3 Tips for Surviving Bad Reviews

Well, it was bound to happen.

After 37 straight five-star reviews on Amazon in nearly four months of publication, and a string of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, Baby Grand got its first clunker. A two-star review. Basically, the dude thought that my book was boring, smelly, ugly, totally gross, and that its mother dressed it funny. (I’m paraphrasing.) No, seriously, it just wasn’t for him.

Hey, it happens. I knew my good fortune would come to an end eventually — it’s just the nature of criticism. My daughter, who was reading the review over my shoulder, asked, “Are you okay?” Surprisingly, I was. Stung, of course, but okay. My reaction reminded me of when I was in grad school and I had been getting straight As class after class — something you can certainly get used to — and a professor finally gave me a B+, breaking my streak. I remember thinking for a moment, Oh, darn. But then life went on. I thought that perhaps, being a professional writer, I’ve gotten used to rejection — editors not liking queries or articles, editors requesting changes. After all, Baby Grand was rejected some ten times last year by traditional publishing editors before I decided to self-publish and make a go of it on my own in January. Writing can be a very humbling profession.

But I think it’s just that I know, deep down, that bad reviews happen. Here are three things that I try to keep in mind when I get them:

1. Even universally beloved books –from the classics to contemporary favorites — have bad reviews. Author Ellen Meister, whose new novel Farewell, Dorothy Parker will be published in February, and I discussed this when she came out to East Hampton to appear on The Writer’s Dream recently. Pick a book, any book, that you absolutely loved. Find it on Amazon, and I guarantee you that there will be bad reviews for it. So if Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami and Stephen King can deal with it, so can you.

2. Not all reviews are created equal. I have a system when I rate books on Goodreads:

  • 5: I absolutely loved the book. Couldn’t put it down. Were there some problems with it? Maybe, but overall when I finished the book, I thought, Wow.
  • 4: I liked it. Didn’t love it. There were some issues, but overall a good read.
  • 3: It was okay. Fair. Some good, some bad. Didn’t leave me feeling anything in particular.
  • 2: The book really wasn’t for me.
  • 1: I truly did not like this book.

That’s my system. But, guess what? Not everyone rates books the way I do. Just yesterday, a Goodreads friend gave a book three stars, and when I commented that I was sorry to hear she didn’t like it all that much, she responded by saying, “Did I come across wrong? I LOVED the book.” Sure enough, I read her review, and she had loved the book. It just goes to show that not only are our tastes in books very subjective but how we review those books is subjective too.

Plus — and perhaps this should be a separate bullet, but — I think reviews often are based (unfairly) on expectation. My fifteen-year-old son reminded me of this recently when I was reading Tana French’s In the Woods.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I expected it to be more of a page-turner, thriller type book,” I said.

“Mom, you can’t judge a book based on what you thought it was going to be like.”

It was a good reminder, and I don’t think many people remember that when they rate/review books. Yes, reviews are by their very nature subjective, but it’s unfair to give a poor rating to a book just because you expected a different book, or because it is filled with profanity and you don’t normally read books with profanity, etc. I know that you can’t help but bring your life and opinions and expectations to a review, but try to keep them in check and keep an open mind. A fiction review should be based on how effectively the author has told his or her story.

3. Success is not measured by customer reviews alone. The book that comes to mind here is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which — however you felt about it (I gave it three stars on Goodreads) — is a bona fide success story. A best seller that resonated with a lot of people. How many of us have said, “If only one person truly enjoys our book, or if our book makes a difference in one person’s life, it’s worth it.” Well, this one certainly qualifies.

There’s been so much talk lately about reviews. This morning, I read about how best-selling crime writer RJ Ellory had been caught not only faking his own glowing reviews, but bashing his fellow crime authors with the same pseudonyms — a story that comes on the heels of the New York Times article, The Best Reviews Money Can Buy, about authors, most of them self-published, who were found to have paid for favorable reviews. And as I was putting the finishing touches on this post a few minutes ago, Jody Hedlund’s latest post arrived in my inbox: What to do when people don’t get your story.

Yes, reviews are important. And the bad ones hurt. But they’re not everything. Take pride in the good ones, and try to learn a little something from the inevitable bad ones. And if you can’t learn something, well, then just remember that we can’t win ’em all, nor should we try to.

Have you gotten a bad review for your book? How did you deal with it?

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5 thoughts on “3 Tips for Surviving Bad Reviews

  1. This is a great post and you are right; there are very different standards by different reviewers. It is fantastic that so many of your first reviews were so good! I has several very good reviews; my friends and family sent private ones and did not post! And then the first Bad one. Unlike you I was a little thin skinned and it did hurt for a few days..I did eat a lot of chocolate and licked my wounds in self pity., but I grew, I have since had many more good ones and a few bad ones. Every book is different and not for everybody!
    Thanks for a great post it is a MUST SHARE!

  2. Dina,

    I love your upbeat and honest attitude! You are a breath of fresh air in the publishing business.

    I have one 3-star review for The Final Salute and at first I was shocked because up until then I had all 5 and 4 stars. Then along came the 3-star. It took me a few days to realize that this guy actually did me a favor. He liked my story overall but said it didn’t have enough flying action for him. The reason I’m now proud of that 3-star is because it gives me credibility. It means that a total stranger ordered my book, read it, and thought enough to post a review.

    I’m going to share your your latest post on FB. Thanks again for helping me not feel so isolated.

  3. Hi Dina, great post and a great attitude. I loved Baby Grand and will be picking up your next work off the back of how much I enjoyed this novel, but of course everyone does have a different system when it comes to reviewing books. For me life is just too short and my time too precious – so, If i’m not enjoying something I just stop reading it. Of course by not finishing the book I don’t feel I’m in a position to give it honest critique and justify writing a bad review. Why should I waste any more time on something I didn’t even like – I’ll quite happily tell friends and family if I don’t like something, but writing reviews takes time and effort, so the only books I finish nowadays and review are always 5 stars in my opinion. The best books are the only ones that compel me to write a review. That’s just how I roll, but it would be a very boring world if we all rolled the same way wouldn’t it…Not to mention the fact that there would be loads of ungathered moss lying around. Good luck with your next project, Dina, I look forward to reading about your plans on the blog. Have a great weekend.

  4. WHAT???? I love your book and wish I could give it AT LEAST 10 stars! That said, I suppose we each can have our own taste and no book can be universally loved, I suppose. That said, I think I’d be a big baby about it so it’s a good thing I’m still querying one and revising another novel — it will give me time and experience to toughen my skin. I knew all those rejections would come in handy for *something*. p.s. Your daughter sounds like mine. What a sweetie to be worried about how you were doing!

  5. I checked out the profile of the reviewer that gave you the 2 star review and he/she tends to be hypercritical dispensing a lot of 1, 2 and 3 star reviews. Every author will met one of these sooner or later.

    I haven’t received a bad review yet but one of the problems in the review system is that the number of stars mean different things on different websites. One example is Amazon and Goodreads: http://phantomimic.weebly.com/2/post/2012/08/do-goodreads-reviewers-lower-the-rankings-of-books-on-amazon.html

    I wish all these sites would agree on one universal system.

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