Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.