What Does a Reader Owe a Writer?

Author Mike Markel

by Mike Markel

In my life as a college teacher (yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t earn enough from writing detective novels to just write detective novels) we have this thing called course evaluations. You remember them: before grades are entered, students evaluate their courses and instructors.

Occasionally I get a bad review from the poor student. I understand the psychology at work: if a student is doing poorly in a course and is likely to get a D or an F, it’s unlikely he or she is going to say, “Well, I was a poor student. I didn’t study, didn’t come to class, didn’t write the papers. But I realize that the instructor seemed prepared, seemed to know what he was talking about, seemed to be fair in grading the papers. I can see now that it wasn’t on him. It was all on me.” No, I don’t expect that kind of insight. A sinking student is not going down alone.

Which brings me to book reviews. All in all, my two detective books have gotten very positive reviews. (You’re thinking, “Oh, my God, he isn’t going to criticize his readers, is he? He can’t be that stupid, can he?” My answers: “yes” and “apparently.”)

Let me say, clearly and honestly, that I do realize that it is miraculous that more than a thousand people I literally do not know have bought my two books, read them, and taken the time to write thoughtful reviews. Really, why should they have done any of those things? I’m not talking about those people.

I’m talking about those few reviewers who don’t feel any responsibility for doing any of the work involved in reading a book. They paid their $3.99–or they downloaded it for free–so they get to say whatever they want, even if it’s deeply unsmart.

I’m not talking about this one guy who wrote that Big Sick Heart was very thought-provoking and it therefore bored him. The laugh was worth the two-star review.

I’m talking about the person who wrote that my book Deviations was poorly written because I called this character Nick for most of the book then started calling him Allan. Well, if this reader had paid attention on page 176, he would have known why Nick became Allan.

And I’m talking about the person who commented that I shouldn’t be writing books because I don’t even know grammar. She knows this because I write things like “Me and Ryan left the room,” which is clearly a grammar error.

I should explain that my books are written in the first person, and that my narrator, Karen Seagate, makes three or four grammar mistakes repeatedly, whereas her partner, Ryan Miner, who is better educated, makes no grammar mistakes. In other words, I use speech patterns, among other techniques, to distinguish my characters.

Now, I can understand why a reader might not want to read a book narrated by a person who makes four or five grammar errors repeatedly, although that would mean there are a number of classic books, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that she wouldn’t get to read. I’m not comparing myself to Twain; I’m just saying.

I do realize that there are many good reasons someone might not want to read my books. (Length restrictions prevent me from expanding on this idea.)

But can’t I hold a reader responsible for realizing–by the end of a 212-page book–that every character in the book speaks differently, and that my narrator, a 42-year-old recovering alcoholic whose vague recollections about her college years centered on waking up, hung over, in a place she doesn’t recognize might have problems with pronoun case?

Can’t I hold a reader responsible for realizing that?

In preparing my third novel for publication, I have decided to send my grammar-challenged detective to a night-school remedial-grammar course. Because me just doesn’t want to be criticized because her doesn’t know grammar.

Mike Markel is the author of the two books in the Detectives Seagate and Miner series: Big Sick Heart and Deviations. Mike is also the Director of Technical Communication at Boise State University, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. The former editor of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, he is the author of numerous articles and six books about technical communication, including Ethics and Technical Communication: A Critique and Synthesis.

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24 thoughts on “What Does a Reader Owe a Writer?”

  1. I guess I’m of the school that a reader’s “responsibility” ends when he pays, or downloads the book for free when offered as such. If they want to leave a review, they bought that privilege when they bought the book. I’d love it if more readers left them where they count (on Amazon), but other than a final “if you liked this book, please take the time to rate and review” line before the credits roll, I can’t see hammering it into them, since they aren’t all going to be teachers and may or may not realize that the grammar or “mistakes” are part of a characterization. If you’re an indie writer, a lot of folks expect errors like that and won’t necessarily know the difference.

    I know I usually leave a review when a book is exceedingly good or exceedingly horrid. If they’re just “okay” or “a good book”, I often don’t take the time unless it’s a subject or genre that I’m particularly keen on (i.e., for me, any comic book or old time radio book I download and read gets a review).

    Reviews aren’t really meant for authors anyway. Reviews are meant for other readers, as guideposts or warnings.

  2. I responded on Facebook, but thought it only fair to post here, too (as much as I hate controversy ;-)).

    Mike, I feel your pain, and I get where you’re coming from, but in short, the reader owes the writer absolutely nothing. The reader bought the book and read it – that’s it. Why would there be more? It’s not a class or a work assignment, after all. Geesh, I’d hate to think I owe the writer something for the thousands of books I’ve read over my lifetime. I might stop reading completely.

    After all, do you “owe” a musician something each time you pay for and download his/her music? Do you owe actors/actresses something whenever you watch television?

    And those reviews that clearly show the reader didn’t read the work speak for themselves over time. Given time, it becomes clear the book wasn’t read.

