What I'm going to do in this post is explore this dynamic in detail. I will try to dive into the heads of both sides in the hope that we can better understand each other. At no point do I intend to make excuses for anyone's unprofessional or unkind behavior-- I'm just trying to sort out the dynamic that creates that kind of behavior, the best I can. And disclaimer: it's going to be long. Bring snacks.
This author-reviewer relationship has never been simple, but nor has it ever been quite this complicated, because of the Internet. Now the reviews are not isolated to newspapers and magazines, they are on blogs, tumblr, facebook, twitter, Goodreads, and more places than I can really count. Anyone can review books as long as they love reading and dedicate themselves to talking about it, and that means that more people are doing so.
A Business Relationship; Not A Business Relationship
Book reviewers (with the exception of those who do it for a job-- right now I'm not referring to those reviewers, though) are not paid to write reviews; they are providing a free service. It is a hobby in the best sense of the word, because they are dedicated and consistent, they have well-designed and well-organized blogs, they form a community, they put on events like the Debut Author Challenge or the YA Heroine Tournament, they go to conferences, they do interviews. I think it's pretty fantastic that people love books so much they would do all those things for no pay, in addition to their day jobs or studies.
In any case, book reviewers are not paid, so this is not quite a business relationship. However, sometimes they pay for books (as opposed to getting ARCs), so they are contributing to an author's salary. Still, there isn't the kind of balance we typically see in business relationships.
Authors, however, are paid for writing books, even if it's just from book sales. So in that sense, this is a business relationship-- when an author reads a review of their book, they are at work, and that requires a certain type of behavior.
So, to recap, this is NOT a business relationship, because book blogging is not a business. Yet it IS a business relationship, because authors are paid, and they are often paid by book reviewers' purchases.
A Personal Relationship; A Not Personal Relationship
Reviews are not personal, because they are the assessment of a product. If I assess an Apple product on the Internet, is that a personal attack against Jonathan Ive, head designer at Apple? Certainly not. Do some reviews include personal attacks against authors? Yes. And regardless of whether you agree with that sort of review tactic (I don't), I still don't think an insult on the Internet is personal. If a reviewer calls an author a jerk, they are probably not saying that based on any experience of that author as a real human being. Anyone could have written the book and they would have called the author a jerk. Even insults are not personal on the Internet. Now, it may still bother the author, and I would argue that they are well within their rights to be bothered, but it's something to keep in mind.
Yet to say that reviews are not personal ignores the simple truth of this industry, which is that authors pour their hearts and souls into their work. They carefully construct stories over a period of a year or (in most cases) more. Their characters fill their waking moments and enter their dreams. As with any art, books are personal, and any time someone bashes an author's work, it feels like it is the author himself or herself who is being bashed. As much as we say that shouldn't be the case, it is unavoidable, and I would argue that making book-writing completely impersonal would be to the detriment of books everywhere.
The Public/Private Space
So this business/not business relationship, which is both personal and not personal, all takes place in a place that blurs the public and the private space. The Internet is a strange place from the perspective of the author, because of how it changes. A few years ago, I was on Facebook and Twitter and Blogger as a private citizen. If you read my earliest blog posts, they were personal and open in a way that they aren't now-- because no one was watching. Fast forward to the book release, and I don't have a private Facebook page anymore, I've deleted most of my personal blog posts, and I don't tweet the same things anymore. I don't discuss even huge events in my personal life (graduation! Marriage! Etc!), because for me, the Internet now feels public. And I know a lot of people who are totally okay with keeping their personal lives separate (I am one of them).
But there are many authors who are either dismayed by the loss of their private Internet space or, more likely, don't quite realize that it's gone. For some reason, they tell themselves that if they remove their Author Hat and put on their Reader and Human Being Hat, everyone will notice the change and be forgiving.
That is absolutely not true. When you become an author, everything you do under your author name on the Internet is work. And you are required to be professional always.
That doesn't mean "don't have a personality," but it means authors are required to respond to negative reviews--even those that include personal attacks--with maturity and, in most cases, a closed mouth. If a person works in retail with frustrating customers, he or she would have to do it there, too. Plenty of people have jobs where they have to deal with difficult feedback on a daily basis, and they do it admirably.
In my mind, there are no exceptions to this rule. You must always respond publicly with maturity. I don't care what you say to your family or to your dog, but when you are on the Internet, or at a work event: always maturity and professionalism.
Reviewers, too, sometimes struggle with the private/public dynamic. So many exchanges that sound like private conversations take place in a highly public environment, like Goodreads. And this is not necessarily because the reviewers want to stir up drama; it's because many of their friends exist in that public space with them, and they don't want to have to create a separate forum to have those often not-all-that-close relationships. And if the cameras are always on you, eventually you forget they're there. That is not to say that the content of those conversations must change-- that is entirely up to the people having those conversations-- but that the people participating in them should be constantly aware that they are public.
This is yet another difficulty, because while reviewers are free to express their emotions and opinions about a work or about particular situations in the forums that are natural to them, authors must restrain themselves within the forums that are natural to them. Goodreads, for example, is a place where authors and readers collide, but authors are not allowed to be readers there. And sometimes, when the reviewer insists, "I'm allowed to express my opinions, whatever they may be!" the author begins to think, "well, shouldn't I be able to do that, too? Don't I have the same right to be emotional and opinionated in public?"
