About to Respond to a Negative Review of Your Book? Read This First

About to Respond to a Negative Review of Your Book? Read This First

Have you heard of Stephan J. Harper’s interactive iBook Venice Under Glass?

If you have, it’s likely that you’ve heard more about the author than the book itself. After a not-so-stellar review of his book at TidBITS, an Apple news website, Harper went on a commenting rampage, picking apart the reviewer’s opinions piece by piece and rebutting nearly every other commenter on the review. It’s a rant of epic proportions.

After reading through his comments, I can’t tell if he’s serious or if it’s a publicity stunt. Then again, considering the amount of time and effort he’s put into defending his work, it’s likely legitimate, although emotionally charged.

The entire affair is an extreme example of the absolutely worst way to respond to a book review.

The only way to respond to a bad book review

Before publishing my book last year, a wise friend of mine who’s an experienced, published author gave me the best advice about bad reviews: never respond.

I know how difficult this can be, especially for first-time authors.

My first Amazon review included two stars and the words “very disappointing.” The reader had expected a different kind of book, so the review seemed unfair to me, as if the book wasn’t being judged on its own merit but on the reader’s desire for something else. One of my “favorite” GoodReads reviews of my book simply states, “Wasn’t great writing, but I really enjoyed the content.” And yet it was granted four stars.

No writer ever wants to read those kinds of words, and sites like Amazon and GoodReads don’t make it any easier for our egos since they allow authors to reply to their own reviews.

The one time I replied to a review — and a good review at that — was to correct a factual assumption I thought the reviewer had made. To me, the reviewer seemed to say that I had personally conducted interviews for the book. I simply responded that I’d only done research and quoted from already available interviews.

The next day, the reviewer had deleted their review! I learned a hard lesson that day, and I hadn’t even responded to a bad review. While those less-than-stellar reviews still haunt me on some days (I’m writing about them here, after all), I know now what every successful writer understands: you can’t please everybody.

[bctt tweet=”As a writer, you can’t please everybody, says @batwood”]

Plus, trying to change someone’s mind who’s already decided against your perspective on life, or who despises your writing style, or who just doesn’t like the fact that you’re a fan of the Oxford comma, is like George Bernard Shaw’s famous illustration: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

A majority of reviewers don’t understand the kind of inner devastation they cause an author when they quickly type and publish two lines of a poor review. What you’ve labored for months on, they’ve minimized in two minutes. From that perspective, it’s enough to make any author’s blood boil.

And an angry author set loose online can be a dangerous thing. This is exactly why an author has to prevent their inner vitriol from spilling over.

7 non-career-destroying ways to deal with bad book reviews

1. Don’t read your reviews

Yes, there are some authors who follow this rule, though I’d hazard a guess that it’s a hard one to stick to for first-time authors. Don’t worry, though — it’s only the first suggestion.

2. Print out your bad reviews, then burn them

It’s a symbolic gesture that releases your inner ire. Alternative disposal methods could include a paper shredder, compost for your garden or turning them into origami.

3. Respond to your bad reviews . . . in a document that’s never made public

You’re a writer, so you’re bound to write. Go ahead and give in to every last cutting remark you’d like to make, but ultimately keep those words to yourself.

4. Talk about it with other writers

Find a writer’s group, whether in real life or online. Every writer gets a bad review from time to time. When you share your bad reviews with other writers and hear their just-as-bad reviews, laughter inevitably erupts.

5. Re-read your good reviews

So long as you keep working at your craft, good reviews will come. Don’t allow one bad review to occupy your mind 90 percent of the time, while letting nine good reviews occupy the remaining 10 percent. (Also, don’t think about your reviews 100 percent of the time).

6. Realize that writing is a journey, not a destination

I know I just went cliché on you, but it’s true. Bad reviews bring growth to authors, and if you’re serious about a career in writing, you’ll work through and past any bad review. Don’t allow a bad review to stop you from taking another step.

7. Start writing your next book

The best way to get over a bad review is to start your next book. Sure, it may garner a bad review as well, but I’m willing to bet that it’ll be better than your last work. Plus, now you know how to better handle bad reviews.

