers

What’s it like for an author to read reviews about their books?  Pam Jenoff, whose latest novel Almost Home was reviewed here last week, shares her feelings about reading reviews of her books in this guest post.  As one who writes about books on a regular basis, I was fascinated to read about reviews from the author’s perspective.  Thanks Pam, and welcome to Bookstack!

As authors, we encounter all kinds of reviews.  The pre-publication reviews from the industry trade publications, like Publishers’ Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.  The really big ones we hope to see from major newspapers or magazines.   The reviews from various websites and bloggers who profile books, which are becoming a bigger factor as some of the print review publications shorten or dwindle.  The informal ones from friends or coworkers who tell us in passing exactly what they did or did not like about the book, whether or not we’ve asked.

But of all the reviews, the ones that are the best and at the same time the hardest to read are those that are written by readers.  They may come in the form of a letter or e-mail, or simply a review on a website like Amazon or Facebook.  These reviews can be great or they can be devastating.  (Take a quick look on at the reviews of my books on Amazon if you want to see what I am talking about.) 

Indeed, it is a topic of debate among writers whether to read them at all.  Some authors don’t, but I do religiously, in part because I don’t think as a writer I can be fragile or hide from the truth, and in part because I can learn from them (there is often validity in the criticism, especially when offered by multiple readers.)  Having spent the past three years reading these reviews, I’d like to offer some observations about them:

  • Readers might be surprised to know that many of us not only read our reviews, but actively seek them out.  I check Amazon regularly and set Google alerts with my name to pick up the blog reviews.  So if it is out there I am probably going to see it.  So while I value the constructive criticism and feedback, the mean ones certainly do sting.
  • Authors also debate whether to respond to critical emails.  I do in a way that I hope is respectful of the opinions offered (“Thank you so much for your message.  It is always a pleasure to hear from and learn from my readers.”) but doesn’t open up to further debate.
  • Many people who like my books will actually write to me directly.  Only a few of the haters do that – they almost always post on Amazon.  Of course there are some folks who will take the time to write to me to tell me how much they disliked my book.  The funniest are those from readers who tear into me about the book while managing to get the title wrong.  (This has happened a number of times.)  If you are going to take the time to fire a shot at the author, you should at least get the name of the book right.
  • Many of the harshest critics on Amazon and the other sites are often aspiring writers, and their comments belie that fact (e.g., “I can’t believe this got published when so many more worthy books do not.”)

I always brace myself before reading a new review, but I always read right to the end.  Because at the end of the day we are in the business of putting ourselves out there and seeing what comes of it.  Even when it is negative, I always hope to learn from the feedback and become a better writer.  And I appreciate the fact that someone took the time to write it.  So I hope you like my books – and I hope to hear from you even if you don’t.

To learn more about Pam and her books, visit her website here.


7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Author Pam Jenoff on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Reviewing the Reviewers

  1. I really appreciate hearing from authors and I can imagine the sting of a negative review. I hope I am fair in my reviews, even on the books which have not resonated with me (I always try to say what worked as well as what didn’t, and I usually link to other reviews if mine has been less than glowing so as to balance things out). I like your attitude about authors needing to be thick skinned…I think it probably comes with the territory that not everyone will like what you write – but hopefully the meanness can fall by the wayside most of the time.

    By the way, I won’t review on Amazon because I find the commenters and some of the reviewers to be so mean-spirited. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think bloggers tend to strike a better balance in their reviews!

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about book reviews lately, and what I notice is how redolent all reviews are of their authors. Nice people write kind reviews and are always a little sorry if a book hasn’t quite pleased them. Angry people write aggressive reviews, dismissive people… well, you get my drift. So I really do wonder what benefit writers can derive from some of the unpleasant and unfair remarks they are forced to swallow. I agree that bloggers on the whole tend to write much better reviews than you find on amazon because they are readers, and their prime interest is in getting the most out of that reading.

  3. What an extraordinary and brave piece to find here this morning; thank you so much for the clarity and courage of this guest column.

    I’m not an author who reads Amazon reviews, nor one who seeks out reviews of her books. But I do greatly appreciate readers who reach out and let me know how or how not a book is working; one can always tell when the criticism is coming from anger or coming from a solid intellectual disagreement or disappointment. It’s the latter who can teach us so much.

  4. I am a writer who gobbles up the reviews, good and bad, and have discovered that the “stinging” ones linger longest.

    Why is that?

    I recall one specific review in which the reviewer (on Goodreads) wrote that she couldn’t put the book down, was quite curious to find out what happened, and then gave it two stars and said “I didn’t really like it.” That always puzzled me, because I had thought it would be more helpful to hear WHY she didn’t like it, since she “couldn’t put it down,” etc.

    Whenever I review a book, I struggle to point out the positives first, and then if there is something about the book that I don’t like, I try to explain why I didn’t. Sometimes a book is just not our cup of tea…and that’s okay to say.

    But a flat statement “I don’t like it” stings more than almost anything else.

  5. I find feedback is often contradictory because what one person loves just isn’t another person’s taste. But my favourite review of The River Midnight was a negative one from a conservative Jewish paper that criticized it for all its best points, which made me realize I’d succeeded in everything I’d set out to do.

  6. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for an author to read negative reviews about their work. I have written a few myself but always try to point out positive along with the negative. I’m also careful to point out that sometimes a book just isn’t my thing but it certainly doesn’t mean that it is a lousy book. I have had one author contact me after a positive review I wrote. She had set up a Google Alert and it linked to my blog. I was really happy to hear from her and to know that my enjoyment of her book made her day!

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