Review policies, or How To Not Become A Stalking Author

It hasn’t been an impressive time for the author community in the last few days. Kathleen Hale got a full page article in the Guardian (trigger warning for stalking, general warning for repellent disingenuousness and dishonesty) which allowed her to massively extend her stalking campaign against a reviewer. Another author one-upped Hale by travelling the length of Britain to hit a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle, leaving her needing stitches and pressing charges. What next? The British government selling arms to writing groups on the sly?

This behaviour, coming on top of far too many incidents of online and other harassment, has led to a lot of angry pushback, including a number of blogs holding review blackouts to make the point that authors need reviewers. I see reviewers saying things like, “I’m going to stop reviewing, it’s not worth the stress,” or “I’m only going to read books from dead authors because at least they won’t come round my house.” (On the evidence of this week, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Some people will clearly resent that one star from beyond the grave.)

Of course, most authors aren’t like this. Most of us don’t respond aggressively to reviewers in words, let alone call them at work and turn up at their house and write malevolent articles in national newspapers about them and physically assault them. Most don’t, but because of the way fear and intimidation work, a number of reviewers are scared that the next time they one-star a book, the author will be one of those few who do. So the question going round reviewers is, very simply, how do I tell?

cathy p

Various solutions have been mooted. The #AuthorYes hashtag has been used to name authors who have a track record of not being aggressively unpleasant at people. Suggestions have been put up of kitemarks or websites to identify ‘safe’ authors, and just as quickly shot down as impractical. Some authors have their review policy (‘I promise not to stalk you!’) stated on their website (as I do), but a lot of people have pointed out that that means nothing. It’s behaving well that counts, not claiming that you don’t behave badly. Words are empty.

And this is true, but I’d like to give a reason why a public review policy works for me.

My page says that I don’t read Goodreads or Amazon reviews and that I will never respond to them, either directly with abuse/stalking/wine bottles over the head (that bit’s implied), or with encouraging my fans to go after reviewers.

You may say: Yeah, whatever, you could be lying. And I could. This is the internet; people lie. I could be poring over every word posted about my books on Goodreads. I could be making obsessive lists of people who say mean things and drawing angry penises on them. I could not be a cat-owning freelance editor at all. Maybe I’m an international hitman who writes gay romance while I’m waiting to shoot controversial politicians, and the cat is a catfish. You’ll never know.

But the point isn’t whether I can make you believe I don’t hale out over reviews. (This is a new verb which I hope to see adopted.) The point is, my posted reviews policy keeps me on track.

I know reading Goodreads /Amazon reviews is a bad idea. I used to read them, and discovered what a bad idea it is first hand. I have done a flowchart on what a bad idea it is. But I’m still tempted because I’m a human. When I go to Amazon and see on the thumbnail that the number of reviews has jumped and the star rating has changed, my finger twitches over the mouse. But I have a posted review policy and if I click, I’m a liar.

And say I am a liar. Say I fall off the wagon and read my Goodreads reviews (declaration: this has happened) and there’s something really stupid and wrong there that any reasonable person would understand I just had to take issue with…

Well, I’m already a liar to myself by reading the review. But if I respond, I brand myself publically as a liar—as someone who has just done something she said she would not do. If I so much as subtweet a grumble about a bad review, someone will recognise it and know I’m a liar. If I link to it on my Facebook page with a hurt comment about ‘why are people so mean?’ in the hope that my fans will give the reviewer a hard time, I will be waving my hypocrisy and dishonesty like a banner. If I leave a snide or angry comment on a review, I will deserve extra condemnation because I said I wouldn’t do that. I’ve given myself a Toxx clause, to make myself stay the hell away.

This is not to say that reading reviews is a bad act. Read them by all means if they don’t act like Dr Jekyll’s potion, turning you into Author Hyde. But obsessing over reviews is where all this appalling absurdity seems to start.

So I have a public stated review policy, not because I expect anyone to take my word for it, but because it raises the stakes for me when I’m tempted to read reviews, let alone respond. It’s the reminder of your weight stuck to the fridge door, the green sash of the Victorian teetotaller, the Note To Self that says: Right now I am thinking clearly how I should behave, and I am taking this opportunity to control the behaviour of my future self, who may be less reasonable.

Obviously I hope that I’d never behave like Hale even if I read every word of every one-star review. Frankly, I’d hope that nobody would. But even normally reasonable people can get obsessed if they feel they’ve been wronged (eg by someone giving their masterpiece a mere three stars on Goodreads), and the internet fosters obsession. We all know how quickly upset can turn to anger and retaliation, how fast responses can escalate, how very easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole.

