Writers in the Storm

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February 20, 2017

Bad Review Blues - Some Perspective from the Trenches

Kate Moretti

From the moment you hit send on those final pass pages or click submit to upload all your hard work to Amazon, the novel you lovingly poured your heart into for the past two, five, ten years now belongs to everyone but you. It belongs to every reader, critic, reviewer, blogger, and consumer. This is both exhilarating and terrifying and sometimes you just have to drink vodka and that’s okay.

So you drink and wait for feedback. And maybe you hit refresh a few thousand times but who’s counting. Eventually, the reviews start dribbling in, day by day, little by little, and some are great and you are happy. Relaxed. Maybe you can even start book #2.

Then it happens. The meanest, nastiest review you ever read. The characters are ridiculous. The plot doesn’t make sense. Nothing was believable. The reader wants their $5 ($10) back and hopes you are surrounded by hellfire for eternity. Or maybe it’s a scathing professional review.

Either way, you guys. This is hard. And we all know the golden rule: Do not respond.

So, how do you cope? How do you keep writing when you clearly suck at this, people HATE YOU (Everyone hates you *sob*)? How, HOW, HOW?? <shakes the collar of the nearest stranger>.

Because you don’t suck at this.

Because even though it feels like everyone hates your book, if you do the math, like three people hated your book.

Take a deep breath. Let’s look at the different kinds of negative reviews and how to deal with them:

1. The blatant hate.

These kinds of reviews are the best kind of bad review, in my opinion. A review that is mean, crass, vulgar, nasty says more about the reviewer than about your book.

This sounds like hokey lip-service but think about it. Would you, as a high functioning member of society, ever walk into an art gallery or ballet or any kind of artistic endeavor and rail on the performer where they might hear you or see it? No. No you wouldn’t because you are a decent person.

My theory here is that readers don’t believe that writers read their reviews. The get validation from how clever they can be, either on Goodreads or Amazon. Amazon has set up a system where particularly cunning reviewers, whose reviews are marked “helpful” can then, in turn, be rewarded with free books and products. Sometimes people who are downright cruel enjoy the “likes” they get from this. This is why I skim my Amazon reviews periodically, and rarely look at my Goodreads reviews.

But I do have my weak moments. Anonymity on the internet makes this phenomenon particularly contagious. TRY to not let it get to you. This is weak advice, I know. I have nothing else, except for me, it helps to understand the motivation of the reviewer.

2. The 3-star meh.

Oh, these hurt me. Mostly because they’re logical, smart, and at least half the time, the reviewer is right. The characterization was thin here, or the plot hole didn’t totally make sense. You’ll never write a perfect book. NEVER. EVER.

For me, I read these with one eye shut. I digest them. I take them to heart. I figure out if it resonates with me. If it does, I learn from it. I keep it in mind when I’m writing from here on out. If I get a handful of these that touch on the same theme, I know that I dropped the ball. That’s okay. We’re only human, we’re going to drop at least one ball. There are eighty-five thousand words, a few of them will be not perfect.

3. The 1-2 star “not for me.”

These hurt less than the 3-star meh for me, but they still kind of grab me. I could have had them. Something was missed. Sometimes, they weren’t my reader. And that has to be okay.

Sometimes the reviewer is wrong. “How can a child have blue eyes when both parents have brown eyes? DO YOUR RESEARCH!” And the answer is simply, genetically this is possible. They’re one-starring you for their ignorance. Your fingers itch, you want to type back (with sources, dagnabbit!). Step away from your computer!

4. The harsh professional.

I’ll be honest here. I didn’t *love* my New York Times book review. YES. I GOT ONE. YES. That’s amazing. I should be grateful. This is literally what every person I’ve ever told has said. I did buy the paper and save the review in print, for this reason. I won’t link to it, but you can look it up. It had some great parts. It had some petty swipes. My editor said, “You haven’t made it until you’ve been ripped, just a little, in the New York Times Book Review.”

Eventually, this is the balm that did it. Eventually. But it took some time. I spent a lot of time reading other people’s terrible NYT reviews and that helped.

Remember this: Kirkus is called Cranky Kirkus for a reason. Almost everyone in the business gets a not-so-stellar professional review at some point. When the new reviews come out, read them. There’s a camaraderie that develops here. If you ever happen to be in a room with other writers who have gotten less-than professional reviews, the topic can come up, especially after some wine. Revel in being one of the gang.

Remember, everyone who writes has been there.

Think of your favorite contemporary book in recent memory. I picked BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by SJ Watson. I thought this book was basically brilliant and a total mind mess and yet someone said this about it (read this review only if you’ve read the book because it contains spoilers). That’s like almost 500 words, a numerated list of all the things wrong with it. 124 people found it helpful. It has sixteen comments (lots of cheerleading).

