She Loves me Not! Dealing with a Negative Review

Alma T. C. Boykin

I almost said “bad review” but that leaves a lot of wiggle room: unfavorable, badly written, for the wrong book/recording, totally ignored the entire plot of the book (“I didn’t read it but the author is a terrible person so this is a horrible book.”) What I mean is a negative review that deals with the book you wrote. Non-fiction seems to have a number of “This isn’t the book I would have written, so I’m going to slag it” reviews, including one boggling, “I already wrote the book on this topic so this is unneeded. Read my book instead.” I did, and it had a completely different audience in mind, took a very different approach to the topic, and covered a slightly different geographic area. I’m focusing on fiction, and on reviews on sites like B&N, Kobo, and Amazon.

The first time I got a less-than-three-star review, in 2015, I bounced up and down with glee because “Now I’m a real writer!” This was back when review padding was going on, and having too many excellent reviews had become a warning sign of sorts. This was an honest review, unfavorable, but honest. The book didn’t point out a time period clearly enough, so it seemed as if the protagonist became an experienced fighter in only a few days or weeks, not months (and even then she had some serious weak areas.) Things have changed, and the ‘Zon and other sites have taken steps to cut down on review padding.

The most recent less-than-happy review criticized the structure of a novel. The reviewer is correct: this particular book has a different approach to time and events than do others in the series. If you tend to write long, detailed tomes, and attract readers who love long tomes with intricate details, and you publish a novella that only brushes lightly over certain things, you too will probably get an unhappy review from someone. Readers come to expect a certain flavor and style in a series, and changing that can upset some people. It’s a risk, and one that might need due consideration if you are working in a well-known world with fans who really like that world as it has been presented.

So, what do you do when you get a bad review? If it is personally abusive, contact the distributor and see if you can have it removed or edited. If it is “I didn’t like the book because everyone knows that unicorns are purple, not golden brown,” well, shrug and go on. If you get four or five that say, “The topic intrigued me, but the writing style put me off because … and I had trouble staying with the story,” then you might make a note and see if you can find an actual problem. Ditto multiple complaints about formatting if you did the work yourself, or hired it out. That’s one reason to buy a copy for yourself and look at it on a device (phone, e-reader, tablet) to see if everything looks as good as it used to. Some things leap out on the e-reader that I completely missed even changing the font and working out of sequence with the original file. Those are the sort of negative reviews that are worth looking into.

Is there a pattern to the negative reviews? Do they all focus on one thing, say, expressing disappointment that what seemed like a steampunk story turned into space opera? Or a sweet romance suddenly had an out-of the-blue graphic sex scene? Or a dire lack of foreshadowing? Did the cover signal a different book? Does your sales copy promise one thing but the book deliver something very different? Those are complaints to be taken seriously, especially when you start getting a handful of them. Sort of like the alpha and beta reader rule of thumb. If one person has a problem (non-typo/grammar), consider changing but don’t worry about it. If two suggest changing or adding something, give it some thought. If all the outside readers flag it, you should either spend time in the story making it clearer, drop it if it is not needed, or change what needs to be changed.

Try not to take negative reviews personally. Especially in the beginning it’s very easy to bristle and wail, “But my baby! How dare you not love my baby!” Reviews that specifically don’t like something you spent days researching or polishing will cause you to react, perhaps vehemently. Stop. Take a deep breath. Log out and take a walk, or clean something. Breathe. It’s OK. Don’t take it as a personal attack, unless it is a personal attack, in which case you need to consider asking the review host to edit or remove the review if it does not meet their Terms of Service. If it is bad enough, or stupidly political enough, heck, it might serve as ad copy for you. Larry Correia does that, Robert Spencer* did that with his first book about Islamic history, and it sold the book in both cases. You might not be in a position to do that, but it works sometimes.

Some people just won’t like your work, or your latest work, or the new direction that you’ve been warning readers you will take, or the new series that you are starting. Welcome to the club.

Image: Author photo. Roses don’t get all that big when water is scarce.

*The historian and religious scholar NOT the Koran-burning preacher guy.

20 thoughts on “She Loves me Not! Dealing with a Negative Review

  1. Sometimes they are just bewildering.

    The dragon is all right despite abducting the princess but getting help from a witch is intrinsically wrong?

      1. Well, if you check “The Dragon’s Cottage” you will discover another problem with that review, centered on that. . .

  2. The stages of review reading:

    1) I got my first review (ever, or for this book). Yee-hah!

    2) Omigod — more than 3 reviews!

    3) Hi, mom. Tell Aunt Clara “thanks”.

    4) Oh. Well, that’s not the direction I wanted it to go in, so suck it up, buttercup.

    5) Oops. Better fix that.

    6) OK, maybe this one has a point. I’ll see what I can do next time…

    7) Hello, I didn’t go to all this trouble so that you could advertise someone else’s work here.

    8) Okay… what have you been smoking, and for how long?

    9) Oh, my… you seem to be lost. Can I show you the exit and call your mommy?

