Thursday, 25 February 2010


No one actually likes negative feedback. "I welcome your feedback" is usually said through gritted teeth and with a sinking feeling. But the mark of our stature is how we respond to it.

Responding well does not necessarily mean following the negative feedback to the letter. It doesn't necessarily mean changing anything. Responding well involves:
  1. accepting that someone did not relate to or enjoy your book;
  2. working out whether that person's view is one which should give us cause for changing anything. For example, if this is feedback before publication, and if you asked for that feedback trusting the person's view, if you now don't accept it you should wonder why you asked for a view. Or, if this is a review or comment after publication, again, decide whether perhaps the person has a point, whether he/she was indeed the intended reader, or not, or whether perhaps this has given you an important insight into something you'd like to do better or differently next time;
  3. accepting that you won't please everyone and that some people are simply not meant to enjoy your work;
  4. not bloody well reacting negatively, at least in public. That is known technically as #authorfail.
If you want to tread into utterly exemplary author behaviour, consider doing what Alex Scarrow has just done. When he came across the opinion of Catherine Hughes (follower of this blog, reader extraordinaire of eleventymillion books and person who I would like to like my books), in which she said she hadn't yet managed to get into Alex's TimeRiders, and was discussing what makes us give up on books, Alex actually left the most gracious comment. So gracious was he, and so impressed were the other blog-commenters, that he has almost certainly scored himself a few more readers. I was tempted to paste his comment here, but I really would like you to read C's blog and the comments thereunder.


My personal taste in books makes me not the likely ideal reader for TimeRiders, but I know plenty of people who are. So, I'm going to buy the book, and have a sneaky peek before giving it to a friend who I think will like it. So, that's one more sale.

Now, unless Alex is a very strange person indeed, the moment when he saw that Catherine had not immediately been hooked by his book cannot have been the best moment of his year so far. However, I think you will agree that whatever he felt, discretion won over vitriol and his response was absolutely the best one he could possibly have given.

As you know, I write reports for people through my Pen2Publication service. Over the almost three months since it started, I've written some reports that must have been really hard for the recipient to read. (I should stress that I've also had the opportunity, and taken it, to write glowingly, too!) It is to the credit of all the writers that their responses have been impeccable and gracious, in every case. I have had writers thank me for pointing out the problems, and going away with enthusiasm to re-write their oeuvres in the confident belief that the criticism was constructive. I only take clients who I believe really do want the truth.

Maybe, when Catherine tells Alex what it was that failed to engage her (which she has promised to do, once she's had another shot!), he will choose to do something a little differently next time. Maybe he will at least feel her eyes looking over his shoulder when he redrafts. Or, maybe, he will take the view, "win some, lose some." It looks to me that his books are fabulously successful and that he can afford to "lose some".

On the other hand, he won some amongst Catherine's blog readers. And he may do here, too.

Meanwhile, for your delectation, a most relevant video.


K M Kelly said...

I watched this play out over on Catherine's excellent blog, and was impressed with Alex's gracious attitude. I'm definately one of those who will be picking up a copy next time I'm in the bookshop, (probably tomorrow).

Sophie Playle said...

I just popped over to Catherine's blog, and the comments are all very interesting! Thanks for highlighting this.

Catherine Hughes said...

I was very impressed with Alex's comment and only too happy to give TimeRiders another shot and to feed my thoughts back to him.

Although, as I said to him, I'm only one reader and not his target audience at all.

It is impossible to write a book that will appeal to everyone. not even the huge successes that are Harry Potter and Twilight have achieved one hundred percent positive reviews. I for one certainly see a difference between criticims of my subject matter (not everyone likes SF&F) and criticisms of my writing (which, like that of any writer, is prone to mistakes).

And yes, Nicola. I love your books!

Marshall Buckley said...

I made a comment over on Catherine's blog early on, but it certainly bears repeating here.
It's incredibly refreshing to see an author take criticism with such good grace. Like many others have said, I'm not the target audience, and it's not my usual genre (either as a reader or writer) but I will be picking up a copy.

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but why generate bad publicity when it's so much easier to generate the good stuff?

Elizabeth Bramwell said...

ooh, feedback seems to be a theme running around at the moment!

I think it is always hard to receive negative feedback, but that is never an excuse to respond badly. I recently had a rejection from an editor who very kindly took the time to email me detailed feedback as to where I had gone wrong, and which parts I had got right.

I emailed back saying something along the lines of "thanks very much, really appreciated you taking out that time, I'm going to study your suggestions now" then sat on the couch, burst into tears and ate a lot of chocolate.

