We’re doing “Ask the Agent,” when you can ask anything you want of a literary agent. Someone wrote to ask, “What do I do when I get a negative review on Amazon? I just got a terrible review on my most recent book, and it’s not fair.”
It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever.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. I know… I’ve been there.
Writing is a scary thing.
I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and events in publishing, 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 weak or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally practiced. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice. Or to say something awful.
So if you’re asked to review a book that’s bad, 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.
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 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 fall-out. 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.
When you get a book published by Amazon, you allow yourself to be criticized. That just comes with the territory. And if you’re going to be out there allowing reviews, you’ve got to be willing to listen to someone say they don’t like you or your work. And, when it happens, you need to sit back and take it.
You rarely win anything by defending yourself. And you NEVER win anything by attacking back. A couple of times I’ve worked with authors who wanted to write in a defense or a clarification after experiencing a bad review. But offering an explanation for a bad review never works. 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 criticism, pick a different career. NOBODY is universally beloved in this business. There were people who hated Mark Twain. There are people who buy horror-porn and think it’s enjoyable. Different strokes for different folks.
Look, when someone attacked me recently for my political views, I should have brushed it off. When I responded negatively to her, SHE should have brushed it off. The fact is, none of us can read the minds of others. Maybe she really doesn’t like me (hard to believe, since I’m so flipping 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.
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.” 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, ignore the bad one, and move on to something else.
By the way, if you’re enjoying “Ask the Agent,” check out the book Holly Lorincz and I wrote that answers a bunch of questions writers have of agents…