Reader Reviews: Getting Feedback without Becoming Obsessed

Reader Reviews: Getting Feedback without Becoming Obsessed

Jeff SomersIntermediateMindsetReader Engagement

When you’re launching a writing career and struggling to get your first work published, it often seems like the worst part of the writing business is rejection—those dry, pitiless notes and emails that say your book “isn’t what we’re looking for” or “was interesting but ultimately didn’t engage us.” Rejection is a grind, and can really wear on you.

But then you finally do publish, and that’s when you suddenly realize: There is something worse than a rejection letter. And that something is a bad review.

If this is your first bad review—congratulations! No, seriously—this is a rite of passage for all writers. The first time someone actually takes the time to publicly tell you how bad you are at your chosen vocation is the moment you graduate to the next level. This is because, as we’ll see, someone is taking you seriously.

That doesn’t make it easy, though. Any author who tells you that reading a bad review has no effect on their mindset or emotional wellbeing is probably lying to you—no author publishes a book expecting people to dislike it.

Before we get into specific ways to deal with bad reviews, take some steps in self-care: Remind yourself not to take it personally, even if the review seems like a personal attack, and remember that once you release a book into the wild you no longer have any control over what people say or think about it.

Don’t Take it Personally

In a one-star review of my second novel, The Electric Church, a reader called it the worst book they’d read that year. Which: Ouch. And this was a fairly lengthy, specific review. They obviously read the book, despised it, and had many cogent and coherent negative thoughts about it.

Bad reviews stick with you because they feel personal. You just spent months or years of your life writing, revising, and working on that book. It erupted from somewhere inside you—it’s a part of you, an expression of your inner world. So when you put it out there and someone really, really doesn’t like it, that can feel like they don’t like you. It can also feel unfair, because of all that aforementioned work—a bad review feels like none of that effort counts.

That’s because it doesn’t. No matter how much time, sweat, and suffering you put into your writing, the reader isn’t obligated to care, or to give you a good review. All that matters is whether they get something out of your work—enjoyment, entertainment, inspiration, information, something. It might not be what you intended them to get from it, but as long as they get something then you have, in some way, succeeded. But that reader doesn’t owe you anything beyond their polite attention and honest reaction. And you wouldn’t want points for trying, anyway—you want to sink or swim based on the power and success of your work.

Reviewers Only Have One Responsibility

Another mistake authors sometimes make is assuming that reviewers are actually part of the promotion for your book and have some sort of responsibility to write positive reviews. This is surprisingly common and terribly uninformed. Reviewers only have a responsibility to offer honest impressions of your work. Even poorly-written or poorly-reasoned reviews are nothing to apologize for as long as the sentiments they contain are sincere. The reviewer has exactly zero responsibility towards your happiness, career, or self-image.

The Three-Pronged Approach to Bad Reviews

I can sum up the ideal approach to bad reviews with three words: Never, always, never.

NEVER

Put simply, never read your reviews. Like the legendary Comments Section of the Internet, reviews are a black hole from which no good ever comes. I get it—you really want to know what people are saying about your work. But there are two key reasons why your best strategy is to simply ignore all your reviews:

They’re not useful

Yes, you can sometimes extract information from reviews that can help you improve your writing or understanding of your audience and market (see below), but this requires quality reviews to start with, and an objective, unemotional approach. The vast majority of reviews on the Internet (which are tapped out a few moments after the reader has finished the book, often without much thought) don’t meet those standards, and aren’t going to help you much. And a disturbing number of reviews will discuss things that have nothing to do with your writing, like the customer service they received or the physical quality of the print copy.

That doesn’t mean these reviews aren’t honest, or that other readers won’t find them useful when seeking new books to check out (or confirming their own reaction to a book). It just means most reviews aren’t written with the goal of educating the author.

It’s difficult to judge quality

The Internet is a democratic place—and a pretty flat one, where reviews from a variety of sources get mixed together. Unless you know and trust the source of the review because they’re a trusted professional or a known volunteer reviewer with a good reputation, you simply can’t know whether the reviewer’s opinion is worth paying attention to without doing some research.

It’s (usually) too late

Finally, when it comes to the book being reviewed, reading those reviews can be a waste of energy because you’re not going to be able to act on them—even if you read a thoughtful negative review and agree with some of the reviewer’s points, that book is published. While it is possible to go Full Kanye and revise a book post-publication, it’s usually a bad idea because it sows confusion and alarms people—you’re either changing a digital book that’s already on their device, which is creepy, or you’ve got a bunch of print editions that don’t agree with each other.