Once I calmed down and re-read the comments he'd sent, I realised just how valid they were, and the piece of work in question (almost sorted) is better for his input.

Of course, if I'd emailed him back and gone "you don't understand my artistic genius how dare you crush my dreams beneath your insensitive feet" and ignored his advice, I'd still be stuck with a piece of work that was being rejected, a door slammed in my face and no clue as to why.

I think if someone takes the time to explain to you why your writing didn't work for them constructively, I think you owe it to them - and yourself - to respond with the same courtesy. Unfortunately twitter, email, comment boxes, etc, make it all too easy to respond in the heat of the moment without considering the impact of your response.

Oh, and I am so going to buy Alex Scarrow's book now.

fairyhedgehog said...

I love the video. And what a gracious response.

Jesse Owen said...

It's another book which has been added to my growing list of books to buy soon :)

Anne Wareham said...

Interestingly this seems to me to be all about PR and books sales, which is perhaps inevitable.

But it is possible that a genuine discussion about someone's critique, in public, could be illuminating and worthwhile. All this graciousness, while very laudable, deprives us of that.

The one side opinion of the printed media is dying, now - witness this blog. Let's consider debate and what an author's thoughts might add to it?

Thomas Taylor said...

Funnily enough, I mentioned TimeRiders on my blog recently, complaining that it had been released just days before my own novel -- with similar time travel themes -- was going out on submission. Alex turned up to comment and was a perfect gent.

And he's from Norwich too, so yay!

Theresa Milstein said...

What a wonderful set of comments. What did we do in a world before the Internet and blogging? I think it's great that readers can get immediate feedback from other readers about books. What a bonus that writers can get in the mix.

Lately, I've heard a couple of horror stories of bloggers being nice enough to offer advice and then getting stalked, rude letters, rude comments on his/her own blog, or rude comments on those advice-seekers blogs. This is a reminder that most bloggers are kind and generous.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - funnily, I have just written a post about the horrible feeling of discovering that someone else has written an idea that sounds the same! the post will go out on Mar 4th, I think.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anne - I just added a comment and then realised that it was possible I'd totally misunderstood yours, so I've deleted it and am re-writing below!

I'm not sure what "one side" is referring to and the "witness this blog" - at first I thought you were saying the blog was one-sided, and you might be, but I'm not sure!!

Anyway, my simple point was that there are constructive ways of accepting that someone didn't like your book. And there are very unconstructive ways. Like getting publicly angry, as some authors have. I don't think that creates debate, and i also don't think that debate is stifled when someone is polite. Is that what you meant?

As far as my blog is concerned, if you WERE saying that it lacks something / debate / two-sidedness (sorry, am really not sure! I cold have this totally wrong!), could you let me know? All i know is that I give the best advice I can, the advice that I think will work best for the greatest number of good writers.

What I say is based on my knowledge of the industry, and my contacts with editors and agents, who are the people that the blog-readers want to know about. It's a blog about raditional routes to print, and that's not because I don't respect other routes (I do) but because it's what I know about and what I prefer.

Catherine Hughes said...

Actually, Nicola, I was worried that it was my blog that was the problem. It is one sided in that it only offers the reviews, experiences and thoughts of one person - and one who doesn't have the standing of a published author, either.

Is that what you meant, Anne?

If so, my review and my response to Alex's remarks were nothing to do with PR. I thought what I thought about the book, and I was impressed with Alex's handling of my comments which, although mild, were negative. So I told a few people about him and here we are.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - I didn't think that. But I'd say that of COURSE one person's blog of book reviews would be one-sided because how can you possibly be expected to say what someone else's view of a book is? I don't think Anne can have meant that. Each reviewer, whether on a blog or in print or on Amazon, is only giving their side, one side. And at least on a blog you have comments so people can disagree if they want. the fact that you're not a published author also make no difference - you're a reader, and it's readers' views that we need.

I hope Anne comes back and clears it up for us! Anne? Are you there??

Glynis Peters said...

It will be interesting to read the variety of reviews, that will come about for this book now.
Alex will most definately make a few sales with his good manners alone.

I try to read to the end of each book, and only two have ever beaten me. Enjoyed them all? No but I was determined to read them as they are double in price here in Cyprus, and I wanted my money's worth!
Interesting post.

Clare said...

What a refreshing post - Alex deserves all the positive publicity he has unwittingly provoked by his mature response to Catherine's comments.

