The Plus Side of Negative Reviews
By Craig Tuch
Every author gets one eventually: that first, crushing review which can – depending on the author’s confidence level and how long they’ve been writing – cause them to rethink their whole career path. The first is the worst, but few authors ever become completely immune to negative feedback.
After all, it’s likely that the author poured everything into that book – especially if it was their debut – and reading a negative review of it can feel like a public thrashing of their very heart and soul.
It’s not that novice authors are under some grand illusion that their writing is beyond reproach, but rather the opposite – a lack of self-confidence leaves them vulnerable to criticism that proves something they’ve feared was true all along.
A negative review can feel like validation from the devil that sat on their shoulder as they wrote; the one that constantly derided that last sentence or paragraph, convincing them to write and rewrite it over and over again. That same voice that would have kept them from ever publishing their book in the first place, if they hadn’t eventually learned to ignore it.
Except now that voice is back, and it’s no longer imaginary.
While a bad review might seem like the end of the world, the best advice is a borrowed phrase from the late Douglas Adams:
Negative reviews don’t spell the end of your writing career – not by a long shot. In fact, they actually have a few benefits.
You’re in Great Company
Before we get into how to turn those negatives into a positive, the first thing to keep in mind is that getting some bad reviews actually puts you in some really good company. Virtually every author of note has received them – whether you’re talking about Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Dickens – and yet no one is arguing to remove those writers from consideration as some of the greatest authors of all time.
And if you’d prefer to measure success in terms of money, how about J.K. Rowling? There are over 400 single star reviews on the first Harry Potter novel – but that didn’t stop her from becoming the world’s first billionaire author, and they won’t stop you from your success either.
In fact, it may even help you get there.
Credibility Can Increase Sales
With so many people in the world – all coming from varying backgrounds, education levels, and with different likes and dislikes – it’s only natural that nothing is going to be loved universally by everyone.
A recent report by the Spiegel Research Center helps highlight how buyers are aware of this, even going so far as to penalize products that seem ‘too good to be true’. That report found that sales of products actually DECREASE as the average star rating of a product reaches the 4.7 – 5.0 range; over the peak sales range which occurs within a 4.0 – 4.7 rating.
This means that if a book is packed with loads of entirely positive, glowing reviews, buyers view it skeptically. Instead, having a few negative reviews can actually help sales by lending credibility to the product.
But if the sales boost were the only good thing you could get from your negative reviews, my advice would be to just ignore them as they come in. Avoid reading them altogether.
Instead, I’m pitching the opposite.
By paying close attention to what at least some of the negative reviews are saying, an author can not only improve their writing, but also become a more effective marketer of their books.
Separating the Useful from the Noise
Positive reviews can be great food for the ego, but an author can really only learn and improve from the more critical ones. Unfortunately, whether they’re positive or negative, not all reviews are created equal and shouldn’t be given the same weight. The trick is figuring out which is which.
In a recent SPF podcast, author Molly McCord helped with that by identifying the five different types of negative reviews. It’s worth listening to in its entirety, but essentially the five types boil down to these:
- Valid Bad Review: One that actually points out issues a reader had with the book.
- Highly Opinionated Bad Reviews: An emotionally-charged review about a subject or issue in your book that the reviewer is passionate about.
- Personal Attack Review: Often having nothing to do with the actual book, these reviews are more an attack on the author.
- Spam Review: These often don’t even make sense, and offer no value.
- Idiot Review: Something so crazy that any reasonable person reading the review would likely just discount or laugh at the criticism.
We’re mostly interested in the first type, and possibly some examples of the second. The rest of those negative reviews can be completely ignored and discounted, and many of them can likely be reported for removal to Amazon as being against their guidelines.
The reason many of the highly opinionated reviews can be discounted is that they’re often simply emotionally-charged about one particular subject the reviewer is passionate about. But just because the reviewer happens to strongly disagree with your book on one particular matter doesn’t make your point of view wrong, or that you should even consider changing it.
Personal experience and background colour people’s opinions, making everyone’s view different. Maybe the reviewer didn’t like that you included an LGBT character in your book, because that offends their religious beliefs. Or maybe they didn’t like that you named one of your characters ‘Tom’ because that was the name of their grade school bully. Either way, issues like those can be ignored. For good or bad, reviews like that are coming from a strong personal reaction the reviewer had to your book – one that was influenced more by their own lives and experience than anything you’d written. Most reasonable readers of that review will see the opinionated review for what it is and discount it.
However, there are occasionally some opinionated reviews that also include valid concerns – either about the content of the book, or the marketing of it – and so shouldn’t be discounted completely.
Still, not all critiques require any action from you. Although there are many dos and don’ts when it comes to writing a useful, critical review, even many of those can be filed under simple individual reader bias, and determining which ones really need action is often a very subjective task – one that requires some honest introspection on the part of the author. Depending on how many negative reviews you have, this can be a daunting task.
Fortunately, there’s one quick way to help narrow negative reviews down to the most important, not-to-be-ignored type.
