Kill me now – what do I do about a negative review?

pillory redSome writers say they don’t look at their reviews. I don’t know how they find such sangfroid. If I know there’s a new review I have to pounce, and immediately. Inevitably, we’ll sometimes wish we hadn’t – like one of my regular readers this week, who sent me the anguished message you see in the title of this post.

After sympathy, we had a discussion that went in interesting directions, and I thought it might be useful here too.

My main question to him was this. Are you afraid the reviewer might be right? Have you got a good enough groundswell of opinions from people with sound judgement?

My correspondent replied that he knew he’d taken a risk, but wanted the final note to pack a punch. ‘That apparently has worked,’ he said, ‘and my book is being remembered – for better or worse. I have around twenty 5-star reviews and this is my first bad one.’

Twenty to one doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me. And we’re all going to get bad reviews.

I got off to an early start with My Memories of a Future Life. Just as I was gathering launch reviews, someone who’d read an advance copy sent me a furious, offended email. I’d passed muster with my trusted inner circle, but this was the first true outsider and it hurt madly. It doesn’t help that with self-publishing, there’s hardly any time for the writer to surface out of the book, so early reviews might hit us with no defences. So I was extremely relieved when the other advance readers were happy.

What did you promise the reader? Marketing

Not everyone will like your book, especially if you’re aiming for something unusual as my friend is here. Part of good marketing is targeting – as much as possible – the right readers. So check these.

  • Is your blurb misleading?
  • Ditto your title?
  • Does your cover send the right messages?
  • Does the beginning of your book promise something very different from what the reader gets (allowing for arty misdirection…. )

Nurse the bruise, then look at the averages. Note any consistent concerns and decide if your marketing apparatus could be better tuned.

Should you fight back?

No. Not unless there are libels or factual inaccuracies – which are usually hard to argue in fiction anyway. I’ve commented on Amazon reviews that said the proof-reading in Nail Your Novel was poor and hadn’t realised it was UK English. I intend merely to set the record straight, but often it’s made the reader withdraw the review.

What to do about the reader who’s genuinely offended or upset?

Probably you shouldn’t do what I did. I wrote back. A writer friend told me off for it, saying ‘never apologise for your work’. But his fury was flaming my inbox and I couldn’t ignore it. Actually, it turned out well. He admitted he had mistaken the genre in spite of everything I said – and even sent me a gift as apology. I resolved to be even more extremely careful never to mislead a reader.

What if there’s a problem with the book?

Be honest now. Pride and sensitivity aside, has the bad review touched an important nerve? If so, why?

Did you skimp – either on revising, or getting quality, useful feedback?

pilloryI’ll say this again: if you self-published, have you had enough competent appraisals?

Some people self-publish for the sake of fulfilment and completeness or to make a book for family or close friends. They’ll probably not be found by the general reading public. These remarks don’t apply to them.

But everyone else, listen up. I see a lot of writers rush to the market too soon. If you put the book up for the public, you won’t get a free pass. Get the book evaluated by someone who will tell you how to get to publishable standard. Although you might have learned a lot since you started writing, you need a professional to point out the flaws you simply cannot diagnose for yourself. (See my post about editors and how much they can surprise you with what they find. ) You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune – here’s a post about cheaper options than a bespoke development report. But all writers have blind spots, and if you haven’t had critique partners who have opened your eyes to them and changed you for the better, you’ve missed an important step.

Think to the long term. You will write more books and carry on learning. Make sure whatever you publish is something you’ll continue to be proud of.

Some experienced authors I know recommend novice writers use a pseudonym for their earliest work so they don’t pollute their real name. Get something out, satisfy your curiosity, test the water, learn the ropes. (Unmix your metaphors too.) Your early books may indeed be brilliant, or they may, with the benefit of a few years, be embarrassing. You can’t know how you’ll develop.

Could you withdraw a book that was a mistake?

That’s not as easy as you might think. With ebooks you can update the files but it’s difficult to make them vanish entirely. On Smashwords they’ll stay available to the people who bought them – although in direst straits you could overwrite with a blank file or a note of explanation. If you’ve gathered bad reviews, those will remain.

