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Your book sucks!!! How to deal with negative reviews

18 February 2013

From author Tim McGregor:

This Valentine’s Day, cupid nailed my heart with a bad review that actually got under my skin. I’ve had bad reviews before but these never really bothered me. Working in film toughened my hide from such things and I prided myself on my ability to shrug off scathing remarks and harsh criticisms. It’s all part of the business. If you release work into the world, whether it’s a book or a film or whatever, then the world is entitled to its opinion of it. And their opinions, even the mean-spirited ones, aren’t wrong.

Pride goes before a fall, as they say, and I found myself bristling at the review that popped up this February 14th. Fortunately I had the wherewithal to walk away and do nothing about it.

Because the truth is, you can never respond to a negative review without coming off like a poor sport. No matter how witty your response or intelligent your counter-argument may be, you the writer, will come across as a crybaby who can’t take the heat.

. . . .

But here’s a little secret to temper that scathing review and irksome little one-star rating they left you. Poor reviews, at least on Amazon and other bookselling sites, don’t really matter all that much. Neither do the really good reviews. Well, they don’t hurt but when it comes to reviews, quantity wins out over quality.

It’s validation, plain and simple. That little bracketed number next to your book title that displays the quantity of reviews is more important than the quality of the reviews it represents.

. . . .

Take your typical Amazon customer, browsing through the books looking for something good to read. Two books have caught their eye; yours and mine. Both have interesting covers and compelling descriptions that match this reader’s tastes. What’s the deciding factor in choosing your book over mine? The number of reviews it has. That little number tells the potential reader that your book has been validated by that many previous readers.

Link to the rest at Ink Spatter


40 Comments to “Your book sucks!!! How to deal with negative reviews”

  1. Well, it helps if it’s bracketed by a bunch of good reviews. The best defense to a bad review is to write a book that the majority of readers enjoy.

  2. Good article.

    On the other hand, I would like to announce that I actually AM a “crybaby who can’t take the heat”, as he puts it, and I intend to respond to each and every negative review with tears, accusations and threats of hunger strikes.

    I see no point in writing anything if I can’t get some good drama out of it.

    I’m going to become so notorious for my poor response to bad reviews that most sane people will leave me alone. Others who are egged on by my threats to check myself into the hospital if the bad reviews don’t stop, will just become fodder for my next book, a “tell-all” about the life of an author who is persecuted by her readers.

    Just offereing another option.

  3. I had what I have to call my first bad review today and it wasn’t even a one star but a three star and the first sentence was “I found this book quite boring” – OUCH!!! Of course I disagree. And it has irked. But surely we can’t please all of the people all of the time, can we? So, what the heck! I agree with you, Tim. At least this stranger went to the trouble of buying and reading and reviewing my book – and at least she only said “quite boring” ;o)

    • I dunno. I’d be tempted to respond with something brief & outwardly neutral — “I regret you found my book ‘quite boring’. I will endeavor to write better in the future.” — & leave it to the reader to decide whether I was being sincerely empathetic or caustically sarcastic.

      • An author can address a matter of fact or misunderstanding, if it’s done tactfully. And I think authors that respond to answer an actual question posed by the reviewer look like they actually care.

        But it ALWAYS looks bad when an author makes a contrary (even in a passive manner, as you suggested) response to a reviewer’s negative opinion.

        • I think it all depends on how the discussion proceeds from the author’s response.

          If the reviewer accepts it as a positive statement & responds accordingly — or does not respond further — then there is no problem. After all, the author is simply acknowledging she/he has heard the criticism & is giving it proper consideration.

          On the other hand, if the reviewer uses it as an excuse to further attack the writer, then the author has given the reviewer enough rope to hang him/herself. Nothing further needs to be said.

          But I regret you found my suggestion unconstructive. I will endeavor to do better in the future.

          • An author can’t come off looking anything but petty if they can be seen as arguing a negative review. I’ve seen it literally dozens of times, and I’ve never once seen the discussion proceed in a positive manner. It typically leads to several other readers chiming in and calling the author things like “pathetic” for arguing.

            Also, I see what you did there. Hilarious.

