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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Should Writers Sue Reviewers?

By A.J. Llewellyn

Current Mood: Bouncy

It doesn't matter how great YOU think your book is. It matters not one whit that you're selling huge numbers of copies, or that you've gotten awesome reviews.
It takes one clown to post a negative review and you feel like total crap.
Then you start to think, "Will this affect my sales?"
Should this lead to a writer suing a reviewer for a bad review?
I ask this question in light of director Joshua Newton suing the showbiz bible Variety over its very bad review of his movie Iron Cross. Until this lawsuit was filed, I hadn't read the review. Since then, Variety yanked the review from its online archives (it's now back again) and sacked most of its long term review staff. You can bet freelancer Robert Koehler who penned the review won't be getting any work out of the trade paper again).
Here is yesterday's article detailing the lawsuit.
I've since located a copy of the review and yeah, it's a bad one.
Koehler dismisses Iron Cross saying, "It will be remembered as [the late actor] Roy Scheider's Swan Song and little else."
Personally, I hate bad reviews. I hate the ones that seem to derive pleasure out of being hateful. I hate the ones that have the characters' names wrong and a storyline that doesn't resemble what I wrote.
But should writers and directors sue?
I don't think so.
I understand Newton's point, though. According to him (and others I have spoken to) Variety's reviews are positioned to not only critique a movie's content but its marketability. Have you seen Iron Cross at a movie theater near you?
No, you haven't and according to Newton, he couldn't get distribution once the review came out. How likely is this? I wonder.
To be honest kids, I've had books that had rave reviews and didn't sell so well.
I've had books that have been rated poorly and I've even had my covers attacked.
My book A Vampire Christmas had the dubious distinction of being awarded the Worst Cover (thanks Jessewave!) yet remains one of my best-selling and, most pirated books.
So, go figure.
I say ignore the bad reviews, preen over the good ones if you're having a sucky day, but mostly, don't place too much value on their financial influence.
Reviews can help you sell. Sometimes not. It's a crap shoot. It really is.
Having said that, I think reviewers need to be mindful that while it's fun to dish out sarcastic and negative comments, remember that there is an author and a publisher behind the book.
Should this temper a reviewer's comments? No.
Depending on the reviewer, I find the negative and positive comments helpful. However, I find very inexperienced reviewers are the ones who are most often quite...vile in their critique and not especially insightful in their comments.
A few years ago, I took on a gig as a sub editor on a daily paper in Los Angeles. There was a college student who came in that summer as an intern. She was excited to be reviewing rock concerts. She was even more excited once she landed the plum assignment of reviewing her favorite band.
I happened to pass her in the hall the morning after the concert and asked her what she thought of the show.
She raved about it. Her eyes shone and she bubbled with joy.
Then I got her review. It was horrible. I couldn't believe it.
I could have edited it and sent it to bed (as we say in newspapers) but I called her to my desk and asked her to take a seat. I was gentle with her, but I needed to know.
Why had she raved about the show to me, yet panned it in print?
She blushed. She confessed it was harder for her to put into words what she appreciated and loved about the show. She was worried about what people would think.
"It's so much easier to write a negative review than a positive one," she said.
I disagreed and sent her back to rewrite it. She didn't. The review went to another sub editor and I've often wondered if that writer ever thought twice about her actions.
She, to me, was a sloppy sort of writer and I hope she got editors in the future with a lot more power who could make her write an honest review.
As for the paper, they had to endure irate calls from the promoter who had gone to great lengths to provide her front row seats, backstage passes...yeah.
Life sucks when you are held accountable.
You can bet when the intern graduated, the paper wasn't so keen to hire there are always consequences.
That's not to say reviewers shouldn't speak their minds, they should. Be mindful however that there should be legitimate reasons behind your bad review, beyond wanting to be cool, sarcastic, amusing and bitchy.
How about you? How do you feel about bad reviews? And should people sue? I really want to know your thought.

Aloha oe,


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Serena Yates said...

No, I don't think people should sue because of a bad review. It is the reviewer's right to have a different opinion. Equally, reviewers have a responsibility, I think, to explain why they're giving a bad review. Just saying "I hated it" helps nobody; I find those sorts of reviews about as helpful as a celebrity endorsement. People who "follow trends" might be happy with them, but as a thinking individual I don't get much out of them at all.

Do bad reviews hurt? You bet they do! But I find there are some (don't laugh) "good bad reviews" which are well-reasoned and still respectful. Those are the ones I can learn something from and I don't mind them half as much - even if I don't necessarily agree with them.