How do you deal with bad reviews? If you’re feeling brave, share your worst book review in the comments.

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59 comments

  • Blake,

    I really like #2. Here’s another alternative: line the litter box with them.

    Makes me smile just to think about it.

    Kathryn

  • Alicia Rades says:

    I love all of these tips! I had a bad review on an eBook guide I put out. I made it a point to respond to every review I received on Amazon. For that one, I just said something along the lines of, “Thank you for your honesty.” I can’t remember if I was down about it and all that.

    But I do know that I’m nervous about poor reviews on my next fiction work. I can see myself looking at a poor review and thinking, “But you just don’t get it!” I’m thinking up ways now to just remind myself that my genre and writing style aren’t for everyone.

    That said, maybe I should follow your advice and just not look at the reviews when the book comes out. (I don’t think that’s going to happen!)

    • Blake Atwood says:

      It’s so hard not to look at reviews. I do think reading one’s own reviews can be helpful, though it’s a fine line when trying to separate constructive criticism from an outright bad review.

      We just have to realize that our words aren’t for everyone. They will never achieve that … and that’s OK.

      As I’ve read or heard elsewhere, if you find your “true 100” readers, you’ve found fans for life. If you do read your reviews, focus on their encouragement and turn a deaf ear to the naysayers.

      • Darlene says:

        when I first got anything critiqued and anyone said anything negative it was as though they plunged a knife into my heart…or worse…into the heart of one of my children! Then when I got something published I bristled when someone changed how I had written it even though it did improve the flow.

        Now I welcome helpful suggestions and dismiss the rest that smacks of 1.someone having a bad day or an opinion I don’t agree with or 2. someone trying to be clever at my expense…

      • I don’t understand the reviewers who say ‘I haven’t read the whole book’ but still give a review.

        Whats up with that?

    • Jane Hamrin says:

      Hi! I share the website with homeless writers. I don’t have my own web page yet. I thought you are great for having written books! It takes a lot to finish even one. It is fantastic of you! What an Amazing thing to have compiled words in the right order and stayed by the computer – in intervals – for so long that it became books.
      Have a wonderful day!
      Best,
      Jane

  • Elke Feuer says:

    I was fortunate to develop thick skin during online classes where class members could comment on your work submitted but you couldn’t respond. It forced me to look at their comments objectively and decide if I wanted to accept them or not.

    I deal with reviews the same way. I read the review carefully and objectively then push it aside. Sure it stings, especially when they don’t get it or make comments that are completely bogus and nothing to do with my story, but I don’t respond.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Great points Elke.

      I sometimes love the left-of-center, bogus reviews that leave you scratching your head. They’re laughable at times, but as you said, it takes time to develop that thick skin to where you can shake off such reviews.

  • Bonnie says:

    I think one disadvantage of self-publishing is that most of us haven’t gone through the experience of being rejected by dozens of acquisitions editors. We don’t have the stack of rejection letters, those form letters that say “not for us now” with no other explanation. It’s not something I’d want to go back to, but it did make it pretty clear that not everyone was going to fall in love with your work.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Good point Bonnie. As you know (but others may not), that’s why finding a professional editor and some very honest beta readers is of the utmost importance for self-publishers.

      I fear to think how many self-published books may have gone directly from the writer’s computer to being publicly released without a single other soul reading it before its been published.

  • This is especially relevant given that a couple horrifying stories have come out in the past few weeks about authors “responding” to bad reviews (one who stalked a reviewer and another who actually assaulted one). As scary as it is to open yourself as an author, it’s also terrifying to be a reviewer.

    That said, I don’t think you’ve really “made it” until you’ve received bad reviews. (I’m still waiting to make it; the worst I’ve gotten is a rather critical three-star review.) It says your book is being read widely enough to land in the hands of people who aren’t already one of your friends, family, or acquaintance circle. As a reader, I’m more likely to pick up a book that has a variety of ratings, not just positive ones.

