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What to Do With Your First Negative Book Review

It finally happened. I knew it would.

Somebody panned The Author’s Guide to Marketing on Goodreads.

As an agent, an editor, and a consultant, I’ve walked with a lot of authors through painful reviews and negative feedback. But that’s not the same as seeing someone criticize my own work. Even though I knew better, I still felt the temptation to respond, the natural desire to defend. My fingers itched to hit the Reply button and tell the reader exactly what he was missing, and why he was wrong.

But that would be a mistake (one that plenty of writers make these days, by the way). Instead I’m going to take my own advice and celebrate that two-star review.

Why?

Because a few online negative reviews build a book’s credibility.

Wait, what?

Think about it. We know that humans are motivated, in part, by social proof. We are more likely to try something, or buy something, if we believe that others are doing the same thing. That’s why reviews from other readers are so important in this online, hyper-communicating, Yelp-driven era.

But we’re also an increasingly savvy consumer when it comes to product reviews. Do you trust a book when it has just a handful of glowing reviews? Or do you suspect that the author’s mother and best friend made up fake names and showed their support? Or that the author signed up for one of those scammy services that guarantees 5-star reviews for a fee? (Don’t do that, by the way, no matter how hard it is to live through a season of deafening silence after a book launch. Give free books to as many legitimate reviewers as will take them, but never pay for a review that you know won’t be objective.)

ReviewStars1

Getting that first 1 or 2-star review means that a book has honest, critical, unbiased readers, even if you don’t agree with them. It means that it made enough of an impression for someone to want to share their experience.

It means that someone other than your mother is reading your work.

And even most negative reviews usually carry some value to readers who are considering your book, because reviews say as much about the reviewer as the work itself.

As Salman Rushdie said, “The only thing worse than a bad review from the Ayatollah Khomeini would be a good review from the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

A review that complains that your novel isn’t literary/sexy/patriotic/Christian/violent enough? Well, maybe that’s not the audience you’re trying to attract anyway. A review that complains that there are too many endorsements at the beginning? Other potential readers may appreciate that you have a lot of supporters. A reviewer complains that they didn’t like your plot twist? Plenty of others will be drawn to the idea that you offer the unexpected.

So if you’re feeling the sting of an unforgiving reader, grab that one star and wear it as a badge of honor. A reader who writes a review—no matter what it says—did you a favor.

Note: Keep in mind that this is advice about learning to swallow a few rough reviews. At some point, if your negative reviews are piling up and outnumbering your positive reviews, then it’s time to ask some hard questions. You may be having trouble with one of two things: either the quality of the writing or publishing is disappointing readers—which is a trap that will be hard to escape—or you are attracting the wrong readers somehow, and you need to re-tool your marketing efforts to get in front of the people who will appreciate your work. As much as you can, be objective with this.

2 Comments
  1. What a great article. I think it is easier to deal with a great review, or a negative one. Each of these you can examine, and each has its own merits. I would think the hardest to self-examine is a mid-review, one which is neither good nor bad, it is hard to determine how to determine what the reviewer meant by it.

  2. This is a very valid post. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Every author needs to expect SOME negative reviews and should take what they can from them.

    The negative reviews I pay attention to are more like “The author obviously hit ‘publish’ before proofreading,” or “Riddled with typos and grammatical errors.”

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