WHAT TO DO WHEN A READER DISLIKES YOUR WORK?
The traditional answer to this is, believe it or not, NOTHING.
Because a reader’s review is as much their opinion as your book is yours.
And you are grateful to have a reader who was moved to take up keyboard and leave you feedback.
And because you cannot please everyone.
And, most importantly, because have negative reviews is a rite of passage for writers, and now you’ve had yours.
And here you thought having all 5* reviews was a mark of a good writer, and now your stellar reputation is trampled forever.
Is acceptance your only option, then?
The first instinct may be to send out destroyer missiles, but that may not actually remove the stain on your reputation.
The review stays.
But I came across a very creative way to use and benefit from that bad review on a blog post of Tahani Nelson, a fantasy writer. She turned a negative review (a reader got almost to the end of the book quite happily until she realized, oh dear, the warrior princess was gay!) into a great ad for her book. I won’t spoil her thunder – she deserves people to go read her post. Or at least scroll down to her ad. It’s gorgeous. Go ahead – I’ll wait.
So, I thought – YOU have some 1* and 2* reviews
What creative use are you going to make of them?
First, two of the ads (maybe written by the same person?) have the same error: ‘It is 545 pages long.’ Um, no. The book is 485 pages long.
The reviewer accused me of writing tedious descriptions about everything. Um, no. If anything, I am extremely parsimonious in the description department for a peculiar reason: Pride’s Children is written in very deep close multiple third person point of view, and I only use descriptions a character would actually THINK at the moment, which eliminates most descriptions (characters don’t do more than noticing a detail or two most of the time). Whether they’re tedious or not, that I’ll leave up to the individual reader, but I try to think of something obvious but fresh or relevant.
One reviewer must have thought the first paragraph of the prologue – a short excerpt from a faux New Yorker article that is my link between books, and the ‘outside’ view of the story from a magazine writer’s perspective years later – was actually the first paragraph of the book – and called it a run-on sentence. The paragraph is 79 words, a complex sentence but not a run on. The prologue is labeled Prothalamion – in honor of Dorothy L. Sayers who used one brilliantly in Busman’s Honeymoon.
The actual first sentence in Chapter 1 is 11 short sentences in 93 words. With periods or ellipses between them – clearly delimited.
I was accused of needing to prove I have an immense vocabulary. Why, thanks, I do know a lot of words, but all I try to do is use the words the characters would use. Which sometimes is very constraining.
The missing clues to my bad reviews (so far)
Several pieces in the negative reviews clued me in to the problem, and it’s a different one than I originally thought.
“I read Pride’s Children because of my daughter’s suggestion. I am not a fan of romance novels”
“the book was much too long. It could have been easily condensed to 2/3 the length”
“The number of quotations before each chapter was overkill – for the most part they only made sense to me after the chapter had been read.“
And these pieces from positive reviews give different clues:
“These relationships do include romantic attraction and love (and even have it as a central focus), but it’s not the sole focus; family relationships, friendships, working relationships, etc. -some healthy and some not– come under the lens as well. And the development of the central attraction isn’t a “romance,” except in the sense that a Jane Austen novel could be called one (and allowing for differences in setting and literary conventions between the early 19th and early 21st centuries, a comparison to Austen isn’t entirely inapt!)”
“I cannot recommend this book, this trilogy, highly enough – but not to everyone. This is a book for readers who appreciate literary fiction and a very deeply developed romance with a thoughtful debate on ethics. I believe the pace and the delayed gratification will frustrate many modern romance readers who look for fast-burning romance, titillation, and simple love stories. However, if you are a reader who will appreciate a modern ‘Jane Eyre’, this trilogy is for you.”
There are MANY Romance readers and writers in the world – and they do extremely well by each other.
But they have styles and tropes and limitations and expectations, among others:
- only two characters in the relationship (excepting the exceptions for subgenres)
- a point of view that goes back and forth at certain times between the two lovers-to-be – in the same scene
- relative short
- a particular style of covers
- a happy ending (HEA – happily ever after) or (HFN – happy for now)
And somehow or other, even when the cover, description, and ad copy try to convey that Pride’s Children is NOT a Romance which follows what the readers expect, some readers picked it up, read, noticed things were not what they expected – but kept going all the way to the end (skimming, I’m assuming, in some places) – and still decided they were not happy, and left a review. An unhappy one. A 1* or 2* review.