Here’s the kicker, it’s the reviewer’s only review. Nothing about this review rang true to me. AT ALL. I’ve done this for some of my favorite suspense authors: Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Caroline Kepnes. I’ve read their 1-star and 2-star reviews and I’ve vehemently disagreed with every word of them. Sometimes I find myself getting madder at my favorite book’s low reviews than my own!

The world is made up of a weird mix of people. Your opinions, as a person, will jive with only a small fraction of them. Expect your books to be similar. It’s a hard little pill to swallow, and sometimes the only thing that heals it is time. But just know, we’ve all been there. We’re with you.

What do you do when you get bad reviews? If you feel up to it, share a few choice phrases in the comments.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Kate

2347337.jpgKate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie  was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life. Her latest book, The Vanishing Year is available for pre-order and will be out September 27.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.



Top photo credit: Thad Zajdowicz (@thadz, Flickr)

50 comments on “Bad Review Blues - Some Perspective from the Trenches”

  1. Hi Kate - thanks for being with us today!

    I don't mind low star reviews (I don't LIKE them, mind). I tell myself that even the Bible doesn't have all 5 star reviews.

    But the one that still makes me burn is the one on my first book, from a reviewer with a HUGE following who said the book was okay (B-), then went on forEVER, excoriating me for daring to use the word 'retarded'. I explained (in the book) that the character was using it about herself, and in the literal sense; her growth was retarded because of what had happened to her.

    She even noted in the review that was how I'd used it - that didn't matter. I swear, if it were up to her, I'd be strung up by my thumbs. And the editors who allowed that vile word to be put into print, strung up alongside me.

    And I guess you can tell, I'm not over that review yet.

    But honestly the worst is the ones who play games on Goodreads, leaving bad reviews for books they haven't read. There's a special place in hell for them.

    1. There are, without a doubt, some that stick with me and I'm not sure I'll ever "get over"! Thanks, Laura! xo

  2. Hey, Kate--and Laura. My favorite was for my third book where the reviewer excoriated all other reviewers for not recognizing how horrid the bad guy was and wondered how anyone could even finish reading the book. There were other parts she didn't like in the half she let her innocent eyes see before the ugliness got to her. Who knew?

    Laura, I'm with you. Those Goodreads non-readers who leave pre-release one stars? Yeah. Consign them away, please.

  3. Oh, Kate, indeed, we have all been there! My favorite bad review was one I got that said, "Too many words." Thanks for reminding us that people who read have subjective taste, just as we do, and that there are trolls everywhere.

  4. I had reviews on Goodreads by someone who had (supposedly) read all the books in one of my trilogies and ragged on them. Her gripe? She hated my character's NAMES. Said they were the worse names on the planet. Sigh.

    The one that actually hurt the most was a bad review on my first book because it felt personal. One of my characters had severe autism and was loosely based on my son. The reviewer claimed I denigrated persons with autism by this portrayal of someone on the severe end. Yeah, that was a dagger to my heart and it still angers me because that was so unfair.

    Thanks, Karen!

    1. Among other things, I write about autism (Asperger's-end). Some of the attitudes I've run across are...bitter. One sided. There are so many beautiful people in the community, and it saddens me there are those who act like that (speaking from personal experience, too). Thanks for sharing that.

      1. Thanks for speaking up Julie. It's disheartening if people take offense for merely portraying one end of the spectrum. Of course, I received many wonderful emails and reviews from parents who identified with the character so that helped.

    2. I'm very worried about this with the next book! The world of autism, and the proponents/advocates for those on the spectrum are a passionate bunch. Hard to walk that line for sure! But fiction breeds empathy and I feel like we have to venture into our own personal unknowns (in my case, not yours) and tell these stories, too. The unfairness is so hard to swallow, I feel you! xo

  5. The first review of my book I read was one of the worst you'd ever want to read. It was so awful, I "ran" to my editor in virtual tears. She gave me the best advice. She said to avoid reading reviews as first they come out. Consider having someone do this for you, instead, then have them pass along positive ones to read first. That would have helped lessen the sting, as so many readers have been encouraging and kind.

    Although my book does well and my readers are amazing, that first review left a scar. (Sound melodramatic? That's honesty, for ya.) As I've gotten older the trick seems to be understanding loud voices aren't necessarily relevant ones.

    Thanks for this piece, Kate! Oh, how I wish I'd known this before scouring the 'net for reviews. (I'm printing this out for when my next books come out, for needed reminders!)


    1. the trick seems to be understanding loud voices aren’t necessarily relevant ones.

      Wow, so wise, Julie - that advice works in the 'real' world, too!

