The Mean, the Bad, and the Ugly: Strategies for Dealing With Unfavorable Reviews

Fail-1Writers, being artsy types, require a certain level of emotional availability to render characters that seem real and relatable. That emotional availability can be difficult to turn on and off as we please or ought.

We invest a lot of ourselves into our books, and it can be hard to take when someone leaves a negative review. I know authors who fixate on a single one-star review out of fifty overwhelmingly positive reviews.

They over-analyze it, they dissect it, they obsess over it. Sometimes, it only takes that one dim little star to fill them with so much self-doubt and recrimination that they proclaim to the world that they give up. This is called a doubtburst. Okay, it’s not called a doubtburst. I just made that up, but I like it.

We’re supposed to draw from a deep emotional well so we can bring a tear to a reader’s eye when we write about the difficulties of being a sparkly werewolf, but we are supposed to be iron-skinned when a review calls our beloved sparkly werewolf stupid. That’s a tall order. But that’s real life. Writers need coping strategies for dealing with unfavorable reviews.

1. Ask yourself if there is some truth in the review

Sometimes good medicine can be hard to take. If the customer just did not like the book, that’s one thing. On the other hand, if the review points out plot holes, typos, grammatical issues, formatting problems, or anything that is correctable, you just struck oil. Yeah, the drill might have gone through your foot, but you can address all those issues with corrective action that will prevent further reviews of that nature.

Now, here is a tip: if the review points out some of these issues, don’t just correct the specific examples they cite, re-visit the whole book to make sure there aren’t any more. Making mistakes is okay – failing to learn from those mistakes is not.

It is a tremendous advantage in today’s publishing environment that we can fix problems of this sort on the fly. We don’t have to ask a publisher to recall a 50,000 book print run.

Fixing a correctable issue will make you feel better than wringing your hands and hoping none of the other readers care as much about that stuff.

2. Weighting the review

Recognize that all reviews are not equal in terms of importance. A review from an actual review site carries more weight than a review from your mom – no offense to your mom. However, real review sites don’t hand out five-star reviews hand-over-fist. Three or four stars from someone like Big Al’s Books and Pals is worth celebrating.

3. Getting perspective

If a book is reviewed by enough readers, it will eventually get some bad reviews. This is true of all books. However much you love your book, it will not be an exception to this rule. It is important to understand that not everybody likes the same thing, and that’s actually good.

Remember that those who are willing to write the reviews may not accurately reflect a representative sample of the entirety of your target readership. It doesn’t mean the silent majority didn’t enjoy your book.

Most importantly, remember to look at what happens after your bad review. Did your book magically disappear from Amazon? Did sales plummet on this breaking news? Of course not. Your book soldiers on, and so must you.

Things NOT to do:

Do NOT attempt to engage a reviewer over a poor review. Trying to defend your book makes you seem, well, defensive.

Do NOT run around the internet whining that some reviewer was mean or unfair. You won’t come off looking good.

Do NOT cut yourself off from every person who gives your book a bad review. Concentrate on winning them back with the next book.

Do NOT let one bad review overshadow every good review you’ve gotten.

If you want tranquility, quit publishing your work. Putting a book out into the world means staying on tenterhooks and sometimes being disappointed at the reception you get. Learn from the experience and move forward.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

48 thoughts on “The Mean, the Bad, and the Ugly: Strategies for Dealing With Unfavorable Reviews”

  1. Sage advice. Besides, everyone has his or her own preferences, and if you only want good reviews, you maybe shouldn’t be writing for public consumption. One of my recent books got two reviews on the same day – a one-star that said it sucked, and a five-star that said it was the best the reviewer had read in a while (with detailed explanation of why it was good). Sure, the bad review hurts, but you just take it and move on. by the way, I have one reviewer who hated one book, but gave me a second chance, and loved the next. Go figure.

  2. Good advice, Stephen. The most famous writers in the world get one-star reviews.

    1. Exactly. And does a one-star Amazon review make a blind bit of difference to how or what they write? No. Reviews are for readers, not the author. The few commercially successful writers I have spoken to about such things find it astonishing that any author would even bother to read them! (So maybe that’s the best way not to be upset by them… Your advice, Stephen, is however a timely reminder for those of us who might still be tempted to take a peek!)

