What You Do When Your Book Gets a Bad Review

 

You know, I wish we didn’t need to have this conversation, but yeah, we do.

GOT-pleaseEveryone has their own way of dealing with reviews, and let’s be frank—not everyone will like what you do. Reviews, good or bad, are part of the territory. Reviews are a rite of passage for authors, the objective points-of-view that sit down with the final product and say, “Holy crapbuckets, this is the best book I’ve ever read!” or “Many trees died to make this book. Avenge them.” Whenever a new work hits the shelves, virtual or literal, I am always on edge. You have been working closely with editors and peer readers who all invest a part of themselves in your title because they believe in what you do; and if you are fortunate, these voices because they believe in you are going to be blunt, honest, and sometimes cruel to be kind. “My job as an editor is not to change a book,” I heard Ellen Datlow say on a podcast. “My job is to take a good story and make it great.”

When the public grabs hold of your book, though, they are coming into it cold. They are not as invested as you and your support crew are, and the public’s opinions are unbiased, unfiltered, and uncompromising. Now with blogging, Goodreads, and Amazon, everyone has an opportunity to share those unbiased, unfiltered, and uncompromising opinions. When I read a good review, I breathe a sigh of relief. I did something right, and the audience “got” what I was aiming for. It really is a beautiful thing.

But good reviews do not guarantee you’re going to avoid the bad ones.

IMG_0382No one likes bad reviews. It always feels like a punch in the privates as you have poured a lot of yourself into a book. Bad reviews, whether openly admitted or not, remain a major obstacle with those writers who have a book, possess talent, and offer a great story to tell; but sadly, they are afraid that they will get a bad review. Rejection from on a high plane than the rejection of editors and agents, apparently.

Here’s an inconvenient truth—yes, you will get a bad review. People will read your book and not care for it. Their opinion does not mean you are a terrible writer. In fact, a good “bad review” may give you insight that you can apply to your next work. There are some book bloggers and critics that take what they do very seriously and recognize a story that could have been better.

Now how can I make this inconvenient truth even more terrifying to you? Oh yeah, some of these bad reviews will come from people who have never read your book. The review that inspired this blogpost, for example, described The Diamond Conspiracy as…

“Every Victorian horror trope dragged out: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein and his monster, fearless female and timid bookish (but handsome and manly) men…”

Now how do I know by this selection that this particular book critic hadn’t even cracked the spine of The Diamond Conspiracy? While Jekyll is a player in our universe (and has been since The Janus Affair) we never use the name “Mr. Hyde” until Book Five.

Yes, the book we are currently editing.

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Then there is Eliza’s and Wellington’s description as “fearless female and timid bookish (but handsome and manly) men” which, when you look at The Diamond Conspiracy, isn’t really…accurate. Eliza is struggling to keep it together as she is smuggling children across Europe. Fearless? No, we explored a bit of self-doubt on this adventure. Meanwhile, Wellington is trying to step up and keep everyone around him safe. Timid? Definitely in Book One. Somewhat in Book Two. But by Book Four?

The real tell, though, is the Frankenstein reference. Page 80…of Dawn’s Early Light. Book Three.

So why not rebuttal a review from someone who took a swing at our hard work without even reading it? Because that’s the cost of taking a chance, putting your words in print, and offering them to the wide world out there.

People will love your work.

People will hate your work.

And if you are tapped to establish new canon across a beloved series, people will come at you with torches and pitchforks at the ready, many of them who will have not read a single word of your work.

angry_sheep

Don’t worry, Chuck. Pip can do amazing things with lamb.

But when authors freak out, it accomplishes nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true—when authors freak out against bad reviews, it makes the freaking-out author look like a right douchewanger. Openly confronting critics also makes your peers roll their eyes and frantically tweet #notallwriters. It’s frustrating that there are writers out there who think it’s a good idea to educate a book blogger or critic because clearly this book blogger or critic, after a few words from you, will say “Oh, I see, so that was what I got wrong on reading your magnum opus. Well, forgive me, wizened author, let me just go back and…”

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Bad reviews are part of the business, and you have two ways of reacting to them—either as a professional, or as a douchewanger. And hey, let me help you out with telling the difference between the two. One of these is you reading a bad review, and maybe having a good laugh at the reviews that are clearly written by basement dwellers whose reviews sound like high school book reports written with the help of Cliff Notes. Maybe you take the frustration you are feeling and channel it into promotion for your next book…

Mad photo skills from http://fotozon.fotograf.de

…or you go on to your blog and rant a bit.

*ahem*

Whatever you do in light of bad review, you don’t take the fight to them. This is not First Blood. You are not Rambo. This is not payback. This is your reputation as a professional and your brand that should be professional from beginning to end. You’re not going to be perfect. No one expects that. When a bad review goes live, though, you have a choice.