    Mike, you sound like a great writer and a fun person – someone I’d love to know. But I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one.

    1. Actually, unless I miss my guess, he’s talking about readers who take their opinions to the streets, as it were. Fine. But if a reader takes this step, he/she should have some basis for the reasoning. If the reader wants to post a review, let it be at the most positive, and not denigrating. No reason to ruin someone’s hopes and dreams. If the reader has issues, he/she should go to the author, not to the public.

      1. K.R.

        You said something like this in your other post and wasn’t going to respond, but I can’t let it go again without comment.

        I don’t see any problem with you choosing to take that approach. That’s a choice any reader/reviewer has to make for themselves. But I think you’re way off base implying that a reviewer who gives negative reviews is doing anything wrong.

        1. Ah, okay–let me clarify. A person who posts a bad review out of deliberate rudeness or meanness is the one in the wrong. All I ask is that the reviewer retain a polite, respectful tone. Good or bad review, I don’t care, as long as it is couched in a helpful way with thorough knowledge of the work they’re reviewing.

  3. I guess it’s just a case of putting up with the dumb comments in the hopes that smart readers will see through them. It’s usually pretty clear when some thicko posts a negative review and a discerning reader may well be encouraged by it. Perhaps. (But don’t you just want to shoot the stupid people?!)

  4. I have recently taken up the non-paying hobby of volunteering myself to read and review books. I put up a Facebook page (Kitty Muse Book Reviews), and have had a good number of takers so far. Your post is very valid. The reviews are to promote readership. If I have a problem with a sudden shift in grammar or perspective, the first thing I do is get in touch with the author to see where I may have missed something. Reviews are not the place to kvetch about grammar. And I will always give a positive review of what I liked–if I couldn’t find anything at all, or if the plot really turned sour along the way, I would rather politely let the author know that she or he should seek another reviewer than lambaste them on a social networking page. That is just being offensive.

  5. i used to be a newspaper and magazine editor, so the dumb, ignorant stuff that readers say just kind of rolls off of me. I think once someone buys the product that gives him or her the right to offer an opinion no matter how poorly thought out it might be – kind of like the price of admission at a sporting event gives the fan a full voice to cheer, or boo, or hoot or rant, or applaud.

  6. I like posts such as this, even if I disagree with them, for the good discussion they generate. And I do disagree.

    I do get the point Mike is trying to make and if I was an author I know I’d be upset with the reviewers who missed something obvious. Or at least obvious to you and probably obvious to others you ask.

    However, I’m left with two questions.

    The first is, what are the purpose of reader reviews which I think is really what we’re talking about here. Someone like myself or K.R. Morrison above who review in places other than Amazon and other places that allow any reader to post their review should maybe be held to higher standards (or at least should hold themselves to higher standards). In my opinion, the purpose is for other readers (can we agree the primary purpose of reviews is for readers, not authors) to get a range of opinion on the book in question. Some of those opinions are gong to be stupid, at least in the opinion of others. I posted a link to this post on my facebook page and got one comment which I think made the perfect point, that “those reviews that clearly show the reader didn’t read the work speak for themselves over time.” Often, they are so poorly written that many people will discount them immediately (or not understand them). Then those who have read the book will down vote them and, before you know it, few people will see them among all the others. They’re irritating but, for the author who gets them, laugh them off and move on is the only sane way to deal with them.

    My second question is, what should we take away from this post? It’s purpose might be (and almost has to be) a chance for the author to vent and for those who read it to recognize that all authors go through this same thing and maybe vent in the comments themselves. It certainly serves this purpose. But what about the readers who see this? IMO, those who are guilty won’t see it and those who do will either ignore it or decide not to review the books they read for fear of making a faux pas. That isn’t good for anyone.

  7. Interesting points by all. I don’t think I’m sitting on the fence when I say “It depends”. In my opinion, if a reader writes a review he/she ought to have read the book. The mere act of downloading or even paying for something does not automatically award the buyer with eh right to critique it. The name change you mention comes to mind. It became obvious that that individual had not read the entire book ans so missed something important. I feel they have no business criticizing something they have not bothered to examine thoroughly. If I buy an item and never unwrap and use it I do not feel entitled to say it doesn’t work. So in that sense I agree.

    As for the differentiating traits specific to individual characters – again, the savvy reader will understand those, but, if not,they have shown that they read the book. Having done so they have earned the privilege of saying what they wish about it. If they are way off base (as in the dialogue patterns) it will usually become apparent in the review and so will not harm your sales. These I would chalk up to ignorance and let them go.

  8. Oh, you quoted me, Al! Thank you! 🙂 I guess I also have two points, the first being that once an author has submitted work, the author’s voice is done. Now it’s up to readers to interpret/discuss/etc. without feeling inhibited by the author.