      1. I don’t check in on my reviews very often at all. Now I just have to work on the “commercially successful” part of that equation. What you say is true – reviews are for other prospective readers, not the authors, but I think there is a tendency to want to see what people like/dislike about your story, and that’s not a bad thing, depending on what you do with it. (Or what it does to you.)

  3. Fortunately I work with a bunch of guys who do a very good job of keeping my ego in check. And as for my Mom, I think she would have been among my toughest critics.

    I think a handful of less than glowing, yes even one star reviews give some credibility. I’ve had more problems begging my friends NOT just to gush and give 5 stars.

  4. Excellent advice. I don’t even think of a one-star as a “bad” review. I have three of them on my best selling book and every one of those three reviews contains information that will help readers determine whether or not the book is something they might enjoy reading. And that’s the whole point. If they don’t think they’ll enjoy the book, they shouldn’t buy it.

  5. Stay off writer forums. They are like an online dog park, and many people on them, for revenge over a ‘spat’, will fling one-star reviews like ninja stars.

  6. Stephen: You left out one piece of of solid advice for the indie author: Never gather friends to have a tickfest to tick one and two star reviews as unhelpful. I saw one of those tickfests on a FB group–protested and was soundly cursed. I left. I thought it unethical. I am always astonished that my titles gather any reviews at all. They all have one and two star. I read the early ones to flush out any errors and make repairs–after that, I ignore them. I’ve read books I didn’t like–same thing. I’m reminded always of Margaret Atwood: She has a book with 1,258 reviews. 167 of those are one and two star. Isabelle Allende has 29 one and two star reviews on a title I absolutely adored. One reviewer gave it a one star and said: The best Allende book I’ve read. I have a low star review on one of my titles right now–but it is not for my book. I don’t know whose book it is for–but the reviewer got mixed up. Reviews are sugar and salt. I just want enough reviews with a decent ranking so that I can buy promo and sell the things. That’s as golden as it gets. #amwriting
    Jackie Weger

    1. Yes! I’ve seen many one and two stars where the reviewer loved the book.

      It is encouraging when you see an excellent book with hundreds of five star reviews and about 40 one star reviews. It’s proof that you don’t have to take one star reviews to heart.

    2. I totally agree, Jackie – recruiting people to down vote reviews is gaming the system, pure and simple. I’m thrilled people seem to be reading my books, and as you said, astonished anyone would take the time to leave a review. Just as you did, I used my first reviews to make corrections (the biggest correction was leaving my previous publisher and taking control of things such as sending them for edits). Now I avoid reading reviews for the most part because I don’t want to come between the reader and the book. We’re living an incredible opportunity and I never forget that.

  7. Excellent post, Stephen. Taking the high road is the only sane way to go. It keeps the blood pressure in check and we end up looking much more mature than our assailants. That’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Where’s Ed McNally when you need him? 😉

    “Reviews are for readers” is an excellent mantra. I try very hard to avoid reading mine — that way lies madness. 😀

  9. WRT handling the emotional pain of first reading a bad review – it can feel like a bullet to the chest (Not that I’ve had THAT happen) but I find that after a good night’s sleep, re-reading the review the next day or next week, doesn’t set off the same level of emotional intensity. Time calms the fires. So does a large cold glass of spiced rum. Somehow I don’t care as much after either… 😀

  10. I guess I’m a little different when it comes to reading reviews.

    I like to read them, and actually thank them for reading the book and taking the time to leave their review. Regardless of the review, I leave a positive comment.
    I know I can improve my writing, and listening to feedback gives me points to consider.
    I also feel their review helps other readers to make an informed purchasing decision.
    Hopefully this approach encourages other readers to feel comfortable about leaving their opinion.

  11. I’m so terribly self-critical that my first instinct is to believe that there is some truth in that bad review. It’s something you know in your “gut.” If I get that queasy feeling, then it’s back to work for me: I’ll revise the manuscript again, until I feel that it’s improved as much as it can be. Yeah, it hurts to get your novel bashed–but hey, you wrote the book with the hope that readers would enjoy the story, right? So, in the end, that should be your ultimate goal.

  12. When I received my first 3 STAR review I contacted Amazon regarding it. First it was cleared this guy didn’t purchased the book. He made another statement which I can’t remember panning the book. At the end he made a VERY INTELLIGENT statement, he said the book would be great for a young teenage girl.

