The Negative Book Review and Appropriate Author Reactions

Rodan at Stanford - Bruce Witzel photo

I read something recently that made me chuckle. It was a how-to article about ways to preview an Amazon e-book before purchasing. The Look Inside feature was outlined as well as the option to download a preview before buying. The writer went on to explain that if a book was offered free, she simply downloaded it because what was there to lose. It’s free. She took umbrage at people who think they have a right to complain about not liking a free book. It’s free, people. Come on.

Free or otherwise, readers reserve the right to always have and sometimes, to even express that opinion in the form of a review.

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)

What is the best way for an author to react to a negative book review?

With quiet respect. Obviously. Without a doubt, it is easier to be respectful and over the moon when it’s a stellar, five-star beauty of a review full of statements like – best book I’ve ever read. When the review is the one or two-star variety, naturally the author feels the sting. But, all the same, respect is due either way. Someone took time out of their busy life to download a book (free or otherwise), read and comment. That deserves respect.

Rodan at Stanford - Bruce Witzel photo (2)

I’ve dropped in on more than a few Facebook writer’s groups where the topic of bad reviews has come up. Some authors have a hard time dealing with their emotions around reviews that are far from positive. They want to argue the reviewer’s points and explain themselves. The bad reviews have the power to devastate them. Fellow authors often rush in with comments about how the review was clearly written by a troll. If someone has the nerve to point out that writer’s need thick skins when they put their work out into the world, that there is much to be learned from constructive criticism, the subsequent discussion lights up with anger over anyone having the nerve to take the discussion stream in such a direction.

All emotion aside, a genuine review – positive or negative – is one person’s reaction at one moment in time. Nothing more and nothing less. A rave review doesn’t make one a Pulitzer Prize winner any more than a one-star, scathing commentary makes one a hack.

Rodan at Stanford 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

Readers have pet peeves. I know I do and I’ve certainly seen from reviews of my own books, that others do. This is normal. Read the review, take the feedback that is useful and move on. But what of the trolls? I can hear the many Facebook writer’s groups screaming this question. A careful perusal of a book’s reviews will allow a reader (except in the most unusual of circumstances) to separate any obviously malicious reviews from the genuine ones. Readers aren’t dummies.

When it comes to reviews, I wonder if readers who are looking to access an honest opinion of a book are more often on the receiving end of trolls than authors are – in the form of faked five-star reviews authors obtain through less than legitimate means.

In my humble opinion, self-published authors need to learn to roll with the punches. As much as social media has provided opportunities to get our books noticed, it can also have a dark side. I’m not trying to deny that trolls are out there but I think the actuality of being targeted with a poor review written by a troll is far less likely than various groups would have us believe. We must take the social media good with the bad. And that goes for all our reviews!

Down through the ages, negative reviews have always been part and parcel of the artistic endeavour. We are simply coming of age, folks.

New Mexico - Guenette photo

52 comments on “The Negative Book Review and Appropriate Author Reactions

  1. […] Source: The Negative Book Review and Appropriate Author Reactions […]

  2. Excellent ponderings here. Some will always post negative comments, or just plain sarcastic/abusive remarks. You can’t write, paint, sing or appear on a reality show without some flak from the online witch-hunters & trolls. Equally, some less than glowing reviews may have a valid point; you might be able to correct a few typos, or develop a character a bit better.

    The only time I have replied to bad reviews is when I’ve been accused – anonymously btw – of littering a non-fiction motorcycle history book with errors. In that case, because such a review could cost sales, I feel it’s OK to challenge the reviewer to list the mistakes in public, give me a chance to correct things, or just shut up. So far, tumbleweed.

    • Great points, Alastair – a challenge to be clear and public about the type of complaint you are describing is more than justified. Once we move from personal opinion to accusations of outright error the dynamic has changed. Thanks so much for weighing in on this topic. It seems to be a lively one 🙂

      • Mostly, I think authors have to accept that a certain percentage of reviews/star ratings on Amazon are not going to be glowing, and just get on with doing their best work. A wise man once told me, `Alastair, stop wasting time by throwing stones at other people’s houses – build your own castle.’ He was right. 😉

  3. Stuart Campbell says:

    Our dilemma as writers: we invite strangers to watch as we reveal our souls.

