Every author will get reviews they don’t like on their published work. It’s just a fact of life: not everyone who reads your book will love it, like it, or even understand it. Some reviewers may have criticisms of your book that make sense; some will use their review to take out their bad mood on you; some will say lovely things.
It is, of course, always okay to skip reading any or all of your reviews. Your job is to get all the critique you need before your book is published. If the negativity of 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews isn’t going to help you, you don’t need to read them. If you still want to be motivated by the positive reviews, ask a friend or family member to filter them for you and skip the pain. But for those of you who are going to go ahead and read all your reviews anyway . . .
I’d like to discuss how to read reviews and especially negative reviews.
IDENTIFYING THE TYPE OF REVIEW
The first step, when you read any review, is to identify what sort of review it is. (I say “any” review here, because even a positive review can make you feel bad if it’s positive for the wrong reasons—for example, because the reader put their own false interpretation on your book. The reader may have loved your book, but it can be very frustrating for you as a writer if you wrote a book all about the joys of fishing, and your 5-star review tells other potential readers that the book is really a deep allegory about grief!)
The basic types of remarks in reviews are:
1. The Personal Remark
2. Illegitimate Feedback
3. Legitimate Feedback
THE PERSONAL REMARK
This one is usually quite mean-spirited. A personal remark in a review is any remark that, instead of reviewing the book, talks about the writer—also known as an ad hominem attack. Any comment like, “it’s obvious no one bothered to edit this book” or “the author clearly didn’t do any research” or “I don’t know if this book is so bad because you thought the reader was stupid or because you were too arrogant and lazy, but . . .”
Whatever the case—using passive voice, third person, or second person—the reviewer is making a direct attack and sometimes an outright libelous assault on the author. You can always click the Abuse button on Amazon reviews, but Amazon won’t always get rid of the review.
So what to do? Reviews like this do have a negative effect in that they bring down your overall star rating. Not to mention that it feels horrible for a total stranger to make personal (and almost invariably untrue) statements about you in a public forum! But if it helps: this sort of review typically doesn’t actually have anything to do with you—it’s all about the nastiness in the reviewer’s own brain. Any sensible human you want reading your book will recognize that the reviewer is just being a jerk and disregard their review.
It can be hard, but your best bet is to roll your eyes, understand this sort of nastiness is a reflection on the reviewer rather than you, and hit the Abuse button. It’s not worth any more mental energy than that, so try to have a good rant (in PRIVATE! Not on social media!) and then return to reading nice reviews instead.
THE ILLEGITIMATE FEEDBACK
When you’re reading reviews, ask yourself:
If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” then you are probably looking at illegitimate feedback. I’ll give an example of both, using Harry Potter:
EXAMPLE 1: “This book is ridiculous. It uses all sorts of creatures that aren’t even real. Why would a castle have moving staircases? Why would the pictures act like they’re alive?”
In this case, the reviewer is saying “this book is bad because this book is fantasy, and I don’t understand fantasy.” Frankly, they had no business reviewing the book in the first place. The feedback is not appropriate.
EXAMPLE 2: “Heavy emphasis is put in this book on the effects that abuse had on the main character. Harry’s entire personality is formed by his abusive relationship with the people who raised him.”
In this case, the reader is simply wrong. Harry’s family was abusive, but the impacts of abuse are (in his case) almost entirely ignored in the books. The reviewer appears either to have very poor reading comprehension or to be putting their own assumptions on the book. This sort of bizarrely false reading is sadly not uncommon among reviewers, for both positive and negative reviews, and especially for books that evoke strong reactions.
Now, if multiple of your reviewers misinterpret your book in a similar way, then you should take that as feedback that you aren’t communicating clearly and need to be more explicit in your explanations. Talk to your critiquers and editors about this for your next book. But if it’s just one person saying one weird thing about your book . . .
Ignore it. People have their assumptions. It’s frustrating that the review is misleading the reader, but there’s simply nothing you can do about it, and it’s not your fault. This again reflects them, not you. You’re safe to ignore them.
THE LEGITIMATE FEEDBACK
Positive and negative!
I said in Illegitimate Feedback that if multiple reviewers are saying the same wrong thing (or different wrong things about the same topic), then you should take that as feedback that you aren’t communicating well. Other than that, ask yourself the same questions as before. If the reviewer clearly understands your genre and your book, then you can consider their feedback to be actual feedback.
Now, as with any critique, just because one person says one thing doesn’t mean you have to change your writing. However, it is a good idea to consider all legitimate feedback and understand why it was given, so you can improve your writing. Ask yourself:
NOW GO BACK AND REREAD THE POSITIVE REVIEWS SOME MORE
Let them motivate you and make up for some of the criticism! Getting negative reviews is rough, but there are also people who love your book. They’re your readers, the ones you write for, and your core audience. They matter the most, so go bask in their praise! You’ve earned it.
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