Bad reviews (and worse reactions)

I’ll never forget the first time I got a bad review. That particular book was due to be published the first week of January, so the day after Christmas I decided to check Amazon to make sure there was nothing amiss. They must have started releasing stock early. This review wasn’t just negative, it was halfway towards being a character assassination.

Or so it felt at the time.

Soon enough, however, I realised that the reviewer wasn’t my mortal enemy, the book hadn’t really ruined their Christmas and the review wasn’t really about me.

The thing is, no review is actually about the author – unless they make it about them.

If you get a good review then that doesn’t mean the reviewer wants to be your new best friend. It just means they got something out of your book – and enough to take the time to write a review. How great is that?! A bad review, meanwhile, just means the book wasn’t right for that reader. It’s about them, not you. So don’t take it personally.

Have you liked every book you ever read? You have splendid pre-judgement if so! Myself, one of the worst books I have ever read went on to be selected by various esteemed publications as their book-of-the-year a few months after I sent it packing to the charity shop. It wasn’t one of the worst books those people had ever read. It just wasn’t for me.

Pick any literary classic at random and then check out the reviews on Amazon. You’ll find plenty of one-star reviews for every single one. One of my favourite novels is Les Miserables, but there are plenty of damning reviews on Amazon of the ‘it wasn’t anything like the film’ variety. I like the film (the musical with Hugh Jackman is better than the straight adaptation with Liam Neeson too, if you ask me), but it cuts out most of the first 200 pages of the novel and covers the rest of them in a couple of songs.

I doubt Victor Hugo is spinning in his grave because of those reviews. And if you get a review that seems just as ridiculous to you, you shouldn’t let it bother you either. Because it is still nothing to do with you.

You don’t have a right to be liked. You are not entitled to receive unanimous praise and ceaseless adoration. That you sweated blood and wept until the marrow was wrung from your bones over your story is ultimately irrelevant. You can’t please everyone. Nor should you try. Your one and only goal is to write the best story you can. If people like it, great. If they don’t, that’s their problem.

Rudyard Kipling referred to both triumph and disaster as ‘impostors’ in his poem If (a great poem for all writers). Treat them just the same. Spend your time working on writing the best story you can rather than responding to people who didn’t like the last one. It’s not like you’re going to change anybody’s mind by shouting at them, is it?

That doesn’t mean you should ignore good advice or bury your head in the sand, of course. But you have to develop a filter to recognise good advice when you see it. There might be some value to what critical people say about your last story. If so, see how it can help improve your next one. A bad review can still be a good learning experience.

And if you’re incapable of having that level of ex post facto objectivity, then there’s only one solution – don’t bother reading any reviews at all. At all.

Unfortunately there are some trolls out there, people who like nothing better than tearing people down. It seems quite inexplicable behaviour but there’s not much you can do about them. Certainly don’t stoop to their level. They want to get a reaction. Ignore them and they will probably get bored and move on to their next target (there probably will be one, alas). Meanwhile, you should be writing the best story you can and when it finds the right readers you won’t have to worry about the odd bad review from the wrong ones.

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