Friday, September 25, 2015

Good Things About Bad Reviews

You wake up on a Saturday morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and glance at your Amazon review page. And, lo and behold, there's a nice, shiny, new little nasty-gram for you on the page. What do you do?
(a) Cry
(b) Throw things
(c) Vow to stop writing forever
(d) Shout, "Woohoo! A bad review!" 
If you picked (d), I think you've got the right idea. Here are some reasons why.

First of all, you need bad reviews. You have to have bad reviews on your page to show prospective readers that the reviews on your site are real. There is no such thing as a book that is beloved by every single person who reads it. A review page that has only four- and five-star reviews sends the message that those reviews all came from the author's friends and not from legitimate readers. The negative reviews prove that strangers are really reading your book, and they give credibility to the positive reviews. I also suspect that the Amazon algorithms probably think the same way, and that a book with a mix of reviews will probably get more face-time on the site than one that only has positive reviews, but that's just my guess and I could be wrong.

Second, as authors we are lucky to have a beautiful system in place for receiving honest customer feedback--something every good business should have, in my opinion. Reviews are that system.

I know a lot of authors who don't even read their reviews. Personally, I read every single review I get. And if it's harsh or critical, I read it several times. Then, I have a fairly systematic approach for dealing with it.

First and foremost, if I'm truly hurt or offended by the review and this is clouding my ability to look at it objectively, I have a top secret (until now) way for getting over that. I go to the Amazon pages of some of my very favorite authors and read some of *their* one-star reviews. This tends to put things into perspective. Then, once the initial pain has subsided, I mentally place the negative review into one of three buckets:
(1) This reviewer is just mean, offers no constructive criticism, and might even perhaps have some kind of emotional issue causing him/her to lash out at strangers online
(2) This reviewer has some very good points which I want to keep in mind when writing my next book
(3) A lot of other people specifically liked the things this reviewer disliked, and I did those things on purpose, so I'm probably not going to change anything based on this review. Sorry, reviewer!
The bucket (1) reviews get ignored or laughed at a bit. They can be quite entertaining sometimes, even if they aren't very helpful. You know the ones I'm talking about.

The bucket (2) reviews get a lot of attention, because those are the ones I intend to learn from. A good bad reviewer can call my attention to something I wasn't even aware of which I don't want to repeat in future books. Thank you, good bad reviewer!!

The bucket (3) reviews are a bit tricky. If the negative points are one-off (i.e. of all the reviews on the novel, this person seems to be the only person who felt that way...) I tend to shrug and think, well, my book isn't for this person, and that's OK. However, if I start seeing a lot of people making the same points, I will *consider* the notion of changing something in future books. Because there has to be a balance between writing for one's self and writing books people want to read, if you're interested in selling them.

The bottom line is that a negative review can help you grow as an author if you use it. If you're Stephen King, you probably don't need to pay attention to your bad reviews, because readers already expect a certain signature style from you and that style sells. So that's going to be your style until the day you stop writing books. But if you're not Stephen King, you're lucky. You still have the opportunity and the freedom to develop your voice as an author. Reviews, good and bad, are a priceless tool for doing this.

Authors, do you read your reviews? How do you deal with the negative ones?


  1. Good post, Kris. Reviews are part of the game - good or bad.

    I had a 1 star that said "Horrible. The worst book I have ever read, I tried to like it but could not get past the first few chapters. This is the only book (in my life) I could not finish." At first I thought it was a kick in the gut but then I reaized it wasn't signed, there was no reference to the title or content, and no constructive critisism. I assumed it was a troll and tried to get Amazon to remove it. They ignored me so I just went "Whatever" and carried on.

    I think reading your reviews are a must. It really is a way to get a feel on what your readers are thinking - provided they're being honest.

    1. Haha! Garry, when someone says a book is the "worst book they've ever read," I am always tempted to reply, "Aw, come on, I have written *much* worse books!"

  2. So far I haven't had any #1, but I expect to at some point. I've had a couple of #2, one of them a book blogger, and I had to nod and say 'yes, that's fair, she's right' about it. And I have rejoiced over #3 reviews. Yes, it wasn't for you because of ... but someone else will read it for just that reason.

    When I am considering buying or downloading a new book, I go straight for the two star reviews. I look for the real criticisms. What did people not like about it? Sometimes it is something I agree with, and I know not to download the book because of the language, explicit sex, gore, etc. Or, sometimes the review spurs me to buy the book. Oh, they objected because of the Christian message. Or because it had a bittersweet ending. Or because they used UK spellings.

    1. PD, I'm happy to see the #3 reviews also, especially when the person puts in a keyword that you know will drive traffic to your site :)

  3. I haven't experienced reviews yet, as my book doesn't officially release until November, but I'm looking forward to it. After receiving negative comments from agents and editors in the past, I'm hoping my rhino skin will carry me through the troll-like reviews. When they start rolling in, I'll use your tips to deal with them. Sound advice. How authors don't read their reviews remains a mystery to me.

    1. Sue, your book has the creepiest cover I've ever seen. And for those who don't know what I am talking about, check out Marred by Sue Coletta...