The "bad bad reviews" are the ones that get printed out, then shredded into little pieces and forgotten. Just my personal coping mechanism. But even over those I would never sue, because the reviewer is entitled to their opinion. Readers will soon enough figure out whether they agree with a certain reviewer or not - nobody is stupid. And if they tend to agree with that reviewer - what would be the point in them reading my book and then being disappointed? If they don't agree, they will soon enough stop following that reviewer ad find one who is more closely aligned with their own tastes.

Silver Pixies said...

I agree with Serena no one should sue over a bad review. Hell I have read some bad Reviews about Books I loved and wondered what the hell the person could be thinking. But That is their choice they don't have to like it. I don't think they should be allowed to be Really hateful about it. Your right there are tasteful ways to do bad reviews. Its one of the Reasons I stopped Reviewing books other than for my own enjoyment. I was so afraid of a bad review that I had to write about a book I know many people liked. I couldn't do it. Just because i thought the book was too confusing and i couldn't keep up with who was sleeping with who, who died and why this person did that doesn't mean others didn't. ANYWAYS sorry. I chickened out and stopped reviewing. TO me its easier to write a good one than a bad one. When i saw the article yesterday i about died because i couldn't believe the balls of this guy suing. All he is doing is trying to draw attention to a movie that honestly should just go straight to DVD (i saw a preview of the movie) can we say Bitter much. OK shutting up now.

P.A.Brown said...

Sure I hate reviews, but sue someone over one? How ridiculous is that. Are we becoming so PC that only good things can be said about books or movies or art?

I've been hearing for sometime now about authors who try to get Amazon to remove any negative reviews or authors who hound their friends to go and post only sweet and glowing reviews. Putting your work out in public makes it fair game. If you can't live with that, then don't put it out there.

Cinderella said...

I don't believe one should sue over a bad review cause a writer is an artist and has free rein as does the person commented on it. I however think if you can't be impartial you need to find another avenue to work. If ones does not like the movie or book pass on it. Opinions are like assholes everyone has one and sometimes they smell up the place. Cynthia

CynStorm said...

AJ, you channel your blogs I swear you do, it's really eerie :-) I have just been recently dealing with review issues.

Here is the key word I use when I review a book: INTENT

What is my intention as I write a review, whether I liked the book or not? I truly believe reviews are important. Should someone sue over them? No. Should you ask to have one removed if you didn't like it. No. But the flip side of that is as a reviewer what are you hoping to accomplish? Frankly I don't have time to waste writing a review I don't mean. So if my intent is not to be helpful, respectful and informative, I leave it.

If the book was so terrible, or full of errors, and a storyline that makes no sense, then I contact the author directly. There is no need to bring it to the worlds attention when no good or anything constructive can come from it.

Gros Bisou,

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think folks should sue. What reviewers should do is take into account all the work that went into creating that artistic endeavor and put themselves in the creator's place. Give some credit for attempting to entertain an audience that is shrinking, has less money to spend and therefore are highly selective about what they will open their pocketbooks for.

I do believe that bad reviews hurt books, films, etc. I just ask a reviewer to tick to critiquing and stop criticizing.

PJ Dean

Molly Church said...

I think it depends on two things:

In the first case, I think it depends on the industry - movies cost a lot more to make than books do, and yet the cost to the consumer is comparable (a paper back and a movie ticket cost almost exactly the same thing, where I live).

A book can break even, even make a profit, on a much smaller number of sales. (Movies, of course, stand to make much more money that the average book, but that's not really the point I'm going for.)

So I can understand movie makers' desire - possibly even need - to protect their financial investment and putting that over other considerations.

Movie makers (largely faceless studios particularly) also are at less risk from the negative PR of a lawsuit. The average movie-goer might not approve of what looks like a studio crushing people's right to an opinion, but most of them are still going to go to the movies that they want to see. Besides, most people don't expect much by way of good behavior from the movie industry.

Writers stand to hurt themselves more by such tactics, and it doesn't help that there have be a couple examples in recent years of authors behaving badly or 'not getting' valid criticism.

In general, I don't think authors should respond to negative reviews. For a start, even if your criticisms are valid, and manage not to make yourself look bad, you can inadvertently direct more attention to the negative review than it might otherwise have gotten.

Even if that isn't a consideration, none of us are perfect, and, you know, different strokes for different folks. No matter how many people agree with you about your book, there's a good chance that someone else will agree with the reviewer's take on your book.

I do make one exception: if the reviewer makes a charge that's particularly egregious, I think that's fair to respond to, as dispassionately as you can manage, after giving the criticism due consideration.

If the review veers into actual libel, well, I'd discuss that one with a lawyer, preferably one with some experience of your industry.

But most of the time, it's just not worth it.