    • Never an easy endeavour, right Stuart? But without the risk to bare that soul – oh, the joy that would go untold, the stories left in the drawer to never see the light of day. Heartbreaking. The true story tellers will take the chance.

  4. This is the part I fear the most. It is the “what if I’m not good enough” gut-check. 😮

    • Like most things in life, in gets easier to find perspective as one travels along the road. But as Stuart says so eloquently above, we are baring our souls. The fear is justified. But we must feel that fear and do it anyway. Otherwise, our unique voice will be lost and that is too sad to contemplate.

      • Of course you are right. I am writing my first novel and have reached chapter 18! Now as I try to tie up my loose ends I am in a panic… wondering if my story is conveying the message I want it to. This is my inexperience talking, I know. It is a joyous and scary proposition all wrapped up in my heart. ❤

  5. Behind the Story says:

    I don’t have any two-star reviews of Tiger Tail Soup, but I do have a one-star review. The reviewer said, “It was a difficult read. Would not recommend.” Nothing more.

    I can honestly say, it didn’t bother me. Tiger Tail Soup is a historical novel about a time and place that’s unfamiliar to lots of people (Gulangyu, China, during WWII). I’m not surprised that making a leap into that world would be hard for at least one person. I’m only happy that most people jumped into it without any trouble at all.

    On the other hand, I admit that it’s hard to read a more substantive negative review, especially when I suspect the reviewer might have a point. All I can do then is resolve to make the next novel better.

    • Yes indeed, Nicki – take what will make the work better and take the rest with a grain of salt. Not every story is for every one. Your comment on Tiger Tail Soup reminds me of how much I loved the book and the unique world it plunged me into. I think about the comments I’ve received for Disappearing in Plain Sight and the subsequent novels in the series that have to do with too many characters, can’t figure out who is the main characters, don’t like shifting points of view. Fair enough. That type of book isn’t for everyone. But for those who like it – wow – they really like it. Such is life. You are too humble to provide a link to your novel but I will. Here it is. http://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Tail-Soup-novel-China-ebook/dp/B00N200AHI

  6. Peter Ralph says:

    Truly, I couldn’t care less about bad reviews. They are like water off a duck’s back. The John Locke philosophy (which I agree with) is that bad reviews create dissent (providing you have enough good ones) and there is nothing better for sales than dissent. He aggregates his four and five star reviews, disregards the three star reviews, and aggregates the one and two stars. Providing the first group exceeds the second, he’s happy…as am I. I recently got a one starrer/one worder…”Trash” I’m still giggling about it because that’s exactly what I write…as do Patterson, Grisham and King.

    I also recently received a five star review of my most popular book which caused me far more concern: “WHAT A GREAT ENDING! I loved this book from beginning to end. It kept me engaged throughout and got me wondering if there are really CEO’s out there like the main character. (This writer really needs an editor, though! Or if he has one, he needs a new one. Way too many typos, formatting and grammar issues.)”

    Ouch! This book has been edited and proofread twice (firstly by the publisher as a paperback and then by the people I hired when I converted it to an eBook). I hadn’t looked at it for years but have read it (because of the review) over the past two weeks and the Amazon reviewer is right. This is a book with 70 five star reviews and 25 four star reviews with a 4.4 average. Amazing!! I am about to send it to a very pedantic proofreader, knowing that by the time she finishes with it, the errors the reviewer found will no longer exist.

    As I said, the trolls’ reviews have absolutely no impact on me but the good reviews, with qualifications like the above, are devastating.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, Peter. I laughed out loud at your attitude and applaud it 🙂 And I love the way you turn the whole question upside down by pointing out the way a positive review that takes the time to point out real problems in the book can be far more devastating and ultimately far more helpful. It just depends what we want to tune into, right?

  7. Terry Tyler says:

    Bloody well said, all of it Francis. I’m fed up with hearing writers giving it all this ‘it’s a troll’ stuff, when they’ve just got a bad review. It tends to be the writers with, shall we say, less aptitude for the written word, who kick up the most. Perhaps because they get the most bad reviews, I dunno! I agree with what Alastair said above, about being right to challenge an actual error, though.