I think that may mean I need to work on my ad copy. I don’t know how to say ‘mainstream love story’ as opposed to ‘Romance’ – because it sounds horribly condescending somehow, but wouldn’t you want to know there were supernatural beings or zombies in a book before you chose it to read, given your preferences either way?
If you read, or even prefer, mainstream love stories, and haven’t signed up to be notified about mine, please hop over to the Pride’s Children blog, and follow so you will be informed when they come out. Not frequently – I’m dreadfully slow – but they’re big fat complicated stories when they do.
A very thought-provoking post. Negative reviews must be very unpleasant for authors, but there are part and parcel of book-writing and book-publishing life. The authors should know that this means that they are being read or at least being noticed. There is as many opinions and tastes in this world as there are people, and even the best of critics get it wrong all the time. There is not one successful author or artist in this world who does not have their following of haters (a larger one or a smaller one). It looks from the negative reviews you mention that the readers are not very observant ones, and “tedious descriptions” will always be a criticism of someone even if they read the most exciting book in the world, that’s more or less normal. Negative reviews can be beneficial in pointing weaknesses, of course, but, beyond that, I would not take them very close to heart (easy said than done!). There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (Oscar Wilde).
Exactly – all great points, Diana.
Negative reviews are excellent ways to detect real weaknesses, especially in a world in which about half of writers believe in the ‘learn as you go’ model, have decided or have been taught not to overthink what they produce, but put it out there, and get on with the next book.
It’s a valid model – many authors, edited by professionals or not, get significantly better as books continue to come out. It is definitely faster and cheaper to produce books this way.
And other writers who agonize forever over each word may be doing that to excess, and have trouble getting work finished and ‘out there’ – even for potential readers who might like their work, even if slightly imperfect in some aspect.
Each writer goes through this calculus – and learns to deal with it. Some even get other people to read their negative reviews and only pass on legitimate action items.
Being noticed – being judged – all that is part of the gig.
But we do have to grouse about it from time to time for our soul’s sake! And always remember that we are professionals and it is UNprofessional to get really upset and try to fight back – against a reader with an opinion. Authors have gotten in very bad trouble by doing so, and it is deserved trouble – they didn’t learn the system before publishing.
Don’t give them that much satisfaction!
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One critic once wrote, “Critics are people who come on the battlefield after the fighting is over and shoot the wounded.” Of course, book reviews are such a scarce commodity these days that that many authors wouldn’t mind getting shot a few times rather than being ignored outright.
Actually though I can think of other reasons for negative reasons (other than the fact that the review is just cantankerous). Sometimes successful authors write too frequently and think that a story which is “good enough” is worth reading. A more common problem is that readers started a book with a notion of what the book was going to be about and then found the actual book to be completely different. Sometimes that can be addressed simply by describing the book accurately and fairly. Sometimes negative reviews can simply be the result of having the book mass marketed when the book was actually suited for a more limited audience. You’ll have to read my long essay about the most negatively reviewed novel in the world to see what I’m talking about .
I’m heading right for that essay – your title got me.
A novel makes a promise. A novel is a complete statement about something (for me, at least). A novel is an argument (though the author holds all the strings for presenting the best case for the solution the author offers to the premise).
It should also be the best possible entertainment, ESPECIALLY if there is something the author wants the reader to take away from it.
I have read your post. All that money and notoriety – and no one is buying the book because they WANT to read it. Sad, really.
An interesting stunt. My guess: he got taken by a vanity press (didn’t check the book) or a small printer, was stuck with a whole bunch of copies, and decided to see if he could start a trend.
Apparently not – I am seriously considering following in his footsteps – but with my book, hoping for better.
If you read it, or my reviews, I am happy to listen/read your opinion on that strategy.
OTOH, I think I may just have to be patient. I’m so slow the third book will take at least several more years, anyway.
I haven’t had a negative review, yet, 😀 … but Mrs Widds and I have a deal. She will read the negative ones and inform me if there’s anything worth paying attention to, (the difference being between a valid point and verbal diarrhea) and then I’ll read it. Life’s too short to get all twisted up in other people’s opinions at the best of times. 🙂
How useful of her – you’re a lucky woman.