Since the reading experience is coloured by who the reader is, you wouldn’t want to change your book just because one reviewer hates a particular character, plot device, or your lack/abundance of exposition. But once you start to see a common thread across multiple reviews, that’s when you need to really take notice.
For example, if many of your negative reviews complain that your intro is boring and leads reviewers to abandon your book before even finishing Chapter One, that’s probably something you want to have another look at.
Of course, it’s not always so cut and dry. You may need to read between the lines.
Sometimes you may find multiple reviews that at first glance seem about different parts of the book, but when you think about it all have a common root cause. Perhaps there was something in an earlier chapter that wasn’t clear, leading readers to misunderstand later scenes. Some readers may complain about the initially confusing section specifically, while others might note the issues that they experienced later – when something didn’t make sense as a result of their earlier confusion.
Or perhaps, there’s a common theme throughout your negative reviews, as opposed to one specific plot point. Maybe it’s that your characterisation is flat, or there are too many plot holes. Even if they aren’t things you’re willing or able to change in that book, these criticisms will at least give you tips about the reader experience that you can apply to future books.
Rather than ignore these criticisms, you should use them as a guide for where you need to improve and grow as a writer – turning a negative into a positive.
At the end of the day, if you’re still unsure about specific issues that reviewers have noted, it may be a good idea to ask someone you trust well enough to give you honest feedback. A fellow author or someone from your reading or writing group, perhaps. Sometimes we all need some outside perspective.
I just wouldn’t recommend asking a family member or spouse – if your family is anything like mine, they’ll err on the side of your feelings rather than the honesty you’re looking for. (I could hand my mother something my six-year-old wrote and claim it was mine, and she’d argue I should put it up for a Pulitzer.)
Another criticism to look out for are the negative reviews that at first glance don’t seem to be about valid issues with your book – and maybe even seem to just be another example of a highly opinionated review that you can dismiss. That is: they’re complaining about something you specifically added to the book and have no interest or intention in changing, and it’s clear it’s really just the readers’ personal hang ups that triggered the negative review.
Be careful here, though, as this issue may not be about something you need to consider changing in your book, but rather something you may have gotten wrong in your marketing.
In this case, there are two main possible causes. Either you’re marketing your book to the wrong audience, or you have the right audience in general – but you need to further refine your scope within that audience.
By the ‘wrong audience’ I mean entirely wrong; a case in which you’re marketing the book as something it’s not. For example, imagine if A Game of Thrones was marketed as a hard Science Fiction novel – it would likely get negative reviews about how it’s fantasy, not sci-fi. Or maybe your YA book has no YA characters, or your clean Christian romance is filled with explicit scenes of BDSM. None of these point to flaws in the book itself, but rather signs that it was mis-marketed.
However, even if you are marketing to the right overall audience, certain negative reviews might alert you to the fact that you need to further refine your marketing within that audience.
This is something that authors of romance see so often that they’ve figured out standard ways to handle it. For instance, it’s common in most romance novels to conclude with a ‘happily ever after ending’ (or HEA). So much so that when a romance doesn’t have an HEA ending, some reviewers will actually give them a poor review because of it.
Does that mean that the author should change the ending of their book?
Definitely not. A writer can end their book however they want, and there are plenty of readers that don’t care whether a romance has an HEA. But what that author can learn from reviews like this are that they aren’t hitting their target market properly. For some reason, readers that like HEA endings are picking this book up and are then left disappointed, leaving negative reviews and perhaps shunning future works by the same author (even those that DO have HEAs).
To handle this issue, many seasoned romance writers will put something at the end of their sales blurb like “Note: This book does NOT end in an HEA.” It’s a simple enough addition to the marketing of the book that leaves the content alone, but more finely targets it towards readers most likely to enjoy it.
The same could be said for cliffhangers, triggers (rape, PTSD, etc) or many other things.
Of course, you might be of the opinion that adding content warnings to your blurb amounts to something of a spoiler – and, depending on your book, that may or may not be true. It’s not something every author will feel comfortable with, or that every book needs.
But if you suddenly start seeing negative reviews rolling in about these types of issues, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether the tradeoff of not including such warnings is worth the negative feedback you’ll receive.
No matter what, you’ll always want to write the best book you can – and no author is waiting around for insightful critical reviews to point out their flaws. After all, writing partners or beta readers do the same job but without the public humiliation. Yet, regardless of your process, even if you don’t get it right the first, second, or tenth time, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed or should give up.
Instead of looking at negative feedback as something to be worried about or avoided, keep in mind that even the ridiculous bad reviews are still making your book more sellable – and the legitimate reviews will only make your next book stronger.
As a writer, you either develop a thick-enough skin to use the negative feedback to move forward, or you stick your head in the sand and stay right where you are.
After all, writing is one of those things that you’ll continue to improve as long as you continue to do it – but no matter how good you become, you’ll never be able to please everyone all the time.
And that’s okay.