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Four Things To Do With Negative Reviews (And One Thing Not To Do) -- by Allison Maruska

Pop quiz time.

What do the following things have in common?

  1. Traffic jams
  2. Fish in the ocean
  3. The full moon appearing every month
  4. Negative book reviews

If you answered they are all certain to happen, then you pass!

rating-24185_1280Every book gets negative reviews. The Hunger Games, a book I absolutely love, has 443 1-star reviews. No matter how good your book is, eventually, you will get negative reviews. So since we can't avoid them, we should have a strategy for what to do when they appear on our product pages, else we collapse into a blubbering heap or decide to quit writing and join the carnival. Sure, the endless access to funnel cakes would be awesome, but your family would miss you.

Below are four actions I've gathered from personal experience, talking with author friends/reading similar posts, and research. I hope that by the end, you'll be able to read negative reviews of your work in the most objective way possible.

Action 1: Understand negative bias

Negative bias basically says feedback of a negative nature affects us more than feedback of a neutral or positive nature does (click here for the Wikipedia article). It has an evolutionary basis, because our prehistoric ancestors needed to pay more attention to the lion's den than to the pretty flower growing next to it. It was about survival. In our current day setting, the bias plays out in our reactions to problems that need solving. Emails of an urgent, negative nature get attention first because we want the problem to go away.

Our brains see negative reviews as problems (because they feel like attacks), but we can't solve them, so they sting more. Neural activity and heart rates increase, as if we're preparing to go to battle. This is normal. It's also why they get stuck in our brains while positive reviews blend in with the rest. Anyone who works with kids has heard the advice that for every piece of negative feedback you give a child, there should be ten pieces of positive feedback. This is why.

Action 2: Realize the negative review isn't more valid

This goes along with negative bias, but it's important enough to merit its own point. The negative reviews just feel more true, don't they? Even if cognitively you know they aren't (especially when the reviewer dings you because of the ebook price set by your publisher, or they were mad because they didn't like how your character dressed), you feel like you could have done something to prevent the bad review.

Here's the thing: reviews are opinions about your work. That's it. They're not about you, personally (in most cases. Reviews that leave personal attacks are a whole different issue). My book has received side-by-side reviews, one positive and one negative, both discussing the characters. One thought they were great and well-rounded, the other thought they were cardboard. Is one more right than the other?

We can't control where readers are in their lives when they read our books. Perhaps a negative reviewer just lost a job and a character reminds them of their jerk boss. Even if they aren't fully aware of the connection, that experience will taint the reading. Of course, we don't get to read all that in the review. All we see is "the story sucked and the characters were unlikable."

I've read that 1-star reviews tell more about the reviewer than the thing being reviewed. I tend to agree. There are people out there who seem to really enjoy complaining, and reviews are a great vehicle to do that. I would say a truly 1-star book would have no redeeming qualities. I'm not sure I've read such a book, but apparently, some people have read several, including The Hunger Games.

Action 3: Look for patterns

Sometimes, negative reviews are more than just opinion. If many say the same thing, like the book needs editing or the formatting was a mess, that's probably something you need to address (if you're an independent author and have the power to publish updated material). I read a post by an author that said she accidentally published an early draft and didn't realize it until the negative reviews rolled in, criticizing her poor editing. You may also see a pattern if you've miscategorized your book. I know if I bought a book thinking it was a mystery and it ended up being a western romance, I wouldn't be a happy reader.

However, it's possible that no patterns exist. My book has a handful of negative reviews, and while a few kind of say the same thing, overall they're pretty different. Most solely talk about the story's content (characters and events) rather than the writing itself. This leads us to...

Action 4: Realize negative reviews help sell the book

I know, it seems completely counter intuitive. Bad reviews = scared away readers, right? While that may be true in a few cases, negative reviews often contain something many positive reviews don't: specific details.

Small picture, a detail the reviewer hated could be something the potential buyer enjoys. Or if the negative review is especially ranty, the buyer may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Big picture, the total number of reviews your book has affects how visible it becomes on Amazon. It doesn't take into account if those reviews are positive or negative. More reviews = better visibility = more sales.

And now for the one thing not to do: Respond

I said reviews are not about you, personally. They are also not for you. They are readers talking to other readers. Granted, the online forum opens the door for more negativity than you'd probably see in an in-person book club, but the idea is the same. Reviews are readers talking about content.

Responding to a review puts you in a position of challenging someone's opinion. The chances of you changing the reviewer's mind with a comment are zero. Just don't do it. People don't like to have their opinions challenged, and responding brings attention to the negative review you don't want people to see.

