By Brian Kaufman
Somewhere, there is a published author who doesn’t read reviews. However, most authors are thrilled by good reviews and are despondent over bad ones. Since bad reviews are as predictable as flies at a picnic, I thought it might be helpful to look at ways to suffer a negative review.
Regard the review as validation. A bad review is like a stamp on a passport—you’re underway on your writer’s journey. Negative reviews are like the dive bar that didn’t serve great food or the motel with the vibrating bed that ate your quarters. “Every step in the journey was perfect,” said no writer, ever.
Have a laugh. The ability to laugh at yourself is a valuable skill. I’m not talking about running yourself down—I mean appreciating a great line directed at you. For example, a two-star review for my baseball novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song said:
“I didn’t know if the person writing it was fat, but it sure was a sad book.” ~Amazon Reviewer
I carry several extra calories, and my book was meant to be bittersweet. But I think the reviewer was trying to be funny. He was.
Consider the context. One reviewer of my Civil War novel (Dread Tribunal of Last Resort) gave the book two stars because:
“It might be a more interesting read for American citizens than non-Americans.” ~Online Bookclub Reviewer from India
Some reviewers of my horror stories reacted negatively to any gore. Readers of a friend who writes romances bitterly rejected her one book with a sad ending. Knowing where the reviewer is coming from (geographically or philosophically) can help put their criticism in proper context.
Accept that some reviewers just won’t like your writing. My zombie novel, Dead Beyond the Fence, earned this one-star review:
“What a wretched story this is.” ~Amazon Reviewer
The review was well-considered. The reviewer just didn’t like the book. Fair enough.
Don’t respond to negative reviews. I used to disagree with this advice. Back in the day, when Amazon allowed responses to reviews, I used to engage with one-star reviewers, offering a refund. That kind of response comes out of decades spent in the restaurant industry. You try to fix an unhappy customer’s experience.
Things have changed, of course. People get into online flame wars. Don’t do it. If a review is unreasonable, people will recognize that. If you take the bait and respond, you’ll come off looking petty, even if you’re justified. Silence is the professional approach.
Take solace in history. Famous writers get negative reviews, too:
“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers . . . is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” ~Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine
“The story is obviously unimportant . . . “ ~The Chicago Tribune on The Great Gatsby
Perhaps the most devastating review of all was attributed to Ambrose Bierce:
“The covers of this book are too far apart.”
Improve your writing. Criticism can help you grow as an artist. As William Gilmore Simms noted, “The dread of criticism is the death of genius.”
Finally, Philip Athans recommends, “Never read or write reviews of anything ever, and especially never read reviews of your own writing.” Mr. Athens is the published author of many fantasy novels, including Baldur’s Gate. He is that hypothetical author I mentioned in my opening comment.
Some reviews of his books are brutal. I checked.