The Negative Review

For the published author, a negative review can sting hard. We tend to confer disproportionate power on bad reviews, allowing a single sour note to negate all the wonderful things readers have said about our work. For this reason, many of my friends and colleagues resolve not to pay attention to reader reviews, but let’s be honest: it’s hard not to sneak a peak once and a while.

Every published author faces negative reviews at some point in their journey. If you have any doubts about this, check out 1- and 2-star reviews of your favorite novels; you will be surprised how some readers perceive authors who’ve been your greatest inspiration. Because negative reviews are commonplace, it’s important to have appropriate tools for managing the impact. Here, I provide some guidelines that have worked for me.

First, listen. It’s good (and humbling) to open up to the experience of someone who didn’t connect to your work. Once in a while, you might find advice worth keeping; feedback that helps improve future manuscripts or even revisions of your present work.

Second, don’t respond. Never engage directly with someone who’s posted a negative review. Responding to a negative review accomplishes little beyond further antagonizing the reader, and will ultimately reflect poorly on you as an author. If you must talk about the review, vent with friends. In the rare event a negative review appears to be spam and/or written by someone who did not read the book, report to the appropriate authorities and then let them handle it however they see fit. Even if that means the review stays up forever. Let. It. Go.

Do consider the potential merits of a negative review. Readers sometimes see important shortcomings in our work that we’ve missed. When reflecting on a negative review, ask yourself this question: “If I’d received this critique before publishing, would it have changed the way I wrote the book?”

In my case, the answer to this question has invariably been, “No.” I suspect it will be for many of you as well. The reason is simple: Often those who write negative reviews are disappointed because the book we wrote is not the book they would have written. If a reader’s personal literary goals aren’t realized in your novel, they may get upset or even angry. I’m not saying this to undercut the value of the reader’s experience; on the contrary. But as authors we need to recognize a reader’s response to a novel is impacted by multiple factors that go beyond the quality of our writing and the authenticity of our story. One of my favorite authors, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, put it this way:

“A story is…a conversation between the narrator and the reader, and just as narrators can only relate as far as their ability will permit, so too readers can only read as far as what is already written in their souls.”

Labyrinth of the Spirits, p. 748

This quote resonates deeply with me. As an author, I work to ensure my novels reach those who already have the story of Eolyn written on their souls. On the whole, my reviews indicate I’ve been successful. But there have been, and will always be, occasional readers who cannot connect to the narrative – And that’s okay. I need to respect my readers’ journey, just as I hope they learn to respect mine.

I have more thoughts about this, but already the post has turned out longer than anticipated, so I’ll pause there for today. I do hope this has been a useful reflection, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips regarding negative reviews.

May the next fantastic book you read – the one already written on your soul – be just around the corner!

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