How to Handle Bad Reviews Like a Pro

BY HANNAH GUY • April 20, 2021

How to Handle Bad Reviews Like a Pro

If you’re an author or writer, getting a good review—especially by a well-regarded reviewer or publication—can have a whole host of positive effects. Not only does it give your ego a boost, but the review can be used in your marketing and promotional efforts, which in turn can convert a skeptical reader into a book-buying customer, and then even generate more positive reviews.

A good review is good news. But a bad review can be devastating for an author, especially if they haven’t learned to take it in stride. Some people will even avoid publishing or promoting their book simply out of fear that readers won’t like it.

So what happens if someone hates your book and writes about it? What do you do then?

Step #1: Be honest with yourself

Here’s the thing: nobody likes bad feedback. Unless you have truly embraced your inner masochist, have the hardened shell of a cockroach, or live in a magic well of deep denial, it's hard to calmly hear bad things about yourself or your book(s) with nary a blink. Hearing negative things about your writing can range anywhere from uncomfortable to completely devastating. Logically, we can all tell ourselves and our author friends, “Hey, it’s just a bad review. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s unimportant, and what do they know anyway?” But when it’s you and your book, logic flies right out the window, taking reason and common sense with it and leaving nothing but your raw, vulnerable self.

You have to decide from day one whether you’re the kind of person who can take criticism and eventually use it to make your work better, or if you just don’t have the self-confidence to hear something negative without it eroding your sense of self or your faith in your work.

In short, if a bad review (or several) has the potential to stop you from writing, you have to decide whether you’re OK with that.

Some authors avoid reading bad reviews not just to preserve their writing confidence, but because they fear that writing to please others will destroy or compromise the integrity of their work. Others generally feel that the opinions of critics are irrelevant.

There’s no right answer here. There are benefits and advantages—along with disadvantages and problems—to either approach.

Are you curious but not sure you want the full knowledge? Ask a trusted friend or family member to look at your reviews for you, note any significant issues that may crop up, and request a soft landing. This way, you can learn from the reviews without being haunted by them.

Step #2: Decide if you can trust the feedback

Criticism, once we receive it, cannot be unheard. It’s there, for good or ill. And yet without critical feedback, how do we know where we went wrong? How do we improve? The more important question to ask if whether you trust the source.

Friends and family: These folks are usually your first (and sometimes your only) source of feedback—and also compliments. Unfortunately, loved ones aren’t always as blunt or honest as we might need them to be, and sometimes, in order to spare our feelings, they might outright lie. If you’re just looking for nice things and praise, this is your best form of review (unless you have a family who can be merciless and even hypercritical of other family members). If you’re trying to gauge the quality of your book, this is probably the least trustworthy source.

A professional beta reader or editor you hired: Chance are, if you’ve hired or engaged the services of professional beta readers and/or editors, you see the value in having someone read your book before it goes to print. In fact, you’re not only counting on that feedback in order to see if your book has the impact you hope for, but you’re hoping they’ll fill you in on any plot holes, character issues, and structural problems they might spot. That said, the feedback can be subjective at best unless it’s from someone you trust.

A publishing professional: If you’ve gotten feedback from an editor or agent, congratulations! This in itself is a compliment. It suggests that the individual reading your submission sees something encouraging in your work, even if they reject it. There is little to no value in disregarding the feedback you’ve been given here. Any criticism imparted is for your benefit. Remember that their feedback will be less about the artistic value of your work and writing and more about its appeal to readers and marketability.

A professional reviewer or publication: This one is tricky. A poor review from an established or recognized reviewer can be devastating, because their credibility can potentially be quite high, and their opinion can influence readers to buy or ignore your book. Then again, it is merely one person’s opinion, and it’s important to remember that reviewers are human. Even highly lauded ones can get it wrong. Don’t believe me? Check out “12 Classic Books That Got Horrible Reviews When They First Came Out."

Readers on forums or bookseller sites: Reader reviews can be the one of the biggest indications that something is either amazing or horribly wrong about your book. If all the reviews contain similar criticism, it’s a fair bet that readers might be picking up on a very real issue with your book. Then again, it’s not unheard of for people to take their personal grudges on an author out on their review page, and sometimes authors can be the victims of smear campaigns for political or personal reasons. There are also reviewers who feel the need to work through some of their own issues and anger by writing terrible reviews.

Step #3: Accept the consequences of knowing

So now you’ve decided to take the plunge and read your reviews. Before you do so, make a deal with yourself to not take any immediate action on what you read, no matter what. Remind yourself that nothing you’re about to read will change your views about who you are, what your values are, and why you’ll keep writing books.

Then, take a deep breath and read your reviews.

Step #4: Take a break from it

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed about my response to criticism is that I reject it immediately the moment I see it. It’s a gut-level, instinctive reaction, and I can feel defensiveness and outrage erupting almost instantaneously. “HOW DARE THEY, SO WRONG, SO MUCH OUTRAGE!” is quickly followed by me hammering out an angry rebuttal.

Over the years, I’ve learned to step away from criticism. Depending on the depth of my upset, I may only need an hour, maybe two. I almost always need to sleep on it, and sometimes I’ve taken a few days to avoid or ignore it.

Then, once I am calm and have reminded myself that I am a professional—and here is the trick—I reread the criticism from a more objective standpoint. Almost 100 percent of the time, I will find myself considering the feedback from a more objective place, where I can consider the possibility that whatever has been suggested might be accurate (or at least fair) and I can look more impartially at the language used. More often than not, the language was not as harsh as I initially experienced it when I first read it. Other times, I realize that what I interpreted as a terrible insult to my writing skills was in fact not a criticism at all.

Give yourself as much time as you need to calm down and take a second or even a third look, and consider the review again. Chances are you’ll be in a better frame of mind.

Step #5: Don’t respond to your bad review directly

One of the biggest errors new authors make is to respond to bad reviews, whether by taking to social media to call the individual out or through a personal attack. Try to resist this retaliatory instinct. While it may soothe you in the short term, reacting poorly to a bad review can look childish and petty. And it might discourage reviewers from reviewing other books, including those written by you, and may send a damaging message about the kind of person you are.

The last thing you want is to be held up as a poor sport who can’t take “a little criticism.” And you certainly don’t want to be the author who has public lash-out sessions every time someone doesn’t like your book.

If you really need to vent your vitriol, write it all out, and keep it around for a little while…just so long as no one else ever sees it.

Step #6: Thank reviewers, even if you hate them right now

It takes time to read a book and then write about it. When you can—and especially when the criticisms are fair or helpful to you—remember to thank reviewers for reading your book, even if they didn’t enjoy it. Be gracious, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable. It will not protect your author brand (which is hugely important) but will shift your mindset to one of gratitude, which will make it harder for reviewers of all stripes to utterly eviscerate you.

Publishing is a small industry, and when you factor in social media, it can also be a very public one. So wherever and whenever you can, try to embrace your bad review with aplomb and remember that reviews are subjective.

Eventually you will learn how to separate the “real” reviews from those you can safely ignore, but it means trying to be objective about your flaws…and listening to those who merit your attention.

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