What do you do with a scathing book review?

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

A negative book review can be devastating to an author; some of you may have already experienced this. It’s hard to put your book baby out there in the first place, but then when people say nasty things about it or your writing style it can crush the spirit. You don’t have to have a published book to get bad reviews either. They can come from first readers and also from editors and agents who are considering the project. When you receive a scathing review, what do you do? It’s tempting to lash out at the reviewer or to give up on writing, but these responses won’t help. Here are some suggestions:

For those of you who are unpublished, if you get a bad review from someone who is considering your project for representation or publication, understand that the agent or editor took time out of a busy schedule to give you feedback. This is usually a sign that the editor or agent sees potential in your project, but something about it isn’t ready for publication yet. Take these reviews and use them to improve your book. When you’ve finished revising, you might even ask those editors and agents who gave you feedback if you can submit your revised book to them. Just let them know that you used the review they gave you to make your project better. Many times the editor or agent will take another look.

A scathing review on a published book from a professional reviewer–like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus–can cause damage to an author’s sales figures, but there’s not much you can do when you get a bad review from a professional reviewer. So I suggest that you look for the silver lining instead of letting the dark cloud of depression loom over you.  If your book is reviewed–even negatively–at least it is getting some publicity. Readers will see your name, the book title and possibly the cover. The exposure could help to sell books that wouldn’t have sold without the review just from readers recognizing your book. And remember that many readers don’t even look at these reviews. They are picking up a book because the back cover copy sounds intriguing, the cover looks good, or because a friend recommends it.

Reader reviews on sites like Amazon.com or Christianbook.com can have a lot of influence as well, though the reader reviews can vary significantly. Take the bad reviews with a grain of salt unless you are getting an overwhelmingly large number of them. Most of the time bad reviews are outliers and potential readers understand that. If you notice some strong negative reviews on a specific site, encourage fans who have written to you praising your work to post a review on the same site. You can even offer a signed bookplate or a bookmark to the readers as incentive.

Don’t discount bad reviews though. If you are hearing the same criticism again and again, take note and make sure to address that issue in your next book. There’s always room for improvement in an author’s writing, and listening to critiques–when you have heard the same critique at least a few times– can help you improve.

What have you done when you’ve received a bad review?

Has a review ever helped you to improve your writing?

Do you write reviews? If so, are you more likely to write a review if you liked a book or if you hated it?

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49 Comments

  • The first time I received a bad review (in the form of a judge’s feedback) I stopped writing for weeks! That was many years ago.

    Now, when I get a bad critique or a rejection, I feel the disappointment but move on quickly. It’s much easier to learn and listen to the advice when it’s not taken so personally. And I completely agree–if the same critique is given more than a couple times, it’s a good sign that something about our “baby” need to change. :)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Dear Rachel: I am not sure how to respond to your question…so I just tagged on to the reply above. Is there a spot I click to reply? Regardless, no one likes rejection but in a way we are finally getting some feed back. And you are right, if someone took the time to be critical there is something we should look seriously at. Look close. There is help there. Help that could make the difference. Our characters become so real to us as we write, sometimes we misplace the reality that a reader is meeting them for the first time. They have not labored over them, they are just peeking in. And they have a comment that we need to look at seriously. After all, won’t our readers be similar? Looking at our characters and our writing for the first time? Or at a glance? Or when they are tired and need an escape? They will never know us, just what we write. Fresh eyes are always good. My characters want to get out from my computer and notes…and maybe there is a word, even negatively put, that I can use to get them out there. jacqueline gillam fairchild

  • Lisa says:

    Great encouragement, thank you! I was afraid for a really long time to be critiqued. Now, I realize how very helpful and needful it is. Even if feedback is negative I realize I was given a gift that someone took the time to read my work.

    I do review a lot of books on my blog. But, I tend to highlight the ones that I love. I find it very hard to be critical of others work.