Make sure that choice is the one that has you standing by your words, and turning back to the words yet to come because you, my dear pro author, got stories to tell.

9 thoughts on “What You Do When Your Book Gets a Bad Review

  1. Is it bad that I actually *like* bad reviews? Not in any masochistic way, just because I think they find the weaknesses that I was too close to see. I’ve engaged with the reviewers on Amazon (I know, it’s something you should never do) and I’ll discuss with them how the “problems” could have been done better. I’ve found that approaching a reviewer with a real sense of respect and interest in their opinions makes them feel a lot better about the book. Some of them even apologized (which I never asked for).

    Note: This should not be seen as a general recomendation. I’ve also run across people who had no interest in fixing the problems, but rather shout, “I want my X hours of my life back!”. If I haven’t already engaged with them, I just walk on by. If I have, I just shut it down with, “Well, thanks for reading. Sorry it wasn’t to your taste. Maybe you would like one of my other books. Free samples are available.” (and then I walk on by 🙂 ).

    • That’s the difference between a “good” bad review, and a review that doesn’t go that extra step in pointing out issues. I remember getting a review for MOREVI (Oh Rafe, why can’t I quit you?) where the critic dealt a brutal hit: Everyone in the book was speaking English. He likened it as an episode of Star Trek: TOS so in the sequel, I came up with a reason for that. I think there is a place for reviews that are critical. Criticism can be beneficial if constructive. If you are looking for that in a review wanting to deal a prime “zinger” on you, those tend to be nothing but intellectual fapping. But is that weird behavior in liking bad reviews?

      Well, I’ve always had suspicions about you, Gamblin… 😉

  2. I still maintain that a bad review is a badge of honor. You can’t emerge from writing obscurity until you’ve gotten someone completely, frothingly upset at your prose. I still see them as a learning opportunity. You may not be able to please everyone, but a bad review gives you the opportunity to learn more about an audience that you haven’t reached yet. Maybe you find out that you don’t want to reach that audience. Or maybe you find out that you stopped just short of connecting with them.

    I do agree that you shouldn’t every try to correct a reviewer. That way lies douchewangery. You can’t make someone change their opinion, but you can tell them that you value their viewpoint.

    Doc

  3. My friend just got an outrageous email from an author who asked her to review said author’s book after she rated it 3-stars. Not sure if said author read the review at all, but I did and there’s nothing disparaging about the review. Plus a 3-star isn’t a bad rating, it’s not a 5 but it’s hella better than 1.

    From a reader/consumer standpoint, I appreciate reviews with rating of 3 and below. Like you said, not everyone will like what you make and these “trolling” reviews sometimes help in setting my expectations. I.E. Michelle Modesto’s latest Western Steampunk got a few 3stars from blogs I follow because they didn’t like it’s dark tones. I ended up loving it because I like my books dark at times.

    Thank you for mentioning that there’s something to be gained from unfavorable reviews. There are objective critics out there who care enough to point out opportunities that the story can improve on. That said, haters gonna hate and it’s best if we do not engage. Spare everyone the drama

  4. This made me think of two review-ish things that I have come across. I remember someone giving “Dawn’s Early Light” 3 stars instead of 5 because he liked it more when the characters were together. Whats the rememdy there? Shrug?

    I got a direct message from a fellow author who couldn’t get out of the PROLOGUE in my first cyberpunk book because of the violent tone. So, like Brand, I took that as a nod that I was doing something right…not right, but on target with the tone of the world I was building.

    I agree with your post, though. It’s the internet. If you try pleasing all the people all of the time, you won’t be honest to your profession, your characters and your stories. Write for that!

    • When you get comments like the “I liked the story when they were together…” that is giving the fans what they want. Well, that’s not happening. My house, my rules. When a review said “No, the story should have done THIS…” that is what they wanted. I’m the author. I’m running this ship.

  5. @Nick. Yeah, my first book was a sci-fi novel with absolutely terrible physics. I didn’t mind because I saw it as space fantasy (like Star Wars), but I had enough science in it to make people take it as serious sci-fi. I didn’t realize it would be a problem, but one of my author friends said that he simply couldn’t get through the book, it offended him so much.

    For myself, I was happiest because of a 1-star review that said (in the review title) “Great story, but TERRIBLE physics”. Given that I was more concerned with the story, I was really kinda proud of that review. 😉

  6. When I write an unfavorable review I often find myself reminding people that “like” is very subjective and often based on an intangible.
    I have never had an author diss me on a review – although I have had other bloggers call me out for calling a character’s parents irresponsible.

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