Note: If you feel must change a book after it’s been published, be up front about it. Transparency is key in post-publication edits and revisions. Pretending that a previous version never happened is insulting to readers who read it—and maybe liked it very much and didn’t notice or care about the flaws you’re supposedly correcting. It’s always better to have the trust of your readers than to preserve some imaginary perfect track record.

(Disclaimer: I have obviously broken this rule many times. Every time you fall off the Ignore Bad Reviews wagon, dust yourself off and decide it’s the last time).

ALWAYS

If you release a book to the public, you will always get bad reviews. This is guaranteed. Heck, even Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written, has a bunch of 1-star reviews, and while some of them are concerned with the quality of the physical book itself, some are actually thoughtful essays on why literally everyone has been overrating this novel—which, I must stress, for emphasis, isone of the greatest novels ever written—for more than a century.

A book will always get bad reviews, and it doesn’t really mean anything. Just because someone took the time to write a bad review doesn’t mean they’re right, and as noted above bad reviews in the modern age aren’t always useful. Some of those 1-star reviews for Anna Karenina are well-reasoned and well-written (if wildly mistaken) ruminations on the artistic value of the work, but many are just complaints about the quality of the binding or the customer service the reader experienced while purchasing the book.

NEVER

Finally, never respond to reviews. There is no cheese in that trap. You might think you know how to handle yourself on the Internet, but complaining about, arguing with, and otherwise engaging with bad reviews (and, by extension, the reviewer) only offers negative outcomes. In other words, it’s not a good look. And there is no disclaimer here: This is a hard never.

“Okay,” you’re saying to yourself, like a crazy person, “don’t call out reviewers in public like I’m demanding a duel over a bad review, got it.” You’re halfway there—the hard never on responding to reviews includes private communications. Don’t DM a reviewer to discuss a review unless they’ve reached out to you first. This applies to positive reviews as well, by the way. Believe it or not, just because a reviewer loved your book doesn’t mean they necessarily want to speak with you.

How to Handle Bad Reviews

Okay, you’ve ignored all this good advice and read all your bad reviews, and now you’re sitting on the floor of your closet sobbing. How do you process the fact that someone thinks your book is terrible? Here are a few concepts to explore.

Distance yourself

Here’s some of the best advice you’ll read all week: You are not your book. People can think you’re terrific as a person, human being, and fashion icon and still think your book is a two-star debacle. Don’t let a bad review make you feel bad about yourself or depressed about where you are in life. The only thing a bad review should affect is how you think about the book itself and the writing you put into it.

Calibrate

Go back and read the review again. Is it really a bad review? Sometimes authors have a small but loyal audience that reliably gives all their work 4- or 5-star reviews, which can make a 3-star review seem like a slap to the face. But just because a reviewer didn’t think your book was the best thing they’d read all year doesn’t automatically mean they despised it. And a bit of criticism over your style, plotting, or characters doesn’t necessarily make it a bad review—there’s a lot of daylight between “bad” and “perfect” and you find it in a lot of 3- and 4-star reviews.

Also, look for patterns. If several negative reviews harp on the same aspects of your book, they may have a collective point. If everyone hates your plot twist, perhaps the twist was poorly planned or executed. But if every negative review discusses different aspects of your book, there’s obviously much less consensus about what works or doesn’t work in the book.

There’s also something a fellow author calls the “Interesting-Bad” review. This is when the review is ostensibly a bad one, but the reviewer has a lot to say about your book, and spends a lot of words digging into aspects of the book. While the overall takeaway might be negative, the fact that a reviewer puts that much effort into discussing your work means this isn’t a complete loss—a truly terrible review is one line long and clearly demonstrates the reviewer’s complete disdain for your work. So before you get ready to jump out the window over a bad review, read it again and ask yourself how bad it really is.

Review the reviewer

Often overlooked when contemplating a bad review is the context: Who is reviewing your book? And how useful are their opinions? Before you let a bad review ruin your day (or life), look at their review history, if any. You can glean patterns from the reviews people post. Do they normally read books in your genre? If not, they may have made a poor choice of reading material—and you paid the price. Or are all of their reviews bad reviews? If so you may be the victim of a troll trying to get a reaction out of authors.

Remind yourself that at least someone is reading your book

It might sound simplistic, but it’s a true (and comforting) takeaway: If people are reviewing your book, that means people are reading your book. And a bad review means your work triggered a response, which is a good thing. In other words, the only thing worse than a bad review of your book is zero reviews of your book.

And finally, there’s the ultimate power move when it comes to bad reviews: Use them to get better.

