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Chip MacGregor

January 9, 2017

Ask the Agent: What do I do with a bad review?

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Someone wrote to say, “I got a terrible review on Amazon. I hate even going there to look at it. Tell me, what do you do with a bad review?”

You know, one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize is that once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology.

Writing is a scary thing.

I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and articles, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was stupid or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally respected. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice, or to say nothing at all.

So if you’re asked to review a book that’s awful, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love. It’s those sorts of jobs that can get you into trouble.

Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m simply asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive set of reviews, but I don’t have to deal with any fallout. Maybe that’s why so many of us tend to discount what we read on Amazon — we’ve seen too many reviews from mothers and friends to accept the glowing evaluations as honest. On the other hand, if a magazine or website hires me to do a review, I have to be as honest as possible, even if that means sounding critical.

Now, having said all of that, understand that a reviewer is just offering his or her own, biased, possibly stupid opinion. And so long as they don’t attack you personally, they’re granted the right to say stupid things. So what do you do when your book is attacked? You ignore it. You rarely win anything by attacking someone. And you NEVER win anything by attacking back. A couple of times I’ve worked with authors who wanted to write in a defense to Amazon, or a clarification to a magazine after experiencing a bad review. They wanted to go defend themselves. But offering an explanation for a bad review never works. It makes you look small and defensive. My advice? Forget it. Put the bad review in a box, set it behind you, and move on. We all get bad reviews, we all get some personal attacks, we’re all going to face readers or reviewers who sometimes JUST DON’T LIKE US. That’s life.

That’s especially true with books, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You might write something you think is deep and thoughtful — but a reader might find it silly and turgid. Guess what? That’s the life of the writer. If you can’t live with it, pick a different career. NOBODY is universally beloved in this business. There were people who hated Mark Twain, and there are people who think  The Shack is deep and insightful. So they’re wrong. Different strokes for different folks.

Look, I know this from firsthand experience. A while back, when someone attacked me on a dopey website that nobody reads, I should have brushed it off. Instead, I responded negatively to her. Then SHE should have brushed it off. It turned into a bigger deal than it needed to be, and took way too much energy.

The fact is, none of us can know the minds of others. I don’t really know what she was thinking — maybe I really AM the terrible person she described. Maybe she really doesn’t like me (hard to believe, since I’m so wonderful, but it’s happened to me before). Or maybe, just maybe, hers was an honest response, and I should just shut up about it. There’s something to be said for keeping your mouth shut and not whining. Responding to a bad review probably isn’t going to win people over.

Lots of writers have faced the problem of a bad review. Kurt Vonnegut once talked about the unfairness of personal attacks in bad reviews, claiming rage and loathing for a novel is “preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Vonnegut hated them… but he also let people be wrong. So take that approach. When you get a bad review, recognize the attack for what it is (small-mindedness, misunderstanding, a chance for the attacker to make herself feel better, or, perhaps most commonly, an honest response to something not suited to the reviewer’s tastes). Then forget about it. Go read a positive review to make up for it, forget the bad one, and move on to something else. You’ll be glad you did.

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23 Comments

  • evamarieeverson says:

    So … Mr. Chip … here’s my story. MOST of my reviews (the reviews I get for the books I’ve written) are 4 and 5 star. Which is nice. I work hard. I want my books to be liked, if not loved. But recently I received a 1-star review because the reader didn’t have time to read the book. Really? I get a 1-star review because you purchased a book you don’t have time to read??? All righty then. I also received a 1-star review recently that said the legal advice was bad. Really? I gave legal advice? (I wonder if they typed in the wrong title …)

    At any rate, I took it up with Amazon, who agreed, apparently because they took the review down.

    I always try to communicate with my reviewers. “Thank you so much… this means more than you know…” Even those who give me a 3-star (I loved it but it had too many characters, and things like that).

    The ones that make me laugh, though, are the ones that are (for instance) just silly. “I enjoyed this novella but wish it were longer.” (So I get a 3-star review.) Well … it would be longer … but then we call it a NOVEL and the contract called for a NOVELLA.

