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Learning to Love the Bad Review
Let’s be honest – bad reviews hurt. Writers tend to be sensitive wee souls, so the sting is especially harsh for us. I’ve heard some writers say breezily, “Oh, I never pay attention to my reviews, good or bad. Never even read ‘em.” But unless those writers are too far away to see their reviews because they’re sitting on top of a massive pile of money (Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King, I’m looking at you), then I reckon they’re making that up (after all, that’s what writers are good at). In days of yore, the inevitable stack of rejection letters helped to toughen an author’s hide, but these days many writers are bypassing the traditional process and going straight from final draft to publication, thus making negative reviews even harder to take. And yet those same indie writers are driven to seek out reviews in order to attract attention to and generate buzz about their work, and to improve their Amazon rankings.
There is no shortage of advice on the Net for writers on how to cope with bad reviews, but it never hurts to repeat the message. With practice, a writer can learn to receive bad reviews with a measure of equanimity. With a LOT of practice (think of Buddhist monks and their years of meditative training), a writer can even learn to embrace the bad review.
Not all negative reviews are huggable, though. Bad reviews can be loosely grouped into three categories:
- Constructive criticism
- The personal taste review a.k.a. “This was not to my taste, therefore nobody should read it.”
- The malicious review
Let’s look at each in turn.
This kind of review can be golden to a writer, especially an indie writer who has not had the benefit of a good editor or a skilled and brutally honest team of beta readers. If a reviewer takes the time to objectively point out technical flaws in your story, then pay attention. If more than one reviewer makes the same criticism, then you really know you have a problem that needs fixing; pull it from sale forthwith and rewrite that sucker. And then take care to not make the same mistakes on your next book.
A word of caution: do not use reviewers as de facto editors. That shows considerable disrespect for your readers (“Oh, I’ll just slap this old thing on sale and fix it up later when my readers tell me what’s wrong with it.”) and is generally Not A Good Look.
The Personal Taste Review
Ultimately, a review is just one person’s opinion. Living in the digital age means that everybody has the means to express that opinion to a wide audience, even if they have all the literary taste of a small root vegetable. You cannot write a book that is going to appeal to every single reader, and sooner or later your book is going to fall into the hands of someone who, purely for reasons of personal taste, does not like it.
The antidote to this kind of review is in two steps. First, play the One Star Game. Go to Goodreads or Amazon and look up your all-time favourite books. Filter the reviews to show you the One Star ratings (if it’s a classic or a bestseller, there will be thousands). Gasp in horror at the sheer ignorance and wrongheadedness of a large section of the reading public. By the way, I didn’t invent this game – you can look to these two blog posts for my sources of inspiration.
If that doesn’t cheer you up (in a perversely depressing kind of way), then repeat after me: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Each to his own. Haters gonna hate.
Advanced review wranglers will sometimes even use this kind of review to their advantage. Chances are that the same aspects of your book that make one reader want to throw the thing against a wall are going to make the next reader fall in love with it. For a great example of how it’s done, see this blog post from author Erika Napoletano –
Another word of caution: don’t try to trick readers into purchasing your book by making it appear like something it is not. This is the surest way to get One Star reviews from irate customers. Make sure your cover art accurately reflects the genre and contents of your book, choose the categories on Amazon(or whatever marketing platform you’re using) with honesty and care, and give readers a few clues in the blurb or book description as to what they’re in for.
The malicious review
The most effective way of avoiding this kind of review is to not upset anyone enough to make them want to try to trash your writing career. But let’s say you’re past that point and you’ve just received a review that has clearly been written by someone who hasn’t read your book, and who makes a blatant personal attack on you. If the review is on a personal blog, there’s not a lot you can do about it except to take the ethical high ground and ignore it. But chances are, it’s on Amazon and has been written under a pseudonym, because the reviewer doesn’t want the whole world to know what a petty and vindictive asswipe he or she has been. In that case, it’s an easy fix. Click on the title of the review, and next to the “Was this review helpful to you?” buttons is a little option to “Report Abuse”. Click on that. Amazon will investigate and take the review down (usually within a few days) if they consider the report justified. This is the only instance when I would draw attention to the review, and then only in private communications; the more people who report the review as abusive, the more seriously Amazon will take it.
No matter what kind of negative review you have received, don’t be tempted to leap to your own defence. If you’re solicited the review, politely thank the reviewer for his or her time and attention and move on. If it’s a review from an anonymous reader, SAY NOTHING. The only time you should respond to a negative review is when you have rewritten or reformatted your manuscript and uploaded the revised version for sale; then it is acceptable (even advisable) to let your reviewers know that you have taken their advice on board and made the appropriate fixes. Getting into a slanging match with your reviewer makes you look all kinds of bad – like this.
(Jacqueline Howett went back and removed a lot of her responses from the comments thread, but it’s like listening to a one-sided phone conversation; you can work out from the responses most of what she said, and it wasn’t pretty.)
And if, after all this, you still want to take revenge on your harshest critics, remember this quote from Frank Sinatra:
The best revenge is massive success.
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Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 80 print and electronic publications, including Horror Library Vols 4 and 5, Dead Red Heart, Phobophobia and Horror for Good. Her debut collection Ghosts Can Bleed contains much of the work that earned her a Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2008. She helps to wrangle slush for Dark Moon Digest and is the vice president of Dark Continents Publishing. She welcomes visitors to her blog at http://traciemcbridewriter.wordpress.com/
Ghosts Can Bleed purchase link – http://www.amazon.com/Ghosts-Can-Bleed-ebook/dp/B006R6VB54/
Tracy L. Carbone
Next came the new business cards. I put the new web address on there, a picture of me and a cover of the book. Now that I’ve changed everything, the cards are useless. Vista print doesn’t charge a lot luckily. I bought some postcards of the book cover. Also useless. Then there were the large posters bonded to white boards that cost way more than they should have, but I was excited. This was my first book after all.
This book originally starred a 4th grade girl. In the new version she’s in 6th grade. I thought on it and decided that Mood pencils would be super fun. Especially if I had 500 of them. Honestly, what’s more enthralling than 500 mood pencils that change color in your hands and sport the abbymcnabb url? The money I blew on them, that’s what. And up goes the tally again.
I think the bears were the last straw. I got it in my head that if I bought little bears wearing t-shirts with my book cover on them, that would be about the best thing ever. And honestly, they are adorable. When I opened the box of 100 of them (after shelling out about $375) I was thrilled. I gave away about half to get people to buy my books at events. Of course my royalty was way less than what I spent on bears. What was I thinking? Now they are in a bag. Buying new t-shirts with the new cover will cost as much as new bears and I’m kind of all set with mini plushies.
The new version came out in November 2011 and I’m very pleased with it. This time, I’m going free and low-cost marketing. The jury is out on how successful that is but at least I learned from my mistakes. I hope you can learn from my mistakes too.