    GUESS WHAT ???

    “I Kissed a Ghost” is a YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel. So what age group did I write this book for,

    It took a while, but this review finally got deleted by Amazon.

    On the other hand, I’ve recently received a wonderful 4 STAR review which has been written by a MALE.

    Have a GREAT WEEKEND with your family !!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. You can always try that, but we know of at least one instance in which a customer left a scathing review on the wrong book and Amazon refused to take it down. Those guys can be a mixed bag.

  13. I am a master at learning from my mistakes 😉 sound advise to look at the reviews as a chance to improve (or disregard) thanks Evil mastermind!

  14. All excellent advice, IMO, EM. Well, maybe not all of #2, but all the rest.

    I especially like your advice on #1. If I give someone a 1 or 2 star review it is rare that I won’t mention some specific examples, but you can be assured that there is more of the same, probably ten or twenty times over. I’d hope an author would use it as a way of improving their current work as well as the future.

    One of my reviewers, Pete Barber, wrote a guest post about dong some significant polishing of his first book based on what he learned writing his next books. A book that, in its original incarnation was highly rated by most reviewers. (I’d given a 5 stars.) I’m not suggesting everyone should be going back and constantly polishing their old work unless there is evidence it is needed, but there are instances where that might make sense. (Here’s the link if anyone is interested in Pete’s post: )

  15. The problem with the one star review is not that it was placed by a reader who doesn’t like your book, that’s fine. It’s the problem of needing at least 10 5star reviews and an overall review rating of 3.75 to qualify your books for those excellent, reader targetted marketing sites. A new Indie writer can’t afford to have many one star reviews.

    And herein lies the problem.

    What has spread from Amazon to Goodreads is the appalling bunch of book nazis who dislike your post in a thread, or your book cover, or just your name and get themselves and their friends to give you one star reviews. And those ridicuilous ‘I haven’t read the book but the blurb put me off and so don’t waste your time reading it’ one star comments are allowed as reviews and count.

    I am petitioning both Goodreads and Amazon to allow those comments on a reader’s personal shelf but not allow them to count towards a book. I mean a review surely has to be more than silly comments by people who have not read the book.

    Recently on Goodreads I watched a newbie Indie get her books bombed with one stars by people who had not read her books because she disagreed with the book nazis. Then her 5 star Amazon reviews were removed because someone claimed they were written by friends and family.

    It’s not the one star review by a reader who does not like your book which matters it is the one stars deliberately piled on to cause a writer grief. How do you cope with those?

    1. That kind of malicious behavior does exist. We can petition Amazon, and we can try to stay away from the dark alleyways where the thugs hang out, but ultimately, some things are just beyond our control.

      The IndieView has a huge list of reputable book review sites. I would recommend submitting your books to review sites as a constructive means to deal with mischief-makers.

      In addition, I doubt anyone would be much influenced by a review that starts out, “I didn’t read the book, but…”

      Some research has actually shown that a swarm of bad reviews might pique interest in a book, so the swarmers might end up victims of Karma. 🙂

  16. Here’s another perspective on this. Especially for new writers or new books, there kind of isn’t such a thing as a bad review. There’s a stage in “discovery” during which your main goal is compiling a bunch of reviews to bulk up the “reality” of your book. To qualify for newsletters that demand 3 or 5 or 25 reviews in order to list, or ones like BookBub that don’t specify but want to see a considerable number of “reads”. If you have a lot of reviews, one low one won’t pull down your average. If you have so few that on low one pulls you down below 4 star average then you don’t have enough reviews to operate and getting another one added to your total is a good thing. You’ll get higher ones later. Or not–in which case, maybe the book actually does suck and you need to move on to your next one. We need reviews to operate, don’t worry about a low one or two.
    Not that one star reviewers aren’t lowly scum in need of purging from the gene pool and all that.

    1. Well put, Lin. I agree that an unfavorable review is not necessarily a “bad” review, and still probably does more for your book (if less for your ego) than no review at all. 🙂

  17. I actually thanked a reviewer that gave me a 1 star because they pointed out formatting errors that I thought I’d taken care of. Otherwise, they didn’t particularly care for the book overall, but hey, not everyone likes everything they read.

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