    As a writer, I have had to learn to beam at the good reviews and forget the bad ones. Not easy.(“I hated this book so much,” one review said, “I threw it across the room.” This was the only 1-star review I received in a flurry of 5-star reviews and enough awards for the title to cause me to have to build a shelf …) Initially, I sulked over that … until I did some research and discovered the reviewer NEVER gives good reviews. Could this be a writer who never got published so they go after those of us who did?

    All that to say … criticism is hard to take, but sometimes it offers insight we need as writers. Wake up calls. And there is nothing wrong with that.

    • Tricia Sutton says:

      when I’m buying something I typically look at the reviews and I marvel at the ignorance of some of the reviewers. I was just buying a book recently and a reviewer dropped down the author’s overall ratings because the book was a gift and she hadn’t read it. Really? Why give a review at all? It’s crazy. If I were that author I would be getting that removed. Not just authors either. Look on Etsy and see how many rely on those rankings only to get a 1 star due to shipping issues that were not in the etsy owner’s hands anymore.

  • I know EXACTLY what you mean, Chip. One day during my Christmas break I was driving down a main road in my city, minding my own business and going with the flow of traffic of other holiday shoppers. When I got home and went online, not only did I have a private Facebook message threatening me, I also saw a horrible review sitting on my boss’ WORK Facebook page.

    Apparently some mysterious person didn’t like my driving and proceeded to stalk me (without my knowledge) to get personal contact information as well as to find out where I worked so he could deliver a very public “dressing down” of my character to the world. I then received a phone call from my boss and had to explain my confusion over some random person now leaving damaging reviews on HIS company’s Facebook page. Luckily I’ve worked with him for 17 years and he knows my true character, but the damage is permanently out there to now reflect on HIS character for hiring me.

    My point is that bad reviews happen everywhere and to everyone. Of course, my first reaction was to try and write an apology to calm the waters, but he had blocked any communication from me. The only thing I CAN do is ignore his hurtful words and hope the future students I work with will come to realize that one bad review of my character doesn’t reflect my TRUE intentions…both in my writing AND in my daily life.

    Great post as always!

    • Tricia Sutton says:

      wow, that’s messed up. I wonder how they got all the info. It’s scary to think.

    • Tricia, they searched for me on Facebook and from there found out where I work during the day. Anyone can find someone if they try hard enough. Fortunately I’ve since found out that this person lives in another state and was just visiting here for the holidays…otherwise I’d be spending a lot of time looking over my shoulder…lol…

  • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

    And for a prime current example of how NOT to respond to a so-so/bad review, look no further than Stephen Harper’s meltdown on an Apple review site. It’s hilarious. But don’t go down that rabbit hole unless you have an hour or more to waste.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      An absolute riot, Rachel. Worth of time of any writer to go see a prime example of how NOT to resound. As soon as you defend yourself, you look like a jerk. Thanks for this.

  • Kim says:

    Hey Chip, Whenever I have to give a review that is ‘bad’, I always put three things that I really like and I go into details as to why I liked them and then skim over 3 things or less that I didn’t like. I find that works well and it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. My book is coming out next summer and I know I’ll get the “Kim is a heretic and here’s why” as I listen to Copeland and Joyce Meyer and bring some of my ‘heretic’ teachings into my novel. Sigh … Oh well, it won’t be the first time :))

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Kim. I think a lot of reviewers tend to use the “sandwich a couple of good things in with the bad” strategy. That can work. Again, it’s a very small group that is trying to be a jerk and just be negative. So when you get a negative response, you have to put it in context. Is this person someone I need to listen to? Do a value what he or she has to say? Does it matter at all? If so, what message do I need to take away?

  • TheColorfulOnes says:

    Great advice and examples… as a very soft-skinned gal, harsh reviews are one of my biggest fears (I just know they’ll kill me!) … it’s also why I tend to NOT review something unless I absolutely LOVE it… I’ve read some marginally acceptable works, and some absolute crap – but more than wanting to ‘warn off’ other readers, I think of how I’d feel if I was that author, and I avoid leaving anything negative for fear of breaking someone else’s heart… I’m such a softie!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for writing, TheColorfulOnes. I think a lot of writers are that way — sensitive types who want to be liked, and who won’t say much negative because they want others to also be liked. That’s okay. The point is, you’re going to get some negative reviews at time, if you’re bold enough to post your book for sale. And you can live with the negativity, whether because you ignore it, you never bother to check, or you just don’t give much credence to the reviewer. Again, I don’t think you HAVE to listen to every negative voice. All voices are not created equal.

