Handling Reviews by May Burnett

You cannot escape being affected by them

If any writer tells you they never look at their reviews, odds are that they are taking liberties with the truth. It is almost impossible to ignore direct feedback from readers.

Besides, your reviews’ information content can be useful. If three out of five reviews point out the same flaw, for instance that there is too  much boring description, or that the main character is too whiny, it is definitely worth looking into the matter. The author may correct the problem in a second edition, or at least pay special attention to this area in the next book. (Of course, ideally such flaws should have been caught at the beta reading stage.)

The emotional burden of bad reviews 

While everyone loves getting good reviews, a nasty review can spoil a writer’s whole day (or worse), and severely diminish his or her motivation; especially if it comes early in a book’s life, before there are several good reviews to outweigh it.

It is debatable what feels worse, a true negative review from a reader who did not enjoy or get the book, or an obvious troll review. For instance, I have a review on one of my novels that falsely claims that there is “no ending” to the book.

After a certain point, any moderately successful writer will take good or average reviews pretty much for granted, but most of the time she can still be hurt and upset by a mean one.  Sensitive writers are especially at risk of overreacting. In some cases they find themselves lying awake at night, spinning elaborate fantasies of revenge… if they have any sense, of course, they will keep these to themselves, or use them to fuel a mystery plot.

What to do about bad reviews

The consensus of experienced writers is to never, ever, directly respond to a review, no matter how egregiously mistaken it may be. Not even to express thanks for a good one.

If a critic has given you a bad review because he mixed your book up with another, or completely misunderstood it, you might get one of your friends to point the error out in a comment (if you really feel it is necessary) rather than do it as the author.

Complaints to the site, e.g. to Amazon, are rarely successful, unless the review contains a racial slur or similar personal attack. That a review may be malicious, inaccurate, or biased is not enough to get it removed. Not even when the reviewer says upfront that they did not actually read your book.

Unfair, but there it is. Life is not fair. In the end, you need to learn to live with it.

A few things to tell yourself in consolation:

This person was just not my target audience.

They must have had a bad day and taken it out on my poor book.

It’s just one person’s opinion.

They are clearly ignorant, unable even to spell correctly, so why should I care for this person’s criticism?

Some poor reviews actually help sell the book.

At least it’s feedback – better to be read and hated, than ignored. (YMMV on this one.)

The goal: achieving Zen-like detachment

That is the ideal way to deal with reviews, but of course it comes with the drawback that you also no longer feel so happy about good reviews from readers who happen to be on your wavelength. The more reviews you already have, the easier it will be to be detached, or just wryly amused at it all.

While still striving for that indifference, it may help to vent on Scribophile for especially egregious cases, such as serial poor reviewers who give negative comments wholesale, and whose motives may be suspect. If someone hates my style, why would they read and review seven of my books in a row? But it is useless to speculate. Better to get on with writing the next book, which hopefully this particular reviewer will not find.

Should readers or writers review negatively?

They will anyway, so perhaps the question is moot. But since a review is supposed to help other readers, of course they should give their honest opinions. In a way, bad reviews validate the more positive reviews. I have some books with only a few four and five star reviews on Amazon; a random customer may falsely suspect that these are from friends, or even bought. The odd negative review diminishes this impression.

However, I avoid being gratuitously negative and scathing when I write reviews myself, because I know how it feels to be on the receiving end. And I never review in my own principal genre.

How important are reviews, anyway?

I find that for a series, they are less important than writers probably think; once readers are hooked they will go reading the whole series, ignoring the lack of reviews, or even peevish, critical reviews. Of course, without those, there might have been more readers willing to give the series a try.

I also have published some books that do not get read any longer, not even by KU readers, despite a relatively large number of excellent reviews. This may happen if they are standalones or non-fiction after the first month, or for any of a number of reasons. You can easily discover older books by established authors with a hundred or more mostly good reviews and very poor sales rank. That book had its day, and readers moved on. Only an ongoing series helps prevent this, and even then, nothing is certain.

For many readers, reviews represent  social proof that a book is worth trying. It makes me very nervous if a new book garners no reviews for a while, even as it is read (as I can see from the Kindle Unlimited graph.) KU readers in general are less prone to leaving reviews, and when they do, their reviews lack the “Verified Purchase” badge – unfairly, in my opinion.

The main importance of reviews in a business sense, and the reason why some writers resort to buying them, is that the more successful promo sites insist on a minimum number of positive reviews. But in a popular genre like romance one one can make a modest living even with a relatively low numbers of (genuine) reviews.

GoodReads reviews and ratings are less important for sales than reviews on retailer sites, especially Amazon, so I don’t sweat it when my average rating there goes up or down a notch.

In Conclusion 

Once you send your book on its way into the world, reviews, including bad and troll reviews, are a fact of life you will need to cope with. Don’t take them too seriously, unless they send a consistent message. The good reviews can be motivating, to get you to write the next book. The bad ones may come from people whose tastes are simply too different from yours, whose motives you cannot fathom, and who should not be accorded the power to affect your mood and productivity.

Ask yourself, will this review still matter a month, a year, a decade from now?

Of course not.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.