How to Handle Bad Reviews of Your Book

Posted: May 14, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ll be upfront–this blog post is as much for me as it is for you.  Catharsis. 

My first book, Enemy in Blue, has been selling wonderfully.  That means one of my goals in writing the book is starting to be fulfilled.  Namely, people are reading a story about a difficult and challenging subject.  What does that mean?  It means that some people are getting REALLY pissed off.

Okay, no worries.  I knew that would happen and am glad it has.  How else can you draw attention to a controversial subject?

That said, it still stings to get bad reviews.  I believe I had the honor of a recent reviewer saying my book would destroy Kindles because readers would barf all over them. Excellent.

With Enemy in Blue out a little over a year now, and having gotten a few bad reviews, I’m going to do this for you, and for me–okay?

There is No Final Answer in this Blog Post

Let me be upfront about one more thing.  I don’t have the final answer regarding how to handle bad reviews.  This is almost as much about me asking the question as me answering the question.  Further, this is a very emotional analysis.  You can’t really rationalize bad reviews, especially the really bad ones.  So, understand off the bat that you may very well deal with bad reviews differently.  Just like we all deal with emotions differently.  That’s fine.  In fact, it’s good.

Don’t Kid Yourself, Bad Reviews are Inevitable

I’ve heard this a few times.  “It’s not going to happen to me.”  Hold on while I choke back a laugh.  If you’re selling books, even if you’re selling the best book ever written, you’re going to get bad reviews.  Imagine if you went into a movie theater after an award-winning movie like The English Patient played.  You think everyone in that theater would give it 5 or even 4 stars?  That movie bored me out of my mind.  Bottom line, everyone is going to have a different perspective.

Add to the whole perspective issue the fact that with our books, people sometimes buy our genres when they don’t really like our genres.  For instance, if you wrote a romance and a person that typically reads and enjoys thrillers picks up your book, guess what, you’re behind the eight ball to start. The final exacerbating factor to getting bad reviews? Complete anonymity.  People can hide behind nondescript profile names on Amazon and leave nasty reviews.  Without the buffer of face-to-face interaction, there’s nothing stopping a bad reviewer from letting loose.

In short, if you’re selling more than a book a month, you are likely to get some bad reviews.  So, what to do with them?

Don’t Feed the Monster!

You can respond or comment on bad reviews at Amazon’s site.  Did you know that?  Well, you do now.  But, before you go responding to every person that leaves you a review, whether good or bad, remember this.  That cloak of anonymity?  If you, the author, start responding to people’s reviews, you intrude on the anonymity that people enjoy about Amazon.  They like the fact that if they want to, they can leave a bad review to “warn” other consumers about a product.  Similarly, they like leaving a good review when they have enjoyed a product.  If you step into their space, it will no doubt get ugly.

As an example, I have heard an anecdotal story of an author that responded to a bad reviewer, got into it with the person that left the review with back and forth posts on Amazon, and then Amazon lifted that author’s book from the website.  Yessir, don’t forget, Amazon cares about their customers more than their suppliers.  And, rightfully so.  Thus, think twice before you engage.  Secondly, if you engage, I would expect that other consumers would be more inclined to do the same.  Stated otherwise, your response could piss 1, 2, 3, etc. people off that may otherwise have just put your book down and not left a review.  But, if they see you advocating on behalf of your book, then they may feel justified to advocate against your book.

Again, the short and sweet of this section is to take your punches and move on.

Can Those Bad Reviews Actually…Help?

Let’s just take a behemoth book for example.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  That book has a whopping 7,254 reviews!  (An interesting analysis for another day is trying to determine the ratio of sales to reviews.  At last count, The Hunger Games sold about 18 million copies.  That means only 0.04% of people have left a review.  Innnnteresting).  Out of those reviews, Ms. Collins has 210 one-star reviews.   You think those have hurt her sales?  How about we take a classic, Pride and Prejudice?  Over 1,000 reviews, including 57 one-star reviews.  How about this trending book called Fifty Shades of Grey?  Out of 3,360 reviews, there are 962 one-star reviews.  Almost 1/3 of the reviews have been one-star!  Guess where it is ranked?  #1 overall on Amazon in the United States.

Our conclusion?  Bad reviews don’t always spell doom for your book.  Especially since we aren’t selling a high priced item, such as a tablet, people are still willing to plunk down a few bucks to give something a shot.  On top of that, I have heard from readers that some bad reviews actually lend credibility to a book.  When readers see nothing but positive reviews, they tend to think something fishy is going on.