  • I actually got a scathing review from my newspaper editor on Monday. It was basically “what is this? This is not your best work!”. We discussed things via email and let’s just say that due to the very public nature of my newspaper job, I am somewhat restricted in my abilities to review certain issues that are relevant in my little city. Why? Because sometimes my close friends vehemently disagree with my choice of opinions and make me aware of their true feelins. So, I sugar coated my article and readied myself for the 5th horsewoman of the apocalypse(my editor). I got what I deserved, but when I explained my reasons for not punching harder in my op-ed piece, my editor understood and all was well in the state of Denmark. AND where I live, too.
    The worst review my WIP got was from the one human who can force me to eat brussel sprouts against my will,and that of my protesting taste buds,who tend to scream in agony upon encountering anything from Brussels.
    Mom HATED my writing. Loved the story, though. H-A-T-E-D my writing. Did I mention that my mommy hated my writing? Why not just jam over cooked brussel sprouts down my throat to make life worse???
    BUT, after 2 months of “wha?” I accepted her advice and moved on. And noooooo, she has not seen the much improved MS. Are you kidding? Not a fat hairy chance! Besides, knowing my MOTHER is reading a kissing scene that I wrote? UGH! EWWW! (Yeah, I know I have 4 kids, but whatever.)

    I’ve had a few actual, real life professionals look at my work. One very lovely person gave me huge advice and encouragement and made me feel like publication will happen.

    The rest? Hmmm, brussel sprouts anyone? I cooked them for a whole hour.

    • Jeanne T says:

      You’re so funny, Jennifer. But I do understand the value of a mom’s embracing what we write. Hopefully, one day, yours will see the beauty in your writing as well as the story. Kissing scene and all. ;)

    • Lori says:

      Jennifer,

      I wouldn’t worry about what family members think of your work. There are usually other emotions at play when they are giving their criticisms. It will NEVER be an objective criticism so it best not to seek one from a family member. If they give one fine but take it for what it is worth.

    • Leah Good says:

      *laughs* You have the opposite problem I have. I struggle to get my family to give me constructive criticism on my writing.

    • Jennifer, it’s painful to have your own mom
      H-A-T-E your writing! :( But it sounds like you dealt well with it and reaped a positive harvest from it.

      How wonderful that “lovely” real professional gave you not only encouragement, but the affirmation that your writing is GOOD! Just focus on the day that you let your mom read your story again–in hardcover. :)

    • Navdeep Kaur says:

      I’m working on my memoir…so my parents HATE that I’m a writer. But I have seen that my mother is the most fearful when it comes to how my writing may be perceived; while my father is always wondering when the money will start rolling in. Parents.,writers’ parents…God bless us all.

  • I sporadically review books for a major publisher. The hardest one to review was a much-hyped book that was poorly written and poorly edited. I didn’t want to write a bad review, but I had an obligation to write something. My review wasn’t scathing, though. That would just be mean.

    Between writing my review and posting it, I read other 1-star and 2-star reviews. The issues expressed by these reviewers were the same ones I had. I didn’t read the better reviews because I felt that I couldn’t trust them.

    My debut novel releases in January. I’m not sure what I’ll do if/when a scathing review comes my way. Cry. Pray. Keep working on the next manuscript.

    Thanks, Rachel, for the post and advice.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • First of all, congratulations on being published!!

      If the review of which you speak is the one on your blog (yes, lurkage is occuring…)I think you did an excellent job of giving a polite review of a book that was not your cup of tea. You stated your opinions clearly without trashing the book. Well done.

      If someone disses your book, I can start the brussel sprouts boiling…

      • Paula says:

        The Sprouts Avenger strikes again! ;D

      • Yep, Jennifer, that would be the one. I hope I won’t need to call on you for those boiling brussel sprouts, but it’s comforting to know you’re in my corner. (I always enjoy reading your replies to the various blogs we both visit. You’ve got a voice all your own. A good one.)

        Hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! Oh, wait. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada? :)

  • Jenny Leo says:

    As a reader, even a bad review makes me aware that a book exists and what it’s about. If I’m interested in the topic or time period, I will probably still read it.

  • A professional review company gave my Christian apologetics book, Four Letter Words, to a vampire-loving occultist for review. The reviewer had many positive things to say, but delivered a scathing review against Christianity, not my book. In the end, 3-stars. What can you do with that?

