Bad Reviews—Six Reasons to Be Glad You Have Them

"What? Glad?" sez you. "There is nothing that makes a writer sadder than a bad review!"

That's true. They can feel like a sudden, nasty downpour on the biggest parade of your life.

Whether you self-pubbed or worked with a traditional publisher, the publication of your first book is a moment of personal triumph. You want to shout it from the rooftops: “HEY WORLD, LOOK WHAT I DID! I AM AN EFFING AUTHOR, PEOPLE!!”

And your book starts to climb up the charts. Wow. People are buying it. People you aren’t even related to!

Reviews start coming in. People like you. They really like you!!

But then…somebody doesn’t.

There it is, your first bad review, sitting there on Amazon or B&N or Goodreads, with its puny single star.

You feel like your head is going to explode. You’re not sure what will come out when it does--curses or tears--but it will probably be both. You want to fire off a response, saying what a moron the reviewer is because—well, first off—it’s not a zombie book. That’s why there are no effing zombies, OK??!! Don’t give me two stars because there are no zombies in my heartfelt story of a woman’s journey healing from her addiction to Hugh Grant movies, OK? And you say it’s too short? Almost like a novella? That’s because it IS a novella, you cretinous worm from Hell. It says so RIGHT THERE in the product information.

But of course you don’t write that down. That would be professional suicide. You know that.

You step away from the keyboard. You call your BFF/Sig. Other. You reach in the cupboard for your chocolate stash and eat a whole Lindor truffle bar while your BFF/Sig. Other is reciting platitudes about how you can’t please all the people all of the time and this too shall pass. 

You hang up and get in the car. It’s Haagen Dazs time. And yes, you go to the store and rent “Notting Hill” one more time.

OK, it’s good to mourn. You need to get that stuff out of your system. If you live near a place where it’s safe to throw things, go do that. I find throwing rocks at the ocean surprisingly satisfying.

But you do have to face that computer sometime, and when you do, it’s still there, those three nasty sentences that stink up your whole Amazon page like somebody’s poodle took a dump on your life-is-a-banquet buffet table.

Your career is over. It’s ruined. Nobody will ever buy your book again!!

Not true.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Bad reviews can actually be good for sales.


1) They show you’ve joined the big leagues. 

All popular writers get bad reviews. Just go to any bestseller’s buy page.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “nothing more than a shallow tale about a misfit who makes good.”

The Hunger Games  “semi-familiar plot, predictable ending, eh not worth my time.”

The DaVinci Code “Highs: the French sentences are correctly spelled. Lows: everything else.”

Freedom “I started to dog-ear pages on which cringeworthy prose appeared, and I did damage to 90 percent of the book.” 

Or even better, the classics.

Gone with the Wind “I use to feel bad about Sherman burning Atlanta, but that was before I read this book." 

Pride and Prejudice “This is without question the worst book I've ever read in my entire life. The style is clumsy though the author strives to impress with an aristocratic pompousness so typical of social climbers of her day.”

The Great Gatsby “this book is twilight without the vampires, which by the way is an equally horrendous affront to intelligent readers…I don't need a book about stupid rich people.”

Great Expectations “a shapeless mess of a story…presented in the most abrasive fashion possible.”

(I especially love the irony of that uber-clumsy sentence about Jane Austen, don’t you? I think there is a good deal of what shrinks call "projection" in negative reviews. Some wannabe writers seem to see their own faults in everybody else's prose.)

2) They prove your reviews are genuine. 

It’s no secret that some authors game the system by trading reviews or even buying them from unscrupulous review mills. Or they pressure everybody in their church Ladies’ Auxiliary to write versions of the same exclamation-laden rave.

BTW, I hear Amazon elves are making a sweep and removing lots of suspect reviews. Unfortunately, some legitimate reviews have been removed too. Be careful you follow Amazon’s guidelines to the letter. NOTE: don’t repeat a phrase from another review or the product description or you can get flagged as a phony reviewer even when you’re not.

The truth is most successful books do not have a full five-star rating. When readers see a page with nothing but five stars these days, they tend to feel skeptical.

3) They demonstrate what your book ISN’T

Knowing what your book is NOT can be as useful to a reader as showing what it is.  Sometimes a negative review comes from a person who got the wrong idea of your genre or subgenre. So the review will steer readers from buying the wrong book and generating more irate reviews. (One bad review hurts our feelings, but a whole bunch can seriously hurt sales.)

I had one reviewer call my rom-com thriller Food of Love “rubbish”, because, she said, “I read lots of lesbian romance and this was the worst I ever read.”

Well…yeah it probably was. That’s because it’s not a romance. And it’s not about lesbians.

All my work has strong, sympathetic GLBT characters, but anybody looking for hot girl-on-girl action is going to be seriously disappointed. So thank you, “rubbish” reviewer, for setting people straight (no pun intended.) Whoever told her FoL was a lesbian romance was misinformed—so I’m happy she’s cleared that up.

Another author I know got a one-star for her historical mystery because somebody ordered it thinking it was how-two book about medieval embroidery. OK, the one-star is a pain, but better than a whole bunch of one-stars from dozens of irate embroiderers.

4) They help you target your demographic. 

A review that tells readers what group doesn’t like your book can actually encourage the right readers to buy.

I read a complaint from an author who said she got two stars from a reviewer “because the characters engage in pre-marital sex”. 

Oooooh. There’s sex in it?  So you’ve been identified as a writer who does not write for evangelical Christians who wear promise rings.

That shows you DO write for readers who like a little steam in their lattes. In a world where 50 Shades of Gray is the number one bestseller, that hurts you how?

I had a similar experience with a reviewer who said my mystery Ghostwriters in the Sky was “too complicated.” He said he “couldn’t tell who the bad guys were until the last page.”