I’ve nailed my review policy across the mouth of the rabbit hole. To reassure reviewers, sure, but primarily to keep myself out.


FlightOfMagpies300Flight of Magpies is out on 28 October, and the blog reviews (which I am allowed to read, so there) are looking nice.

Don’t forget to check out Queer Romance Month, and just a reminder of my somewhat fantastic news, if you missed it…

31 replies
  1. laurieboris
    laurieboris says:

    I like it. And I could take that time and energy I spend stressing over reviews (okay, I don’t do that…much) and put it into my writing. Hmm. Wonder if I could get a notary to stamp that sanity affidavit.

  2. Marian Perera
    Marian Perera says:

    I like the review policy. Must consider having one, especially since I decided to do a writeup of bad author responses to reviewers. Would you believe I found someone who offered a bounty for information about the reviewer?

  3. ameliabishop
    ameliabishop says:

    I love your no-review-reading promise, great idea (though I don’t think I could do it) and I’m sure it saves you a lot of time and frustration. Nothing worse than reading a review and wanting so badly to respond! Though I can’t imagine you’d ever become a stalking author 🙂
    I think this whole messiness over the past weeks is a perfect example of how NOT to behave, for both authors and reviewers. So many people feel a sort of protection in the anonymity of the internet, and say horrible things that they’d never say in public. But the internet is a real space, with real people, and there are real consequences to our behavior online. So sad that these cases escalated the way they did.

    Also congratulations on your publishing news! That is fantastic, for sure!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thing is, I stopped reading reviews after one that really hurt, and that hung around in my brain for a very long time. So I could see myself getting hurt and argumentative and probably sweary and…no.

      And thanks, I am very excited about the trilogy!

  4. helenajust
    helenajust says:

    I should have thought that it would be better for an author never to read bad reviews for her own sake; some readers forget that authors are people and can be very hurtful, especially when they’re trying to be funny. And almost everyone remembers the one mean or nasty thing they heard for far longer than scores of compliments. So you’d be doing yourself a favour anyway, quite apart from preventing yourself from haling out. (I’m not going to use that word again, because I think she’s had more than enough free publicity.)

    Has The Guardian deigned to comment yet on why they published the article?

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Clickbait, I expect. Or stupidity, never underestimate that. No, I don’t feel any urge to read bad reviews at all. In have no masochistic tendencies and they hurt. Fine for people to write them; I don’t have to look.

  5. Carole-Ann
    Carole-Ann says:

    Love the post – AND your policy 🙂

    I rarely (if ever) read reviews – and I’m only a reader! I pick and choose my books because they’re MY CHOICE to read (I have quite odd taste, sometimes). And, more often than not, I like books others don’t, and hate books others love. This is where “opinion” comes into play: we all have opinions, and whether or not anyone else agrees with those opinions, it really doesn’t matter.

    I read for enjoyment. Reading is my entertainment of choice. I’m eclectic in my chosen genres. And my personal take on a book is MINE only! I might read a review AFTER I’ve read the book; I might make a small, personal “review” on GoodReads. But that’s it. No more.

    I have a great deal of respect AND admiration for authors who sweat blood to create something I could NEVER do, and I would never cheapen that effort by calling a book worthless or a load of s**t. It’s their work, and as such should be respected.

    [BTW: I still have your books in my tbr pile, so I really think I ought to get down to reading them sometime soon 🙂 ]

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      And this is precisely why Hale etc are so absurd. The idea that a bad review might kill a book is arrant nonsense precisely because readers aren’t sheep. You know what you think and want. It’s when authors believe that that they perceive a huge power balance in favour of the reviewer that doesn’t really exist.

  6. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I’m still working on the not reading the reviews. I’m just not strong enough not to. I’ve always got a good reason to talk myself into why actually I do need to check the reviews for this particular book or story. Like I say, working on it. Maybe I’ll make it a New Year resolution.

    But I’ve long ago learned not to respond to them, so I could make myself a formal policy to say that I don’t. I won’t even “like” a review on Goodreads, because that feels a little too close to responding. And I know it bothers some reviewers.

    • Blaine D. Arden
      Blaine D. Arden says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one, Becky *hug*

      In the beginning I liked reviews for my free stories… but I stopped doing that as well, because of what you said, but also because opinions between reviewers appreciating it and not appreciating it varies too much. When in doubt… stay away.

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        It is super hard not to read them but I really try.The good ones are so encouraging but a single bad one can be a crushing time suck. I think avoiding ‘likes’ is really sensible. Even if you do read them, don’t let the reviewers know,so they don’t feel heavy-breathed-on, you know?

