Sometimes, my dear, it's not all about you. Partly, maybe, but not all. And sometimes it really and truly has nothing to do with you.
Someone just read your book, hated it, and left a scathing review. And you immediately take it personally because -- gasp! -- it couldn't possibly be about the book! No one reads books they hate!
Uh, sorry to tell you this, my dear, but sometimes people most certainly do read books they hate.
Sometimes it's really fun to read something horrible. Sometimes a reader is just in the kind of mood that she wants to read something so badly written that she feels like gouging her eyes out. Maybe her personal life is in turmoil and she needs to take out some frustration. Maybe she's a writer who's in the middle of self-doubts and she needs to read something just ghastly to remind her she's better than someone. There are a lot of reasons why people actually enjoy reading books they hate. The Eye of Argon is still out there because crap is sometimes fun. And ripping the crap to shreds can be as cathartic as chopping wood or running a marathon or piecing a quilt or burning 25-year-old bank statements. Different strokes and all that.
Unfortunately, there are still people today who are uploading to Kindle and Smashwords books and stories and novellas that are every bit as craptastic as that 1970s sword and sorcery tale written by 16 year old Jim Theis. These writers probably didn't intend their works to be craptastic, but some of their readers see them that way. And they review accordingly.
Is there sometimes an element of personal animosity against the author, to the point that the shitty review seems to be a personal attack? Perhaps sometimes there is, and sometimes perhaps it's even justified.
But that's a determination the author of the book receiving the bad review can't make. She can't get into the mind and motives of the reviewer; she has no way of knowing what's going on in the reviewer's real life that prompted her to write the snarky review. Maybe her favorite aunt died or she lost her job or she burned the chicken or her kid threw a tantrum because he wanted to wear his pajamas to school. Who knows? There could be any reason at all . . . including that she thought it was a shitty book.
Ultimately, those reviews, as mean-spirited as they may seem to be, are still of the writing. They may appear to suggest that the writer is a moron for writing such shit and thinking it's worthy of the time the reader gives to it, but it still goes back to the writing. That's what the reviewer sees, that's what she reads, that's what she reviews.
When the writer can't separate herself from the writing, when she takes that negative review personally and lashes out at the reviewer and denies there can be any validity in the reviewer's mean comments about the writing, she cannot hope to improve her writing. She's locked herself into defending the indefensible.
This same principle holds if the author does other things (sock puppet accounts, plagiarism, shill reviews) to counter that negative review. She's not being honest, especially with herself, about the need to improve her product. She has taken the mean words as being about her, rather than about her writing. She knows she's not a bad person, therefore the mean words are meaningless. Ergo, she doesn't have to fix her writing and she's really a great writer after all, just like Aunt Eleanor told her! Everyone who tells her she isn't a good writer is just a mean person, a bad person, a troll, a liar, a jealous failed author, a psychopath, a rapist, a murderer. (Yes, Virginia, reviewers have been called murderers for writing bad reviews. I kid you not.)
Sometimes it is, however, at least partly about the author. And sometimes the reviewer's anger is justified.
Was I being mean in 1990 when I called Romantic Times and told them Sylvie Sommerfield had stolen Jan Westcott's The Hepburn? I suppose so. Did I get a malicious thrill from sending photocopies of relevant pages of both books to RT? Yes, I did. I was furious at Sommerfield, and furious at Zebra (who had just become my publisher!!) for allowing that shit to happen. Did I get a certain satisfaction when I posted the review to GR 20+ years later? Yeah, I did, because it pissed me off that the Sommerfield book was still getting 5-star ratings from people who probably didn't know the truth.
It all goes back to "If you didn't want comments on it, you shouldn't have published it." Period. End of discussion. STFU. Because you don't -- you can't -- know what motivates the reviewer.
And that's why reviews from real readers have to be untouchable. And by real readers -- no quotation marks -- I mean anyone other than the author, provided they disclose any relevant information regarding connections they may have to the author. Paid shill reviews? Sure, as long as they do so with full disclosure. Let them post reviews so long as the world knows that review is essentially a commercial paid for by the author. Let the readers see that the author is so desperate to be read that she's willing to pay people to read it and review it. (If she weren't desperate, she wouldn't be doing it.) Friends and family? Yeah, let them post reviews so long as the world knows there's a connection and they can't be unbiased. Editors? Illustrators? Sure. With full disclosure, so the readers know who's who and who to trust as unbiased.
Ultimately, the reviews have to be untouchable, regardless what the reviewer's intent may be. No one can determine that but the reviewer; the reader of the review might have an idea or an opinion, but the reviewer is the only one who really knows. If I review a self-published historical romance and shred it from page one to The End, people may think I'm just trying to hurt my competition. They should be allowed to think that. But I should also be allowed to write the review. Readers aren't stupid. They can figure out what's going on.
They can also read the book for themselves and make up their own minds. Because that's who reviews are for: They're for other readers. A review is one reader's opinion, offered to other readers so they can make their own decisions whether to read the book or not. A review -- which is not the same as a critique -- is not for the author.
An author who claims she doesn't mind negative reviews as long as they're constructive is missing the point entirely. Reviewers don't owe the author anything. Nothing. And that includes the readers who are angry at being spammed on Goodreads, on Amazon, on Twitter, on Facebook, on personal blogs, via email. That includes readers who are tired of seeing the exact same cover template used on book after book after crappy book. That includes readers who feel misled about the content of the book. That includes readers who feel they've been overcharged for the book. That includes readers who have just had a really shitty day and need to vent their frustration on something, someone. That includes readers who are nit-picky grammar dragons who go ballistic when there are sixteen tense changes, three POV flips, and twenty-seven misspelled words on the first page, and who go on to read the whole fucking book just because they want to rip the terrible writing to shreds. They have the right to do that.
Not that it makes any difference to many people, but I will defend a reviewer, even if she (or he) is vicious in a review long before I will defend a writer who says the vicious review hurt her feelings. Because maybe the reviewer had a reason that had nothing whatsoever to do with the author. Nothing at all.
Sometimes, my dear, it just isn't about you at all.