Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dear New Novelist: About That Bad Review...

It's a difficult pill to swallow, but when you're done with your short story, your novel, your poem, anything, and you get it out in front of the world, not everyone is going to love it. Go take a look at your favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads. It's got 2 and 1-star reviews. My own husband can't stand Harry Potter (I married a hater? I know, right? But he introduced me to Terry Pratchett, so I can get past it.) There is no single book or story that's universally loved, and there never will be. Some people won't like the genre, others will hate the writing style or plot, and some will just be around to troll because they think it's fun to rile up fans. Inevitably, when you put your hard work out for public consumption, the day will come where you'll get... a bad review.

It's going to stab you in the heart, and how that makes you feel depends on you.

Maybe you'll feel like a failure, even if you have a hundred other reviews that are 4 and 5 stars. You'll pour yourself a glass of liquid comfort (wine, hot chocolate, one of those huge-ass milkshakes that's got a whole slice of cake on it), have a cry, and enjoy a good pity party.

Maybe you'll get mad. How dare they? Haven't they ever heard "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?" How could they have never watched Bambi?

Or maybe you'll laugh it off, shrug, and go about your day. But no matter what you do, the words will still be there, circling around in your head, popping up unbidden like a Jack-in-the-Box and slowly eating away at you. 

You'll go back and read it again, and you'll notice something. Maybe they misunderstood what you meant in a scene they say they hated. Maybe they're talking about something that never happened, like they reviewed the wrong book. Maybe they're mad they bought the wrong book entirely. Whatever the reason, you'll read it through, and then, when you're done, your eyes will linger on the little option below it.


Brake brake BRAKE. Slam those pedals to the ground and pray to God you're not hitting the accelerator, because this is where you need to STOP

It's time to talk about the Author's Big Mistake. That is, replying to comments. 

How are you supposed to handle bad reviews? Well, you've got three options:

1) Ignore it. After all, a handful of bad reviews don't cancel out the good ones. One person saying, "I didn't like it" is one person's opinion. Eventually, it'll be just one review among many, and if it's factually wrong or trolling, it'll probably be downvoted by other reviewers.

2) Kill them with politeness. "Thank you for commenting! I appreciate your honesty and will take your thoughts into consideration in the future." It at least makes you look like the bigger person, but it also opens you to conversation with them, which can lead to #3.

3) Try to argue your perspective. Or just argue. After all, writing is your business. Bad reviews will cost you sales, right? Probably. So it only makes sense to respond and tell them "No, see, here's where you're wrong. Please correct your review." Right?

Note: I'm being sarcastic. Have you ever seen what happens when a business responds to a bad review with negativity? It ain't pretty. And this applies to authors too. When a person leaves a bad review, if the recipient ignores it, then its just one review among reviews. Some people will read a bad review and not buy it. Others will read the same review and be convinced they need to try it themselves. In the end, it'll probably balance out.

But when the recipient responds with criticism of the reviewer, it gets out. The reviewer mentions it on their blog or posts about it on Facebook or on a forum, and then it's like a high school fight: everyone's gotta see it and get in. Then the reviewed has to defend themselves from the flood of negativity and voices going "Dude, stop" because they're wrong too, right? You have to save your business! Everyone has to see that you're not the bad guy! And then you're too far gone.

Even if you manage to avoid the flood of negative PR from responding defensively, you've still put evidence out there that you have thin skin, or that if someone doesn't like your work, they'll get spoken down to or yelled at. Your own bad behavior will cost you more sales, reads, or reviews than any negative review ever could.

So stop and look at that reply button. Sip your wine, tea, hot chocolate, or crazy-ass milkshake. If you absolutely must write a response, write it in a separate document, not the reply box. And then, when you're done, delete it.

Because no bad review could ever do as much damage to your career as you can do yourself with a reply.


  1. Great post, Maggie. And a great reminder. I'm always amazed when I read stories of this happening. In this day, you'd think people would know the consequences, but newp.

  2. I agree, great post! Especially since I received one recently. Mine was from a blogger whom I had sought out--you know, emailing 20 bloggers who review your EXACT genre and getting maybe one or two responses back--so I was THRILLED to get a response. But then later, the two-star review on Amazon apppeared, centered around something that they didn't like, as if it had happened in real life and/or I was advocating the action in real life! I definitely had to rein in my impulse to say, "Reality check! Fictional characters did this thing. It's a book about vampires and aliens. WTF?!"
    15 years ago...might have been ugly. Today...I shoved it deep down inside. And then took it out on my husband !!! :)

    1. Sounds like you handled that exactly how you should have. Sorry about the review, but be proud of your own maturity handling it.

  3. It did feel good to be mature. Thanks again for posting this reminder that it is, in the end, the best road to take. It may be common sense to a lot of people...until they're in the situation themselves!