Like everything else with writing and publishing, there are a lot of opinions about how to handle negative book reviews. Here’s one from Digital Book World, one from Write to Done, and my personal favorite from Joe Konrath. I love Konrath’s advice of just ignore them. In my case, I don’t read them at all.
You read that correctly. I don’t read negative reviews of my books. I don’t argue with anyone’s right to dislike my work, and I don’t argue with anyone’s right to share their dislike. I certainly don’t like every book I read. As an author, I have the right to choose what kind of energy I want to take in, and I choose to surround myself with positive energy that supports my vision. Yes, I know…that’s a little on the woo woo side. Let me try to be more practical.
First of all, negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing, and there’s truth to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I think the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a great example. I’ve never seen a book with so many negative reviews (there are thousands of them), and yet it’s become one of the best selling books of all time. If anything, the negativity fueled the phenomenon rather than quelled it because it made people curious. There was a time when writers were told that negative reviews were the kiss of death for their books, and maybe some people still believe that, but I’ve seen many books sell well after negative reviews.
It’s not only the number of reviews you have that matter, but the type of reviews. Not all reviews are created equal. A five star review that says “Great Book!” is okay, but a five star review where readers go into some detail about why they liked the book can be very helpful. It’s the same with one star reviews. One star reviews where readers state why they didn’t like the book are fine. Really, they’re fine. It’s not realistic to expect that everyone who reads your book will like it. People have different tastes, that’s all. Then there are the one star reviews that come from a desire to be snarky. I blame Simon Cowell and the Real Housewives for making insolence something people aspire to. Still, I trust readers, and I believe they can tell the difference between honest reviews and mean-spirited reviews. They can tell if someone is simply sharing their dislike of a book or being mean for the fun of it. And don’t forget those entertaining reviews that comment on the timeliness of the shipping or the condition of the product. Just the other day I was scanning the reviews for a book I wanted to buy and there was a one star review because the book arrived in four days instead of two. I bought the book, in case you were wondering.
I understand why writers feel so hurt when they read criticism of their work. I used to be hypersensitive about such criticism myself. Creative writing classes in college were hard for me because there was an unnecessary sting in the feedback from other students. I thought the point of writers workshop was to help each other, not to hurt each other, and I didn’t understand the meanness in the other students’ critiques and I didn’t find those classes useful. Then when I began The Copperfield Review nearly 15 years ago, I received a number of anonymous e-mails that put down the stories Copperfield published. I guessed at the time that the e-mails were from disgruntled writers we had chosen not to publish, but I still let the negativity bother me. Around the same time my first novel, My Brother’s Battle, was published through Xlibris (don’t ask), and someone, also anonymous, asked how I could put such drivel into the world. Again, most likely a disgruntled submitter, or maybe even a legitimate naysayer, who knows, but it got to me.
When Her Dear & Loving Husband was published in 2011, I was known by exactly zero people. I read every review that popped up because I was fascinated by these total strangers who took the time to say things about my book. After a while, I began to realize that the reviews—both good and bad—weren’t about me or even my book. I know that sounds odd, but I believe that reviews have more to do with the reviewer than the reviewed. The Write to Done article says as much. If you give two people the same book and one loves it and one hates it, is that about the book or about the people reading the book? When we read, all we have is ourselves—our personalities, our perspectives, our likes, our dislikes, our interests, our emotions, our imaginations—and all of those traits come into play when we read. Sometimes that works in favor of our books and sometimes it doesn’t. Besides, haven’t you noticed how whenever someone writes negative reviews online, whether it’s for books, restaurants, or whatever, it’s almost always done anonymously under a false name like PookieICU or TinyTom789? Are you going to let Pookie get to you because he (or she) is venting about whatever is actually bothering him (or her)? Very rarely do people own up to their meanness (unless they’re the afore mentioned Simon Cowell or the Real Housewives). What does their negativity have to do with you or your book? Really? Haters gonna hate. Why let them pull you down?
And if someone is writing an honest review and they didn’t like your book, it’s okay. I promise—both you and your book will be fine. It just means that person isn’t meant to be your reader. Focus on the readers who like what you do. They’re the ones who are going to buy your future books. Why make yourself crazy over someone else’s opinion? That is, unless you have a mother like mine. When Her Dear & Loving Husband was first released and the reviews were popping up on Amazon, I was so happy because the majority of reviews were five stars. At the time there was something like 20 five-star reviews and one one-star review. My mother said, the way only a Jewish mother can, “Did you read that one star review?”
Despite my mother, I had grown in fortitude in the 11 years between My Brother’s Battle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I had such faith in Her Dear & Loving Husband, and I felt in my gut there was an audience for it. As a result, the negative reviews didn’t sting because I had a sense that if that person didn’t like the book, there would be others who did. After reading reviews, both good and bad, I realized I believed in what I was doing, and that was enough. That’s when I stopped reading reviews. It’s not that I don’t care if people like my work, and I don’t completely ignore reviews. When I do check my books on Amazon or iTunes, I don’t look at individual reviews, though I do look to see the average star count. I look at it this way—as long as I have more good reviews than bad, it’s all good.
Am I missing out on some feedback? Perhaps. But I have beta readers who help me through the review process, and I have editors, so I feel I’m getting the necessary outside point of view (as in outside my own head). The fact is there’s no one tougher on my own work than I am. That’s why I only publish one book a year. If there’s a book out there with my name on it, then it has passed the test of the toughest reader of all—me. And even though I’m proud of my books, I know not everyone will like them. That’s okay. Like I said, different people have different tastes. I keep writing and publishing books. I keep finding ways to grow my audience. And I keep trusting the readers. That’s what this all boils down to—trust. Trusting yourself, your talent, and your vision, and trusting the readers who want to find good books to read.