            • Russel Blake responds to negative reviews and has ended up “friends” with the person who left the bad review… But I would not recommend his style as for most of us I think I would not go as well. I can’t remember the names of the 2-3 other authors who do this well. For the majority of us responding to negative reviews is a big mistake.

              I’ve noticed on a number of books with negative reviews that the blurb, cover, categories don’t match what’s actually in the book – genre or even storyline. Also after doing KDPS freebies more negative reviews tend to show up as people will download a fee book that they’d never pay for (& don’t seem to read blurb) and for some reason feel a stronger need to leave reviews than for books they’d paid for.

        • Pretty much this.

          I put in a review for a book that was not only bad, it was AWFUL. However, it had several gushing five-star reviews. I pointed out my professional qualifications as a potential reason why I disagreed so strongly with the other reviewers. (I admit I may have gone over the top when I said, “Also, I have had my home checked for dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Those other reviewers? Who knows?”)

          The author responded with a listing of HER professional qualifications, questioning my virility, and asking for my Facebook page so she could post nasty comments on it. (I kid you not.)

          I posted a response to her response agreeing that I was a pathetic shell of a man who lived in his mother’s basement and that for all I knew she was God’s gift to the profession when dealing with clients, but that that didn’t have anything to do with the fact that she couldn’t write a coherent sentence, nor would threatening me on Facebook improve her ability to write so I didn’t know how that would help.

          Me: 2 Author: 0

      • Bad idea. All that will do is start a flame war, and the writer will always lose that.

        • A flame war is only the start of what can go wrong, really. It’s entirely too easy for that flame war to go viral as one person mentions it in their blog, another blog picks it up, etc. and then the internet pile-on happens and the results of that can even wind up in the mainstream press.

          For an example of just *how* badly this can go, try googling “Jacqueline Howett meltdown”. It’s not pretty.

  4. “Poor reviews, at least on Amazon and other bookselling sites, don’t really matter all that much. Neither do the really good reviews.”


    I think this is balderdash.

    I’ve read guff of this nature before, and, trying to be charitable, I have gone against the bad reviews I have seen and gone ahead and bought a book. It was always a mistake.

    Certainly on Amazon and Audible, if the punters mostly say that the book is no good, I’ve yet to come across a case where they were wrong. A few shades here and there, sure.

    I’ve been led astray more times than I can recall by professional reviewers.

    Can’t think when by the crowd. Reviews matter.


    • Well, I think the number of reviews is important, too. I don’t think a lot of people are fooled by a book that’s been out for a year and only has 3 reviews, all of them 5-star.

      I’d be most likely to buy a book from an unknown author if it had a) a decent number of reviews, b) a wide variety of them. If either one of those is missing, I’d probably pass.

    • If the book looks interesting to me but has several bad reviews, I look at the reviews.

      If the bad reviews are better written than the good reviews, I go with the bad reviews. (See my prior comment about my one bad review compared to a dozen or more good ones.) If not, then not. This works pretty well.

  5. I’ve always suspected that the number of reviews and the spread are important. A review chart that favors four or five stars but has a few threes, twos and ones is reassuring for the book buyer.

    • Here’s the spread from one of mine:

      30 total reviews
      5* – 21
      4* – 6
      3* – 2
      2* – 1
      1* – 0

      As much as I want them all to be 5-star, that spread means those reviews are genuine, and not friend-or-sock-puppeted to the max.

  6. I’m afraid the rating on Amazon matters, and in a quantifiable manner: many advertising sites won’t pick up a book that doesn’t have at least a 4.0 rating. You may argue all you want.

  7. As a customer, I usually look at a selection of 5 star reviews and a few of whatever the lowest number of stars is that the book (or other product) has. I find the negative just as useful as the positive and like to take both into consideration. I’m smart enough (and I think most readers are as well) to know the difference between when someone is complaining about something completely subjective that I will likely respond differently to (the book is “boring” or they didn’t like the characters, etc.) and something more concrete like bad formatting or actual details of the plot and/or characters, etc. that I might find objectionable. Number of reviews doesn’t matter to me except in as much as a larger number of reviews is going to give me more data to make a judgement from.

