How Not to Respond to a Bad Review

Of course, the proper response to a bad review is no response at all, but if you absolutely have to say something to the reviewer, Jacqueline Howett’s response to Big Al’s review of her book The Greek Seaman is a textbook example of what not to say and how not to say it.

Big Al gave Ms. Howett’s book a two-star review that I thought was even-handed and clear, and very kind, considering the rating. He said “I think you’ll find the story compelling and interesting,” which is something any writer would love to hear. What brought the rating down were the extensive spelling and grammatical errors. Big Al reviews indie books published on Amazon, and it looks like Ms. Howett didn’t hire an editor, or if she did then she needs to ask for her money back.

Ms. Howett popped right up as the first commenter, saying “You obviously didn’t read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted, so this is a very unfair review.” She went on to say that she’d gotten four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and that she’d “stick to” them, thanks. Then she posted three more comments, each one quoting those good Amazon reviews. Because clearly Big Al and the people who read his review blog were just dying to read those reviews, and couldn’t figure out how to go to Amazon and find them for themselves.

This was bad enough. At this point, Ms. Howett had already made herself look defensive and foolish, but she didn’t stop there. A couple of anonymice commented negatively on her behavior, then Big Al responded, saying that he had indeed downloaded the newer copy. It sounds like the second version was to fix formatting issues that came up in the file conversion, but those weren’t the errors Al was talking about in his review. He repeated that his rating was based on editing and proofing errors in the text itself, and gave examples:

Here are a couple sample sentences from the first two chapters that gave me pause and are representative of what I found difficult while reading.

“She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.”

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”

I understand what both are probably saying. I do question the sentence construction.

Wow. Okay, those examples make it clear exactly what errors he’s talking about. That second sentence in particular is incredibly awkward, and any competent editor would’ve squawked both of them.

Ms. Howett comes back:

My writing is just fine!

You did not download the fresh copy…. you did not. No way!

[sigh] She goes on after that, telling him to remove the review because it was “in error,” calls him a liar for saying he’d downloaded the fresh copy, and generally rants and rambles. She also says:

Besides if you want to throw crap at authors you should first ask their permission if they want it stuck up on the internet via e-mail. That debate is high among authors.

Really? I don’t know what authors Ms. Howett hangs out with, but none of the authors I know think that reviewers need to ask the author’s permission via e-mail before posting a negative review. That’s not the way things work on my planet, and as a writer I wouldn’t want them to; reviews are for readers, and reviewers have to be free to speak their honest opinion. It’s to everyone’s benefit if readers have a way to feel confident that they’re buying books they’ll probably like; people who enjoy most of the books they buy, buy more books. If someone isn’t going to like one of my books for whatever reason, I don’t want them wasting their money on it. I’d rather they buy something they will like, and maybe try something else of mine later that’s more likely to suit their taste.

The comment thread goes on, with Ms. Howett eventually reduced to cussing people out. She doesn’t seem to have any conception of just how big the internet is, or how connected, or how quickly word (and links) spread whenever something entertaining is going on, and unfortunately her indignant ranting is very entertaining. :/ The review post went viral, spreading through Twitter and Facebook to other places where writers hang out and share news. (Thanks to Emily at the EREC blog for posting the link I saw.) After around noon yesterday, comments piled in fast and hard, and most of the 307 comments went up between then and 4:36, when the last one went up before Al closed commenting down. The density of commentary indicates a lot of notice and interest, surging up as the news circulated. Once word started to spread, it took only a few hours for the publishing end of the internet to hear about this, and at that point I’d say Ms. Howett’s reputation was pretty much shot.

It really looks like she thought she could safely act out on what seemed at first to be a tiny little review blog with few readers; if you look at older posts, comments were extremely sparse before Ms. Howett’s demo of unprofessional behavior. Maybe she thought she could yell at the blogger without anyone ever hearing about it? If so, she got a harsh lesson in just how small our chunk of the internet is, and how quickly a crowd can gather to gawk at a wreck, even on a street that usually gets little traffic. I hope she realizes now how she trashed her own reputation by her behavior, and keeps that in mind for the future.

I also hope she spends some time studying her craft. The way her comments are written just confirm the impression one gets from the samples Al posted that Ms. Howett’s grammar is very weak. Al said the story itself was good, and that’s the hard part; if she’s a good storyteller, then she’s most of the way there. Learning craftsmanship is very straightforward, if a writer will only admit that they need to learn. Ms. Howett clearly does, and putting some effort into the learning would let her show off her already praiseworthy stories to best advantage.

I’ll be keeping a set of virtual fingers crossed for her.


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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.