(Nicola and Catherine - if it's any consolation I could not understand Anne's comments either but I don't think they're negatively directed at either of your' blogs. It takes differing opinions to stimulate debate and in this particular instance Alex' manner will only stimulate positive comment. Perhaps she meant that it would be interesting to critique an author's work and have the author feed back into the discussion?)

Anonymous said...

Nicola, darling, I think the reason you're treated well with your critiques is that authors live in fear of being stomped on by your designer shoes. Or you're simply tactful in your British way.

Or you simply haven't been doing this long enough.

Mind you, dearie, the law of averages will bear this out, and an ill-tempered someone will invite you to make merry with the barnyard animal of your choosing.

Or is that just me?

Ann said...

Very impressed with Alex's gracious response. Equally impressed with Catherine's willingness to read the book and pass it on to her daughters. So nice to see respect afforded to fellow writers. Published or not.

Rebecca Knight said...

This was truly lovely to see :). Thank you for sharing this, Nicola!

Also, I've now discovered another excellent blog to follow! Hooray!

catdownunder said...

Being criticised can be like getting rolled in mud or getting a good brisk licking from your mother when you are a kitten. The former is not much help to anyone, least of all the writer. The latter can be very uncomfortable but, with the right (c)attitude, I have discovered it can save a lot of wasted effort and misery.
Nicola, you are definitely a brisk licker!

Emma Darwin said...

On the whole, there's not a lot to be said if a blogger just didn't like your book enough to keep reading. Not everyone ever will. What I specially like about Catherine's blog and Alex's very gracious comment is that both recognise the whole book-writing-book-reading thing as such a peculiar mixture of subjective, objective, and what else is going on (you might persevere with a book if it's all you've got with you on a train, after all, which you wouldn't bother with if you're at home.)

The only time I did respond to a negative blog review was to one which wrongly took one of my books to task for not spelling a name right when, actually, I had, both versions of right (too complicated to explain here). I only (and very politely and briefly) corrected the error of fact, not the opinion, which is none of my business. I thought the worse of the blogger because as far as I could see she never published my comment.

Nicola, I shall read your post about what you do when someone has the same idea as you with interest: the day, a few days after A Secret Alchemy was published, that I discovered that Philippa Gregory was also writing Elizabeth Woodville was a very disconcerting moment. Specially when her Elizabeth started Tweeting...


Shelley Sly said...

Wonderful post as always. I am impressed with Alex's response and might just have to check into his book... :)

Elizabeth Madden said...

Feedback is very important, of course, but entirely negative feedback can be soul destroying (says she, still smarting after some savage critiques on a writing site which shall be nameless!) and I do think it's important that, when we give negative feedback, we're always aware that there's a human being on the other end of it. The mother cat vigorously licking her kittens is a good analogy.

Anne Wareham said...

Return of Anne to explain.
No don't think your blog is one-sided - I mean that the days of someone in print media pronouncing on a book while the author and everyone else sit around in solemn silence has gone.

And if everyone else can comment I'd like to hear from the author too - especially, I think, if it's non fiction. I wouldn't place restrictions on their mood either as long as they weren't rude and out of order. Let them speak.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Really enjoyed this discussion. I read an awful, mean-spirited review of my novel on a blog once. It never occurred to me to comment on the blog. I just slunk away in misery.

Fiona said...

A slightly unrelated comment re something I'd really like a UK lit blogger to tackle - current expected word counts in different genres.

This has blown up again today on some of the US blogs, and is close to my heart because I submitted a romance MS to an editor, only to be told that it needed to be 100 000 words. Everything I'd found on the net indicated 80-85 000, and the UK blogs that I frequent simply don't mention it.

Could you talk about this, or provide some links?

Anonymous said...

I'm just reading this book now. Nearly done, and hope Alex won't do something in the last pages to make me hate it.

He's a nice man, says someone who has managed to meet him twice, recently.

And I love it when authors pop in and leave comments on my blog. I find if they want to get angry, they do it in an email... Lots of blog readers are really impressed to be in the company of the one they are discussing.

Elizabeth West said...

What I wonder about is what to do if someone criticizes you in person. What if you're signing books or appearing somewhere and someone comes up and says "I hated your book; I really wanted my money back"?

What do you say? The only thing I could think of would be "I'm so sorry you didn't enjoy it." But the whole I-want-my-money-back thing? How do you answer someone like that? Or is it worth the bother?

I'm scared this will happen to me and I won't know what to do.

Emma Darwin said...