So, remember a few things.  You’re gonna get bad reviews.  Cry, scream, throw things–you ain’t gonna change it.  When you get bad reviews, don’t exacerbate the situation by responding to them.  Create voodoo dolls, go for a run…whatever.  Just don’t respond.  Finally, those bad reviews won’t necessarily spell the end of your book.  Work on getting some good ones by submitting your book to friends, family, and other authors.

There, I feel better.  What about you?  What do you think?  Go on, comment and get a little healing yourself.

Comments
  1. Bad reviews lend credibility to the good ones. And if the reviewer is critical, but treats you with respect, it’s sort of like a good review. Doesn’t it mean it doesn’t hurt. And of course, all this does nothing to help you with the anonymous “trolls” who give you one star and can’t spell the work “sucks”.

  2. Emma says:

    Cry, scream and pour yourself a glass of wine I’d add :)

  3. Tim Vicary says:

    I’m glad you feel better. Take a stiff drink and as Winston Churchill said: KBO (Keep Buggering On) It upset me the first time this happened; in fact it upsets me every time! But the best advice I read about this was from Russell Blake who said, as I remember: DON’T EVER RESPOND! NEVER!
    because if you do you will just get into a fight which is probably what the reviewer wants, especially if it’s really nasty like it seems yours was. That person is just seeking publicity; DON’T GIVE IT TO HIM!

    What you can do though is click ‘no’ on the button after the question below the review which says ‘was this review helpful to you?’ Then ask all your friends to do the same.

    The good news is that if you are writing a series, most of the bad reviews will come for the first one (however good it is) because people who hated your book aren’t likely to buy the next one, thank goodness.

    Incidentally, I quite liked the English Patient. But that’s another subject – why do readers and viewers react so differently to the same book or film? Subject for another post, maybe?

  4. Thanks for the good advice, Derek. I’m still waiting for the dreaded first bad review. I’ll just go next door and kick my neighbor. :-)

  5. Hey Derek, you created a wonderful blog for all the authors and readers out there! I just added your Link to my Linklist on my new Blog! http://tanjastechblog.blogspot.com/

  6. Francene says:

    Very wise words, especially about not getting into a discussion with readers on Amazon…Never a good move. My take on bad reviews is a little different to yours and you can read about it on my blog:
    http://francenecarroll13.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/bad-reviewers-are-bad-people.html

  7. Nicely written, Derek. And based on real-life averages, 50Shades is the most accurate. Maybe people don’t have a problem with saying how they feel because of the type of book it is. Anyway, back to percentages…voting is a perfect example of the rule of thirds. 1/3 will love you, 1/3 will hate you, and 1/3 third are indifferent. The key is to get the 1/3 to vote, or in our case, leave a review. I received my first 1-star review last week, and the funny thing is I actually didn’t get upset, and I too blogged about it, hoping to help authors as you’ve done with this blog I think. The review was so silly I couldn’t help but laugh; in fact, the last two reviews were so opposite each other, I posted the both on my blog.

    When I pubbed my first book, the first thing I did was read all the 1-star reviews for all the bestsellers. I highly recommend this, as you’ve shown with your comparisons up top. It does hurt, but if we’ve made our characters so real that the reader can actually be upset at them, not our writing, I think we, as writers, have done our job. Thanks for sharing your story, Derek.

  8. l3ahg says:

    Long & short of it, keep your goals from the trolls! Great article. :)

  9. Excellent article, Derek. Bad reviews do sting, but as long as they are not factually inaccurate or done with malicious intent, it’s just a matter of one reader’s opinion differing from others. We agree it’s best NOT to respond. And that’s hard to do sometimes, especially if the review contains misrepresentations and falsehoods about your book. Now let’s talk about malicious reviews: these are the ones so venomous and without helpful commentary that they can only be described as being left by trolls, as you so eloquently state. It’s a mystery to us, but there are readers out there who are fans of formulaic predictable plots written in a comfortable style, yet they buy books they KNOW do not appeal to their tastes, and they do so with the express purpose of leaving a scathing review. Are these people frustrated writers? Are they gluttons for punishment? Why do they subject themselves to material they know ahead of time they won’t enjoy? We don’t know the answers. What to do about trolls? We agree with you, just ignore them.
    There are bound to be negative reviews because everyone does not like the same thing. You are right again: if an author has no bad reviews, then all the good ones are suspect.

  10. roux1000 says:

    I’ve gotten bad reviews on my fan fiction, it always surprises me how some people get riled up. However, I do quietly seethe when I start getting ignorant comments; making me wonder if the person has actually read and understood what I wrote. I don’t reply to them though, I just mentally chant that every one has a right to their own opinion – though through gritted teeth at times.

    • Derek Blass says:

      Agreed on the ignorant comments. We should all be able to handle rational, thoughtful critique. That doesn’t happen that often in these reviews though, and not sure it should be expected anyway.