    Another reviewer who wrote, “This is a spectacular book,” gave it 3-stars. Go figure. Another reviewer mis-characterized what I had written, omitted to mention how I dealt with a topic… it’s endless.

    Most reviewers are fair and try to do a good job, but some — well I guess God will take care of them.

    Whatever happens, I resist the urge to correct the record.

    Bad reviews are painful… even so, God is pleased, and he’s the one who counts.

    • You got reviewed by a vampire loving occultist? Oh for pete’s sake! But wait, let’s make lemonade here, at least they could read, right?
      Right?
      And they HAD to read an apologetics book, so your words are still floating around their Team Jacob/Bob/LeRoy/Whoever head. Right?
      Maybe that’s what God intended, for that person to be nudged toward Him by your words.

  • I have to admit, though my book received many wonderful reviews, I occasionally think upon the less than glowing one it received. Silly, I know, but it nags at me. The only way to react is to thank the person for their time and move on. Easier said than done.

    I write reviews whether or not I enjoyed a book. Rarely is a book all bad, so you highlight what you like and professionally discuss where the book failed to meet your expectations. There isn’t a good reason for scathing reviews. I know they exist, but I feel the reviewer is trying to draw more attention to himself when writing such a review.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Rachel, I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. “Bad” reviews, no matter their source (beta reader, contest judge, editor, publisher, random reader) can be difficult. I think at my stage of the journey, they are easier to work through. When a crit partner sees an area of my story or characterization that needs work, I want to know so I can make the story better. Maybe it’s because I know my crit partners have my best in mind when they share the hard stuff, and because they are encouraging while they do it, I don’t have a hard time with less than stellar comments. I know I still have a lot to learn, and these ladies are willing to challenge me to improve.

    After entering my first couple of contests last year, I was disappointed with the results, but was able to take what the judges said and move on. Having a friend point out the positives in the scores also helped.

    I think when my writing is exposed to those with a greater influence over my stories’ future, criticism will be harder to work through, but I think I’ll be able to remain teachable and move forward. If/When an agent or editor looks at it, if they give feedback (even if it’s not what I’d hoped for), I’ll be grateful!

    Now, those reviews from magazines or Amazon, I think that will be tougher. I’m sure the negative ones will hurt for a time, but I think I’ll be able to move forward from them.

    I don’t review books that often. I know that they are helpful for authors. I have posted a couple reviews on Amazon of books I thought were amazing. For a book I don’t like, I usually don’t post anything.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Wow. That was a lot of words. Sorry. :) I forgot to mention–I hope your first Thanksgiving with your daughter is wonderful!

  • Elissa says:

    I’ve not published anything yet, but I belong to an online writer’s critique group where I get lots of feedback on my WIP. Some of the reviews have been tough to take, but I’ve learned how to use the comments to improve my writing– which of course is why I joined the group in the first place.

    Accepting negative comments about one’s creative endeavors is a learned talent, not a natural one. An often overlooked benefit to being in an online group is that lots of people I don’t personally know are reading and reviewing my work. This is good preparation for the day when lots of people I don’t personally know are reading and reviewing my published novel. :)

  • If I got a bad review on my book on Amazon, I’d jump right on and tell the person off…OKAY, totally KIDDING there. I know so many authors are tempted to defend their stuff (and many have done that).

    But I truly think that looks unprofessional. Yes, I would definitely bellyache with my writing peeps about how unfair the review is. But shooting back at the reviewer online seems tres gauche.

    As a writer, you take the good and you take the bad. You take them both…and keep writing. You can’t please everyone all the time. I’d take it as a compliment that my writing is so stirring, it moved someone to comment on it.

    But you’re so right, Rachel–if the same complaint is lodged over and over, you need to sit up and take notice before writing that next book. I think in the CBA, we tend to give good reviews b/c we “know” people. To be honest, that’s why I value reviews that come from NON-CBA sources–they don’t care which way their bread is buttered!