    Writers should see less than glowing reviews as free critiques. If more than one review says the ending is rushed, or the plot is predictable, or the dialogue is unrealistic, it probably is. I’ve learned, through a few early not-so-good reviews, to include less back story, for instance. Also, we need to grow up and get real – why should everyone love everything we do??!! Do we really think we’re that wonderful?

    As for the dodgy 5* reviews, I rant about them a lot! Not only the bought ones, but the 5* review swaps between authors, the 2 line ones from people who’ve never reviewed anything else – yes, get reviews from friends who’ve read and liked you book, but don’t ask everyone you know with an Amazon account to review it in the first week, whether they’ve read it or not! And there is a Facebook group for the purpose of 5* review swapping. Outrageous. I know, I was invited to join it. I left them in no doubt about what I thought! As for Facebook writers groups, all the ones I’ve joined have been AWFUL. Oneupmanship, prima donnas, you name it. I left them all 🙂

    • Many, many thanks for this lengthy comment, Terry. I see I’ve touched a nerve and that is a great treat for any blogger. I totally agree with your statement – we need to grow up and get real. And get our eyes open to the fact that not everyone out there is committed to playing by the rules. Great point on the Facebook Groups. Sometimes, I think I want to start my own just because it seems like such a great platform to exchange ideas but so often goes so terribly wrong.

      Another round of thanks as well for the retweet of this post and all the twitter love I’m feeling out there right now.

      • Terry Tyler says:

        I think starting a Facebook group for that purpose would end up as I said about the others, Francis. Also, all that time administering it could be spent on writing. I find Twitter far more effective/useful/accessible for a wide range of networking/advice posts.

  8. louloureads says:

    I’m currently in the middle of trying to write a negative review for a book I thoroughly disliked, and I found this helpful. I mostly review classics, so normally they’re excellent and the authors aren’t around to feel hurt if I criticise the books anyway, but this is a book that’s still getting quite a lot of hype and I know the author is active on social media and reads blogs/reviews. This encouraged me to go ahead and write the review anyway. Thanks 🙂

    • I’m glad you are encouraged to write your honest review 🙂 Let the chips fall where they may. A review that focuses on the content of the novel, stays away from any kind of personal attack on the author and doesn’t pull any punches is something fellow readers and authors alike should appreciate. Sure there may be a sting but that is how we learn.

    • Terry Tyler says:

      If I’m writing a less than postitive one, loulou, I try the ‘sandwich’ method – mention something good, then do the bad stuff paragraph, then end on another good note!!!

  9. MariHoward says:

    On ‘get a thick skin’ my feeling, when I read that in a discussion, is to think “bor-ing…” since it is impossible to simply grow one to order, and unnecessary to point the finger at a bruised person at this moment, and possibly a way of saying “I am better than You: I can take it – you, obviously, can’t”. Which is just a chance to be mean. Negative reviews are simply part of a writing life, YES, and they are not rejection letters whatever else they are. Possibly, commenting on reviews shouldn’t be done on social media/groups, unless there is more to be said and thought about.around Why so many negatives? Just as the people who go ‘Whoop, whoop’, whenever they get a good review should just keep quiet about that. I think we have all been round the ‘Amazon deleting reviews’ thing too many times, as well!

    • Good point, Mari – telling someone to suck it up never really helps. And I like what you are saying about the bragging up of a good review, too. Something to think about. I used to have so few reviews – good or bad – that I was anxious to have anything to share. As I writer, surely I can come up with more to say about my writing than simply quoting someone else’s opinion. Thanks. Always happy to see your comments.

    • Terry Tyler says:

      Of course it’s impossible to grow a thick skin to order, and it’s never nice to get a bad review, but to put something out into the marketplace and expect no one to criticise is naive at best. No one can ‘take it’ better than anyone else – but you CAN choose to accept it as part of the package that comes with this game. And not scream ‘troll’ 🙂

  10. Great post, Fran. And a highly interesting discussion.
    As for 1* reviews? Where’s my AK47? 🙂

  11. P. C. Zick says:

    I read the bad reviews with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. However, I react one of two ways. I dismiss them if there’s no validity (“I haven’t read the book yet” – yes, really) or if there’s a true criticism, I mull it over (only one of these because she didn’t like my political leanings) and then decide to dismiss or learn. I do not wallow in any review, 5-star or 1-star.

