Real Writers Get Bad Book Reviews. Here’s Why That’s OK.

Real Writers Get Bad Book Reviews. Here’s Why That’s OK.

Why do so many writers go ballistic when they get a bad review?

Why do we RAGE at the single one-star review on Amazon and ignore the fifty good ones? Why do best sellers perceive a good, but unstarred review on Publishers Weekly as a wrenching rejection?

Are we all weak-willed namby-pambies in need of a spine transplant, or is there something else going on?

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson thinks it’s because our brains are wired to have a disproportionate reaction to bad news. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, he explains it this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

We simply pay more attention to and react more emotionally to negative outcomes.

Our Stone Age brain reacts to social rejection as a threat to survival. We’ve always lived in tribes. If you got cast out, you’d lose access to food, water, protection and care for your kids.  

You’d die.

So the brain became hyper sensitive to the slightest change of our status in the tribe, lest it cast us to the dingos.

How does this apply to writers?  

Our brains subconsciously perceive every bad review as a threat to our status in the tribe that we’re in or trying to get into. If it’s a literary critic who panned your book, your brain sees him as part of the Elite Publishing Tribe that can help you survive by selling more books, getting better access to resources and improving your standing in the tribe.

If it’s an ordinary reader who trashed your book on Amazon, your brain sees her as part of the “My Readers” tribe that can also help you thrive through more sales and higher status.  

Our Stone Age brains don’t care about the totality of our reviews—only the negative ones. Yes, positive reviews are good and your brain will celebrate and rejoice—for about a minute.  And then it reverts to its wiring, which is to scan for threats. In other words, you regard positive reviews in stride because you’re safe.

That twig-breaking sound really was a branch creaking in the wind. But the negative review?  That’s a saber tooth tiger coming at you.  Run!

How to overcome your brain’s interpretation of bad reviews

The single most powerful action you can take to neutralize your brain’s wiring is to prove it wrong.  

Your brain fears being cast out of the tribe, so calm it by connecting to your personal tribes—family, friends, other writers. See brain? I’m not being thrown to the dingos—I have love, money and resources to carry on.

Once the brain calms you can use reason and logic to center yourself.   

1. Know you’re not alone

“Writers,” said Isaac Asimov, “Fall into two groups: Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.”

In other words, welcome to the club.

Everyone gets bad reviews.  

Some of Stephen King’s latest novels received up to 500 one-star/two star reviews on Amazon.

Real writers get bad reviews.

2. Bad reviews are not a death sentence for your book

Book stores are packed with best sellers that have a lot of bad reviews.

Prove it to yourself. Do this: Go to idreambooks.com, the “Rotten Tomatoes” of the book world.

They aggregate book reviews from important critics like the New York Times and rank best selling books according to the percentage of good reviews they received.

Notice anything? Almost all the best selling books have a significant number of bad reviews.  

How much could bad reviews affect sales if they’re all best sellers?

I’m not trying to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn—bad reviews are undesirable. I’m not saying they don’t matter. I’m saying they’re not necessarily the deal-breakers you think they are.

3. Bad reviews can actually help sell books

Wait, what?

Let me explain.  

What do you think of a book that has nothing but five-star reviews? I don’t know about you but I’d be suspicious.

People have wildly divergent opinions on everything. Some people don’t like chocolate.  CHOCOLATE! So how is it possible for a book, any book, no matter how good it is, to have uniform reviews across the board?  

If I see nothing but 5 stars I’m thinking the author got all his friends, family and associates to write a lot of butt-kissing reviews.

In a twisted way, bad reviews give a book legitimacy because their very presence indicate that the good reviews must be genuine.

There are other ways to manage the “rejection” of bad reviews, but let me end with my personal favorite: Getting perspective.  

We are writers who entertain and inform. We are not setting the stage for another Rwandan genocide or Syrian civil war. Kurt Vonnegut, recognizing that fact, once said, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Going Forward

You need to assuage both your brain (“PANIC, PANIC, I’m being cast out of the tribe!”) and your mind (“It’s just a bad review among many good ones”).  Start by connecting to your tribes and when you’ve shut the alarm, absorb the insights of those who’ve come before you.  And don’t forget to laugh.  A few years ago an Amazon reviewer said this of one of my books:  “I’ve stepped in deeper puddles.”  Ouch!  Fortunately, my sense of humor is stronger than my ego, so I laughed and to this day I find it so funny that I tell people about it.  What’s the worst/funniest thing anybody’s ever written about your books and how did you handle it?

