Reviews: Reaching, Receiving, and Reacting to Them by @smartbitches at #RWA14

Reviews: Reaching, Receiving, and Reacting to Them
Sarah Wendell, of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
I wish I could have stayed to the very end of Sarah Wendell’s fantastic, funny, and much-needed talk on book reviews at RWA. Unfortunately, my publisher’s big book signing overlapped it, so I had to sneak out three quarters of the way through and sprint down to the next ballroom. (Signing went great, for 30 straight minutes I was mobbed and then I had given away all 50 books! Whoosh!) But I thoroughly enjoyed the candor, humor, and common sense presented in the 40 minutes I was able to stay.
“Reviews are something writers talk about a lot,” she began, “but it’s not common to talk to a reviewer about it.” The website she runs, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, is one of the top romance blogs. The site turns 10 years old this coming January. The popularity of the site (and Sarah) was reflected in the packed room, every seat taken and some sitting on the floor and standing in the back.
The first common sense point was that nowadays you can review everything you buy. Shoes, appliances, restaurants you eat in: everything is reviewable. “They’ve become an essential part of every transaction,” she said, “And books are no different.”

In the olden days when we wanted to buy something we went to a store and looked at what was there and if the price didn’t seem too bad and we didn’t want to have to drive to another store, we bought it. (I imagined myself at that point trying to buy a toaster. I have hated every toaster I bought in a big box store because there never seems to be quite the right set of features on them, or they’re too expensive, and the most important thing I want to know: how’s the actual toast?? I can’t answer without buying it. UNTIL NOW, that is…)
Nowadays, “reviews are how we figure out what to buy. Even on QVC these days the reviews appear on screen. Reviews let us buy what we LIKE, not just what we NEED.”
That said, Sarah did acknowledge that is one reason why buying a vacuum cleaner is different from buying a book for entertainment.
She invoked Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus” idea (we’ve got more leisure time than the previous generation and we need to do something with that extra space in our brains), saying that gives us more drive to interact with what we consume. A show of hands in the room proved that many of us don’t just watch TV, we tweet or blog about it WHILE WATCHING. We’re not just passive consumers anymore.
Thus, “The interaction becomes more valuable to the retailers and sellers.” And, “Interaction is what is most attractive to consumers.” This is key to understanding why even bad reviews drive sales.
“Hype is really tiresome.” And if you have all 5-star reviews, people are skeptical and not that intrigued. All 5-star reviews just says to the reader “this author has a big street team, or a lot of cousins.”
But think about how it is when someone says, “This smells weird.” The next person is like, oh yeah? Let me smell it! That generates curiosity and interest.
“All reviews work.” She points out, quoting fellow reviewer Jane Litte of Dear Author: “Your enemy is not a bad review, [it’s] no one talking about your book at all.” Also remember when you get reviewed, even a negative review gets your name and your title out there where Google can find it. And give credit to readers who can tell the difference between a reviewer who hated the book and one who hated the packaging.
She also cautioned against jumping into discussions in comments on blogs, for example, even when the review is a positive one. “Don’t enter the conversation, even on a good review. The conversation stops when you {the author} enter. Anyone feeling shy won’t comment because they know it’ll go to the author. You risk bringing it to a halt.” And not only do you not want to stop the lovefest, you don’t want to quash a future commenter who might not agree. “You want dissenting opinion because it breed curiosity and what one reviewer hates is someone else’s catnip!”
But especially, especially do not comment if you are upset or angry. No matter how reasonable you think you are being, “Asshurt always shows.”
Final thing to remember is that you are not responsible for the reader’s reaction. “That belongs to her and her alone.” You wrote the book, that was your job. Managing how people feel about it is not your job.
Sarah gave three RULES for authors to follow regarding reviews but sadly I was only present for two of them. Rather than give you a partial list and leave you like a bad cliffhanger, I’ll say you should read Smart Bitches all the time for a regular dose of Sarah’s no-nonsense worldview on romance, follow her on Twitter (@smartbitches, and try to catch her at another conference sometime for the full rundown!


  1. “Don’t enter the conversation, even on a good review. The conversation stops when you {the author} enter. Anyone feeling why won’t comment because they know it’ll go to the author. You risk bringing it to a halt.”
    I think this is a really insightful comment, and I’ve made that mistake. Someone reviewed a book of mine for Dear Author, and it was a great review – not uncritical, just a really well-thought out, meaty review. And I commented, because I wanted to say thank you for taking my work so seriously and thinking so much about it. But it just stopped the convo dead. Damn it. I learned my lesson.

    1. I’ve done it, too. Multiple times, I’m sure! What Sarah suggested (and I forgot to include above) was if you want to thank individual reviewers or commenters, do it via private email.
      I think what I’m going to do if I want foment dialogue with readers is make myself available in the comments of things like guest posts where it’s more clearly meant to be a conversation between reader and author, rather than a conversation among readers.

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