Instead, read all your positive reviews. Print out a few of your favorites and tape them around your desk. Internalize them. You wrote a book that people love! Those ideas are much more deserving of your mental energy.

How do you approach negative reviews, either as a writer or a reader? 

Allison is a blogger and author of the best selling historical mystery The Fourth Descendant. Visit her

Posted by Allison Maruska 2 Feb 2016 at 00:04
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Responses to this blog

Spaulding 2 Feb 2016 at 13:36  
I would change one thing about this advice. Do not respond, unless your response is positive to the negative review. I haven't published my novel yet, but I have a blog with the same characters and it was reviewed by a blog with the title "Train Wreck." The reviewer said my blog was a train wreck because it was supposedly written by teddy bears — bizarre in its own right, right there — and the bears were Philadelphia Eagle fans, not Chicago Bear fans. I still think that's hilarious, so I wrote a comment on his blog telling him he was absolutely right.

Like you said, negative reviews bring more readers. So, I don't think it's a bad idea to respond sometimes, just as long as our response is positive. It helps with the marketing and lets readers know we do understand not everyone will agree with our choices.
Blandcorp 2 Feb 2016 at 13:43  
For a bit of anecdote, when looking for stuff on Amazon I read the 5-star AND the 1-star reviews first. As you indicate, 1-star reviews are often specific, and very often about fairly petty things (the reviewer didn't like how the thing was packaged, or it was deemed to arrive late, or whatever). Basically, if the 1-star reviews are petty, I know the thing is good


Amaruska 3 Feb 2016 at 03:41  
I would change one thing about this advice. Do not respond, unless your response is positive to the negative review.
That's reeeeally a slippery slope, though, in regards to official book reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or similar sites. We're expected as professional authors to let all reviews, no matter their caliber, roll off our backs, else we look like whiny, easy-to-troll authors. It sucks sometimes. I had a 1-star from a guy who was mad that Amazon charged him instead of including the book with his KU subscription. It had nothing to do with the book itself, it hurt my rating a bit, and I would have had every right to address the issue (I did report it to Amazon, but it remains). But I let it go, and I'm sure 99.9% of potential readers would be able to tell that review wasn't about the book. I had another bad review from a guy who had obviously pirated my book. That was fun.

I totally agree it's okay to respond on a blog, however. Responding to blog comments is good blogger behavior.
Jenstra 3 Feb 2016 at 17:26  
Oh—the idea of negative reviews scares me to death.
They're likely inevitable though, if I'd actually like to publish (one day) instead of keeping my book locked up in a trunk at the edge of the world . . .
I have found this site is an excellent stomping ground for getting used to a little negativity. Many of the suggestions I've received on CC have been tremendously helpful, but a few critiques have come from left field. Your suggestions for handling negative reviews can definitely be used to handle negative CC critiques, too!

Harpo 3 Feb 2016 at 18:17  
Oh—the idea of negative reviews scares me to death.
I worked in customer support, and I can tell you the customer is always wrong. Take all negative AND positive reviews with a gigaton of salt. In fact, disregard positive reviews for anything but marketing as they do nothing but stroke your ego anyways.

Also, from the article " People don't like to have their opinions challenged", this includes the author. That is why you need to read negative reviews. Although they are just opinions they are still a window to the mind of someone. In best cases this will show you that what you wrote can be understood in many ways, and will help you write better next time. You know, so that the customer will understand what you mean. Unless you're going for innuendos and the kind.
Dalatorre 4 Feb 2016 at 13:29  
I've been a customer. The customer support people who feel as though the customer is always wrong? We customers can tell they feel that way. That's why everybody hates calling customer support.

It was because of my experience as a manager dealing with unhappy customers that getting bad reviews doesn't bother me the way they bother normal people. It's great when the reviews are good but eventually you'll run out of friends and relatives, and you need to understand that not everyone will love your work. If you get ten great reviews and one bad one, you'll dwell on the bad one. That's how it is with writers, but you shouldn't take it personally. They aren't saying YOU suck or that you should quit writing (usually, although that does happen) but even if they do say you need to stop writing, ask yourself this:


Maybe if Stephen King personally calls and tells you to hang it up because you're awful, well, you should consider it. But anybody else, no. Why would 1 negative review - one person - saying you suck mean MORE than 3 or 6 or 9 people saying you are pretty darned good?