How to Use a Bad Review to Improve

In the immortal words of Cliff Poncier in the film Singles, “This negative energy just makes me stronger!” If you insist on reading your reviews, you soon realize that bad reviews can be sources of information you can use to improve your work—not the work you’ve already published, but the work you’ll do in the future. There are some simple things you can do with any bad review:

Mine for constructive criticism

A bad review often prompts an emotional response. But if you take a step back and push past those emotions, you might be able to benefit. As a writer, you’ve likely dealt with all kinds of feedback—from teachers, from beta readers, or from editors. Most writers will readily admit that this feedback improves their writing, exposing blind spots and stress-testing plots.

When you receive a bad review, try to view it through that lens. Read through it objectively and ask yourself if there’s legitimate criticism you can take from it to improve your writing. Be honest with yourself and put aside your defensiveness—that’s the only way you can profit from a bad review. Most reviews aren’t helpful, and some might seem less than objective, but if someone took the time to write about your book, you might be able to turn it to your advantage by improving your writing.

Use it for motivation

Bad reviews elicit a wide range of emotions in a writer, but one of the most prominent is anger. It’s anger that pushes you to respond, to defend yourself, to attack the reviewer—all terrible ideas. The problem often lies in the isolated nature of creation: You spend years writing in the solitude of your own head, and even when you start workshopping a book the pool of opinions is sometimes small. Even if all of your beta readers work hard to be objective, a limited range of opinions can mask problems with your book. Then, when the book hits a wider range of readers negative reactions can be an infuriating shock because of the time and energy you’ve invested and the false impression that you did your due diligence.

Instead of attacking the reviewer or retreating into negative emotions, use the bad review for motivation. Channel your anger and other reactions into your work and use that energy to drive your creativity. Take specific criticisms and lean into them—if the review deplores your dialog, write something that’s all dialog. If the review complains that your plot is trite, challenge yourself to come up with the best plot twist of all time. Not only will channeling your reaction into your work add a boost of energy, it’s one of the most constructive ways to deal with a negative review.

Dig for market research

Bad reviews sometimes boil down to a difference in taste or miscalibrated expectations. If you read a book expecting lighthearted romance but get a grim horror story instead, your reaction will likely be colored by that sense of disappointment. Sometimes it’s not that obvious, though—genres and tropes evolve over time, and sometimes your book can fall into the cracks between what you think readers want and what they’ve moved onto.

Take sci-fi for example. If you write a sci-fi book inspired by 1950s Golden Age tropes made famous by authors like Asimov or Heinlein, your chances of connecting to a modern audience are very low. This process is ongoing and can sometimes move very fast—think about how the Twilight novels changed vampire stories—and how the genre has evolved since then. The first book in that series came out just 17 years ago (which simultaneously seems like no time at all and an eternity) but if you write a novel following Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight template in 2022 it will seem hopelessly old-fashioned.

Bad reviews can be clues that you’re out of step with your genre or potential market. There’s nothing wrong with writing the book you want to write and being happy with a small audience, but if you want to expand your readership and appeal to a wider range of them, examine bad reviews for evidence that you might be missing the mark when it comes to your genre’s tropes. Look for comparisons to other recent books and see what other authors are doing that perhaps you should take into account.

Generate “sideways” promotional material

When I was younger, I published a personal zine called The Inner Swine. The zine world has a lush infrastructure of reviewers and a long tradition of trading issues between publishers, and I sent a copy of every issue to a wide range of people who often wrote reviews of them. One guy wrote a lengthy negative review of one issue, and closed with the immortal line “So what does that mean? It means it’s wank.”

This was a pretty demoralizing review, although not the first intensely negative one I’d faced. But instead of simmering in anger or depression about it, I adopted the phrase. I started putting “It Means It’s Wank” on everything, and referred to the review constantly when promoting my zine. To this day I use it—I write a regular column for the zine Xerography Debt that is literally called “It Means It’s Wank.”

In other words, I made this bad review part of my self-promotion materials. This sort of tactic doesn’t always work, but if you’ve gotten a bad review that’s written with some verve and style, think about how you might flip it and turn it into an advantage—or at least a recurring joke. Not only does that take the power away from the bad review, it demonstrates you have a sense of humor about yourself and your work, and changes the narrative. Instead of being an angry writer who can’t take criticism, you’re the cool writer who doesn’t care.

Bad reviews are a fact of the writing life. Not everyone is going to vibe with your work, and we’re not always as brilliant as we think we are. But having a strategy to deal with negative reviews is crucial—and will help you to not just move on, but improve.

Further Reading

Reader Reviews: Getting Feedback without Becoming Obsessed
Hey, author!