With print books, it’s even harder to hide. I changed the title of the characters book because I felt it didn’t zing enough. I asked CreateSpace if they could remove the original listing in case of confusion, but they said it wasn’t possible. It had to stay up, even if it was unavailable. And second-hand copies might still be sold on Marketplace. This made little difference to me (and some people still want the old one!) but imagine if this was your book that you wanted to bury. You can’t remove it, or its association with your name.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Sometimes we have to accept that a pie in the face is part of the job. If you look on Amazon I’ve got one or two stinker reviews for my fiction. I’ve had some that were malicious, and there’s little to do about them except make a cup of tea. If I get a remark that cuts seriously, I run it past my critiquing crew. I know they’ll tell me if it’s fair. Then I get on with the next book.

Thanks for the pics Frankie Roberto on Flickr

What do you do about bad reviews? Have you ever replied to one, or had a malicious one? Have you ever regretted putting a book out too early? Any advice to give? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by philipparees on September 7, 2014 - 8:38 pm

    I discovered quite by chance a review in a mainstream paper, the Church Times, which was entirely dishonest, and by that I mean it quoted from a paragraph in my book describing the responses ( or mostly lack of them) to a scientific monograph written 45 years ago. It talked about the work ( the earlier one) being ignored by 50 scientists and ‘rejected by publishers’ giving the impression that it was the book under review (Involution, entirely rewritten) hat he was talking about! It used information freely given by me to rubbish me, by misrepresenting what book the reviewer was drawing this information about!
    Clearly it was easier to validate his negative opinion (it was clear he had not read the book at all) by quoting indifference about another work altogether.
    I did write to the Editor about flagrant misrepresentation, and dishonesty but needless to say have had no reply. So much for ‘spiritual values’ from the mainstream Anglican newspaper.

    • #2 by Viv on September 7, 2014 - 8:43 pm

      You may be comforted to hear that we call Church Times, Church Crimes. I only bother with St Gargoyles (we subscribe. in my mind, better to know what people are up to than be caught out)

  2. #3 by philipparees on September 7, 2014 - 8:47 pm

    Thanks Viv! Good to know, but what an opportunity abused!

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 7, 2014 - 10:13 pm

      Hi Philippa & Viv! I’ve worked on a few magazines and I can’t imagine any of them being so unprofessional to not take such an objection from an author seriously, or allow them a right of reply. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s not easy being different is it?

  3. #5 by janhawkinsau on September 7, 2014 - 9:06 pm

    Great item, Those negative reviews are good to re-evaluate but so very painful. The first negative review I had some time ago now was for quite an early work and it gave me the opportunity to address issues my work had when I first began publishing. I saw it as an opportunity to grow and it was. The other negative review I received only recently and it was because the reader did not like the ‘paranormal’ influence of the book… even though its genre is paranormal. There is a dragon on the cover for goodness sake! 🙂 the one star rating I now see as a positive as I consider the reader to be ill-directed and the review to be informative of the paranormal content.
    As with your experience, when a reader shops outside of their preferred genre, then it seems insane to criticise the writer for writing in that genre… other readers I am sure can see this. I now take the good with the bad and consider the truths in reviews… and look for the phishing content on reviews or the ill informed who just want to wail. They are out there for sure.
    I once received an email saying that they wanted a free print copy of one of my books, or they would give it a bad review. Some of those reviewers are really questionably motivated.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 7, 2014 - 10:26 pm

      Hi Jan! You’ve identified some other negative reviewers here that I missed out. The people who are sarky ‘just because’, and the people who diss you in order to somehow inflate the work of their friends. I don’t quite understand how that works, but never mind.
      And as for the threatening email… I think I’ve heard of others getting these. I hope you gave it the treatment it deserves. I’d take a screen shot and put it on all the social media I could. I get really cross when people abuse our generosity and undermine the trustworthiness of reviews.

      • #7 by Tahlia Newland on September 8, 2014 - 7:56 am

        I’m pretty sure readers disregard those kind of reviews, they’re so obviously written by someone who just doesn’t like the genre. Sometimes reviews that sound negative help me to decide to read a book, eg, I hated the central character because they were always philosophising about something – I’d love that probably.

  4. #8 by Fantasy Angel on September 8, 2014 - 1:36 am

    Reblogged this on Avid Reader.