As you point out, the effect of reviews on sales is hard to track. How often, after all, do you actually agree with a review? Not necessarily that often. (I quite like Roger Ebert's movie reviews, and find my taste aligns broadly, but even there my opinion differs in varying degrees; I've yet to find someone who's opinion I'd take wholesale on books, even other authors I adore).

Furthermore, I suspect we all have an example of a reviewer panning a book/movie/whatever, and finding ourselves thinking "actually, that sounds awesome!" That bad review might very be what lead to a sale.

There are reviews that are useless to both the reviewed and to prospective buyers - but then again, sometimes, that's not really their purpose. Reviews, it seems to me, are often little more than a modern equivalent to Roman games - the purpose is almost solely to provide some from of entertainment via cruelty. Readers of reviewers who do that habitually probably aren't going there to find good reviews.

Beyond all of that, though, it's good to bear in mind that bad reviews provide an important function, and not just to their readers. It is, after all, only because bad reviews exist that good ones matter.

P.A.Brown said...

Someone raised a valid point that if people start suing for bad reviews does anyone really think anyone will review their work? I'd sure stop reviewing anything if I thought I might have to go to court over it.

You either kill honest reviews or we all get wonderful, pumped up reviews that ultimately are useless.

AJ Llewellyn said...

Hey everyone,

Thanks for the awesome responses. I agree with all of you. Like I said in my post, I've had negative comments in reviews that actually educated me and taught me something but Serena pointed out we get the ones that say "I hated it" and that's it.
Having said that, PA raises a very good point about authors asking their friends to post good reviews on Amazon. I don't see the point myself but I know it happens.
Thanks everyone on your valuable insight!

Jesse Fox said...

Suing over a bad review seems a bit childish to me. It's like the spoiled child who doesn't get what they want and then proceeds to have the tantrum of all tantrums in the middle of the toy aisle at K-Mart.

Yet reviewers have a responsibility to be professional in their opinions. Just saying a book and/or movie is "shit" doesn't cut it. Explain to the reader why they have come to that opinion.

Bad reviews suck. My first book had a string of good reviews and I was strung tighter than a bed spring waiting for that bad one. I wanted one so that I could get it over and done with. My friends thought I was insane for feeling this way. When I received that first bad review I laughed for a straight hour before contacting my publisher and passing it on.

What I gleaned from the reviewer was 1)Men are not allowed to be emotional because if they are then they must be women. 2)No matter how much trauma a man goes through they can not pass out.

Interesting take on men. *shrugs*

I let it go. That's all you can do. Not everyone will like what you create and just because they don't like it doesn't mean no one else will.

Being in any business where creativity comes under scrutiny one must possess a thick skin or at least the appearance of one in their public persona. And much like the playground of childhood does the actions say more about the bully or the victim?

Y. Bressani said...

I can understand the director's viewpoint regarding the bad review, but, based on his actions, I am less liable to go see the movie than I would have been based on the bad review.

Maybe I am odd, but I am just as liable to either read a book or see a movie based on a bad review as I am based on a good one. For me, it all depends on the mood I am in, whether I like the blurb, and a small host of other things.

That's one side of things. The other (and please feel free to throw the rotten vegetables - I don't mind, really, I can use them.....somehow) is that I 'work' as a reviewer. I believe each reviewer does reviews his/her own way and what works for one, does not necessarily work for others. I know that when I write mine - if I don't like a particular book, I will say why I don't like it and that simply because I don't, does not mean someone else will have the same reaction. A couple times I wound up with a couple books that were issues for me, personally, but I tried to give as objective a review as I could - again coming from a 'just because I'd rather toss it, doesn't mean everyone else will have the same reaction.'

Just my half-penny's worth.

P.A.Brown said...

All any reviewer can be is subjective. If I review something and don't like it, I know it's not going to be the universal feeling. I don't like a lot of books and movies that others rave about. Conversely there have been things I loved that I don't understand when they aren't huge hits. But for sure if I thought someoene, somewhere would sue me for publicly stating my opinion then I'd never tell anyone what I thought. I sincerely hope this lawsuit is thrown out as totally frivolous, but seeing how ridiculous some winning lawsuits are who knows. If it even goes to court expect to see a dramatic decrease in reviews since who can afford to be dragged into court even if they will win eventually?

Lynn Crain said...

Personally, I say, those are the breaks. There are people who will never like what you do no matter what.

Then there are the people who attack anyone in the public eye, no matter how much. I guess they wish it were them.

BUT it comes with the territory of being anyone, no matter what your level, in the entertainment field. And that's what writers aim to do...entertain their audience...and listen to the critics. There's always one. LOL!


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