    I particularly like #4, especially if you read the reviews out loud, the same way Jimmy Kimmel has celebrities read mean tweets. A few YA authors did this in a video this summer (sadly, no longer available), and it seems to lessen the sting of bad reviews.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      So many good points Amanda. While I’m utterly grateful for friends and family leaving positing reviews of my books, I take them with a grain of salt. You’re absolutely right in pointing out that when you do receive a bad review, it’s a signal that you’re reaching beyond your tribe.

      I’m half-tempted to read my own bad reviews now, but I’m not sure I could stifle the laughter, or the anger, or the confusion.

    • My boyfriend came to inform me that I got my first one-star review and he seemed excited. He said, “This must mean you’ve really arrived, to make someone that mad and get someones panties in that much of a bunch!”.

      🙂

  • Elissa says:

    These are excellent tips. I like number four especially. It hadn’t occurred to me to share bad reviews. The best part of sharing with fellow writers is they probably relate to your feelings more than anyone can.

    I hadn’t heard of your example of how not to respond so I followed the link. All I can say is, “Yikes!”

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Yikes indeed. Epic yikes.

      Sharing your bad reviews can be cathartic. Just don’t wallow in them!

      Once you talk about your bad reviews with other writers, who likely have their own bad review stories, the sting of it evaporates. I like what Amanda said above: “I don’t think you’ve really ‘made it’ until you’ve received bad reviews.”

  • Darlene says:

    we tend to assume writers we view as “accomplished” NEVER get bad reviews while the truth is…every writer at one point or another has gotten a bad review…most writers I know will not focus on the point of getting a bad review…only on how it could contribute to your success in the future once they ascertain that it is or is not a legitimate point.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      One of my guilty pleasures is reading poor reviews of otherwise excellently rated books. It simultaneously brings high-profile authors down to my level while also reminding me that books find their audience, and no audience consists of everyone.

  • Hi Blake,

    I really appreciated this post.

    I would like to respond to this with two points:

    1) How Much I Despise CreateSpace

    The first paperback book that I ever wrote was a short 32 page book on the subject of motivation and inspiration.

    I got one review on Amazon that went like this, “When I received this book, I was expecting an actual paperback book, what I got was a over-sized, poorly put together book. Although the content was okay, the book wasn’t.”

    This reader and reviewer was satisfied with the content of the book, however, they were not satisfied with the production of the physical book itself. This would mean that CreateSpace (the publisher I went with to produce this book) did not do what they promised by producing a good physical quality book.

    (Note: This book in its physical form is not longer available, however, it still available for Kindle as an e-book)

    If you were to visit my Amazon author page, and specifically for this book, you will see that I did not respond to this review.

    2) The Advice of How to Handle Negative Reviews (And How to Overcome the Depression of No Review at All)

    When I wrote my latest book, The True Writer’s Life, I went all out to make sure that it was of good quality. I decided to go with Friesen Press as my publisher and made sure that the physical quality of the book was top notch before launching.

    They also gave me the advice that you author friend gave you, they told me to never respond to negative reviews.

    (Note: If anyone is interested to know more about my latest book they can visit my website)

    Back to my point, I have yet to get any reviews from my latest book (The True Writer’s Life) and the book has been on the market since July of this year. So, it is still early in its toddler years, but I will be honest and say that I was really expecting a better response for this book.

    However, I have learned how to overcome my “depression”, if you will, about my book not getting many reviews by frequently checking the numbers of how many copies are being sold. And this number really helps me turn my frown upside down.

    The numbers of copies sold are increasing despite the fact that I have zero reviews for the book.

    I would have to agree with you that not responding is the best advice about this subject that any new writer and/or author can get.

    Thank you for this invaluable blog post.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks for the comment and appreciative words William. Sorry to hear about your lack of reviews. I know that can be frustrating.

      Have you sent any free copies out to friends, family, or other connections in return for their honest review? I recently co-authored a book with a pastor and we offered his email list a free digital copy if they could post a review on launch day. We capped the number at 100 people and received 104 sign ups. It’s been a week or two since launch and we have 25 reviews (which is more than I expected us to receive).