  5. #11 by Tahlia Newland on September 8, 2014 - 7:09 am

    The first book I ever put out was a longish short story. I did it just to see how it was received while my novel was with my agent. I was amazed at the reviews I got to start with, all from people I’d asked; they were better than I expected, but eventually, it got a 2 star review. I ignored it at first, thinking it just wasn’t the reviewer’s thing (sometimes that’s true, but sometimes telling that to ourself is just a way to avoid looking objectively at the criticism), but after some time, I looked at the story again and realised that it was actually quite bland. It wasn’t bad, and it was cleanly edited, but my writing had improved a lot since I published it, and I felt that it was likely bad for my career to keep it available. I unpublished it, but unfortunately, I couldn’t remove it from Goodreads, so I recommend not putting your first book up there for a start, just in case. And don’t rush to get your paperback out for the same reasons, see how it goes on ebook first – changing it is expensive as well. At least that bland short story can’t get worse reviews now. Anyway, had I not got that review, I may have never looked at it again, and I think the outcome was positive in the end. So negative reviews can be positive if they help you to see what you haven’t seen, the trouble is that you can ugrade the book, put up a new file, but the review remains.

    The really harmful negative reviews are those written by people whose sole intention is to discredit your work. When they are still within Amazon’s guidelines – and that isn’t difficult to do – you can’t get them removed. I had one of those on a free short story (a different one) where half the review was written in very demeaning language by someone who clearly knew nothing about the genre and the other half was meant to discredit the Awesome Indies and the value of the award the book had received. I figured the person (reviewing under a fake name) had received a less than stellar Awesome Indies review and was taking his frustration out on me because I’m the coordinator – I don’t even review anymore. So I paid no attention to that review, in terms of it being an actual review of the book, but short stories don’t get a lot of reviews so it dropped the overall rating quite a lot. I unpublished that book too. Not because of the review – though it was one more reason in the decision – but because it had fullfilled its role as a single short story.

    So I guess you first have to evalute whether there is anything in there you should note or whether you really can dismiss it because it just ‘isn’t their thing’ or they have ulterior motives. It’s not always obvious. Sorry this is so long, but my soon to be published novel is about an author/reviewer being bullied by another author, so how people react ro negative reviews is an area I’ve looked into quite a lot. I even have a post somewhere about how to handle negative reviews in a positive way. http://tahlianewland.com/2013/10/09/the-psychological-process-of-dealing-with-feedback-how-to-lessen-the-pain/

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 9, 2014 - 1:11 pm

      Tahlia, thanks so much for sharing this. We might all have ‘learning curve’ stories that perhaps don’t reflect what we can do now. As indies, we have more freedom to overwrite the past, although it’s not completely thorough – as you’ve confirmed.
      As for the malicious reviews, we’re all vulnerable this – but you particularly are, because of running Awesome Indies. While many of us might simply decline to review a book if we think it’s below standard, it’s your mission to do that sometimes. I can imagine it might lead to difficult stalemates.
      I’m glad you shared that link. I’m going to tweet it as a companion to mine. And good luck with your new novel – I’m guessing it will strike a lot of familiar notes!

  6. #13 by normapadro on September 21, 2014 - 11:27 pm

    What I learned from getting the first few bad reviews was examined them. I learned they were done as some type of campaign to keep people from reading my work. Another thing I noticed also was that they are prejudice which means they are either bigots or don’t like Hispanic authors. They kept complaining about the English language not being clear. There was only one review with 5 stars on my ebooks and if this person understood what I wrote then I know I can write what I’m working on. Not all reviewers are the same. Some wish you well, but there will be those that will only be there to get what you got and that is your readers by telling them that their work is better than yours.I learned this from reading those reviews. These days I’m just writing for the joy of it and not to please anyone. I wrote on my profiles that I don’t want reviews, because I’m only writing for the joy of writing and not for a career. Even though some reviews are very shameful it doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of my writings. I do notice the negative elements behind the reviews and it’s a shame that anyone can just degrade anyone’s work just to hurt others.

  7. #14 by Lena on September 29, 2014 - 5:47 pm

    I love that you recommend for folks to have external professional review of a book before it’s published. I review debut novels and some of those are self-published. A good plot can be ruined by the distraction of poor editing and formatting.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 29, 2014 - 7:24 pm

      Thanks, Lena! I just had a peek at your site and I love your description of a book as a ‘vacation on the page’. Er, I have a debut…. (well, it’s the debut as myself, does that count?’

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