It has become a maxim among published authors that you shouldn’t read your reviews. “Stay off of Goodreads!” people say. “They’re mean there!”
I never listen to that advice, and I’d like to explain why.
The main argument for not reading your reviews is twofold:
1) Reading reviews of your books can distract you from the real work of producing more books.
2) Reviews are not meant for authors, but for other readers. They’re a dialogue of which we are not / should not be a part.
Now, as a friend pointed out recently, there are people for whom this is excellent advice, and those people greatly benefit from the way Don’t Read Your Reviews is reinforced within writing circles. We authors are a stereotypically neurotic bunch, and we might easily be paralyzed by some hateful – or, worse, insightful – critique we see on the internet. For many, that’s a risk not worth taking.
But for me, I’ll read every review I can find. Sure, it can be distracting, and yes, a bad review can ruin my day, but the feedback of actual readers is incredibly valuable. It’s amazing to me that so many of us expect to improve our craft over time without ever internalizing the critiques of those who did not enjoy our writing. You’ll never be able to please everyone, of course, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take note of the common themes shared by critiques of your work, especially those that are common to both your detractors and your fans. That’s valuable data, and we ignore it at our own peril.
Now, there’s an argument to be made that since A) everyone has different tastes and B) the reading public is large enough that a writer can be extremely successful while pleasing only a small fraction of it, therefore we should pay more attention to what our fans like about our writing than to what our critics dislike about it. But when baseball players want to improve, they don’t watch video playbacks of themselves hitting the ball. They watch the at-bats where they missed.
In this sense, the fact that reviews are not for us is beside the point. That argument serves well to explain why we authors shouldn’t respond to reviews, but it does nothing to explain why we shouldn’t pay attention to them. Reviews are learning experiences! With every review, we are given the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation about what makes our writing good, and what makes it flawed – why should we pass that up?