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I expect my first bad review will feel like the day a guy at the dog park got mad because my dog licked his child. I told him I had no problem with him pushing her away. He said he’d never put his hand near a pit bull. Ummm. Wait. You mean my 42 pound ball of love that *may* have a smidge of bull terrier in there along with cattle dog and labrador? That pit bull?

    Sigh. Not everyone loves what I love. Not everyone will love my books–I think that’s one of the rules. I plan to to remind myself that my worth isn’t wrapped up in what other people think, but in what God knows.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Wow, great analogy and application, Sarah!

    • “Not everyone loves what I love.” Beautiful and profound. Thanks for sharing this thought.

    • Paula says:

      Surprising that his parental instincts didn’t trump his personal survival priorities – I mean, if he was so certain your dog was dangerous, why did he not keep his kid away? I’d leap between my kids and a dangerous animal in a heartbeat. (The only time this was tested involved a rooster, not a dog – but as it was a scary rooster that had spurred me before, I’m pretty sure I’d have the same reaction to an aggressive dog).

      I had a mostly pit mutt – loved people, not a big fan of other dogs. I thought she was the cutest thing ever :)

  • Larry says:

    Scathing reviews are not inherently “bad.” If they keep someone from purchasing a book which, through that and other purchases, ends up reinforcing the belief held by publishers and retailers that only boring / trite / cliche stories sell, that is a good thing.

    Scathing reviews can also be used as a way to critique a genre, and make it better: using “book X” as a way to point out the problems and bad trends in a genre.

    And sometimes, by golly, a flamethrower needs to be taken to the piles of worthless pulp publishers push on the public. Someone has to give the battle cry for quality.

    However, there are far too many instances of particular reviewers being the ones to critique a book: Bills’ experience points towards this. One of the biggest contributors to the problem is one of the mots visible book reviewing platforms out there: The New York Times Book Review. It seems at least one critic per issue is obviously predisposed to dislike the book they are reviewing, and like Bill noticed, such reviewers end up going beyond the purpose of the review, and go off the rails with their raving.

    As far as critics of my own work: some have been really helpful. Even the ones who find some of my more esoteric work a bit boggling are helpful in saying, “This is the point where I got really, really, really lost,” because I can then go back and see whether or not it was the prose itself which wasn’t communicating clearly, or they just didn’t have the various cultural / historical / literary knowledge for what the prose was saying.

  • Not gonna lie. The idea of reviews freaks me out a bit. They are soooo subjective. I read a blog post by Katie Ganshert after her debut novel came out, and she posted opposite reviews on the same subjects. One review mentioned the reviewer loved the main character; another hated her. But such is writing overall.

    I think it’s important to give creedence to an agent/editor or writing people who critique your work and offer feedback, but I would estimate you’d drive yourself crazy trying to please all the readers out there. Do your best, improve where you can, and let God handle the rest.

  • As a reviewer, if I can’t give a good review, I give a synopsis. (This might be cheating, but I don’t think so.) If I really think the book is poorly done and I have a choice, I just don’t review it at all. There are so many good books out there that I’ll never be able to review all the good ones, so why draw attention to the so-so or poorly written work?

    Also, I try to stick to the writer’s skill rather than my feelings about the book. There are plenty of well-written books that just aren’t my thing. That doesn’t mean the writer didn’t do a good job. It just means I’m not in his/her writing niche.

  • Miranda says:

    I’m a book reviewer, and I have a rule: If I must say the unpleasant, then I’ll find a way to do it with kind words. There is absolutely no reason to be mean.

    Great post Rachael.

  • I’ve always thought it funny how I can have 100 positive critiques (I’m not at the review stage, yet), but one negative critique can send me into a tailspin. I received some pretty hurtful comments from a Genesis judge recently. I had to keep reminding myself that one person’s opinion doesn’t mean I’m hopeless.

    Once I get over the sting, I usually appreciate negative critiques. I’d rather have honest suggestions than can help me improve than meaningless compliments.

    I’m not sure how I’ll feel when I hit the review stage. Once your baby is out in the real world, you can no longer improve it. I’ve heard a lot of authors say they never read their reviews. I’m doubt I’d be strong enough not to take a peek.

