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Janey Burton

PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Editor & Contracts Negotiator

Writing a book is a very personal act of creativity, so it’s hardly surprising when authors fret over what to do in response to negative reader reviews of their hard work. It’s all too easy to take it personally and catastrophise that a bad review spells doom for your sales, and even your career! Here are a few pointers to help you keep book reviews in proportion.

Don’t read them

Easier said than done, of course. Naturally, you want the feedback. Of course, you want to know how readers are responding. Writing, as I’ve said before, is so fundamentally a solitary act that sharing your book with the world is undoubtedly an anxious time for you, and no one would blame you for keeping an eye on what’s happening on your Amazon or Goodreads page.

And, not reading the reviews at all may be the kind of privilege only already-successful trad-published authors can exercise, especially if they were successful before the internet existed.[1]

There is a certain sanity to this position. It’s for the authors who are (or would like to be) sure that they’ve done their best and the response is out of their hands, and perhaps is not even their business. There’s no book that appeals to everyone, so if some readers like it or not it’s really nothing to do with the author. It will find its audience. Differing opinions are part of the rich tapestry of life.

If you’re not quite this thoroughly evolved, I hear you. I am saying, though, that if it’s not possible to ignore them completely, it’s best to skim the reviews – both good and bad – and not internalise either type.

Remember that a book with only 5-star reviews looks a bit suspicious, and so a smattering of 3 and 4-stars actually adds credibility.

Remember that, for lots of people, 4 stars means ‘excellent’ and they only give 5 stars to one they found truly incredible and which will stay with them forever.

And take comfort in remembering that even bestselling books by household names get 1 and 2-star reviews, because – again – no book is for everyone.

If you must read them, don’t reply

Take a walk, or a bath, or cuddle the dog. Call your best friend to vent, and then be grateful that she loves you and won’t write you off as a sociopath for wishing elaborate forms of retribution on the poor sod who had the temerity to buy and read your book and then prefer something else.

Do not reply. It doesn’t do any good, and it never persuades the reviewer they were wrong.

There are so many examples of authors wading in to defend themselves and fire back, and only making everything much, much worse. Anne Rice is a famous one, Lauren Hough a recent one, Kathleen Hale a scary one, and then there are the various self-published authors (who I won’t link to because with any luck they’ve now learned this lesson, even if it had to be the hard way). You can learn from their mistakes.

What’s striking is that, so often, these outsize reactions by authors are to relatively mild criticism or a declaration that the book just didn’t suit the reader. That is not a career-ending review, no matter how much an author jumps up and down complaining they’ve been mistreated. Authors are creatives and creatives are sensitive, but there’s sensitive and then there’s a tantrumming refusal to be criticised, and the latter makes authors look arrogant and defensive.

Definitely don’t whinge about reviews to anyone except your long-suffering best friend or dog, because that’s also not a good look. Yes, it’s frustrating when people review without reading the book. Yes, they should review the book and not the author. Yes, it’s annoying when they deal in half-stars even though the reviewing platform doesn’t allow for that, and then round down so the overall rating is less than it ‘should’ be.

People are allowed to have different responses to books, and no one owes you a certain number of stars. Firing a belligerent missive off to a reader or even several still looks like punching down, because inevitably as the author of the book your platform is bigger than the reader who reviewed it.

Lastly, and if nothing else in this article stays with you, remember that reader reviews are for other readers, not authors, and authors should avoid interfering in that conversation.

Consider the source

These days, people are quite used to encountering the online reviews for a product and sorting the reviews that are useful to them from those that are irrelevant or say more about the reviewer than the product.

So, before getting exercised about a particular review, consider how other readers are going to respond to it. If the review says their copy was ‘delivered late and in poor condition’, that review is irrelevant and you can ask for it to be removed, but it’s probably not worth it – no one is going to decide not to buy your book based on that negative reader review. At most, they’ll roll their eyes at people who direct their complaints to the wrong place.

If a reader doesn’t read your genre, they will not be the most incisive judge of your contribution to it. If they say they didn’t like it because they don’t read that genre, or because of their dislike of tropes that frequently appear in that genre, that can be useful information for other readers when they’re deciding whether to buy.

As an example, there were a lot of negative reader reviews of a blockbuster novel from 2016, Maestra, because there was a high level of sex and violence in it. Well, it was marketed as an erotic thriller, for starters, and compared to 50 Shades of Grey, The Talented Mr Ripley and Gone Girl, and the painting it was thematically concerned with was Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, a graphic depiction of a brutal assassination by an artist who was tortured during the trial of her rapist. So I would argue that sex and violence were in its selling points, It’s quite difficult to know what those readers were expecting from this book, but it may be that quite a bit of the thriller category is unlikely to please them.

If the review isn’t clearly coming from someone who isn’t your audience, and it’s really bothering you, have a look at their other reviews. (A brief look, mind – do not cyberstalk your reviewers, that’s Kathleen Hale territory.) If they’re all of non-book items, the person may not be a big reader and might be disappointed with many or most books. If they’re all negative, or this is their only review, or it’s vague and poorly spelt, it’s probably a troll review and again, people tend to know by now what those look like and that trolls should not be fed. Don’t worry about these reviews, put them firmly out of your mind.

There are such things as good negative reader reviews

This is not to say that all negative reader reviews are written by trolls, people who aren’t the audience for the book, and people who are in the wrong place.

Some negative book reviews are written thoughtfully, by people who love reading and have a specific, valid and even constructive criticism of the book they’re reviewing. These are the kind of reviews an experienced book buyer will pay attention to, and they might have relevant things to say to the author as well. An author might even read such a negative reader review and find they agree with it.

It’s also sometimes necessary to consider whether several reviewers saying the same thing have a point. If the negative reader reviews frequently mention the same misunderstanding of the book, consider whether it is described and marketed accurately. If the reviewers enjoyed the book but felt let down by an unbelievable ending, you should remind yourself that endings are hard, and think about getting a manuscript assessment or booking a structural edit for the next one.

If there are complaints about typos, get it proofread and have any future books proofread as well – and please don’t claim you can’t afford it, as some self-published authors do. Such a minimum investment in your product is the price you need to pay for entering the market and getting paid for your work, and it’s great value for money if such a basic, easily fixed issue will not affect your sales.

Don’t drink poison and hope the other person will die

As human beings, we tend to fixate on the negative, even to the exclusion of larger amounts of positive feedback. That’s because our brains are trying to keep us alive by focusing on threats. But ruminating on the unfairness of a critical reviewer, especially if there’s nothing to be done about it, is incredibly bad for our bodies and minds. It can lead to illness. Don’t make yourself sick about it.

Remember, so often these negative reader reviews are not about you at all, and some of them aren’t even about the book. Readers write their reviews for other readers, so the best thing you can do is to keep your mind on your task, which is to write your next book.

[1] Someone undoubtedly gave Anne Rice this advice, and she should have listened. But then, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? Anne Rice doesn’t like to listen to anyone when it comes to her books. And that’s a different problem.