Today is National Author's Day, a good time to celebrate writers writing...and a good time to go over how to handle this particular nasty thorn of the writing life: bad reviews. Just like taxes and death, bad reviews are inevitable. Not that a book is necessarily bad, in fact it might be quite good, but judging a book is always a subjective experience. One reader might love stories with multiple points of view, while another gets crazy with all that "head hopping." Or a reader glosses over key points in the story, feels confused, and blames the author. Or maybe a reader has a personal agenda—he/she wrote a book that was rejected, so they become hyper-critical of other authors' success.
I recently got a not-so-nice review on a book that had consistently received good to excellent reviews, and had placed in the top five for its category in a national writing contest. The reader snarked about my letting a character (federal agent) go "MIA" (missing in action) for weeks. Missing in action? Obviously the reader had forgotten, or maybe skipped over, an earlier scene in the book where the character is preparing to leave for his 2-week paid vacation at Christmas time, and asks his supervisor if he can take an extra two days unpaid leave, which the supervisor approves.
I've belonged to a writers' group for 20 years. When I told them about this mean-spirited review, they reminded me that it's not worth it to read reviews...not if I wanted to be a happy writer. LOL! A lesson I learned after a Bad Review Experience many years ago...
A Bad Review Twenty Years Ago
I got it at a very bad time: Right before I left to attend a national writers conference. My fiction novel, my baby, got a dastardly 1-star review. Worse, from a reviewer for a magazine. I ate an entire bag of M&Ms. Not the small size bag, the drown-your-sorrows-and-flirt-with-hypoglycemia size.
Then I called my editor. This was the editor who'd purchased my first novel in 1996, and had purchased and edited the next three novels as well. My first novel got splendid reviews, as did my second and third. The fourth got the 1-star review.
Wise Words From An Editor
She listened as I told her in a shaky voice that I had received a bad review. One star. Then she laughed. A kind laugh, I'll add, because she herself is also a multi-published author, as well as being an editor, so she well understood the writers' life.
She said, "Your readers love your books and they're buying them. That's all that matters."
This editor, by the way, now heads up a division at that publishing company. She's smart and savvy about the book biz.
Didn't mean I wasn't still angsting about that bad review.
I Spilled My Guts to an Auditorium of Strangers
I don't recommend this to anyone. Really, it's not my style to stand up in a crowded room and tell several hundred people, most of them strangers, how devastating it is to get a bad review.
I hadn't planned on doing this. In fact, I had kept a low profile the entire conference, that is until I attended a workshop where a nationally known writer, one of those New York Times bestselling types, was talking about—guess what?—surviving bad reviews.
At one point in her talk, she asked if anyone in the audience had ever had a bad review and what did they do about it?
Some unseen force drew me to my feet. I stood there, my voice quaking, and told an entire auditorium full of people, many writers, how a bad review had gutted me. How it was in a magazine, so hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had or would read it. How I'd consumed so many M&Ms, I had been shaking for days.
What happened next was like that scene in the movie Spartacus. Not the recent series, the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. Remember the scene where the Romans ask a throng of slaves, hundreds of them, which one is Spartacus, and Kirk Douglas stands. "I am Spartacus," he announces loudly. Then another slave stands, "No, I am Spartacus." Another stands and says the same thing, then another...until the entire crowd of slaves are all standing, each proclaiming loudly to be Spartacus.
It was kinda like that in the auditorium. After I poured my guts out, a writer in the front row stood up and said the same thing had happened to her. She's now a New York Times best-selling author, and a friend, and she recently told me that since her books have hit the NYT and other bestseller lists, even more negative reviews crop up on Amazon for her books! She's a professional, keeps a cool head, never responds to negative reviews.
Another well-known author stood. She announced loudly to the auditorium that she, too, had received her share of bad reviews, including several 1-star reviews, and by the way, would I please tell the auditorium the title of my book so people could buy it? That's right. She invited me to tell everyone the book title. I did. She then told everyone she was going out to buy it right after the workshop was over.
Other writers did the same thing. I got to see, first hand, that bad reviews happen, even to successful NYT best-selling authors. It's part of the package of being a writer and putting your work out there.
My Two Cents on What to Do When You Get a Bad Review
1. Buy the small bag of M&Ms.
2. Commiserate with other writers, friends, family. You're allowed to wallow in it for 48 hours. After that, put on your big-boy or big-girl pants and get back to writing.
3. Don't respond to the bad review.
Let's chat a bit about not responding to negative comments and other less-than-complimentary write-ups. I wrote an article about that ("Four Tips for Minimizing Bad Reviews on Google"). In it, I explain how replying to bad reviews on the Internet, or even clicking them to re-read (or forwarding the link to others to click on and read), sends signals to Google and other Internet browsers to bump up that review's ranking...which means it's easier to find on the Internet. You don't want that.
As Tony Soprano might say, it's best to fuggitaboutit.
Now get back to writing!