There is a difference, and it is this: 98% of the time, the reviewer is expressing opinions about a book, and if an author expresses his or her opinions about a review, they are always saying something about the reviewer. A review is a personal opinion, and it's hard to critique an opinion without insulting the one who holds it. I haven't seen it done well in this situation. The author is always, even if inadvertently, calling the reviewer stupid, or ignorant, or a jerk.
And also, keep in mind that this is not the reviewer's job. A hobby is something people do for enjoyment, and you wouldn't critique them if they were playing basketball or harmonica or something, because that wouldn't be in the spirit of the hobby. You don't get to critique a reviewer's job performance, because that's not what it is.
Where Authors Are Coming From
Authors, particularly YA authors, are expected to have an Internet presence, and to be responsive in that presence. So, authors are expected to respond to at least some e-mails, tweets, tumblr questions, etc. That means that authors spend a large portion of their days in the public space. And that, in turn, means that they must act calm and professional for a larger proportion of their daily life than people working traditional jobs, unless they want to get off the Internet (which some choose to do).
Now, many people rant to their co-workers after work, or even at the office while the boss isn't around. An author's co-workers, though, occupy the same space as reviewers and readers, so they can't communicate with them easily or with the same freedom that you would over a drink with your peers at an office. Additionally, authors rarely get to know each other in the same way that you would get to know a co-worker at the office, because our profession is so isolated. Therefore, exchanging private e-mails or starting private forums seems awkward and uncomfortable in a way that inviting your co-worker out for drinks does not.
On another note, as much as people insist that reviews are for reviewers, not for authors, the @ messages in our twitter feeds suggests otherwise. I don't read reviews, and I don't Google myself, and I don't have any Google alerts set up, but I still see reviews, sometimes just when I'm browsing fun websites that I always check, sometimes when people send them to me, or when they tweet comments to me, or when they e-mail me negative reviews with a well-intentioned "don't worry, you'll do better next time!" note. It is impossible to completely avoid reviews.
All this is to say, the thought running through our heads is something like this: I must be on the Internet, where I am constantly being criticized, but I must also be perfectly professional at all times. Sometimes it feels like standing in a circle of fire, and whenever you so much as twitch, you get burned, but you can't show any reaction to the pain. Some authors find ways to deal with this. Never have I had the desire to engage with a reviewer. But I don't think it's that difficult to understand when some authors have trouble.
Where Reviewers Are Coming From
The problem is, when authors have difficulty navigating this strange and often difficult dynamic, they often call for reviewers to change their reviewing style. Some reviewers go for the straightforward, polite book review. Some go for humorous rants involving .gifs. Some go for not-so-humorous rants. And sometimes authors want to say, I'm okay with negative reviews, but you can write them the first way, because that's the easiest kind to take.
Here's the thing: that is not at all fair. If someone told me I had to write in the beautiful, lyrical style of Laini Taylor, I would say, "...but I can't DO that. That's just not how I write!" As writers, we should know that style is hard to change, and that if you try, you sometimes won't enjoy writing anymore. Reviewers have different styles, that cater to those who love heated debates, or to those who love to poke fun at things, or to those who prefer straightforward analysis-- in other words, reviewers are writing what their readers respond to, just like we are. And we don't get to tell them they have to change that style. We can debate about where the lines between personal attack/libel and review are (and I'm not going to do that here), but we don't get to say "these kinds of reviews are not okay."
But some authors have said that, and they've said it a lot, sometimes in shockingly unkind ways. An environment now exists in which reviewers are extra sensitive to authors' reactions to reviews, and that is wholly unsurprising. Reviewers are giving an awful lot to authors. They are giving us hours of time and effort. They are giving us pieces of their paychecks. Sometimes they fly across the country to go to conferences and meet us. And here's the thing: even if these reviewers give us negative reviews, they are still doing us a service.
I know there are times when someone reads a critical review and decides not to pick up a book. Those times are far outweighed by the incidences in which someone reads a review, positive or negative, and decides, based on that review alone, that they will give a book a try. Most people are aware that opinions about books and movies and television shows vary widely, and they will try to make up their minds for themselves. The worst thing for an author is NOT someone hearing your book is bad, it's someone not hearing about it at all.
Something's Gotta Give
As far as I can see it, that is the situation we are in. We are all trying to figure out how to make our way through this business/hobby, personal/impersonal, public/private relationship. We are going to screw it up-- all of us. As far as I can see it, the best way to deal with these conflicts is to understand where people are coming from-- understand what you are saying when you say, you should always act professionally, authors (so true! But God, that becomes hard, and we will make mistakes), or you shouldn't review that way ("I, with my Important Author Hand, will suppress your free expression, Person Who Buys My Books!" Um, no).
But even more important than understanding is forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean that you say something is okay when it isn't. Actually, it does the opposite. An act doesn't need to be forgiven if it's not wrong to begin with, so forgiveness calls things exactly what they are.
And then, in a feat that is certainly not easy for the person who has been wronged, forgiveness lets those things go. (Especially when there's an apology involved.) It doesn't harp on them for years to come, or mention them at every opportunity. It doesn't make plans to sabotage their stats on this or that site, or put them on some kind of mental blacklist if they get a book deal. Forgiveness pretty much says, screw this giant line between us. We are working together for the good of books and reading, and if you mess it up, I'll get over it eventually.
Not saying it's easy. But maybe it's worth a try.
(Note: if I have left out some aspect of anyone's perspective, feel free to add it in the comments in the interest of fully fleshing out this issue. That said, this isn't a place to name names or make accusations, so please...don't. Thank you.)