      Another great option is to do a month-long book giveaway of 10 copies of your book on GoodReads (if it’s a physical book). It can be a bit costly with shipping, but my book went from being on a few dozen GoodReads “shelves” to over 300—well worth the cost in my opinion.

      Glad to hear sales are good though!

      • Thanks Blake for your wonderful and timely post. I am a new author. Recently self-published three books. The first one got over 50 reviews in just a few months. Most very good. A few were 3 stars and one was a mean vitriolic one-star slam! It did sting to read the bad ones and no I did not respond.

        What I find interesting is when you send your book out for free in exchange for a review to a friend or acquaintance and they just never respond at all. No review. Not a peep. Nothing.

        I think being ignored totally might actually feel worse than a bad review. Any thoughts on how to deal with this?

        I am not one to bug people. I have asked a few of the non-responders ‘Hey, Did you get my book and review it yet?” Some said ‘Ill do it soon’ and still haven’t.hmm

  • Dave says:

    A friend of mine who is an internationally published crime author from New Zealand got a couple of 1 star reviews on Amazon they were something like

    1 star – book took two weeks to get here
    1 star – couldn’t finish the book felt too much for main character

    So the reasons were that the courier service took longer than expected and the 1 star was for that rather than the quality of the book. And the second 1 star was because he was too good of a writer and made the reader feel something?

    • Blake Atwood says:

      That’s awesome and terrible at the same time!

      • Dave says:

        Actually he just reminded me of another one … and I think this really takes the cake.

        The reviewer gave it 1 star because he ordered a book from Amazon Italy and got sent an Italian version instead of an English version.

        I really think that Amazon need to look at a way of allowing publishers / authors to challenge incorrect starring.

        Or they could add a star for service and star for book quality. Except they wouldn’t do the service star that because they know how much they drop the ball.

        • Blake Atwood says:

          That’s funny and sad.

          I have a GoodReads “non-review review” from someone who never read my book and explicitly stated that they will never read the book simply because of the book’s premise, so I was criticized for my beliefs and opinions and not for any words within the actual book. Maddening indeed.

  • Pheebz Petenstine says:

    One thing I hate to see is other writers bashing a peers work. You can be constructive and kind and still get your point across.And like most granny’s use to say, if you don’t have anything nice to say….don’t say anything at all.

    On the flip side,the general public have some folks who enjoy being contrary and hateful.Their opinion does not matter,try not to take them to heart.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Good pointz Pheebz. I think that’s why it’s helpful to air your bad reviews out with other, helpful writers. They can help you separate the chaff from the wheat when it comes to criticism.

      • Darlene says:

        When I worked in Beverly Hills I discovered a “breed” of people who loved tearing down people’s work whether written, cooked, or performed in blistering critiques couched in a witty, sarcastic delivery that was supposed to show how absolutely clever they were. They were looking to draw attention to their own brilliance at the expense of some very innocent authors/chefs/performers who counted on an affirmation because it was part of the celebrity culture. These kind of critics were often thought of as bitter people who could not DO any better than those they attack and therefore put their energies to casting aspersions on others who are still trying. I pass my work on to others to critique…but people I trust and know that they care about me as a person and as a writer. I might find something of value “out there” when comments are made but the ones I take serious are the ones who critique with the idea of making my work better and me a professional whose standard is not only excellence but reaching my target audience appropriately.

  • SJ Francis says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I’ve been free lance writing for many, many years, but have yet to acquire a hide of stone. Reviews like rejections can break a writer. I have my first novel coming out next year and to save myself any unnecessary stress, I’ve sworn not to read any reviews for my book. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No, but I’m determined to do it. Please wish me luck. I’ll need it.

  • I haven’t gotten many reviews on my recent new releases on Kindle. If I got a bad review from a discriminating reader or writer who really knows his/her stuff, I would do my best to take it as a learning experience. If someone left a bad review or rating and didn’t say much to back up their opinion or was just being trollish, I wouldn’t pay much attention to it.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      It can be hard to discern the kernels of truth in bad though legitimate reviews, but it’s helpful to do so we can keep improving as writers.