Yes, 'I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book,' is the only possible answer, I think. (Actually 'I'm glad you did enjoy the book,' is the only sensible answer I've come up to being told they did!)

'I want my money back,' is the shop's problem, not yours.

In Australia one of mine was in a 'If you don't enjoy this we'll give you your money back' promotion that my publisher runs. I'd love to know if anyone took them up on it!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Anne - glad you came back! Yes, from the reader's point of view, the author's reaction and engagement is useful. But I was thinking from the POV of author - it just does them no good at all to react negatively. I believe it's really important for us to recognise that not everyone will like our books or be the ideal reader and I just believe that silence (in a neg situation) is the most judicious response.

Lynn (behlerblog) - fingers crossed...

Ann - I agree.

KarenG - slinking away: that's me! Horrible, isn't it?!

Fiona - I'm going to blog about this. Word count is tricky and does depend on genre. 100,000 would be about normal for a romantic novel but I'm not sure I'd expect to offer this as an absolute target.

cat - from a cat, that's a compliment!

Bookwitch - Good!

Elizabeth - that would be really unpleasant (I've never heard of it). It would be a very rude thing for someone to do and as the author I think I'd want to say "I'm sorry you feel that way" and then eyeball them. If they don't feel uncomfortable, then they're appallingly rude. They can't possibly have their money back (as Emma says, that would be for the shop to deal with anyway) - so, they didn't enjoy the experience but there was no guarantee they would. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion" is another response. Don't ask them why - that would be too tempting! But really, I don't think you should worry - just accept that different people have different view and tell them so. If it ever did happen to you, you'd go back to the "green room" and have a good moan to all the other writers and they'd all sympathise!

CC MacKenzie said...

I watched the excellent Alex deal with Catherine's criticism in an exemplary manner.

I was reminded of James Scott Bell's quote:
'Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal, unless it's accompanied by a punch on the nose.'

I'm going to pick up a copy of his book for my son next week.


David John Griffin said...

Excellent advice about handling negative feedback, Nicola. I've taken that on board in case I receive any. Feedback, that is, positive or negative. Considering the "age" of my two novels, I've received very little feedback. There's a handful of people who have read them whom I know. I sold some books and gave away 25 pdfs of my novels on Lulu, and received the grand total of 1 review of one of them. The few agents I've sent to and been rejected by, there hasn't been any constructive criticism (I know they are too busy to give that). And I had 2 people from my writing group read the first one, telling me they enjoyed reading it, but not much more.

I'd love to be able to afford P2P; I know that any advice that would include negative feedback would be constructive; and so very useful. Hope you don't mind me mentioning: I'm tempted to send a Lulu copy of my first novel to selfpublishingreview.blogspot. I'm a l'il bit "scared" though, it's look like out of the many books that have been reviewed, not one has been read through to the end!


Guy said...

Just noticed Emma Darwin's comment:

"In Australia one of mine was in a 'If you don't enjoy this we'll give you your money back' promotion that my publisher runs. I'd love to know if anyone took them up on it!"

I once bought a book in the UK with a similar guarantee (I'll be kind and not mention the title). I read the first 30 pages, thought it dreadful and returned to Waterstones to ask for my money back.

The women at the till was rather shocked and said this had never happened before... so I'm not sure how often this offer is taken up.

I'm positive Ms Darwin wouldn't have had any returns.

Guy said...


Started reading this thread because of TIMERIDERS... then forgot to mention what had originally brought me here!

Alex's gracious response to Catherine Hughes's comments comes as no surprise. He had at look at some of the chapters of my book and is an all-round-good-egg.

Dan Metcalf said...

Just thought I'd mention that I read TimeRiders, and stuck with it to the end. While a tad over-long, it really is a good yarn and worth sticking with. If I were going to be nit-picking, then I'd hope that any sequels will be edited with a heavier hand. The short chapters are perfect for reluctant readers, but the shear amount of them my put some readers off. Still, I'd read the follow-up!

Kath McGurl said...

On Catherine's blog now there is an interview with Alex Scarrow. He does sound like a nice chap. My son is thoroughly enjoying TimeRiders which I bought after following the link from here.

Joanna @ Zeb Bakes said...

Not quite sure how I ended up here, but the link to your friend Catherine's blog doesn't work any more. Shame as it sounded so very interesting.

best wishes, Joanna

Nicola Morgan said...

Joanna - Catherine changed her blog address and I think she also stopped reviewing for a while because she has loads of stuff going on. I'm not at my desk so can't get you the link but if you google "Catherine grace Hughes" you will find her.