    I think as far as the image of the author is concerned, you should stay completely positive no matter what. I imagine a simple “thank you for reviewing my book” or “thank you for your feedback” would be good, but ANYTHING more in depth than that is going to come across badly to a lot of people, no matter how you intended it. This is the internet. It doesn’t matter how carefully you word your response, if you address the issues a reviewer talked about it’s going to end up looking bad.

    • That’s pretty much what I do, so when I picked up a couple of one-star reviews by people who didn’t read past the first page (the book contains profanity, and since they didn’t read the book description either, they missed the warning), I decided that I didn’t care. In principle I think people shouldn’t be allowed to post reviews of books they didn’t actually read, but in practice I think it benefits me that the one-star reviews were obviously written by idiots.

      I’ve heard people warn against even leaving a “thank you,” because of the implied “I’m watching what everyone says.” So I don’t usually leave anything unless the person points out a specific formatting problem/typo (in which case I do thank them) or wants to know when the next book is coming out.

      • I read a really astoundingly good novel this weekend (“Good Intentions” by Elliott Kay, available on all major e-tailers!) that happened to be graphically erotic. The blurb was quite explicit about this: the fact that the main character has been accidentally bound to two very sexy supernatural beings is sort of the whole point of the book.

        Most of the bad reviews are basically complaining that there is too much sex in the book and it is too graphic.


        • Yep those are *facepalm* worthy. Why buy a book or download a book that warns of profanity, graphic sex, violence.

          I do think with ebooks it would help for the blurb/back cover material to be what the book opens to as a reminder to the reader what the book is about. I’ve downloaded over 2k in books and I can’t remember what the blurbs were and to expect readers to go back to Amazon to read the blurb before reading a book whose cover caught their attention as they are scrolling through downloaded books on an ereader or reading app is just not going to happen.

          I read a study (maybe in DBW) that having blurbs at the beginning may also help as metadata in searches.

  8. “Because the truth is, you can never respond to a negative review without coming off like a poor sport. No matter how witty your response or intelligent your counter-argument may be, you the writer, will come across as a crybaby who can’t take the heat.

    I’m not sure there is any reason to accept this as the truth. It would demand we assume all consumers have the same attitude, and that attitude includes ignoring the content of the response. Why assume that?

    • You don’t have to assume all consumers have the same attitude. The trouble is really one of perceived weight class.

      By this I mean this. If a 200-pound heavyweight boxer steps into the ring with a 145-pound welterweight, the heavyweight can’t win. If he knocks down the welterweight, people will think he is a bully for picking on someone smaller than him; if the welterweight knocks him down, people will think he is not only a bully, but a stupid bully, and also a bum who can’t fight. If the bout drags out and ends in a close decision on points, everyone will congratulate the welterweight for holding his own when the odds were stacked against him. No possible credit can accrue to the heavyweight, no matter what the outcome of the fight.

      When it comes to dishing out and receiving verbal criticism (or any other form of verbal expression), writers are assumed to be heavyweights compared to members of the general public. If you, as a writer, want to go toe to toe against a professional reviewer from the Times or Kirkus, you are at any rate going up against another pro, possibly one in a superior position to yourself. You may even be David to the reviewer’s Goliath, and cover yourself in glory if you win. But if you go up against a customer review on Amazon, you are Goliath, and everyone will naturally tend to sympathize with David. Like the heavyweight boxer, if you win, you will be perceived as picking on someone who hasn’t got your advantage of rhetorical skill; and if you lose, you will be seen as a bum who can’t write. Meanwhile, your combative and cantankerous attitude will tend to drive away the kind of customers who care about such things, rightly or wrongly.

      My own policy is to thank reviewers kindly if their reviews reveal an interesting new insight into my books (such as they are). For the first review, ‘This book exists and doesn’t suck!’ may count as such an insight. As the number of reviews goes up, it becomes harder to contribute something original to the critical literature. And if I can’t in total honesty thank the reviewer kindly, I shut up about it.

