Seven Truths To Combat Bad Book Reviews

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You’ve put yourself out there, produced something you’re proud of, and with a few lousy words and a low star rating, all that confidence is turned on its head.

But fear not: you’re not the first author to receive bad book reviews and luckily, those who have gone before have shared their thoughts on bad reviews and what they really mean.

1. Not everyone is going to like it

This is the kind of advice that invites eye-rolls but there’s a difference between knowing it’s true and appreciating what it means. Most authors quite reasonably think of their books in purely positive terms. Readers either enjoy your book, or they don’t like the genre/style/language/… in general.

It might be a great book, but I’m just not into fantasy/first person/explicit stories.

There is however a third option: readers who do read books similar to yours but for some reason hate your book specifically.

Receiving a bad review can often feel like a betrayal, because why would someone try to tear down a book that was only intended to please?

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
― Kurt Vonnegut

Understand that whatever you write, there are going to be some people who dislike it, the only variable is how many. Bad reviews often feel like ambushes but if you know there are going to be a couple then you remove the sting of surprise.

The simple fact is that if you write something compelling enough to be loved, you’ve also written something compelling enough to be hated. That doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy reading a bad review but it should lessen the shock when one appears. Of course there is a situation in which you should approach a bad review with relish…

2. You don’t want everyone to like it

If you’re not annoying anyone then you’re not saying anything. Would Stalin have enjoyed Orwell’s Animal Farm? Would McCarthy have recommended The Crucible? Your naysayers may not be that powerful but if you’re saying anything in your novel then there’s opposition out there and you should be glad you got their attention.

The only thing worse than a bad review from the Ayatollah Khomeini would be a good review from the Ayatollah Khomeini.
– Salman Rushdie

Potential readers know this too. For a review to be taken seriously, the reviewer has to explain why they didn’t like your book then it’s the reader’s turn to decide what they think of their reasons. A bad review based on reasons the reader doesn’t like is as good as, sometimes better than, a recommendation.

Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.
– J.R.R. Tolkien

3. It’s a molehill, not a mountain

Get a great review and you’ll feel wonderful for hours. Get a bad review and you’ll feel terrible for days. Logically they should provoke an equal response but after months of reworking, revising and editing a book, a bad review can often feel truer than kind words.

A great review is great. A bad review is the worst.
– Don Winslow

Try to remember that a bad review isn’t more accurate or more important than a good review. Someone who dislikes a book is more likely to go on at length than someone who enjoyed it. Remember that ‘Great story, hooked until the last page’ more than holds its weight against three rambling paragraphs about how you don’t write realistic elves.

4. But everyone feels the same

Every author feels the same about bad reviews, don’t give yourself a hard time for being over sensitive.

From my close observation of writers… they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
– Isaac Asimov

But do control how you react.

5. Never NEVER engage

Bad reviews feel unfair and personal, all the more upsetting because you can’t defend yourself. With online book reviews taking little effort to write and share, it’s now more possible than ever before to answer your critics but you must resist.

You’ll draw attention to it and hurt your own reputation by antagonizing someone who has every right to their opinion. Nothing will make a negative review seem more legitimate than an angry reply from the author, and reviews live and die with their legitimacy.

By engaging with bad reviews, you draw attention to them and hurt your own reputation.Click To Tweet

6. What kind of review is it?

There are only two types of review:

  • The skilled review, which explains its reasoning and engages the reader.
  • The knee-jerk review, which lacks the previously mentioned features but tries to make up for it with CAPITAL LETTERS.

You have nothing to worry about from this kind of bad review:

The dialogue was REALLY bad. I can’t put my finger on why, there were hundreds of little reasons, but it just didn’t feel real.

This kind of review allows the reviewer to express their displeasure but won’t influence any other potential readers. All this tells anyone is that one person didn’t enjoy a book.

This kind of bad review is more worrying:

The dialogue is terrible. The writer mistakes formality for period accuracy, and conversations are frequently stalled to force in a randomly chosen entry from a 1950s phrase book. Ladies speak to their daughters and friends as they do their servants, and unskilled laborers address each other with all the grace and verbosity of dukes.

Here the reviewer addresses the cause of their dislike rather than just expressing it, and does so in a way that tells the reader whether they might have the same problem. There’s only one thing to do with this kind of review and that’s to figure out…

There are only two types of review: The skilled review and the knee-jerk review.Click To Tweet

7. What you can take away

Bad reviews are both an emotional and a professional experience. If you keep all of the above in mind it should lessen the emotional effect of a bad review, but you’re always going to be a little upset when someone bashes your novel.