    • Know that sinking feeling well! But you’ve put your finger on the main issue, Pat – how we choose to react. Mull it over – dismiss or learn and don’t wallow. Great advice 🙂

  12. Reblogged this on Alison Williams Writing and commented:
    Excellent post about reviews – agree with every word.

  13. Great post – people will like what we read or not and that’s true for all authors whether self-published or not. I’m with Terry – if there’s a pattern maybe there’s a learning curve. I’ve tweeted good ones (I’m a writer, I have no pride) but I don’t ever get involved in a discussion about them. We’re not here to critique our reviews – once the writing is out there, it’s out there people and trolls really are few and far between.

    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Catherine. I like the point you’re making about this not being an issue relegated to self-published writers alone. With widely popular platforms like BookBub being used by traditional, self-published and hybrid authors, the playing field is quickly being leveled to a point that it is often a bit of a hunt to discover where a particular book falls on the continuum. Debunking the trolls around every corner and behind every one or two star review myth is important.

  14. I recently had an author ask me for a pre-release review of his book and I gave it a good review for plot but an unkind review for character development. But as I always try to do, I explained why his character development was lacking and put it in perspective for the reader. He wrote to thank me. I put this in contrast to another writer who asked me to edit his book (I’ve been an editor for 30 years and his mother trained me in editing) and then he told me I didn’t know what I was talking about after I made constructive suggestions and even recommended some books on how to self-edit.

    The moderator of a Facebook group asked people to stop reminding writer’s who were upset about negative reviews that they were part of the game and always support them. Sorry, but, yes, we can say, tough luck, firiend, we know how it feels. But some times the reviewer may have a point. Other times they’re just assholes. If you want to grow as a writer you have to learn to distinguish between the two and learn from the reviewers who have something valuable to say, even if it was critical of your prose.

    • I think you’ve summarized things on this topic well, Philip. And thanks for the personal example. From my own personal experience and that of a few people in this comment stream, it seems very difficult for groups to hit the right balance between support and the honesty that does help a writer grow and hone his or her work. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  15. I agree with all of this and you set me up for a nice surprise. I have never looked at the reviews for my last novel on Amazon.com, and I found some (all of 6) really positive ones and some (all of 3) for my previous one too. I am such a low profile author and, while in print in the UK, I only have eBooks abroad, so I never thought to look. I am publishing a non-fiction at the moment, but this has encouraged me to get back to fiction. Thanks.

    • Hi, Hilary – thanks so much for stopping by. I think your comment illustrates how the review system should work. Leave it to the readers and when the author decides to drop by for a peek – pleasant surprise.

  16. Excellent post. I agree with all your points. Readers can be a fickle bunch. There is a quote, one of my favorites that I try to remember: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. WE should always keep that in mind. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  17. Léa says:

    Thank you so much Francis. Just in case I ever finish this book I’ve been working on… Actually I would much prefer an honest negative review to a false positive one. We can and should learn from our mistakes. In the meantime, I keep working on the book, writing poems and blogging.

  18. smilecalm says:

    thanks for giving permission
    to say how I
    really feel 🙂

  19. Gwen Stephens says:

    Great, thought-provoking post as always, Fran. Every reader comes with a unique set of life experiences, as well as individual reading expectations, so it’s virtually impossible to gauge how anyone will receive and react an author’s work. I think the bottom line is a reader must connect with the author’s style, and the book’s themes must also resonate. More than once, I’ve found myself swimming upstream, holding the unpopular opinion on a wildly popular book. So as a reader, I’ve learned to ignore a book’s ratings, because they typically don’t sway me one way or another. But I agree with your message and the general opinion here in the comment stream, that putting your work out there subjects an author to a wide variety of criticism. It’s just part of the game.

    Having said that, you’re one of those authors whose style strikes a chord with me. I love how you put words together on a page and make me feel like I’m a living, breathing part of your fictional worlds. I love your blog posts, too. Hell, I’d read your grocery lists if you were so inclined to share them with me! 🙂

  20. Well said. Most readers can spot a troll review. With time comes a thick skin 🙂

    • Yes, indeed and thank goodness for that thick skin. With extra exposure definitely comes a share of less-glowing reviews. Makes sense – not everyone is going to like the same things. Thanks for stopping by.

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