We've all seen them. Author vs. Reader flame wars after a reader posts a review on Amazon or Goodreads or some other venue and the author, less than pleased, finds it necessary to defend his honor in a battle of wits. As entertaining (in a train wreck kind of way) as this may be for the rest of us, it inevitably sparks questions from newer authors about the appropriateness of acknowledging or responding to reviews. I'm going to answer this common question here, but first we must make one thing completely clear. We must define a book review and we must define a product review. They are two entirely different things. And there is a third type of review, as well, which is important to this discussion that we'll talk about in just a minute.
*Please note: these are not overall definitions for the whole of the world and society at large. They are the definitions used for this discussion.
What is a book review?
A book review is an opinion written about the quality and entertainment value of a book as opined by someone who knows what they are talking about. Generally speaking, they are published in major circulars such as the New York Times or other newspapers, or magazines that have an appeal to the book's target demographic. A romance novel may be reviewed by Romantic Times magazine, for instance. A literary novel may find favor with the NYT or USA Today. A financial non-fiction author may hope for a review from the Wall Street Journal.
To obtain these book reviews, the publisher (which may or may not be the author) should submit an advance review copy of the book, known as an ARC, to the appropriate editor or department at their chosen publication. This submission realistically should take place no fewer than six months prior to the release date. This gives the editor time to decide whether they will take on the book and assign a reviewer. It gives the reviewer time to read the book and write a review. It gives the editorial staff time to edit the review, perform rewrites and truly hone it into something that will reflect well on their publication. With any luck, it will also be a tool you can use in your overall marketing strategy.
What is a product review?
A product review, at least for the purpose of this discussion, is a review written on a public forum by a layperson concerning a product they purchased (or received for free). It is an unprofessional, every-day-Joe opinion. That product, in this case, is a book or an ebook.
What is that other kind of review?
The last kind of review we need to be concerned about is the "other" review. These are reviews the author paid for, traded for, or otherwise cajoled out of a friend, relative or fellow author for the sole purpose of adding "star" credibility to their venue listing. These are the reviews that are mucking the whole thing up, in my opinion. They are biased and untrustworthy, even if they are dead-on-balls accurate.
Should you respond to a book reviewer?
Absolutely. Every single time. No matter what.
You should not do this in public, in the comments of the actual review posted online, and never on Amazon or on the reviewer's website. Rather, you should send the reviewer to whom you submitted your ARC a lovely letter thanking them for their time and attention to detail. Even if they gave you a half-star (or lipstick tube, or galaxy, or steampunk-gear-thingy, or whatever.) Even if they hated your book, you should thank them for their time and attention. Even if they loved your book and wrote a review that sounds more like a stalker's love letter than a professional editorial piece, you should thank them for their time. You can be humble and say you were flattered, but you'd be an idiot to tell them they are wrong to hate your work. If it's a bad review, simply thank them for their time. They may have the opportunity to review you again in the future, and they are human beings. Human beings hold grudges. Human beings remember. And human beings like being respected. The fact that you thanked them, even for a bad review, could up your stock enough that they will give your next book a go. And maybe they'll like this one.
Should you respond to a product reviewer?
Never. Under any circumstances. Not if the review is good. Not if the review is bad. Not if they said they love it. Not if they said to shove it. Do not comment in the rain. Do not comment when in pain. Do not comment when you smile. Do no comment any while. Never. Never.
Just so there is no confusion: The answer is, "No!"
But, why? you ask. Why is it such a bad idea to offer a bit of thanks. Readers love to interact with authors, right? Because you used to be a reader and you loved interacting with other new authors and the hugely popular mainstream published authors who write your favorite books. You loved getting a little nod from time-to-time, so your readers will love it, too!
That's what fan mail is for. If a reader wants to hear from you, they will write to you. Product reviews on Amazon and other publishing platforms are for readers, and readers only. To them, it's not a publishing platform. To them, it's their bookstore. The lobby of that bookstore is Facebook or Twitter or Google+, and if you want to have a virtual get-together on one of those sites, then by all means do so. But not in the comments on your book's listing. That's exclusively reader territory. (I won't get into the duality of reader as author, or author as reader, here. Maybe in another post.)
Opening discussions on those comment threads isn't harmless. It removes the professional distance between readers and authors and could cause some readers to not leave reviews at all, either good or bad. At the other end of the spectrum, it makes you look like an amateur. Period. You're a busy, professional author. You don't have time to stalk your review boards. You're writing your next book.
Should you even get one of those other reviews?
No. Enough said.
Well, maybe not. I need to make it clear that it is perfectly okay to have a fellow author read and comment on your book. Publishers do it all the time. My first novel, The Jewel and the Sword (Medallion Press, 2005) had a lovely quote from Bestselling Author Tina St. John (Heart of the Hunter) on the cover. She said that I was a "welcome new voice [in] medieval romance," and she called my book "delightful." My publisher asked her to look it over and asked for a blurb. She liked it, so they used what she had to say to promote the book.
The difference here is that this review wasn't posted in the starred product review section on the Amazon listing. It wasn't written and posted by TSJ11xx537 or some other unrecognizable user name so that nobody would know who actually wrote it. If you're going to ask another author to read your work and write a review, use an author who is successful to at least some degree. Use an author that writes in your genre and who will be able to lend credence to your work. Use an author whose work you admire so that your fans won't lose faith in your writing because you've now branded yourself with someone who can't write their way out of a paper bag.
Amazon, specifically, has rules about authors posting on other author's works. You can avoid the threat of losing the review to the Zon gods simply by posting it in the "Editorial Review" section where it belongs.
And yes, you can respond to the author, privately, with an enormous thanks.