  • Another writing friend and I attended a conference where a well-known author said that those one-star reviews on Amazon actually help your sales. Something along the lines of bad publicity is still publicity. My friend and I smirked then pledged to hook each other up with a one star review on Amazon. We still joke about the awful stuff we’ll say about each other’s books. At the same time, we support, critique, and pray for each other. I’m not too worried that she’ll really trash my book. ;-)

    In the past year I’ve grown to love the editing process as a result of valuable, sometimes negative, critique. I am willing to work on things that need working on. What hurts is getting feedback from contests that indirectly questions my faith because of my speculative content. I know that’s something I’ll continue to face as I pursue my chosen genres, but I hope a loving response will turn away that backlash.

  • Paula says:

    I write reviews on my blog occasionally – I am more likely to write a review if I have something to say, whether I liked the book or not. That’s true of books I spend my money on.
    Sometimes I’ll get a free book to review, and I will make sure I have something to say about it. If I don’t like it, I try to identify what someone else might like about it – what’s done well, a favorite trope used, a unique angle explored – so that someone who buys books according to a different criteria than I do can see if they would want it.
    If I really like it, I’ll link to it on Facebook and Pinterest and give it an Amazon review too :)

  • I often review books for kids on my blog and about various books on Amazon and I’m always honest. I’ll point out some flaws, but if I really dislike a book I won’t review it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a strongly negative review of my books, either. Some people forget their manners when posting rude things about other people’s books but I certainly don’t let reviews like that keep me from reading a book.

  • Great advice! If I ended up not caring for the book I just won’t review it. I know everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but I am not the type of person to point out the negative in books. I just don’t feel right.

  • Darby Kern says:

    Print them up and use them (and all the rejection letters we writers collect) and wallpaper your bathroom.

    Until this internet fad ends everybody will have an opinion- and a place to give it.

  • Leah Good says:

    I enjoy doing book reviews on my blog. I’m with Miranda in that, if I don’t like something about a book, I’ll try to find a way to say it nicely. Treat others the way you want to be treated, right?

  • As a reader who looks at reviews, I agree a bad one is not always bad. I like to see the content of the review to get a sense of why the reviewer felt it was bad. Sometimes I find the thing they hate is exactly the thing I love … so I buy the book :o). Other times I could care less about the thing the reviewer got so hot about.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I don’t know the source, but it’s been said, “The only thing worse the bad publicity is no publicity.”

    So I guess the only thing worse than a bad review is no review.

  • During the summer, I was verbally assaulted by two members of my former critique group. After these two people finished giving feedback on a scene from my novel, I actually felt pummeled. When I went home, I questioned whether I had just been fooling myself and actually completely lacked any writing talent. Then I prayed and got over it. With God’s grace, I re-read the scene with their feedback in mind and tried to be open to what was true in what they had said. One of the main things they had said was that they didn’t like one of the two main characters (who was introduced in that scene) because he seemed “irritated all the time.” On the re-read, I realized that their “complaint” was an unintended affirmation. The character is disliked by most people in the story at that point. The other main character is the only person who sees potential in him. So I succeeded in conveying that he is not easy to like. Yay! After reviewing the scene, I decided to the WIP professionally critiqued. The professional critique was extremely positive, far beyond what I was expecting. So a review that initially almost led me to give up writing ended up increasing my confidence. God bless those two women!

    Happy Thanksgiving, Rachel and everyone! :)

    • Christine, congrats on getting such great feedback on your professional critique. As affirming as that is, you also deserve kudos for seeing how that “assault” was actually affirmation that you had accomplished what you wanted to. Best of luck to you.

  • Jenny says:

    I learned early to use criticism to write better. I don’t think I was ever criticized out of someone’s bad mood. I think every critique pointed out an area I needed to work on and now I have my newly self-published book, “Controlled Chaos,” on Amazon and have received four 5 star ratings so far. I love the saying on my kid’s t-shirt, “Pain is just fear leaving the body.” It’s a sport shirt talking about physical pain, but I think it works well for writers too!

  • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! I had a lovely Thanksgiving and I hope you did too. :)

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