      • I agree. Responding to a negative review only makes the writer look petty and will turn off way more people than it will attract.

      • Interesting analogy. But it simply asserts consumers don’t like authors responding to reviews. What percentage don’t like it? What percentage decides based on the content of the response? I’d say we don’t know.

        Perhaps a cantankerous and combative attitude is a poor tactical choice. There are lots of other attitudes available.

        • Let’s ask it a different way – how would you view a chef publicly responding to a food critic, or a director publicly responding to a bad review?

        • Interesting analogy. But it simply asserts consumers don’t like authors responding to reviews.

          It doesn’t just assert it; it says something about why.

          What percentage don’t like it? What percentage decides based on the content of the response? I’d say we don’t know.

          I’d say it doesn’t matter, since we have abundant evidence that it is a high enough percentage to drive the kind of disaster referred to above — the ‘Jacqueline Howett meltdown’. I myself have seen books on Amazon with hundreds of pile-on negative reviews, and sales rankings that indicate they have never sold anything like as many copies — and perhaps no copies at all. The bad reputation of the author is actually more widely known than the existence of the book.

          Perhaps a cantankerous and combative attitude is a poor tactical choice. There are lots of other attitudes available.

          If you are engaging someone who left a one-star review of your book, it is exceedingly probable that the reviewer has a cantankerous and combative attitude; which is sufficient to poison any attempt at communication. As Tolkien said, it takes but one foe to breed a war, not two.

  9. I’ve noticed that on Amazon I have good reviews. On B&N I receive mostly bad reviews for the same books. So far I’ve found them mildly amusing.

    One review for my sci fi romance (first in the series) that includes a handful of aliens, amused me the most. Included below in full:

    3 out of 5 stars
    Title: Could be way better without the sex scene
    Anyone ever heard of marriage before !?

    ^^ They were obviously not my target audience. The risks you take when you make the first in the series free 🙂

    • It’s possible to write about marriage in romance without lots of sex… Regency romances do this. One of my main complaints with a lot of today’s romance books is they seem to confuse romance with sex and its getting harder and harder to find romance books that do not contain graphic sex. I don’t mind PDA but I prefer to have the actual sex acts left to my imagination.

      Not having read your book I obviously have no clue how much graphic sex was included. But until recently if I grabbed a SciFi book of the library shelves the sex was low-key/not graphic. So if I’m someone whose been reading SciFi romance for 30 years I might very much find that many of the more current books have too much sex. In reality I’ve only been reading a lot of SciFi over the last 10 years. If a SciFi book is put out by a major romance house I know to expect “too much sex” and not much SciFi. It’s much harder to know with books published by SciFi publishers to know if the sex will be too much for me. It’s even harder with self-published books.

      Just food for thought. And yes my biggest complaint with most PNR is too much sex so I skip a lot when reading.

      • The sex scene was very brief, not detailed and very few body parts were mentioned. It was meant to further illustrate the differences between humans and the half-alien in question. It wasn’t there to titiliate.

        I suppose it was amusing to me because it clearly states these aliens mate for life. Surely that’s more meaningful than human marriage?

        Or maybe they wanted erotic sex? Who knows 😛

  10. I think it all depends on how you are responding and the place you respond. I would never reply to a review good or bad posted to amazon or goodreads or some similar site on that site. I have replied to reviews posted on blogs, with a thank you for reviewing the book. Graciousness is never poor form. IMO the only venue for arguing with a review is your own blog, and then only if you aren’t being too defensive. Joe Abercrombie is rather brilliant at using them to mock himself, and it comes off very well. I am sure other writers do similar things, he’s just the one I’ve seen do it. So, there are ways. Just in your own space and to a sympathetic audience, and a sense of humor doesnt hurt. In my opinion. 🙂

  11. I learned from a former employer, who got bashed a lot in LA Times, how or when to respond to antagonistic editorials. In our case, bad reviews. If it is just an ill spirited or subjective review, ignore it. Everyone has an opinion, and most of them are subjective. Let’s face it; any fiction book is a subjective opinion. However, if the reviewer uses fabricated or false data, you must respond and correct the record, if you wish to respond.

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