  7. LegeArtis
    LegeArtis says:

    Consequences of Hale’s article:
    Bloggers being more cautious and demanding their private info to be protected and authors stating people can write reviews about their work even if it’s not praising . These are things that should be default; it should be considered as normal behavior. Hale and Guardian backing her up wronged reading community so much it’s crazy…
    I am not an author or blogger, but the thing that’s baffling me to no end is the fact that Hale justified her actions claiming that blogger wanted to ruin her career.-by giving her book one star. 0_0
    I just can’t understand this: when I am looking for reviews of a book I am considering buying I need more than one star and crude word to convince me: I am looking for review that’s actually saying something substantial about book…and even then it doesn’t mean it would made buy/lend/pass on something.
    Great post, KJ, and thank you for writing this; in light of Hale and other unpleasant things that happened past few days in community, every post promoting healthy, safe and normal reviewing environment is welcome.

  8. Blaine D. Arden
    Blaine D. Arden says:

    I have to admit I’m one of those fools who do still read reviews for their books (I’m still in the can’t stay away camp), but… I don’t react, don’t comment, would never think of hunting anyone down for not liking my book. Also… I have a couple of friends who help me stay sane when a bad one hits me.

    I like your idea of your note on reviews being a the Note To Self that says: Right now I am thinking clearly how I should behave, and I am taking this opportunity to control the behaviour of my future self, who may be less reasonable.

    I’m not sure I’ll create a page like that, but it’s a good one to adhere to 🙂

    And maybe some day I’ll lose the urge to read reviews…

  9. lizsmithtrailingspouse
    lizsmithtrailingspouse says:

    Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, even if it is the wrong one! Before I read this I wouldn’t have thought reading reviews could be such a problem, but now I would consider staying well away! Not that I would ever go to such extreme behaviour as these examples, but I can see how it would be difficult not to wade in with a comment sometimes having read some misinformed reviews of authors I admire…

  10. K. Z. Snow
    K. Z. Snow says:

    Although I’m too damned old and lazy and indifferent to stalk people, I decided a while ago not to read reviews. First, because I’m a small fish who writes small(ish) books — novellas, primarily — so I don’t get that many. Second, because the variety of opinions invariably confuses me. Third, because I don’t need to be paralyzed by self-doubt. I’m also a strong believer in a reader’s right not to have authors continually peering over her/his shoulder.

    Re. Kathleen Hale: I grew some stones and criticized her book on GR, because I felt my gripes were warranted. Rarely do I do this, but an aspect of her approach to that story really got under my skin. What’s life without risk, eh? 😉

    Well-reasoned post, KJ, as usual.

  11. Carolyn Gray
    Carolyn Gray says:

    I have a m/m romantic suspense that has been out now for almost 9 years, long before Good Reads came online (I am not even sure when it did). I had never heard of GR until a friend said OH OH did you KNOW? they are reading your book!! (the reading group). I was of course curious, and completely thrilled it had been chosen by this book reading club thing, as I hadn’t written anything else in years so yeah, I was chuffed. I was too busy living life and being a single mom to my kids after my husband died to get involved in the growing m/m world. When I did go over there finally, and read some of the comments, I realized a lot had been going on under my nose while I was oblivious – there were hundreds of reviews (thousands?) on my book. I had everything from 1 stars to 5 stars, and everything inbetween, and a lot of each and every combo. I read the reviews because I was very removed from the book by then – it was written during an incredibly difficult time of life, was my catharsis, and never knew it would be published when I did write it so it was exactly what I needed it to be. That has never changed for me. By then I was pretty objective about the comments, some of which made me laugh, many I agreed with (damn those boys cried an awful lot – but they did my crying when I couldn’t, so there you go) and some I took away and applied to future stories (which for some readers backfired – they LIKED the super-angsty emo characters, so when I manned my guys up, some didn’t like that at all). Lessons learned!

    What I took away from this crazy intro to GoodReads was that readers’ impressions of the same book are as varied as there are book titles. Yeah I have some reviews that make me sigh (esp. last book, and seeing that one at the top made me decide okay, GR is not where I should be, so I left), but I do think it serves a purpose for readers, and that is fine by me.

    I found it very difficult to wrap my head around Hale’s need to do what she did. What good did it do her? Why did she think what she was doing was acceptable when she thought a harsh review was not? Nope, don’t get her mindset at all.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] joiners. Since you ask, my reviews policy is here and the reasons why I have one at greater length here. The rest you can deduce for yourself by following me on Twitter […]

  2. […] This post by KJ Charles got me thinking in a good way. How do I react to bad reviews? And is it worth reading reviews? KJ has the admirable attitude of not reading reviews. I found that so interesting. I’m totally botching the description, check out the post. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.