  • Good advice. I have lived long enough to realize that not everyone is going to like me. And that’s okay… I don’t like everyone I meet either.

    Not everyone is going to like my books. That’s okay, because I don’t like every book I pick up either.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    ***smiles, caresses mike, and goes into Sinatra voice***

    “Bad reviews? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.

    I took them on the chin. Got up again. No apprehension.

    Sometimes a reader’s brain just can’t contain the good that I say.

    ‘Cause when I write, Lord knows it’s tight, and written my-y-y-y way-y-y-y…”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes there were times, I”m sure you knew,
      When I bit off more than I could chew,
      But through it all, there was no doubt,
      I wrote up, and barfed it out,
      And I stood tall, Ignored editors,
      And did it MYYYYYYYY WAAAAAAAY.

  • elinorflorence says:

    Chip, this is an excellent post as usual. I just want to tell you how much I appreciate and enjoy all your posts. I even go back and reread some of them.

  • Patricia Zell says:

    Perhaps the tenor of reviews should change and perhaps you’re the one to start it. Rather than be “honest” (which has become another word for one’s opinion), perhaps our reviews should feedback on what could improved couched in positive terms. Criticism that degrades or pokes fun at people can be offensive and thus can detract from “honesty.”
    The problem with the homeschooling mother in a denim jumper is the stereotyping of a group of women. Do we want to be stereotyped? Do we want people to make judgment calls on us based on our own personal choices? I think, for some weird reason, many of us are afraid of diversity of thoughts and actions, so we stereotype others to “protect” ourselves.
    Most religions have the basic understanding of the law that governs infinity–“do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” If we wouldn’t want something to happen to us, then we certainly shouldn’t cause it to happen in someone else’s life.
    So, what should we do if we see someone else acting unwisely–well, we could always ask God to work all things out to the good for that person and anyone else involved. We should take full advantage of what God and Christ achieved through Christ letting go of God, becoming sin, dying on the cross, and overwhelming death. We should take full advantage of God’s absolute love.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m not terribly worried about the danger of stereotypes, Patriicia — something I consider overblown. But I agree that people make judgments based on personal choices (um… how else would we make judgments?) and that many are afraid of diversity. Perhaps the issue is one of sensitivity. We create art, and are sensitive to anyone questioning its value. But questioning the value of art is ALWAYS happening. And it doesn’t hurt me that much to have someone say, “Your piece doesn’t speak to me.” So what? We can’t expect our art will speak to everyone. That’s why I still suggest the best response to a bad review is to read it, set it behind yourself, and move on.

  • Laura Jensen Walker says:

    As Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

  • Joe says:

    Hello Chip – Excellent advice and examples. Taking what you say to heart may be easier for some than others. Romance writers might reasonably expect everyone to love them, but I know better. Because much of my fiction is written with sharp elbows and from a strong conservative Christian view point, I know and accept certain folks will absolutely HATE my stuff, regardless of how well it is or isn’t written. Those kinds of reviews, “too Christian, not Christian enough, positive depiction of Catholics, don’t like how women, men, ect are depicted” I call agenda reviews – and I take their criticism with a grain of salt.

    No new McDonald’s hamburger will ever get a good review in “Today’s Vegetarian” but McDonald’s doesn’t care – they, like me, sell meat.

    The best reviews (We only send out advance copies to newspapers, radio, etc. – not bloggers and no freebees) are the 4 and 5 star reviews where the reader nevertheless busts on you about something. In my first novel, The Diaries of Pontius Pilate, many reviewers on Goodreads in particular really liked the book and because of that really HATED the ending – they thought it was too rushed, too abrupt. I modified how I structured stories and some of my writing in the second novel and even in my short stories – readers appreciated the change. When the same criticism stacks up from people who like your work, you’d better take a hard look at what they’re saying.

    Joe

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s an interesting take on the subject, Joe. Thanks very much. And yes, every writer needs to take a hard look at the reviews and comments. I was raised in a Scottish family, and the Scots have a saying: “Learn to unpack a rebuke.” A great bit of wisdom for writers.

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