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12 comments

  • I self-published my first middle-grade novel last August, and I only have 20 reviews at this time. They’re all good ones so far on Amazon, but I had a star knocked off by one reader because the book is a cliffhanger. (Apparently, this person didn’t like cliffhangers!)

    I have to admit when I saw a 3-star rating for my book on Goodreads, my heart did a little flip. But, I remind myself that not everyone will like my book. Not everyone likes chocolate (although I question your sanity if you don’t.) Not everyone likes pepperoni on their pizza. We all have different tastes and opinions.

    For example, I didn’t like “Hunger Games.” The whole idea of kids killing kids turned me off. Other people loved it.

    I’ve heard it said before… all you need are 1,000 true fans. People who love your book, tell others about your book, and read all the books you write. In a world of millions, how hard can it be to find just a thousand people who really like what you have to offer?

    Let the bad reviews roll off like water off the back of a duck and focus on building relationships with your true fans. (That’s what I try to do, anyway.)

  • Ann Evans says:

    It is also possible that bad reviews may point out something in your book that needs changing when you write your next one. True, one cannot connect with everyone, but some critics are right about weaknesses in a book.

    • Susan Mundy says:

      I love your comments Ann, so true.

      I guess the word “critic” is the clue as to why writers may feel offended. When we are criticised, it can feel like a personal attack, but when we are critiqued, it is more about the performance or outcome of our work.

      It’s like playing the man, not the ball. And, in a sporting context that’s called foul play.

  • Thanks for this wonderful ‘perfect’ 5-star article!! ha!

    I am a new self-published author. My first book got over 60 reviews with a few 3 stars (“EH”). One horrible 1-star review that threw me under the bus too!

    Overall I am pleased but the criticism definitely felt like being punched in the stomach HARD by Mike Tyson!

    Thanks for this hilarious and ‘write on’ article!

    Michelle Monet

    Michelle Monet Author Page
    https://www.amazon.com/Michelle-Monet/e/B01J5X26QS/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

  • Colin says:

    The promotion of my novels is about like that of Robinson Crusoe with his attempt to build a craft to escape the desert island. Not really well resourced. I’ve recently, that’s ten months after publication, received positive replies from a Kindle site for my second novel. The first novel published in 2014 is to be reviewed in July, 2017. There have been four positive comments on Amazon. Do not understand why, but I feel upbeat with only four reviews. One, obviously not potential reader, said they hated to read novels about the sixties! My first novel covers this period, but the second is set in 2015. I am waiting to be told now that he hates reading novels portraying modern day settings!

  • One more to add: Bad reviews are better than NO reviews 🙂

  • CNJ says:

    I’m an aspiring writer and this article was helpful!

    I often write for the website fanfiction.net and have written stories for them for years.

    I see now that it gave me good practice and preparation for dealing with reviews, including negative ones.

    I usually have received positive reviews, but have a handful of negative ones.

    I usually laugh at most of the negative reviews, but it also makes me happy that so many different people are reading my stories and discussing them, which attracts even more readers.

    It gives me hope for my career as a writer.

  • CNJ says:

    If anyone’s interested in my fanfiction, you can visit at:

    https://m.fanfiction.net/u/60710/CNJ

    In regular writing…I have several poems, two young adult stories in the works, one sci-fi story outline and two ideas for short children’s stories.

    I just copyrighted it all legally and am looking at potential publishers, so when my stories are complete and edited, I can send them.

    I also am composing query letters for each of my stories also.

  • Wendy says:

    The first comment on my first book (about potholder looms) was a two-star rating because I didn’t describe triangle weaving–which potholder looms aren’t good for. That’s like complaining about a book on go-karting because it doesn’t tell you how to double-clutch.

  • Christian Barda says:

    Thank you so much! I have received so many rejection letters in the past month that I feel almost drowned in rejection. Though, this post has made me feel hopeful! Thank you!

  • Nina Hobson says:

    I’m a homeless speculative fiction writer who’s been staying in a homeless shelter for the last 11 months. Negative reviews are the last thing I focus on. I’m just grateful, at this point, to be getting ANY reviews. DO YOU ALL KNOW HOW LONG IT’S TAKEN ME TO GET ANY REVIEWS AT ALL MUCH LESS THE NEGATIVE ONES? YEARS, I TELL YA! YEARS!

    Seriously though, in my situation – which is true – I take them all in stride. Those owners of the negative reviews are NOT the people I’m writing for.

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