How to Handle Negative Book Reviews

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Sooner or later, every book will get a negative review. Authors can be hit hard by those reviews; you may want to wade in and defend your book or hide under your blanket and swear you’ll never write again. But negative reviews can hold a lot of value for you, so before you give up or pick a fight, take a deep breath and read on.

Feel Your Feelings

First, you need to have your feelings about the review, and those can be some strong feelings! As an author, you’re deeply and intimately connected to your book, which you created with your ideas and passion. When someone says something negative about your book, you might take it very personally and feel hurt, angry, or despondent. However you feel and express your feelings, don’t respond to the review in public—don’t reply, and don’t even subtweet it. Instead, share your feelings with someone you trust, offline, in a safe and contained way.

When your head is clearer, give your book a hug. No writer is perfect, and no book is perfect; you can accept that your book is flawed and that not every reader is going to adore it the way you do. But you know you did the very best with it that you could, and nothing anyone says can change that.

Keep It Professional

Take off your author hat and put on your publisher hat. As a publisher, you’re in the business of selling copies of that book, and reviews concern you only insofar as they affect sales. You’re a publishing professional and your actions reflect on your professional reputation. Keep that at the front of your mind as you consider your next steps.

If the review in question is one reader’s personal response to your book, you’re going to have to let it go. Readers value having the space to read and respond to books without authors being present in any way. Intruding on that space won’t convince anyone that you’re right and they’re wrong, and it can make you look bad in a way that does far more harm to your book (and your future books) than a negative review did.

You may be concerned about trolling and spam on sites that host reader reviews. The vast majority of reviews do come from real readers, so resist the urge to categorize any negative review as junk, even if it takes a personal jab at you. But if you’re certain that a review is fraudulent, or if it otherwise violates the site’s policies, bring it to a site moderator’s attention. Otherwise, shrug and move on.

Professional reviews are a slightly different matter because they’re held to a higher standard of factual accuracy. If you receive a review from a professional publication or paid review service and you feel it doesn’t accurately represent your book, you can write in with a polite request for a correction. But it does need to be a factual correction, along the lines of “My hero’s name is Jack, not Jake” or “My memoir is about life in San Francisco, not Los Angeles.” You can’t “correct” a reviewer’s feelings, opinion, or writing style (even if you feel it was unkind).

Learn and Grow

If you receive several negative reviews, look at whether they have anything in common. Did many people say they thought your book was science fiction but it turned out to be a mystery? That’s a hint that you need to change your book’s packaging—the cover art, the jacket copy, maybe even the title—to appeal more to mystery readers. Do readers complain about typos or plot holes, or consistently misunderstand a key element of your story? That means you need to invest in a higher grade of professional editing.

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Even one lone complaint can point you in the direction of things you need to work on. Making business decisions that address the concerns readers raise is a sure-fire path to better reviews—for your next book, if not for this one.

The best way to drown out negative reviews is with legitimate positive reviews. Once you’re sure you understand your book’s optimal audience and you’ve geared your packaging toward that audience, use targeted marketing to get the book in front of readers who are more likely to love it. Research the best ways to build up a mailing list of your dedicated fans, and occasionally remind them to leave positive reviews of books they love. Include that reminder in the back pages of your books as well. Don’t be shy!

Avoid services that sell positive reviews; readers can immediately identify them as fake, and that will tarnish your reputation. Let your fans know that reviews matter to you, but keep your reminders gentle and infrequent. Authentic, organic positive reviews are the ones that will do you the most good.

Look to the Future

Make a plan for how to handle negative reviews in the future. Here are some suggestions:

  • When you publish a book, emotionally let it go—it’s done, it’s out in the world, you did your best with it and now it needs to stand on its own. A little personal ritual might help with this critical moment of transition.
  • Ask a friend to read reviews for you, share the positive ones, and gently summarize the most constructive parts of the negative ones. Many agents and publicists shield authors from their reviews; there’s no shame in deciding you don’t want to look at your reviews yourself.
  • Admit that you can always be a better writer and a better publisher. Choose to take critical responses as opportunities to learn and improve.
  • Remember that a review reflects the reader’s relationship with the book, not the book alone. There’s no such thing as a universally beloved book. Your book won’t work for every reader, and that’s okay.
  • Cherish your positive reviews and don’t let the negative ones overwhelm them in your mind.
  • Plan to disregard any personal attacks and other low blows. Anyone who would insult you as a person just because they didn’t enjoy a book you wrote isn’t someone whose opinion you need to take into consideration.

And of course, the best thing you can do is stay focused on making your next book even more outstanding.


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Rose Fox

Rose Fox is the director of BookLife Reviews, Publishers Weekly’s paid review service for self-published books. Before launching BookLife Reviews, Rose was a senior reviews editor at PW.