Bad Reviews—UGH. Like gremlins in the cupboards and pixies in the sugar jar, they sneak up when you least expect them. For writers, the best way to deal with bad reviews is often to ignore them. I certainly never, ever, ever, ever reply to them—no matter what. That way lies madness.
I write reviews only occasionally and very reluctantly. I don’t write bad reviews. They hurt my soul. I think most writers feel this way—we hate to get bad reviews and so we don’t give them.
Not that writing bad reviews about a book is the mark of Satan. Objective reviewers feel duty-bound to provide an honest account of their experience and that is a good thing. A number of bad reviews tends to bring problems to the attention of potential buyers. Writers can learn lessons from bad reviews as well—but only if those bad reviews deal with things within our control to alter.
I wanted to see what I could learn from bad reviews so I got a plate of cookies and a large bottle of cheap brown liquor and dug in.
I looked at some of the top 100 books in the paranormal romance genre. I wanted to see what reviewers said about books that generally got good reviews.
Here are a few items that made me shake my head (and take another slug of that brown liquor.)
- Didn’t like the binding—Right, I bind each and every book with a needle and thread. I also use a quill pen to illuminate each manuscript before I store it in clay pots in the basement.
- Poor paper quality—All my books are printed on paper I make myself by munching wood into pulp and drying it on a screen rack.
- Liked the author’s other books better so I rated this one low – You give and you take away.
- No dust jacket – Who the hell wants dust jackets? Seriously. Didn’t you learn to make your own out of paper sacks in grade school? On the other hand, if you pay upwards of $15 for a book, it better come with all the bells and whistles—including dust jackets.
- Slow shipping/shipping cost is too much—I’ll speak to my horde of book-delivering minions and get this straightened out.
- The book cover is not the same color as the one in the picture – The reviewer gave the book a 1-star for this with no mention of the content. I guess he/she wanted a book to match the room décor and not to read.
A self-published author has some control over the quality of the binding and paper and maybe even the shipping. I’d say even the smaller publishing houses would be receptive to such feedback. So even these seemingly non sequitur comments might yield a lesson.
More importantly, reviews that mention the following items are fodder for reflection.
1. Bad Editing/inaccurate details. This is by far the greatest complaint I saw in my highly unscientific review of reviews. Every author NEEDS an editor but many feel they can skip this vital step. Complaints about bad editing are also important to an author who has a)paid for an editor or b) used the editor provided by a publisher. Consistent and justified complaints about bad editing can mean the author isn’t getting her money’s worth.
2. Slow paced or depressing. Since I read The Yearling in grade school, I’ve been wary of sad books. If you’ve not read it, I won’t spoil the ending except to say prepare yourself for a soul-killing experience from which you will take years to recover. Bringing a social injustice to light in fiction is a time-honored tradition and serves a useful purpose—think Charles Dickens’ many works which illuminated social injustice in 19th century Britain and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which illustrated racism in the Deep South. But even these heavy subjects were presented with humor and humanity. Authors can use this complaint to determine if they need to insert a bit more humor. Lighter moments actually heighten the drama.
3. Unlikable protagonist. Have you ever been happily reading along and discovered the protagonist is a needy, shallow, whiny tart? Yep—me, too. Now, it is possible to take an unlikable character and use their unlikeability as a device. Readers might be drawn into the story just to see this character get their comeuppance or they might hang on hoping for the character’s redemption. But either way, readers need to see something in the character or the plot that they can root for. If you see this complaint too many times, you may need to work on character development to make the protagonist more human and more relatable.
4. Too much backstory. Huge chunks of backstory or world building will send readers running for the TV remote while your book gathers dust in a corner. If only your book came with a dust jacket. At least a 50/50 ratio between narration and dialogue seems prudent, but I prefer more dialogue with action tags. Show the characters moving through the world and let them describe the world in dialogue. One bit of advice I use every day is “Tell (or show) the reader only what they need to know right now.” If you do that for every scene, the world builds itself.
5. Too poetic. Purple prose is still a thing. Sometimes a reviewer just doesn’t get the snazzy metaphor or allusion you slipped in there. Let them go in peace. Most of the time, purple prose comes from forgetting your novel is really a conversation with other real people. Imagine you’re telling the story of your novel to a friend. If the snazzy metaphor fits, keep it—but if it sounds pretentious, you may very well find yourself in dire need of an additional portion of your favored aperitif as you slaughter your darling word babies.
Even bad reviews have a purpose, but don’t linger in the land of bad reviews for long. After all, you can use that time better by creating artistic dust jackets and chewing up pine boards to make another ream of printer paper.