6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews


Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.

But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.

Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.

Yes, I am normally dressed in evening wear and wearing (what was) a full face of make-up when crying over bad reviews. Who isn’t?

What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.

And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.

How can this horrible feeling be avoided?

  1. Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
  2. Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
  3. Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
  4. Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
  5. Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
  6. If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”

On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.

(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)

18 thoughts on “6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews

  1. Marleen Kennedy says:

    I only look at Amazon reviews when I’m suggesting books that might be bought the library I work for; nothing with three stars or less gets ordered.
    For personal use I always go with a books blurb, previous experiences with the same author and the opinions of people I know and who have directed me in the right way in the past.
    In my opinion reviews tend to be personal opinions, based on the reviewer’s opinions, world-view and even mood at the moment of reading writing. Without actually knowing the reviewer and their tastes with regard to other books, their opinion of any given book is pretty much useless I feel.
    I know Celine Kiernan (Moorhawke Trilogy, wonderful) never reads her reviews, even if we all tell her they’re wonderful, and I guess that is probably the safest bet, although I’m not sure I’d be able to resist the curiosity if it were me.

  2. Rebecca Brown says:

    Very grace-full. I hope if (when?) I start getting reviews I can take them in as level-headed a way.

    I tend to only review books on amazon that I like and likewise if I blog about a book. This night be cheating a little as I often look at reviews when choosing a book, but then again reviews can only ever be taken as a SUBJECTIVE guide, you can’t buy a book solely based on its reviews. It’s not really taking any responsibility for your book-buying, is it? “I didn’t enjoy it but that can’t be my fault for choosing a book that’s but my thing but YOUR fault for giving it a good review”.

    Oops that’s rambling a bit but you get the message. Anyhow, great post again and good advice.

    And you’re welcome 😉

  3. Emma Newman says:

    I have bookmarked this for when my first reviews start to roll in. My anthology is being launched on March the 1st, and the prospect of it being reviewed by people who have never met me, nor interacted with me online, scares the hell out of me. That fear trebles when I think of the YA book being released later in the year. I’ve been hoping / waiting for that to be published for five years… lots of emotion tangled up in it.

    This post will definitely help, thank you x

    • John says:

      It is scary and it is hard not to be emotional about your work. I just shrug at people who sometimes seem to go out of their way to get a writer down. Guess what? We keep on writing and improving the craft. The greatest book ever has its haters. So feel fearful, but enjoy the inenvitable success that will come your way.

  4. Viv says:

    Catullus(the very rude Roman poet who is worth learning Latin just to get to read it in the original. Honest) wrote a poem that was called Odi et Amo(I love and I hate) and basically maintains that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.
    Someone taking the time and trouble to rip your book to shreds is also someone whose buttons you have pushed in some way and they hate it. Hate it enough to want to rip you to pieces. You got a reaction. That beats all the inertia of people who just can’t be arsed to say anything.
    Of course, ask me again after I get a bad review and I will blubber wildly and get very, very drunk. That goes without saying.

    • John says:

      Yes, sometimes bad reviews don’t do what the reviewer intended (i.e. to hurt the book) – they help interest and sales. To the author, writing the best book they can, and getting paid for it is what they want. The reviews become a lot less important after that. Just ask JK Rowling and EL James.

  5. octoberdaniels says:

    I think part of the reason I’m not finishing my novel is because I’m too damn scared about what other people will think of it. Sometimes I’ll turn a single paragraph into three pages because I’m afraid people won’t understand me. Sometimes I’ll make sure a minority character doesn’t get mauled by an antagonist just so I don’t end up with a hate crime lawsuit on my hands.

    So I can only imagine how I’d feel if I got a needlessly scathing review. I’m a self-conscious person. But it was nice to read about some strategies I may be able to use in the future.

    It’s better than those assholes (we all know one) who laugh at any reviews that don’t declare them the greatest writer who ever lived and say, “whatever, they just don’t understand true poetry.”

    • John says:

      Hey, we are all self conscious! Write your book, go for it, and remember that even if you invented the rainbow, someone would say ‘oh you know that pot of gold people say is there? It’s not there! Your creation is rubbish to me!’ Actually a scathing review can help, because the next time you get one, if you do, won’t hurt as much.