It is a rite of passage, though. Most writers get one sometime – and these posts serve to remind them that the world did not end. 🙂
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I have a one star review too. High Five. And yes, they are a rite of passage because they prove that the great reviews weren’t written by robots or your Favourite Aunt Nellie. Or that’s how I’m determined to see them.
How to write a blurb that doesn’t offend the Romance Readers but does warn them against reading? That’s…hard.
With Vokhtah it was easy – no way could a bunch of alien hermaphrodites be seen as characters in a scifi/fantasy romance novel. Unfortunately, the Innerscape trilogy was another matter entirely. Love is certainly part of it, and there is a HFN of sorts, but it’s not a ‘Romance’.
To me, love is an integral part of the human psyche, just like greed and hate, so how can you write a story about believable characters without it?
-sigh- but then how do you write a blurb without making it sound like a Romance?
I shudder to think what a Romance Reader would make of some of the more brutal scenes in the story.
I solved the blurb problem by not mentioning love at all. That may have been a mistake too because the story is character driven and not immediately scifi-ish. As most scifi readers are male, and young, I suspect they may start reading and then stop because they think the story is a romance in disguise.
As a reader, I believe the /best/ scifi stories are the ones that explore the human condition in an extreme setting, but most scifi readers probably wouldn’t agree with me on that.
As a writer of scifi, it feels as if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
As a writer of mainstream fiction, it feels exactly the same way. Maybe that’s why some mainstream writers take on subjects like Jodi Picault does, with abuse in the past or present somehow dominating the story.
I positively dislike those – so I can’t write them. I’m writing a story about people a few years ago who had an interesting relationship mess up all their lives – but although there are brief flashbacks, it is not a dual timeline story – just the present affected by everything people carry along with them.
I don’t see how my description can be interpreted as a Romance – so I can only think it wasn’t read at all.
The world is a mysterious place. This one is complicated enough for me.
But getting the 1* review – priceless: you are now a RealWriter (TM).
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Yes, that’s how I see the characters’ past as well. Apart from one or two bits that are pivotal to the present, I try to weave in bits of the past in very small doses so the reader gets an overall impression without being burdened by all that backwards and forwards.
-giggles- ‘RealWriter (TM)’ I love that. :d
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We can use that as our trademark.
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-grin- I’m in!
Hello from Pennsylvania. In pre-internet days, there weren’t oceans of reviews. Now there are, because of Goodreads, Amazon, et al. Almost anybody can be a reviewer! Take care. Neil S.
Any reader can review on Amazon if they have verified themselves (ie, not a spammer) by purchasing $50 on Amazon in the previous year. Presumably, they can both afford a book and choose to post a review.
I wasn’t complaining about negative reviews – they are what they are – but more wondering if, once they’ve been posted, there is something of value (beyond feedback) to the author.
I think the negative reviews can dissuade readers who are not your intended audience from trying something they already know they dislike. Depends on the review.
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As you described, some 1 and 2 star reviews complain inaccurately about elements of the story some readers allegedly read. Then there are the 1 and 2 star reviews that are based on something a character did or thought that the reader didn’t like. A reader might say the story was good but they had to give it a 1 star review because the POV character did something once in the story they didn’t like.
Next on the list of 1 and 2 star reviews are those from dedicated trolls out to destroy authors and books. These trolls write 1 and 2 star reviews, too, and they don’t care if the facts in their reviews are correct. Since trolls are focused on trashing novels and destroying the careers of authors, they probably don’t bother to even read the books they are trashing.
Since Amazon removed the ability to leave comments for reviews, though, the trolls don’t seem to be the plague they were a few years ago. Now, they seem to have become only a slight irritation. After all, trolls thrive on being fed by an author or another reading leaving a comment that disagrees with their deliberately misleading attack review. Back then, once fed, the troll or brutal tribe of trolls returned to attack, insult, infuriate and keep jabbing needles in the author or reader that disagreed with them… often alleging that the author or other reader wants to censor them and may be a stalker.
