Reacting to Reviews

Having heard about a writer getting an unfair review the other day (I read it and agree) this seems as good a time to talk about reviews from a personal perspective that I hope applies to both writers and readers, (who are both potential reviewers), and professional reviewers who assess books and stories regularly. All writers dream of receiving great reviews, but negative feedback affects everyone differently. I can only tell you how I handle the subject.

I forget exactly where I read this statistic, but as a guide, 20% of readers will hate your book. Don’t believe me? Read this wonderful take on negative reviews by author Beth Revis: How to Respond to Negative Reviews. She puts it so eloquently. Once you read some statistics, you’ll have a clearer picture.

Another occurrence, brought to my attention by an acquaintance, was of someone who had compared Dracula to Twilight and said they felt Twilight was the better book. No, I am not here to argue or dissect either work. I will say that IMHO no one can compare the two books. I am 99% certain that the author of Twilight might even agree with me. I don’t care whether you love or loathe either work or both: they don’t belong in the same sentence. They are two different fictions, written with distinct styles, at distant points in history, with a difference of purpose in mind, and with different influences. My acquaintance felt quite upset readers were touting Twilight as the best book of all time. Again, I, and the author of said book, would probably understand where my friend is coming from. There are many books I love in all genres, but ‘best book of all time’? Think of that phrase for a moment, of what it truly means.

I have to say for me to choose such a book would require more thought than I have time to spare. It would have to be a classic. It would have to be something that has already outlasted the test of time. Conversely, maybe such a book has yet to be written, doesn’t even exist yet. Be careful when rating books. It’s fine to give a book 5 stars on its own merit, but if you’re *comparing* it requires more thought.

How fair is it to compare one work to another, though? I give out 5-star reviews for good reads, but if I was giving stars to my personal library judging by those I loved the most, the grading would be noticeably different. I don’t put that classification *out there* when reviewing other authors. I would feel I was doing them a disservice.

It’s all subjective, anyway. What one person loves, another hates—wouldn’t it be a boring world if we all liked the same thing? It might be one thing to downgrade a book owing to poor presentation, but a story that isn’t one person’s ‘cup of tea’ may be the favourite read of another.

When writing a review I would urge to remember whether one is grading a book by the level of enjoyment or against other books. I would keep in mind that while I might have quibbles with the book, it has already passed inspection—in most cases a team has worked on it (not just the author) and have decided it is good enough for publication. Some ideas in the book may not have come from the author at all. Edits happen. There may be something in the book a reader dislikes the author also didn’t want but had no choice other than to accept after signing a contract. Yes, that is a fact of publishing. Or, the part the reviewer hates may be the part the writer most loves. In the words of J.K.Rowling, “I’m not taking dictation.” There’s little point wishing a book had *gone another way*. Don’t enjoy the books coming onto the market, then go write ones you like. Maybe you can become a writer yourself, maybe you already are. Either may ‘discover’ a new brand of fiction with fresh ideas.

If you’re a writer and receiving a bad review…well, this is how I deal with them. Set it aside. I read it and put it down for twenty-four hours. I put it completely out of my mind and let my blood cool. Then I read it again. Then I take the time to consider it. I judge whether the reviewer had a point. If so, I try to learn from it. If not, I dismiss it.

A bad review can be very helpful if the reader has something constructive to say. Equally, a reader can miss a point you were trying to make. I’m not saying the reader is *wrong* when that happens. I’m saying — And This Is The Important Thing — we are all influenced by our life experiences. We all have our own likes and dislikes.

I once received a bad review that neither I nor my editor agreed with. My editor at the time told me the reviewer couldn’t have understood the pressure one of my characters was under. Even though my editor felt the same way I did, that review stung…for about two days when I received a message from a reader gushing in delight over the very thing the reviewer had hated. That distinct point made the book for the reader where it killed the story dead for the critic. Neither was wrong, but nor was I. I had written that scene for a good reason. The reader *got* it; the reviewer didn’t. It came down to preference and ‘personal experience’, and that’s something both writer and reviewer have to keep in mind.

Try to learn from negative reviews. Take them seriously. Consider the points raised and decide whether you would have written the story any differently. If the answer is no, then dismiss it. To do so can be harder than it sounds sometimes, but I urge every writer to practise it. If there are issues the writer does not have answers to, keep those points for the next book, or use them should the book ever get the opportunity for a revision.

NEVER respond to a bad review. There have been too many public meltdowns of authors getting into arguments with reviewers. Who is in the wrong or who is right doesn’t even come into it. Online trolls write too many bad reviews and there’s no getting through to them; often the tone of that review reveals their intentions, anyway. Such simple disagreements can ruin careers. Then you have writers such as James Scott Bell who advise the writer not to read reviews at all. I understand that thinking equally, although I also know sometimes reviews can be useful. There are reviews of my work that I read, and others where I do not.

I will leave readers and potential reviewers with one last thought. Many times those who hate a work are more likely to say so. If you love an author’s work, truly the best way you can help them is not to contact the author—although that’s always wonderful and much appreciated—but to tell the world. Do you love a book? Review it publicly. There’s really no better thing a reader can do for an author whose work they love so much—for the author and for the reader who wants that person to keep writing.

2 thoughts on “Reacting to Reviews

  1. I was a reviewer for an online site for several years and found many books that I loved and happily reviewed. On the other hand, I ran into a few that left me cold. One book that I just could not connect with in any way, shape or form was turned back in to the review site and reassigned to someone else. While I hated that particular book, the lady who picked it up loved it. Conversely, I’ve seen bad reviews of books that I absolutely adore. It truly comes down to a personal opinion.

    I think the way you say you deal with the bad reviews is a good, sensible way. Even the most popular authors in the world have critics who dislike and even hate their work. I was just commenting on another blog that it’s good that there’s such a variety so that there’s pretty much something for everyone out there. You just have to look for it.

  2. Exactly! Just because a book’s received a few bad reviews it doesn’t mean it’s not the book for you. Equally, a book’s that’s hit the bestseller list and been criticially acclaimed may not work. I’ve had quite a few misses with such books. I’ve also seen reviews that blast a book because of a scene they feel is unlikely. Writers get inspiration from life, and I’ve seen this happen (with my work and the work of others) with factual details. That’s why I say we are all products of our own experiences. That influences our likes and dislikes, and what we’re prepared to accept, including our reading.

    I try not to overly regard reviews while not dismissing them. A bad review may be helpful if the reader addresses why a book didn’t click. Of course, the worst reviews turn into a personal attack and all decent people should ignore those. A bad review has, occassionally, made me check out a book or at least a sample to see whether I agree (and there are so many ways to read a sample before buying these days). As you say, there’s pretty much something for everyone and I’ve found some surprising reads by trying new writers and new genres, and a few books friends or reviewers didn’t warm to.

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