  6. It's nice to know we're not alone. I had a reviewer on Amazon adamant that I was very confused. Because I mentioned a town in Australia that happened to share the same name as a town in America, she thought I didn't know which continent I was writing about. She actually believed that half way through my book, I forgot I was writing about Australia. Two places, same name – not that uncommon. Yes, I’m still upset.
    Thanks, Kate. It’s good to get that off my chest.

    1. Ha! So funny (but not) sigh! This is one of those reviews where the reviewer is wrong! It can be so frustrating. Hard to not respond to that one! xo

  7. Great post! I've been warned "don't read the reviews", yet I KNOW I'll be checking them as you mention, every other second. Now I know to keep a bottle of vodka nearby when I do. May have to sneak kahlua in my coffee for at work when I pare my checking down to every other minute.
    I'm always amazed to read horrible reviews about books that are so flippin fantastic! I know we all have different tastes, but really, I think some of these nasty reviewers are wearing too-tight underwear and need to eat some chocolate and chill out.

      1. When I get bad reviews, I'll hunt those people (likely women) down and send them a box of chocolates and some super-sized undies. 🙂

  8. Go read my 1 and 2 star reviews (God knows I have plenty) and any writer will feel better about their own writing. Lol. There is absolutely no way -- nearly impossible -- to NOT let bad reviews get to you until you hit the point where you go numb because you've been forced to build such a thick coat of armor. I reached that point last summer. Besides, it's not you or your book with the problem. It's the reviewer. They either didn't connect with your story. They are mean and spiteful people who get off on squashing the success of others. Or they are jealous "expert" writers. (Yep, our peers leave some of the nastiest reviews.) There is NOTHING you can do about any of these types of people. Just continue to do what you're doing, which is what you love doing: write the stories you want to write. Also, I 100% agree with you on one thing: Never EVER respond to a bad review. Don't even respond to the good reviews. DO NOT ENGAGE. Reviewers thrive (I mean, feed) on authors who engage. Reviews are for the readers, not the authors, so my advice to other authors: keep out of that open forum. It's not your arena to compete. Great post Kate! Xx

    1. You're right, we shouldn't read them. But I can't seem to help myself! I read them all. On Amazon, but not all of them on Goodreads. I can't venture there, it's too brutal!

  9. As a reader, I'm more inclined to read a book with some 3400 words telling everything she didn't like about the book. 3400 words My thought was "honey, just go get some counseling for your issues instead of tear others down." My time will come. It will hurt. But Laura's right, even the Bible wouldn't get all 5 star reviews.

    1. It does hurt! I'd love to not read them, to walk away, but I know I'm not built that way. And yes, sometimes it's completely about the reviewer! xo

  10. The best advice repeated again and again, "Don't respond." Don't feed the sharks, as they say. Although I don't have a book out for review, yet, I understand the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into writing one. And, the truth is no-one can please everyone. Thanks for sharing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  11. I have a theory. There are a lot of folks who want to write a book and for one reason or another haven't yet. Now, because they believe themselves to be an authority, they bash books right and left. If you get a one or two stars from these people it is because they are jealous. This is my opinion and one I rely on when the bad reviews show up. This and wine help a great deal. Good to know I'm not the only one. 🙂

  12. great advice.

    I left a street team because the author wanted members to put likes on 4&5-star reviews, and thumbs down on anything 3 and below. While I felt it was unethical and violated Amazon's TOS, I didn't really think it served a purpose. Can't expect perfect reviews. Some people think they're supposed to be critics, some rank anything with 1 or 2 stars, some gush, some are honest, some are far-fetched, some make no sense at all. Bad or good, a review counts in the algorithms. Have to have a thick skin. Even if it hurts. Unless it's a stalker, it's best to just move on.


    1. Of course! I agree with you. If you don't have any bad reviews, you don't have enough readers :).

  13. Kate! I can't decide if your post is a bit of serendipity, or you have been listening in on my life recently.

    I had a one star review from someone who is angry with me about an unrelated, social media OPINION. This person was an “old friend" . . . now a just skunky acquaintance.

    Long story short, he decided to vent his anger and dissent over my opinion, by maliciously using my Amazon author page to criticize a book he had NEVER READ and slandered me personally. I reported it to Amazon and within ten minutes they pulled his initial comments, but gave him the opportunity to re-write. He had not purchased the book, but quickly bought the Kindle version so that he could continue his rant the next day. Nothing in his next salvo was remotely valid. I reported it to Amazon and they basically said, he is entitled to say what he wants. RULE 1: DO NOT ENGAGE -Let their words reveal their true intent.