      You’re right on about the other kinds of bad reviews: they better have specific reasons for it or we’ll count them as nothing.

  • Daeanyra says:

    Well, I’ve been writing personal fictions for myself for at least two years now. I’m pretty young, but the only person who has ever been allowed to see my writing told me that I’m “beyond my years” and that I could go far. She was a high school English teacher who’d been teaching since before I was born. When I was afraid to read aloud my first “creative writing” to the class, she pulled me to the side and told me that I’d been one of the best writers she’d seen in a long time. I can assume that the statement was either to make me feel better, or just plain honesty. At the time, I went with the assumption that she was just trying to make me feel better, and because of that, no one has ever read any fictional writing I’ve written.

    I’m currently in the early stages of writing my very first fiction that I intend to put out there for the general public to read. It an odd topic–especially for someone of my age. It’s set in an apocalypse and I know that all the different ideas of what that will be like can be controversial and I will most likely get a lot of hate from it. I haven’t really thought about getting it “published” but my boyfriend–who also hasn’t read this particular work but knows my writing none the less–has suggested it. I’m not sure how to go about this, but if I ever do get it published, I think I will definitely come back to reread this. Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m sure one day it will come in handy for me!

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I’m indebted to a high school English teacher of mine who encouraged me to keep pursuing writing.

      I don’t know what it is about us writers, but we seem to skew skeptical when it comes to others praising our work. I’d advise taking such acclaim positively—use it as tinder to stoke the fires of your future work.

      Regarding your future book (which you should absolutely publish when it’s ready), realize now that not everyone will like it, and that’s perfectly normal. I’m willing to bet you’ll find a few hundred readers, if not many, many more, who’ll be thrilled to read it.

  • Upon receiving my first non-5 star rating, I researched other reviews by that same person. I found that, along with my golf themed book, this person gave the same rating to Butch Harmon-who is none other than Tiger Wood’s golf coach.
    I figured I’m in good company.

  • Read Spear says:

    Thanks for this post–just what I needed to read. I know what you are saying is true, but the most negative (an unfair) review of my book just got bumped into the three float quotes Amazon uses in their reviews header! Drives me nuts every time I see it!

    (http://www.amazon.com/review/R33SDZFCRUHMI2/ref=cm_cr_rev_detdel_redir?_encoding=UTF8&asin=B00E884MKY&cdForum=Fx271ABMEVX9XRA&cdPage=1&cdThread=Tx33V1EVG6JK3JB&newContentID=Mx2T9WRMROC7M8K&store=digital-text#Mx2T9WRMROC7M8K)

  • Lena says:

    I’m glad I found this site. I need to vent but not sure where to start. I guess I’ll start with the cruel reviewers. Their just…Wow. I’m not talking about all of them. But some are just nasty. I’m a new author that couldn’t resist reading some of my less than positive reviews, but I’m learning my lesson. I try to focus on the positive and constructive ones. If someone talks about grammatical errors, I’m cool with that. But to leave paragraphs of hate, dissecting someone’s work and getting laughs out of it is just wrong on so many levels. Of course I don’t respond but I’m just thinking. Who does that? Even before I thought of becoming a published author I never left those kind of reviews. I hardly left any, but if I did, it would be constructive.

    • Blake says:

      Unfortunately, dealing with bad reviews is part of the deal when you become a writer—but you shouldn’t sweat it. Read them for any clues as to what you may be able to fix (persistent grammar issues, for instance), but toss the rest of what they say.

      When I receive a bad review, I like to read the poor reviews of the literary masterpieces. It reminds me that even the greats couldn’t please everybody (not that you should try to).

      And to me, the best rebuttal to a bad review is to write a better next book!