I have an author friend whose book is somewhat popular and her 300 reviews run over 66% positive. A major league baseball player that gets a hit 33% of the time is a hall of famer. Your stats are twice as good and you suck? Nonsense. Your marketing was overly effective. It got the book to people who it wasn't meant for. Your cover was intriguing and your blurb was so compelling they had to get your book. And many finished it even though they didn't enjoy the plot because your writing was so darned interesting. Then they had the decency to respect your talent enough to explain how you could do even better next time - instead of going away and letting you keep making the same mistakes again and again until you have zero book sales.


Not everyone will love your book, but a LOT of people will. Remember that!
Harpo 4 Feb 2016 at 18:10  
I've been a customer. The customer support people who feel as though the customer is always wrong? We customers can tell they feel that way. That's why everybody hates calling customer support.
Not quite what I meant though; the customer can never be right. And the moment he starts thinking so he is wrong. Why? Because you call support to fix a problem, not to debate who is right or wrong. Say your internet provided has billed you the wrong amount, you call them and they say the system say they are correct. Now if you start debating this as who is right and who is wrong you will lose, as the problem is the system, and the system does not care about opinions. The computer says no; human ideas of good and evil, right and wrong, count for nothing in the practical world.

In the same way negative and positive reviews have to be understood in their context. The customer is telling you what is wrong in his opinion, but that is only wrong in the sense that he doesn't like the book and you didn't write the book so that he or she will like it. For an audience, yes/perhaps, but not for a single individual. Someone didn't like your book? That's because no one will ever write a book that everyone will like. In the same sense, some people will always like what you wrote.

I think mostly the problem is that people can't take criticism the right way. It's rather a matter of logical though that ego should have nothing to do with.
20 Feb 2016 at 00:21  
"Maybe if Stephen King personally calls and tells you to hang it up because you're awful, well, you should consider it. But anybody else, no."

Well, if Stephen Kink personally calls me, then he must be scared of my competition, and he must really, really be on the downhill.

Grimraven 12 Mar 2016 at 04:59  
I have to agree with not responding at all to negative reviews. It shows you've taken offense, and have to offer the last word on someone else's opinion. It's probably something we've all been guilty of, and rest assured the negative reviewer wants to catch your attention. So responding is the worst thing you could do.
Trevose 10 Jul 2016 at 18:11  
I got my first 1-star review recently on my first publication. Of course, my heart skipped a beat as the page was loading. After I read it (about 15 words), I broke out laughing.

He asserted my novel is "not real, its not true, its fiction..." Hmm... Okay. He's got me there.

He added that I had not served in the military theater my novel depicts. Which I state on my Amazon's sales page, and which I call out in detail in my forward to the novel which you can see via the "look inside" feature (shortly after where it says "this is a work of fiction"). So... He's right again.

Lastly, he stated the novel is "terrible". This, I actually respect. He is entitled to this opinion.

Though I've gotten more than my share of 4- and 5-star reviews, the one I continue to think about (which was a 4-star review on Amazon but strangely was a 3-star review on Goodreads) was a thoughtful review in which the reviewer argued that I was too conservative in my writing, that I needed to take more risks and really push myself to write more aggressively. That review has stayed with me because I think he is right, and as I work on my next novel I'm not sure if I've lived up to that challenge. That worries me.

I'm still thinking about it, but I probably will not ask Amazon to take down the 1-star review. Not sure they would, but they might since it is so ridiculous. To the comments in the discussion above, not sure it will really hurt my sales. My guess is that most people who read it will also laugh at it.
Amaruska 11 Jul 2016 at 00:01  

I probably will not ask Amazon to take down the 1-star review. Not sure they would, but they might since it is so ridiculous. To the comments in the discussion above, not sure it will really hurt my sales. My guess is that most people who read it will also laugh at it.
I wouldn't worry about it. The one-star reviewer that complained about being charged for my book instead of it going under his KU subscription (likely because he pushed the wrong button) got a reply from another reader offering a solution for next time and saying my book didn't deserve the 1-star for that. Sometimes other readers have your back.

btw, I did report that one and Ammy never removed it.
Lovejoy 11 Jul 2016 at 14:03  
This depends. If it's a published work and someone reviews your work on amazon or goodreads or something, you don't say anything. No thank you, no nothing. It's unprofessional to do so. You make a dummy account for that

On a critique site, you should at the very least, say thank you. Maybe even point out that the critique pointed out something to you. And if you have questions or want to attempt to draw the critiquer into an extended discussion, no harm in trying. Some of the best advice can be found by prodding. That's if the person is up to it

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