by Kate M. Colby
Book reviews are the lifeblood of books. A healthy rating encourages potential readers to buy, makes an author eligible for merchandising from retail sites, and improves a book’s overall ranking on those sites. However, if enough readers read your book, eventually you’re going to get a bad review (probably several). Those dreaded one-star ratings are the cost of exposure.
After hearing a few author horror stories on the subject of reviews, I wanted to provide a public service announcement of sorts. Sure, several other authors have written on this topic already, but just in case mine is the first you read (or you want another opinion), here is my advice for how to handle your book reviews: good, bad, or ugly.
First, it is important to remember that you are not your book. Reviews are a subjective reaction to your creative work and not you as a person. (We’ll get to the 1% in which this is not the case in a bit.)
Personally, I try not to read reviews (good, bad, or ugly). This is not to say that I don’t try to cultivate them, or that I do not appreciate them (Seriously, if you’ve reviewed one of my books, thank you!). However, I know myself. A bad review can temporarily shatter my confidence and ruin a whole writing day. That’s not worth it to me, my work, or my readers.
My solution? I have my husband check my reviews for me (once a week or so). If there’s a good review, he lets me know. If there’s a bad review, he distills it down to only the constructive criticism (and leaves out any rudeness), so that I can learn from the review, without being upset by it.
You have to decide what’s best for you. If you’re a sensitive soul like me, try getting a spouse, friend, or family member to be your review buffer. If you’re a tough cookie, read all you want. As long as reviews don’t over-inflate or deflate your ego, there’s nothing wrong with reading them.
So, that’s my general policy. Now let’s drill down into the specifics. For the purpose of this article, “good” reviews refers to positive reviews, “bad” reviews refers to critical reviews, and “ugly” reviews refers to hateful or personal reviews.
Good reviews tell you two things: what readers like about your book and who likes your book. When you get a good review, take note of the reader’s praise and try to keep those themes in your writing. Also, do a little research on your reader. What other books have they liked or disliked? From their profile, do they fit within your target audience? These will tell you if your book is reaching the right market and give you an idea of where to advertise or how to promote your book in the future.
When I published my first novel, I checked my reviews often and responded to the positive ones (That’s all there is when only your friends and family are reading your book!) with a ‘like’ or comment on Goodreads. Now, I don’t respond to any positive reviews. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them (Again, I totally do — thank you!). It’s that A) I don’t want to offend anyone by accidentally skipping or not commenting on their review, B) it sets a precedent that I might also respond to neutral or bad reviews, and C) I really don’t have that kind of time. Note to my readers: if you want to have an actual dialogue about my books or receive a personal thanks, just shoot me an email via the contact page.
It’s worth noting that I have never responded to any reviews on Amazon or another online retailer. As a social network, Goodreads muddles the line, but on retail sites it is clear: do not respond to reviews. It’s unprofessional and the retail sites are likely to frown on it.
We all know these. They’re the ones that make us want to crawl under the covers or throw the laptop out of the window and never write again. But bad reviews can be good. Beyond providing you with constructive feedback, they tell other readers what this person did or didn’t like about your book, so that they can better judge for themselves. Your target audience can be persuaded by bad reviews (Is it full of cursing? Sounds up my alley!), and your non-ideal audience will be warded off (Sex? No way!), thus preventing another bad review in the future.
It is my policy to never respond to bad reviews. First off, I respect the reader’s right to their own opinion. Second, they’ve already “wasted” enough time with my book, they don’t need me saying anything to them.
Some authors make exceptions for this. For example, some will jump to defend a concept the reader clearly missed that could change their perspective of the book. Others will respond if a reader makes a factual error in the review. My professional opinion is to stay silent. Most times, you will only irritate the reader more, or never receive a response to your rebuttal anyway.
Here are a few other ways to react to bad reviews:
Remember, you are not your book. The conception of bad writing (or actual bad writing — let’s be honest, it happens) do not make you a bad person or unworthy creator. It just means you have more to learn. We all do.
Take comfort in that even the best books have bad reviews. This may come as a shock, but there are people out there who hate Harry Potter. I know, but it’s true. Go to the page of your favorite author and check out some of their book’s most scathing reviews. If they can survive it and have their work admired, so can you.
Go read some of your five-star reviews. Or social media comments or emails or whatever. Focus on the readers who get and love your work. They’re the ones that really matter.
Really need to respond to that disgruntled reader? Write a response and destroy it. Do this by hand so there is no temptation or possibility of posting it online. Craft your elegant defense or your childish slew of insults, then rip it up and throw it out. You’ll feel better without doing any damage to your professional image or online relationships. Venting to a trusted friend — NOT in online writers’ groups or forums — is another idea. Seriously, though, don’t put your gripes online. A) It can be found by readers. B) It still makes you look bad. C) Negativity will just bring other writers down. Don’t be that person.
If all else fails, I like to get existential. You are only certain of this one life. Is one person’s dislike going to keep you from pursuing your passion? I didn’t think so.
These are reviews that make personal attacks on your character, threaten you, or which are given to your book because the reviewer has a personal vendetta against you. Luckily, these are super-rare, but they can happen. Again, I strongly encourage you not to respond. Instead, contact the website administrator and ask for the review to be removed. If the review is not about the book or makes explicit insults or threats, this should not be a problem. It cannot prevent the reviewer from repeating the attack from a different account, but it is the safest and most responsible course of action.
No matter what praise or criticism, your books receive, remember that you are not your books. Their success or failure does not reflect your character or personality. While writing ability is very personal, it can be improved over time with patience and practice. Whether in book review responses (don’t do it!) or anywhere else online, always be respectful and courteous to readers. And most importantly, never let anyone else keep you from writing.
Guest post contributed by Kate M. Colby. Kate is a writer of multi-genre fiction and creative nonfiction as well as a writing-craft blogger. Kate graduated summa cum laude from Baker University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Creative Writing, and Sociology.