      • Lena says:

        Thanks for replying. It really made my day. And you’re so right about reading the poor reviews of the greats. It helps a lot. Thanks again for the great advice. With my next book I’ll definitely get an editor:-)

  • David Pearce says:

    Great article, even if I got to it after responding to some bad reviews. My approach was a little similar to ‘pig fighting’ but I had an unfortunate experience with my book sharing a title with a recent publishing sensation. People who reviewed my book were clearly angry that they’d downloaded the wrong book. I explained that my book was for a very different audience, but remained calm and open in my responses. Seeing 4 bad reviews out of 5 (including 2 that were so pointlessly negative that I decided not to respond) was a shock, but the fifth review was from someone who’d downloaded the book in error and said that it was worth a read anyway. That is the one I’m going to hang on to.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Sorry to hear that David.

      Consider signing up for this free Hacking Amazon video course: http://outthinkgroup.com/hacking-amazon. Be sure to watch video #4: Managing Reviews.

      Tim Grahl outlines a way for you to contact Amazon about possibly having those negative reviews removed. I tried it just to see if I could get an early bad review removed. Though it didn’t work for me, you might have success. Plus, it can’t hurt to try.

  • Thank you! I am glad I went searching and found your blog, because I was seriously addressing a bad review. I will now pass on that and I will keep your tips in mind. I am also glad that you mentioned in one of your tips, to go ahead and write another book, because I am in the middle of doing that. The bad review made me question myself, but now I am turned around again. Thanks Again
    Lynda

  • Amel says:

    For years, I have read all of the advice saying not to respond to bad reviews, and I generally agree with this. Writers often come off as desperate and whiny when defending their books.

    A few days ago, however, I received a bad review and did the unthinkable…I decided to respond. The reviewer said something untrue about my book, and I felt that a response was justified. Perhaps my response will come off as desperate and whiny, too, but I feel good about the response I posted and do not have any regrets. In fact, I am considering responding to other reviews as well.

    I recently saw another writer responding to a critical review and thought he did a very good job explaining some issues that the reviewer had questions about. I think the key is being respectful of the reader and not ever stooping down to the level of personal attacks or insults.

    Some people will not like your work, and that’s okay. If they have misunderstood something about your work, however, I think it is okay to respond so that others do not start assuming something that is not true. If done properly, it can be a way to engage with readers and show that you care about their opinions.

  • Sydney says:

    I’m so grateful for this article, and I’ll follow this great advice. After 15 5-star reviews on two of my books, someone who obviously originated at Goodreads made it a point to come in and write long, hard-done-by reviews and post not only on Goodreads, but also Amazon. I love to read, and I honestly don’t understand people who seem to take so much delight in tearing down the work of others. As you say, you’ll never please everyone. I suppose I should now add something kind about that person and wish them well, but I’d rather throw a pie in her face. You know…like a cow pie. 🙂

  • Peter says:

    Thank you for this site, it is very useful. I have published some fiction books on Amazon and the delight of a review given by a stranger who enjoyed it is priceless. I don’t think I would be tempted to challenge a review about a fictional work because it has to be opinion, however mean. I wonder though, what do you do with a factually incorrect and belittling review in a non-fiction book; if you ignore it, some I assume will be misinformed.

  • j. says:

    Off topic, where can you find willing beta readers for fiction books?

    • Blake Atwood says:

      That’s not too far off topic. You could consider friends and family, but they’ll often be biased toward giving you favorable feedback. You could try other writers, but they may not be in your targeted audience.

      So, try to find beta readers in your target audience. This is when having an email list comes in handy because you have built-in fans who may be willing to beta read. If you don’t have that, try directly tweeting (or somehow contacting) people you think would be interested in reading your book. Figure out if what they read or post about is close to what your book is about, then you could contact them with, “I noticed you read X. I’m looking for beta readers for my new novel, which is like X because XYZ.” Consider incentivizing a reader too, especially if you’d like feedback within a reasonable amount of time. Give a $5 Amazon gift card, or a shoutout in the final book, or a physical copy of the final book, or anything that shows you appreciate their work.

      As a last resort, you could look for Facebook groups offering review swaps or beta readers.

      It is hard to find good beta readers who can provide beneficial critiques within a certain timeframe. That’s also why some writers and editors offer manuscript reviews, though you’d have to pay for that. Still, that could be worth looking into depending on how much time you want to spend looking for a group of beta readers.

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