Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What you can learn from a BAD REVIEW

I hear feedback from many authors. What is one big fear? A bad review. Many of us have had that experience, justly or unjustly,  and it can be traumatic.

Reacting to the bad news

Your worst nightmare has come true. The book you thought would be a blockbuster has gotten a bad review. Does that mean the world will come crashing down around you? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

Sure. You do have to acknowledge that there is always the possibility that the reviewer’s comments were well deserved, in which case it may be something to heed for your next book. But, before you go bonkers, ask yourself this question as the author: How many good reviews have you gotten vs. bad ones?

Then put on your reviewer’s hat. Was your book edited well? Did the plot hold together? Was the writing tight? Is there a market for your genre? There are so many factors that might come to light when a reviewer or reader attacks your baby.   
Keep an open mind

The first thing to remember is to keep an open mind, and sometimes that’s hard. Maybe you’ve seen the rash of posts on Facebook about a self-published book on Smashwords that got a bad review and set off a firestorm of comments from Facebook Friends and retaliation by the author because she simply got very angry.  In this case, I felt the reviewer’s critique was valid. The angry author could have learned a lot from what was said, had she kept an open mind.

What the reviewer said

Among other reasons for giving the book two stars, the reviewer pointed out: “One reason is the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant.”

We have all seen books like that, and it’s a real turn-off.

To be fair, I previewed the first twenty percent of this book, a benefit which is standard for most Smashwords books. I didn’t find lots of spelling errors—perhaps they were corrected in a subsequent edit—but there were many grammatical errors. As for editing, it really needed tightening and a good going over to eliminate sentences like this one: She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs. What did she do? Pick up her build while gingerly placing her feet on the stair treads?

Were I reviewing it, I would have asked, “How many pages can an author dedicate to discussing a fish dinner?” In this case she filled several opening pages with boring conversation about the fish dinner. She would have lost me right in the beginning. As a reviewer, my suggestion would have been to boil the opening down to a few paragraphs.

Be careful about becoming hostile

If you simply get hostile and tell yourself the reviewer is stupid, you will never consider whether they could have been right. Speaking from experience, I haven’t received many bad reviews for my own books. They are usually 4s and 5s. But, I have gotten a few stinkers. When that happens, sure my feelings are hurt, but I try to analyze what the reviewer said and why. I have found some things I now spot right away as I write my current novels.

What their comments might tell you

Do their comments absolutely mean the book wasn’t good? Perhaps it simply was not their thing. Did the reviewer have a personal agenda that got shaken up by the book? I got one review that cited the reasons the reader gave it three stars. Every one of those points was an emotion I’d been striving to touch in the reader. It turned out, this reader wrapped it up by saying she didn’t like sad books, but felt it was well written and that it kept her turning pages.

So what did that mean ultimately? My take was that I touched her deeply. In my mind the 3 star became a 5 star because the book did what I wanted it to.

Is the review by a reader on Amazon, or is it a professional review? Unfortunately, some people who review on Amazon have the sole purpose of shooting bullets at the author. I know that sounds judgmental, but if that happens, click their name and look at some of their other reviews before going into meltdown. Particularly if there are snarky remarks. I had one like that for Devil’s Dance (a novel I wrote as Arliss Adams that had many excellent reviews).

React appropriately, then move on

What did I discover? That this reviewer prided herself on being the toughest reviewer in her book club. She had generated many bad, snarky reviews including several on books that otherwise had top ratings. She was very clear in stating that she rarely gave anything over 2 stars and loved to pull books apart. I let out my breath after reading that. Sadly, those readers have no idea what that can mean to the author. If you review on Amazon, be fair.

Even if you don’t like the comments, they might be valid

But what if what she said had been valid? In that case I could have learned from this review if only I was willing to relax my defenses. A few things are imperative when you get a bad review. Accept what is valid without vehemently defending it, even when you know in your heart the reviewer might be right. Be sure to consider the comments from all angles.

If you reluctantly agree with them, you have learned something for the future. If you honestly can’t find the flaws cited, MOVE ON. Don’t harbor ill feelings or insecurity. If you do, the only one who gets hurt is you.

Happy writing.


  1. A great post. I also usually get positive reviews, but I recently got one that was actually pretty good, but the reviewer gave the book only three stars because she said "there was too much politics" in it, and she just doesn't care for that. Sometimes a book or some aspect of it just isn't a reviewer's cup of tea. I resepect that. Being in the theater for many years, I developed a thick skin. You have to roll with the punches.

  2. That is so right. You can't take things personally or you'll find yourself agonizing over everything. On the other hand, if you get several reviews with similar comments, it's time to take another look and see why those comments are being made.

    When my sister and I got several comments about POV during the query stage for A Corpse in the Soup, we finally had to face the reality that our POV "WAS all over the place." We fixed it, got a publisher and won an award.