  11. James Piper says:

    I remember watching the film The Piano in a theatre and falling asleep. It wasn’t because I was zapped and tired, it was because I was bored with it. Fast forward a decade or so and I watched it on DVD. Loved it. Still remember so much of it (unlike so many films I’ve watched). I would watch it again and recommend others watch it. What changed? It wasn’t the movie.

    As a kid, I watched Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes’. Loved them, but as a kid. Today, you couldn’t get me to watch more than a couple minutes of either.

    There’s age-related material, but also worldview-related material. Certain topics polarize readers. Religion and politics are the clear examples. The reviews tend to be U shaped. Lots of 5s. Lots of 1s. Given my worldviews, I know I won’t like certain books by certain authors, but then, I don’t read them or review them.

    What about fiction? It’s as varied as anything. I love anything by Gabriel García Márquez. In my mind he is the closest thing we have to a writing god yet few know of him or have read him and some, if they have, don’t like his style and give a thumbs down. Does it matter to me? Nope. Nothing will change my views on his writing. I will still read him and enjoy it—savour it like a gourmet meal with well-aged bottle of red wine.

    These aspects of reviews I understand, but when it comes to some indie writers on Amazon, I’m often baffled. The writer is unknown to me and probably to a monster segment of readers. Based on their paid sales rankings, their book(s) is selling, but the reviews paint a conflicting story. So many 5-star ratings. Are they accompanied with “Amazon Verified Purchase”? More often than not, no. Who are these reviewers? Did they read the book?

    Along with the 5-star ratings there are one and two star ratings. I like to read them to see what’s been criticized. Grammar and spelling is common as in: hire an editor. When it comes to a novel, there’s no excuse (unlike blog comments). Yes, you won’t get it perfect, but it seems many don’t spend enough time editing.

    The other common criticisms relate to the plot and characters. They aren’t believable or sympathetic. This is subjective. The sample sizes of the reviews is small so it’s hard to draw any conclusions. I’m left with this option: read the sample. If I like it, continue, but that hasn’t happened very often.

    • Derek Blass says:

      Hey James,

      I appreciate the thought and time you put into this comment. I understand what you mean with your examples. I have often returned to things I loved in my past, only to find I don’t like them anymore. It is kind of saddening, actually.

      With respect to 5-star reviewers and if they have read the book, I wonder more often if the 1-star people actually read the whole book. I have seen plenty of 1-star reviews were people stopped within the first 2-5% of the book. I have no problem with people stopping at any point they wish, but if I’m going to go to the effort of leaving a review, I’ll probably at least make it halfway. I’ve seen plenty of movies and read plenty of books that got better as they progressed.

      I agree that editing is something especially indie authors should be extremely aware of. Hire a professional.

  12. ThreeKingsBooks says:

    After 20 five-star reviews for my suspense thriller (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007XW3B3Q), I just got a one-star last night. Not a good feeling. After I went to bed, I forced myself to smile into the darkness. This is the way of life: it’s full of conflict. It HAS TO BE.

    Just like a good novel.

    All best, Jody

  13. I am a humble erotica writer so I get my fair share of bad reviews from people who shouldn’t have read my books in the first place but it still hurts. The cover of my book blatantly suggests that it is no fairy tale. Just wanted to say that I found this article and your blog really helpful and encouraging. :)

  14. Mark & Lisa says:

    Thanks, Derek. Very helpful article on the heals of a pretty harsh two star review of our memoir that compared my partner and I to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and not in a good way. She made a point or two that we can learn understand, but admits to only reading 40% of the book. I’m following Emma’s advice and opening the wine.

  15. BandLass says:

    Just got a bad review of my book. I know there are some errors, as my publisher didn’t get it professionally edited. I couldn’t afford it, either. One of the reviews mentioned that I need to work on my grammar. The funny thing is my grammar is top notch. The reviewer could barely write the three sentences that he or she posted. I wonder if people will realize this when they read the bad review?

  16. Jonathan says:

    Too true, at least as far as _fiction_ writing goes.

    When writing fact more is at stake. A bad review reflects on the author’s expertise, and not just the book, which they may rely on for other work.

    So what does an author do when confronted with not just an unfavourable review of their non-fiction book, but an unfavourable review that contains erroneous statements (falsehoods) about ones work.

    I recently had such a review of one of my books. It was in a professional related publication too and so my core market in my home country saw it. Alas, after thinking about it for a while, I decided all I could do is point out the reviewers falsehoods, and this is what I did…
    http://www.science-com.concatenation.org/reviews/antoinette_mannion_reading.html

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