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Ten Ways To Take A Negative Book Review On The Nose

Crying babyA mixed or negative review can be instrumental in development of an author’s career for many reasons, and even if published on Amazon it should not be regarded as a personal affront or an attack. Cate Baum outlines the main reasons your review could be surprisingly negative, and how can you deal with this?

This morning, two authors I worked with completely melted down at their (not at all badly rated) 3-star and 4-star review respectively. Full-on tantrums. Quite incredible. I understand they paid for their review, but this doesn’t mean they are entitled to a positive review, only an unbiased one, and this is something that some authors cannot get their head around. So let’s look at why this gaping hole in communication may occur.

1. An author may argue that the reader didn’t “get” their story in the right way. Whatever you write, it is going to be perceived differently by the reader. Why? Because your reader has their own literary and cultural references and opinions on life. These will color what a reader reads into your work. Make sure you spell out any detail important to how your reader will take in information or they will fill it in themselves and draw the wrong conclusions.

2.  An author often comes back to attack the reviewer by accusing them of not understanding the story well enough. You may still have half the story in your head. Is it explained enough? Is it mapped out? Have you given enough visual detail to make the book communicate its scenes properly? Is there enough motivation spelled out for the reader? Make sure you have thoroughly described everything on (virtual) paper, because the reader only gets that, not the benefit of your deep and intricate planning for the plot. Even if your book is surreal, or a mystery, you should still have at least one thread, via a character or a narrator, that means the reader can follow the story.

3. Typos, grammar errors, and spelling mistakes as well as formatting errors are all too common if you haven’t proofread and then beta read your book. It’s essential you don’t let yourself down on this front because Amazon is now trawling for poorly presented books for deletion/omission from ranking. Readers will comment and rate your entire book on this aspect, because your book is a product for sale, not just a work of genius. As writer Zoë Heller points out, “Writers are not kindergartners making potato prints for their parents; they’re grown-ups who present their work to the public.

4. If you do get a review you don’t agree with, don’t chew out the reviewer. Your readers will think all kinds of things about your book, and each one is entitled to an opinion. What you can do is learn from what they have said – if you are honest, and can stop sulking for a moment, is there any truth in what they say? Could you have developed certain parts of the book more clearly?

5. If a reviewer says more than a few words, they probably wrote the review because they cared enough to offer criticism. Obviously “This book is rubbish” is worth ignoring, and possibly flagging for deletion, but if there’s more than a few sentences, it’s worth spending time dissecting why they might have criticized your work.

6. Reviewers are your readers, and your buyers, and are your chance at success. Don’t ever get into a fight with a reviewer in a public space – readers will blacklist you and never buy your books. Call a friend and vent instead! Recently, I watched as an author destroyed his book’s chances on Goodreads getting into very hot water with all his readers by tearing them apart for critiquing his work. He’s had to re-title himself and his book because sales dropped out completely. I’m not convinced it will be enough to recover from such a fall.

7. If you paid for a review, expect a rounded and deep dissection of your work intended to point out the flaws as well as praise the good aspects of your work. Professional reviewers read for a living, and for example at SPR, as with most of the other top review sites, all our reviewers are postgrads and professionals in the literary world who had to pass a very stringent test to become a reviewer. In other words, we probably know something about books and how they might perform on the reading market. Getting in a tantrum and throwing insults at the reviewer, saying things like “the reviewer clearly has no idea about how to write a review” makes you look silly and gets you nowhere. If you do have further questions about the review, ask politely and you’re sure to get a useful answer. Shouting in caps will get you NOTHING, NOTHING I SAY!

8. Don’t be dramatic. Telling a reviewer how they have broken your children’s hearts and you are but a broken wing on the air of Hemingway’s ghost will not only make you look like you are trying on emotional blackmail to change your review, but also won’t get you anywhere with a professional reviewer – you may induce a series of snarky snorts, however. We are a very armored lot who spend a long time technically analyzing a book for plot, editing, and presentation etc. It’s not just slapped on the page. Reviews at SPR take from two days to two weeks to craft, so we are pretty sure of the review by the time it reaches the author to say the least. See it as an exclusive study on how a reader might see your book, and use the notes to ponder on why the reviewer felt that way.

9. Reviewers are prone to telling some harsh truths – it’s the nature of the beast, and you should, as an author, realize that before putting your book out for critique. If reviewers didn’t want to seek out the wheat from the chaff then they wouldn’t do this job. For me, I seek a standard in books for readers because books need to be kept alive, and indie publishing needs to shake off its bad rep. Others may say it’s an achievement that anyone even finishes writing a book. To a reviewer, this seems like denigration of literature to scrapbooking. Deep down, doesn’t everyone want to be a bestseller?

Author Francine Prose is also a reviewer. In the NY Times she says of reviewers, “For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.”

10. Remember that negative or mixed reviews give your book credibility. If all you have is five-star reviews online, or on Amazon, you are going to look like you rigged it that way. Pick any great book on Goodreads or Amazon and you will see they all have negative and mixed reviews. In the great scheme of things, a three-star review upwards is a great review, no matter what the author may believe.

  • Susanne O’Leary

    Great post and great advice. As seasoned author of more than fifteen novels, I have had my share of bad reviews. I try to take them on my chin, but here is the real deal, in a blog post I wrote on the subject. https://susannefromsweden.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/how-i-really-feel-about-bad-reviews/

  • Keith A Pearson

    My first book has only been out for little under a month and all the reviews have been extremely positive. However, I know the day will come when somebody hates my book, and leaves a review accordingly. I’ve prepared for that moment by spending hours reading the reviews for ‘The Girl on The Train’ and ’50 Shades of Grey’. Both books have more than their fair share of negative reviews but both books sold in vast numbers. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the Man Booker Prize nominated books don’t always get particularly great reviews.