    My second point is that public figures (and even if we’ve only sold two books, we can count ourselves among those) can’t vent publicly. Period. Pour a glass of wine with the significant other, rant, rave, gesture, pace, etc. But don’t take it outside.

    If you want people to pay you for your work, you can’t insult the buyers.

    1. I do agree that it is not intelligent to insult buyers. To call them out publicly is professional suicide. In my comment I did not intend to imply that we can do anything about these barbs, only that it is wrong to criticize a product you have not used – or a book you have not read. But to strike back at those who do is futile.

      1. Oh, I agree with you, Yvonee. And I also understand Mike’s frustration regarding the name change. I wrote my first book in largely first person with heavy dialect. Then I realized that while some readers appreciated it, others didn’t. Because of that, I chose to water it down considerably in my last two books. It was a learning experience, which is how we have to look at these things.

        Someone (I think on Facebook, because I don’t see it here) commented that the name change situation offers a learning opportunity, too. It shows the author that in future, more clarity might be needed. Maybe it was clear – I don’t know – but I try to take all feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve.

  9. In a sense, I agree with Mike; that is to say that readers ought to refrain from criticizing an author if they haven’t read the book. However, as someone much wiser than I once said: ‘Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer chances.” When we put our books “out there,” we must be prepared to take the bad with the good – and that includes those occasional horrible reviews that have no basis in fact. I agree with an earlier reply that stated that (and I’m paraphrasing) the cream will rise to the top. Most people who are intelligent and caring can discern the difference between a thoughtful, well-written review and a poorly crafted rant. If your work is good, it will be seen for what it is – as will the review.

  10. First, I’d like to throw out there that you can’t assume the reader purchased the book – there are many ways of getting review copies, and piracy is rampant. I suspect someone who would illegally download a book, wouldn’t hesitate to review it as well.

    Secondly, there are readers who will deliberately denigrate a book in a review just because they can, and because it pleases them, whether their criticisms contain any merit or not.

    An author is at a disadvantage when confronted with dumb criticisms. To reply to them is to court further disaster, and to be raked over the coals. To leave them intact and without explanation looks bad too. Especially if their misconceptions are allowed to fester in the mind of potential readers and perhaps scare them away.

    But on the bright side, controversy sells. If enough people write disparaging reviews, other readers will wonder why and wish to make up their own minds.

    So, in the scheme of things, a few ignoramuses won’t spoil your career. I wish you well, Mike!

  11. Hello Mike,
    Personally, I found food for thought in your comments about Reviews. I do agree however, that a Reader has NO obligation to the Author in respect to taking his/her time to WRITE a Review. An Author who has the ability to “speak” in different tongues, as that of an educated, college professor, or a high-schoolo drop-out with ‘street-smarts’ is an accomplished author, in my opinion.
    Having read your post, I was driven to Amazon to purhse both your books. I am one who, if I like a bookj, I will write a Review. If I do not find the book entertaining, intriguing, and satisfying, I won’t take my time to write a Review.

    Best of Luck to you.

    Michael Phelps
    Miami SHores, Florida

  12. When an author puts their work out there for strangers to read you had best be prepared for every possible opinion. Some of those opinions may be ignorant, or cruel or irrational but that doesn’t make it “wrong”. It is that person’s opinion…not fact. Their motivation for writing the review doesn’t really matter. When you publish your work you are inviting public review. Deal with it.

  13. I want to thank all of you for your comments about my post. I do understand the points that readers are free to do what they want, they paid their money, there’s no sense in straightening them out, etc. I didn’t intend my post to be a rant or even an exercise in venting. My point was more wistful than that: since all of us as writers put a lot of effort into our work, it would be nice if all our readers (not just some or most of them) took our words seriously and put in a little effort–at least before reviewing the work. Again, I appreciate all the comments.

    1. My mother =-in-law used to say “if wishes were fishes pigs would fly”. lol But we all do it, we all wish things could be better, different than they are. In that, you are certainly in good company. 🙂

  14. Having read a lot of Ed McNally’s famous 1-star-reviews, the thing I have learned is that a lot of reviewers aren’t, shall we say, high on the mensa list? Their reviews tend to say more about /them/ than they do about the book/movie/piece of music they are reviewing. If those reviews put others like them off a book then the author loses volume sales BUT they might just gain some serious readers who think : “Hmm, this not-so-bright-person didn’t like this book so maybe it will be just the sort of book I really like.”

    Bottom line, for me at any rate, is that even bad publicity raises awareness. How else explain the popularity of the-book-that-must-not-be-named? [Hint : 5 * 10 = ?].

  15. Readers can’t fail a writer any more than customers can fail a business.’
    It’s a one-way street.
    You have to respect them, they don’t have to respect you.
    If they don’t understand, it’s because you haven’t made yourself clear.

    This is really important to understand, at a rock solid organic level. Anything you do to try to talk yourself into the idea that you have any more coming than what you generate and wins response will only make you weak and unhappy.

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