Professionally, the effects will depend on the type of review. If you read a well written review that explains its reasoning and gives examples then you have to decide whether you agree with the point that’s being made.

If you don’t then the answer is to trust your readership. Remember that potential readers will skim through reviews to get an aggregate, and three simple, one-line, ‘loved it’ reviews beat one negative.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
– Iris Murdoch

If you realize that you do agree with the criticism then you know what to improve in your next novel. No book is perfect and no-one expects them to be. Bad reviews that highlight a problem are a godsend: the review is the difference between improving your form and remaining ignorant to a problem.

A bad review has to be compelling and correct to have a professional effect on you, and even then the effect is to make you a better writer.

Welcome your critics because in a fast paced, professional world they’re one of the few sources of honest, personalized advice available to every writer.

The best antidote to a bad review is a good review. Redirect all your obsessing, all your re-reading, into the reviews that make you feel great. Print them off, cut them out and put them in your wallet. Stick them around your house. Fill your bath with them.

Nothing lends a bad review the proper context like the stack of great reviews you can find right next to it.

Nothing lends a bad review the proper context like the stack of great reviews you can find right next to it.Click To Tweet

I’d love to hear your thoughts on receiving and dealing with bad reviews. Please share your opinions and experiences in the comments box below.


9 thoughts on “Seven Truths To Combat Bad Book Reviews”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog. As a writer I am often curious how readers review my books. Sometimes, I am overjoyed by their response and there have been times, I am left scratching my head. I have read bad reviews of some classics like, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and I realize every book will have a different effect on the reader. Sometimes, that negative review can be a real positive. The goal of the writer is not always to merely entertain, but to challenge a reader emotionally. If you can manage that; you are a success. The main takeaway is to never let a bad review discourge, but to keep on writing and perfecting your craft.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I think your point about even classics getting bad reviews is absolutely right. It’s strange that we often try to label books as objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when any reader knows first hand that that isn’t how it works. All reviews are the subjective accounts of readers and the viewpoint from which they speak is as much a part of the review as the points they make about the book.

      I know a few people whose warnings-to-avoid unfailingly lead to great reads. Not because they’re ‘wrong’ but because we’re looking for fundamentally different things in what we read.

      – Rob

    2. Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to read this post and I’m glad you found it so helpful. As Rob has said, reviews are very subjective and are based entirely on what a reader needs or wants from a book at that point in time. As result, reviews can leave you feeling baffled and other times they can be very helpful and constructive.

      As you rightly point out, the main takeaway is to treat bad reviews with an open mind and to use the criticism to improve your craft. If you can do this, it is a win-win situation.

      Wishing you all the best,

  2. Hi there!

    I’ve had few negative comments compared to the positive ones, but I have to say the negative feedback helped me the most. Apart from a couple of them, most addressed issues that were already bugging me in the back of my mind. Issues that at the time of writing or editing I didn’t quite know how to solve and thought it was OK to leave them alone. What I’ve learned is that readers have an acute sense for detecting when something doesn’t work in a story. Each of those bad comments (or constructive criticism) forced me to work and smooth things out, and I absolutely loved the results!

    Thanks for posting this article, by the way 🙂



    1. Hi Nicole,

      I’ve found the exact same thing with my own writing, with readers picking up on those little mistakes you decide can stay. You’re right that those kinds of criticism can really improve your writing, especially with the kind of thing that’s the result of a bad habit. Once you know other people are spotting the small stuff you become a lot more alert to that niggling voice in your head saying it needs to change.

      One area in which I think a lot of people suffer unnecessarily (and which has covered above) is in not fully acknowledging their praise. When I get a bad review I carry it around in my head for a while whereas the positive stays on the screen. I know a few authors who have their very best reviews in their wallets (and one who keeps a scrapbook). I was wondering if either of you have any specific methods for really appreciating the positive?

      Best wishes,

    2. Hi Nicole,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

      You are so right to point out that readers do have a sense of when something isn’t quite right or doesn’t sit well within a story. Having this fresh perspective is absolutely priceless and can really help with the development of your story.

      It is for this reason that beta readers are a crucial part of the writing process as they can give authors some candid and objective feedback on what works and what doesn’t before the book is published.

      Wishing you the very best,

  3. Reviewing is difficult and what writers are confronted to—with online readers’ feedback—is… online readers’ feedback.

    Great points and agree with them without exception. Well thought-out reviews are rare, the vast majority are readers’ warm reactions and feedback that amount to “I liked it / I didn’t like it.”

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