    • Sharon Desruisseaux says:

      I am an Indie author like many out there. I spent twenty years while raising my three daughters on my own, researching and writing my novels in any spare time I could find. I know first-hand the trauma writers endure when they are truly on their own. I left a toxic job to pursue my writing career(I even wrote a book about that “Evil Sells”) to finish and perfect those novels I had out my soul into and every last penny I could not spare but did. I am literally in a situation where I am the bohemian writer. I have been working 12 hours days and only recently had to take weekends off to make this work where I can earn some type of living. My daughters are older now so I can devote more time to my writing since they are busy doing their own things. I do not mean to ramble with this-but I just wanted to set the pace as I truly appreciated your blog. I have received good reviews and they warmed my soul for hard work rewarded. There is literally blood sweat and tears for all I endured and sacrificed to write these novels and more that I am working on. I am always revising my novels and updating the graphics-well, because I can. Yet, a few months back when some wonderful friends and family volunteered to help me edit and I agreed since I was not seeing the light of day my any means with my schedule. I then published those novels with a quick glance-totally trusting all their hard work to help me. Those people were highly educated by the way, so it was understandable. Then the bad reviews came in that were so horrid I could barely breathe! I wanted to crawl under a rock to die silently in shame! Yikes! I responded to my first on in total self defense feeling utterly helpless and in shock. Bad idea-the comments came rolling in making me out to be a viper! You advice on waiting a few days-TOTALLY TRUE! So, I recanted and removed my responses and waited until I cooled down. I then took the total humility approach and went back on to thank them for their honesty. I bit my tongue and thanked them for their opinion. For, I honestly do value the reader’s opinion as any wise author should. One should value even the bad reviews for you sparked their fury enough for them to attack! I did and ripped apart each book I have published so far! I corrected, revised, and reformatted those books to perfection! I then added the link with my must humble of apologies. Yet, with Amazon, those new editions with the revisions were lumped into the old reviews and my book sales are suffering. I honestly know that the revisions I have up there are certainly good work, yet those reviews do follow. I know big time authors can afford to have reviewers write gorgeous reviews and publishing companies have reviewers on staff. However, it is tough when you are putting your soul into something and cannot afford such. I do have wonderful reviews which I have to look at in times like this. I know that there is always a critic. I understand that. I am at the point of changing my author name to get my books the true light they deserve! I love the other responses and I honestly want to say to those other authors out there-do not give up! To have a dream and to be able to actually live it-is a rare thing! There is always someone who will not like your book-it is a given. I am so sorry this is so long but I hope I can help someone out there as this blog has made me laugh and cry and thank the heavens that someone out there understands-we are not alone! And I love the post about the opposite of hate is indifference-very true and wonderfully put! The fact that I sparked that much emotion in someone-Excellent! lol! Thank you for that wonderful perspective! Good luck all of you Independent authors out there like me and do not give up the fight, will not give up the fight and so forth! Kudo’s to you brave souls. Being a writer in this economy is a huge battle-yet, it is the cry of our souls for we would not be braving the wilds out there as we do if it were not! Peace all!

      • Viv says:

        Since I wrote that comment I’ve had a couple of bad reviews. I did cry, a bit, but I took it on the chin and accepted it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’ve also realised I was badly let down by the person who did the proofreading of my first novel, for that and for a lot of other things, and who is no longer a friend(and whose actions have proved he never really was) These things pass and they do make us stronger and we learn from them.
        peace to you too.

  6. Cassandra Black says:

    Honestly, I cringe when I get a bad review, throwing a tantrum like a two year old. I tell myself it’s just the “competition” trying to beat me up. Then, later, I’ll go back and objectively read the thing and try to gain something from it so I can use it to make me a better writer. There are golden nuggets in bad reviews … takes a grown up to find them … getting there, sloooowly, but getting there. GREAT POST! Thanks for sharing. 🙂 Cassandra Black

  7. Susan Jugoon says:

    You’re funny! I like your blog – you have a sense of humour. I’m putting your website on my favourites list – so I can have a chuckle in the morning while I read your posts.

    And, don’t worry about the critics. They’ll always be there, but you can use them to your advantage. You can feed off of their energy – maybe even write a book about them! Believe me, everyone can relate to having critics in their life…

    And so what if you get a bad review? It’s just one biased opinion. As long as you have a solid fan base that “appreciates” your work, then it’s worth the effort. So, enjoy your writing, keep at it!

    Good luck,
    S.E.Jugoon 🙂

  8. marcjamesauthor says:

    I have actually opted for step six and by chance have stumbled albeit a little drunkenly onto your blog.

    From what I have read you have been writing for far longer than I have and it is refreshing to hear that I am not alone.

    I have received a total of three reviews for my two books, they have both been self published in the last two months.

    The first two were good reviews and sales have been okay.

    I hadn’t looked at how they were doing over Christmas and when I looked today I had more sales along with my first one star review.

    It was incredibly brutal but then I saw beer in the corner of the room.

    At first I panicked and considered removing the books but I have calmed down a little. Of course I wanted to reply but I think that may do more harm than good.

    I have chosen instead to try and ignore it, difficult though it is.

    Anyway I’m glad I found your blog and I look forward to reading more.

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