Librarians depend on book reviews to help decide how to spend their oft-shrinking budgets, but to authors and their publishers, reviews can be their lifeblood, ensuring a book’s success or failure. A humorous discussion of bad reviews—and how to deal with them—came up among the authors attending the Plum Creek Literacy Festival in Nebraska this past September, inspiring Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel, the Creators of Superman (Random House, 2008), to create a project.
Nobleman envisioned hosting a live event, a sort of a variation on a poetry slam, where authors would read their most critical or absurd reader reviews aloud. However, he discovered something similar: a recurring segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live! during which celebrities read a mean tweet about themselves. This became the nucleus for his big idea: an invitation to kid lit and young adult authors to record video clips of themselves reading aloud, which he would initially host on his Noblemania blog and are also available on YouTube.
School Library Journal surveyed some of the participating authors for their reactions, both to the reviews themselves and the project, starting with Nobleman himself, who ways he was actually surprised at the overwhelming response. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he tells SLJ. “I ended up getting enough contributions for three good-sized videos…and now many requests to do more. “
As suspected, most of the reviews used were selected from Amazon or GoodReads.
For example, a nasty review of Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn (HarperCollins, 2012)—a New York Times bestseller, a Caldecott Honor Book, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner—comes from an Amazon customer with the charming screen name “Granny J.” The review that he reads unmercifully bashes both his story and Jon Klassen’s illustrations.
Yet “negative reviews are crucial to the healthy functioning of any art form,” Barnett says. “Mean reviews usually reveal more about the reviewer than the book reviewed.”
Veteran author Bruce Coville agrees. “A negative review can offer interesting insight into what might be a problem with a book,” he tells SLJ. “A negative review that actually understands a book is more useful to an author than a gushing review that really misses what the book is about.” However, he notes, “A mean review is just nasty without any redeeming insight.”
Additional award winning authors and illustrators, such as Peter Brown, Steve Sheinkin, Katherine Marsh, Gordon Korman, Tony Abbott, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, Tom Angleberger, Cece Bell, Lemony Snicket, Lisa Brown, Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler, Gary Golio, and Susanna Reich were among those featured in Nobelman’s videos so far.
When questioned about negative and mean reviews, Kiera Parrott, SLJ’s reviews editor, says she instructs reviewers “to be honest but never mean-spirited in reviews. There are certainly ways to point out weak points or even failings without resorting to snarkiness.”
Many authors question the real purpose of a “mean” review.
“There appears to be some neo-primal urge now to rip into something creative that has made it into the public eye,” says Matthew Cordell, author of numerous picture books.
Bad Kitty creator Nick Bruel agrees. “Mean reviews come from a personal anger on the part of the reviewer and an intent to be hurtful to either the work or its creator,” he says, while Tad Hills, author and illustrator of the popular “Duck and Goose” series, agrees with the popular sentiment that, “A mean review can say more about the reviewer than about what that person is reviewing.”
Peter Brown, 2013 Caldecott Honor recipient for Creepy Carrots (S&S, 2012), says, “mean reviews don’t affect me, they just make me feel sorry for the reviewer. Negative reviews are tougher. They’re usually more thoughtful critiques.”
Meanwhile, Edgar Award nominee Tom Angleberger is more sympathetic. “I can see how someone who is angry or feels ripped off could start off negative and drift into mean,” he says, adding that he believes most people still don’t think that the author is ultimately going to see the review, so in truth they are “not being mean, just letting off steam.”
Several of the authors commented on the grammatical style and incorrect spelling used by reviewers—a view shared by at least one of their publishers.
“While I don’t like to see a negative review of one of my authors’ titles, I loathe a poorly written or ill-conceived review,” says Victoria Stapleton, director of school and library marketing for Little Brown. “If a particular reviewer has a complaint regarding the literary quality of a book, the review had better exhibit superior skill in language, structure, theme.”
For some of Nobleman’s participants, creating the video was a cathartic experience. Jo Knowles, for example, selected to read aloud a review for her first book, Lessons from a Dead Girl (Candlewick, 2007). “I remember crying a little and feeling so embarrassed by it,” she confesses to SLJ.
But after all the love Knowles received for that book elsewhere, she can let it go, she says. Matthew Cordell also did get some catharsis in knowing that he was taking part in a larger project that says, “hey, I hear you, but I’m not gonna take these awful reviews THAT seriously.”
For author Lisa Yee, the best experience for dealing with bad reviews was watching her peers’ videos, which she calls “hysterical and healing.”
Still other authors find solace in discussing reviews with their spouses. For example, the husband of Katherine Marsh, author of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars (Hyperion, 2012), reminds her that “the number of days I feel good about a good review has to be at least equal to the number of days I feel bad about a bad one,” she tells SLJ.
And true to form, Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, says he and his wife Lisa Brown “are too busy negatively reviewing others to discuss our own critics.”
Nevertheless, reviews do play an important role for authors. “ I actually do try to pay attention to what people are saying about my books,” Nick Bruel tells SLJ. “I do think it’s valuable to know what people are talking about. Even if it’s subconsciously, I must be learning something.”
Since posting the videos, Nobleman says the interest from other authors has been so great that he is planning another collection. A UK collection might also be in the works.