Thank you! That tells readers who like a complex, unpredictable mystery they’re in the right place.

5) They rally the troops.

If an author is unfairly reviewed or attacked by trolls, the fans will be outraged, too. It might even get them to write that review they’ve been meaning to write forever. (If you need more encouragement to review your favorite authors, read my post on Amazon reviews here.)

I haven’t had a lot of time to read (or write reviews) during this marathon year, but one book I loved was Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. When I put it on my Goodreads page, I noticed a lot of clueless one-star reviews, obviously from people who didn’t realize it was about a minimally-produced record album like the Beatles’ famous “Let it Be…Naked”—and NOT about a lady with no clothes on. I made the time to write a review I probably would never have written otherwise. I hope I steered some of the right readers to the book.

Or there was the time I went to check out a new book mentioned in a Tweet and saw it had ten reviews already: all one-star—all attacking the author personally, saying nothing about the book.

It was an obvious example of cyberbullying. (For more on dealing with bullying in the trollosphere, Kristin Lamb has a fantastic post this week.)

Do you think I bought the book and, after enjoying it, gave it a good review? You betcha! (I also hit the "report abuse" button.) Plus I tweeted it to my followers and wrote an encouraging message to the author. Most humans are moved when we see a fellow human being persecuted.

6) They tell you what readers want 

Elizabeth S. Craig has blogged about how she learns from her negative reviews, and she displays a healthy, professional attitude we all should learn to emulate. You can learn a lot from your readers, who will let you know if they were angry when you killed off Aunt Millie, or didn’t like it when your romantic interest turned into Snidely Whiplash in your last book.

And believe me, if you have any typos, or your work needs editing, they’ll let you know about that, too.

On the other hand—make sure you’re reacting to a majority opinion and not just a handful of people in a bad mood. You don’t want reviewers to change your voice or artistic vision any more than you want your critique group to do that. 

In spite of all this, I do realize some reviews can be spiteful and useless.

Some of those may have been purchased. There are services that offer to leave bad reviews to bump authors ahead of you off the Amazon bestseller lists. (I’ve personally seen review mill sites, but they move around, so I don’t have a link right now.) On the plus side, their mostly illiterate “reviews” get taken down quickly. Amazon is on to them and will remove the review if you report abuse.  

Then there is the segment of the population who invent reasons to criticize and find fault with everything because they get off on it—especially if they can work themselves up into a self-righteous rage to justify their cruelty. Rage can produce a high very like cocaine. (See my post on Trolls, Sockpuppets and Cyberbullies.)

Unfortunately the anonymity of the Internet is where they thrive.

I’ve observed that freebie books tend to get the most troll attacks. That’s partly because people devalue things they don’t pay for, partly because they’ll download free books in genres they don’t usually read, and also because a lot of people simply hate self-publishing (change is scary).

Some people assume all freebie books are self-published—they’re not, but nobody is accusing these people of being rocket scientists.

You can usually tell a troll attack from an honest review. Trolls make it pretty obvious they haven’t read the book and use generic phrases—usually including “riddled with typos” and “obviously in need of an editor” even when they’re reviewing Jane Austen. They often dump lots of identical one- and two-stars all over Amazon. 

This is why Amazon has that “report abuse” button. (But never use it for an honest negative review.)

Sometimes a reader can leave a negative review because of something that has nothing to do with the quality of your book. Maybe your protagonist has the same name as the guy who just dumped her, or her own novel just got rejected by an agent who sat on the full for 18 months, or his mom just told him he he’s got to move out of the basement, and at 42, he really ought to find full time employment since he’s been working on that novel for 13 years now...

They aren't "abuse" in the Amazon sense, but do remember those rants aren’t reviews of your book. They’re verbal temper tantrums--the result of somebody having a bad day—or a bad life. You just happened to be in the line of fire. Smart readers can usually tell when the review is about the reviewer's issues, not the book. 

And chocolate helps. Or throwing rocks at the ocean.  Or maybe even watching a Hugh Grant movie.

What about you, scriveners? Have you seen clueless reviews of your favorite authors? Have you started to get bad reviews yet? Do you have any advice on how to cope with them? 

I have a bit of sad news this week. My US publisher, Popcorn Press, has closed its doors. But they have been incredibly gracious about handing all the files to me so I can re-publish with MWiDP. Thanks, Les—you’re a meticulous editor and fantastic book designer. And Kate—your covers are fabulous! Popcorn started as a poetry press and may be reborn as a poetry-only publisher some time in the future.

FOOD OF LOVE is now live under the MWiDP imprint on Amazon US and Amazon UK as well as Barnes and Noble. THE BEST REVENGE should be up there by tomorrow. The one downside is that I’ve lost my Amazon rankings, so FOOD OF LOVE, which had been on the bestseller list for romcoms in the UK since December has lost its status. A few “likes” and tags would be helpful, if you have the time. 

And YES, MWiDP will be re-publishing the Popcorn books in paper, AND, my other three mysteries should all be available in paper in the next few months. Yay treeware!

And don't forget the Digital Age Authors Intensive on July 14th!

You can learn all about how to be a writer in the digital age from iconic author Catherine Ryan Hyde and author, screenwriter, and radio personality Dave Congalton, as well as tech wizards, marketing specialists...and me. So if you're going to be on the Central Coast of California next weekend, don't miss this. There are still a few places available. Go here to register. 

Thanks to all of you who bought HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE last week and pushed us up the writing guide bestseller list into the top 20--ahead of the new Kindle edition of Strunk and White! 

Also: my Camilla Randall mystery SHERWOOD, LTD. is featured on Kindle Romance Novels this week and I'll be at on Friday the 13th!

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