    So when you encounter "reviews" that have absolutely nothing to do with your book, or garner various cranky cracks - take it in stride. Most of the time, they are so insecure with themselves, all they have is their ignorance and low brow mentality to fall back on. Catherine Wolffe is right - a big green-eyed monster of jealousy is probably motivating them. Also P.C. culture is rampant, trying to quash free speech and civil debate as evidenced in Laura Drake and Julie Clark's comments. ~Sue Simonich, author of Painted Skies

    1. Well, I'm happy I found you right at the right moment! Oh, the unrelated to the book reviews didn't even get touched on in my post, but I've had a handful. Sigh. Oh people. As Seinfeld says, "People. They're the worst." Wishing you continued success! xo

  14. Everyone is different. If I don't like a book enough to give it 4 stars or 5, then I'm only finishing it because I have to or have committed/promised someone I would. Not everyone is going to like you or your writing and sometimes that's difficult to swallow and move on.

  15. It's interesting to read your perspective on this. I am still working on my first book, so reviews still seem forever away, but I kind of figured I just wouldn't ever read any of them. I figured the good ones would be bad for my ego and the bad ones would be bad on every other front. But you make some good points. I may have to change my stance, suck it up and read them anyway. I particularly like your suggestion to read the reviews of books I love (by authors I love). I am often surprised to see what is said about books I consider amazing. Great post. Thanks!

    1. For me I'd never have the willpower to NOT read them! I think not reading them would be healthy, so if you can do it, go for it! I have set a limit that I read my Amazon reviews but not my Gooodreads reviews. That helps :). Good luck on the book!

  16. The other thing that helps me is how I look at reviews, as a reader. If I'm still on the fence about buying after reading the blurb, I'll check out the 5 and 2 star reviews. Why not the one star? Because those are the dreg-people - unbalanced, or have an agenda.

    If the two star review highlights an issue that I don't mind, (too sad, hate the names, too many words, etc), then I buy it.

    I just hope that people who read mine have the same evaluation method!

  17. As my own debut release draws near, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your honesty and advice in this post, Kate. The words from others who have been there are immeasurably helpful to those of us on the cusp, so THANK YOU for so generously sharing your experience.

    1. HA! You think I'm being altruistic, when really I'm self-soothing! Half kidding... but only half ;). Can't wait for your release! xo

  18. The internet with its anonymity can, unfortunately, bring out such meanness people. I'm not a published author, yet, but hope to get to experience what published authors have felt.

  19. Big sigh. Thank you everyone for the warnings. The subject matter of my book will be controversial for some people and I expect to hear about that aspect. But personally mean comments or criticisms of researched content (like the town in Australia) scare me. Getting fitted for my thick skin.

  20. "Bipolar reviews" throw me for a loop. What one person loves about a book, another person hates. That makes it difficult to know what to do on future writing projects. Do I listen to the critics? Or do I adhere to my style?

    Most readers ignore how a book is written if they like the story. If they feel that an author has failed to meet their expectations, they will express disappointment. Sometimes, it's as simple as that.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Kate. Pinned & shared.

  21. I loved listening to the authors who commented. I would hope that when I write my first book, I'll be able to take the bad with the good. If the majority of reviewers were engaged enough with your book to review, then I'm sure it has resonated with many others who don't review. Best to you all.

  22. My first review on my first book was a one star. The person flipped through the book reading a paragraph here, a page there, then announced the book was missing pages, sections, and chapters. If he skipped it it didn't exist. Reviews may be for readers, but those who leave a review without actually reading the book drive me nuts. Or the reader of military action who reviews a romance and says "I don't read in the genre so its a bad book." Arrrggggh. If they don't read the genre how can they tell the book is bad? Fantasy is bad just because its fantasy? After that first review I don't read the reviews.

  23. Hi Katie, some reviews are badder than bad and colder than cold.

    Approach them - if you must - like investigating a threatening rattlesnake. Put aside your emotions and use pure logic or you might get hurt.

    Here is a quote I found that might soothe the pain and bring some peace:

    Life is a journey. It is not a race to test
    who can finish first or who can end up with the most loot.
    Rather, life is best enjoyed as a meander -
    watching the view to left and right - above and below -
    as the days slowly move past in dress review.
    - Jonathan Lockwood Huie

    One other point: some of the world's finest music, art, architecture, movies, and books have received wretched initial reviews. Your talent will out, regardless of the opposition.

    As always, wishing you every happiness and success. CKG

  24. I went back to this article after discovering that my very first book's very first review is the dreaded 3-star "meh." The review isn't bad, is fair and constructive, and the reviewer wants to read my next book. I get the sense it's not a reader who throws around rah-rah 5-star reviews like grass seed. But in the Amazon world, when your book has one review and it's a 3-star, no one will even click on it from among all the 4- and 5-star books.

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