    10) A sensible, extensive, well-reasoned, and engaging critique/appreciation from someone who promises to buy other books. [Alright, I made this one up…]

  3. Health issues have kept me from reviewing much over the past mumble months, but I think I remember how it’s done.
    When I started reviewing books regularly eight years ago, authors told me that they appreciated a comprehensive one-star review far more than a five-star review that said “the best book ever!” I tried to take that to heart; although, NOT by writing a bunch of one-star reviews. Instead, my goal was to celebrate those brilliant nuggets of prose, which were included in a well-packaged story with real characters.
    I think the writing/publishing/reviewing process is rather like implementing a winning system in black-jack. You aren’t going to win every hand, and so you have to take the long view. I hope that there are enough reviewers out there who take their work seriously, and in doing so can help an author identify both strengths and weaknesses, and help prospective readers identify which books might be a fit for them.
    If a reviewer is so unaware of their own prejudices that they can’t step back from them, they will write crappy reviews. Not every book is for every reader, but my stance is that regardless of my own prejudices, I owe it to other bookworms to take the book SERIOUSLY.

  4. As a history writer I get a lot of what I call “hobby-horse” reviews. These are one-star reviews meted out because I offended a reviewer riding a hobby horse. I challenged a cherished misconception, or left out something near and dear to the the reviewer.

    On a book I wrote about the siege of Rabaul I got a one-star review because I omitted mention of the unit the reviewer’s father had served in. Except when I checked, that unit only operated in New Guinea, and never flew missions to Rabaul or even New Britain.

    Another reviewer awarded my book African-American Soldier in the American Civil War one star because of the title. I offended him because I didn’t use the term “colored soldier” instead of African American solder in the title, and everyone knew the regiments with blacks never used “African-Aerican” rather than “colored.” Except the first few black regiments raised were titled “African” or “African Descent” in their titles. This was back in the day when Amazon permitted comments to reviews. Boy did folks rip this guy a new one in the comments.

    It is like the old song Garden Party. You can’t please everyone, so you have please yourself. The odd grump isn’t worth worrying over.

  5. Every time I see something like this, I’m reminded of an incident (possibly apocryphal) involving Mark Twain. When he was asked what he thought of his critics, he said “I just love to sit out on the porch in the evening, listening to them make music rubbing their legs together.”

    “No, that’s crickets! I said ‘critics’. What do you think of your critics?”

    “What good are they? They can make music rubbing their legs together!”


  6. What Pat said – about every book not being for every reader. I personally cherished a low-starred review for one of my early books which basically said – “Meh. Not bad, but not great literature either.”
    I get it, really I do. I’m not trying to write great literature, just amuse, divert and perhaps interest the reader in history. I was a bit baffled by a scathing review for one of the Luna City books – I wondered if the reader had even read the book.
    I still am a bit steamed over some reviews for Tales Around the Supper Table 2, which termed the story that I had in that anthology as a rip-off of Kipling.
    No, you dunce – it was an homage, a ripping good plot translated from India/Afghanistan to the American Southwest!
    Again – sigh – not every book is for every reader.

  7. “I didn’t like the book because everyone knows that unicorns are purple, not golden brown,”

    I have one of those! ~:D Reviewer didn’t like “Unfair Advantage” because the nerd gets the girl. Everybody apparently knows that the nerd isn’t supposed to get the girl.

    1. The reviewer will hate the one where the high school football team, cheerleaders, and band are abducted by aliens, and the quarterback gets himself killed for being a macho jock. It’s up to the computer-nerd kicker and the gun-savvy cheerleader to organize everyone and save the day.

      1. Am I the only one who thinks it would be an interesting subversion for the quarterback to actually either turn out to be, or learn how to become a competent leader?

        1. And the nerd, initially hostile and resentful – to be his right-hand backup and strategic/intelligence advisor? Oh, yeah – that would kick current wokey-in-novels right in the teeth.
          I love doing this in my own books – having women characters who really do relish the love of a good man, and yearn for domesticity and lots of children. It feels so good to kick the sour, pinch-faced capital F-feminists in the teeth.

          1. I’d read that story! 😀

            But yes, the “dumb jock” getting himself killed seems to be used too much.

          2. I thought it would be a fun change for the MC to be a guy who has all the usual “death or glory!” instincts, but then does the right thing anyway. Also that his girlfriend doesn’t immediately ditch him when the going gets tough.

            Having the MC’s girlfriend stick by him was another thing the reviewer couldn’t stand. Having the nerd secondary character get The Girl was the last straw for him. Too much good news, he couldn’t take it.

            Projection: not just for movies. ~:D

  8. I got my first three-star on LibraryThings the other day and it was definitely a good negative review. Half their issue was a matter of taste, perfectly valid but not a thing to fix, and their second issue was something I already kind of knew was an issue but don’t have the skill yet to fix. I celebrated it a little.

    I do think that review padding is still a thing, as I’ve had many offers since publishing to get five-star reviews for a price from those who haven’t read the book (mostly through Twitter and IG). Many people who appear on the surface to be legitimate book bloggers don’t actually read the books that they “review,” which came as a bit of a shock to me. It’s taken a lot of sifting through to find legitimate reviewers, few of whom want to review a chonky book–understandable since fresh/new comments is how they keep people engaged, and a longer book delays that. I’ve learned a lot about the book blogging/reviewing world, and I kind of miss living under my rock.

  9. I got my first less-than-5-star rating (2) on my novelette Odyssey to Earth (not that I’m that great; I’m an obscure newbie who’s only been getting ratings from people who know me), and they didn’t leave a review. If you don’t like my work, please tell me why; otherwise how can I improve?

    1. When the option appeared on the Kindle to leave a rating without a review, it caused a lot of confusion for us on the writing end. Yes, the additional ratings were nice, but now we stare at the screen and plead, “Why three stars? Why one star? Sign, please give me a sign!”

  10. My favorite negative review harshly criticized Book A for… episodes and characters that actually occurred in Book B.

    Sometimes all you can do is giggle and move on.

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