I experienced such an assault back in 2013, so I have first hand experience with trolls. Those trolls set what’s called flame traps with their deliberate, often misleading, and insulting reviews that were written to suck an author or another reader into the trap. Once the trap is triggered, the troll returned to keep the pot boiling. This combat feeds the trolls and they thrived on that.
The flame trap i stepped in was when I left a comment defending another author’s book against an obviously misleading review.
What did that tribe of trolls do? Well, since I don’t comment under a false name, they stalked me to learn as much as they could about me and discovered that I was another indie author.
Then they attacked my work with similar 1 and 2 star misleading and insulting reviews. Some of these trolls apparently added my name to a watch list so when I published a new book in the future, they are alerted and often the first review is 1 or 2 stars and its from one of them.
Even 8 or 9 years later, at least one or two of those trolls reviewed my last book soon after it came out a few months ago.
I wonder if these types of trolls are related to Trump in some way.
I’ve had my head down writing so long I didn’t realize until you mentioned it that comments aren’t available for reviews on Amazon! You can still click Helpful (but not downrate a review) or Report abuse, which I imagine leads somewhere else. I guess I thought that meant comments were still available – if I thought at all.
Comment streams immediately go to garbage if they are not moderated. Period. And moderation for an active blog can be a lot of work.
I’m sorry you were subjected to a deliberate troll attack – how frustrating!
The last statement – dunno, but I wouldn’t find it surprising IF there was proof!
I don’t have the energy for negative responses, especially in streams of them. So far I’ve been spared (fingers crossed). My WordPress blog allows me to require moderation for the first comment – that works well enough for me. For now. Forever, I hope. I’d hate to have to turn comments off – I enjoy the conversations such as this one that happen.
As you make aptly clear in this post, there’s quite a lot of subtlety involved in this topic, one that most people don’t really realize.
First of all, reviews and feedback are not the same thing. People are conditioned (by Google and other platforms) to have an opinion on everything. Frankly, I find it laughable that Google allows you to rate things like parks, bus stops, or beaches. The repercussion of it is that people i) feel entitle to their opinion on everything; ii) try to quantify everything.
For books, in particular, the vast majority of people are entirely unable to write a review. They only offer feedback which is a subjective opinion (reviews are to an extent subjective too, but a skilled reviewer can also focus on more objective elements).
“I liked it/didn’t like it” is most certainly not a review.
The other problem, which you also referred to, is when people comment on a work from their own perspective, rather than that of the intended audience. If one doesn’t recognize the intended audience of a book and can’t comment on it from that perspective, they have no business commenting on it.
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They may have no business commenting – but I can’t tell them that (and a review is a review for the count, and having negative reviews is actually good for a writer because readers may read them and decide to buy because of what a negative review said!).
Unfortunately, reviewers who don’t like something tend to throw out a star or two – which brings down an average quite sharply. Reviewers at the opposite end don’t have the same relative power.
The reviewing system is what it is after being taken over by the many (ignoring the scammers for now), and I doubt we’re going to change it much from the writer side.
I honestly don’t think I have a Romance cover! Or book description!
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For me, there are only two things that a writer should do with a less than stellar review – either ignore it or learn from it.
That hinges on one awkward question – does this reviewer have a valid point? That can be tricky to answer, as we are naturally programmed to defend ourselves. Of course they don’t have a point! How very dare they criticise my lovely book?
To help with this question. I go into devil’s advocate mode. If I try really hard, can I construct a circumstance where the reviewer does have a valid point?
Does the reviewer have a different page count to me because they are reading on kindle and are using a different font size?
If one reviewer thinks the book is too long, is that viewpoint shared with others? Am I excluding a potential audience who might read my book if it were shorter? It doesn’t matter if the novel is 480 pages or 540, it is still roughly 500 pages. That is around 150,000 to 200,000 words. At that length I would expect to lose some readers who might otherwise have read a 70,000 word novel. An established author can get readers with very long books, but it is harder for someone trying to break through.
Ditto with descriptions … am I including too much detail? Readers often don’t want to be told what a character is thinking. They like to work it out for themselves. It’s the old chestnut of show, not tell.
For me, vocabulary needs to fit the characters but also my intended readers. So the awkward question here is – am I pitching my vocab at the right level for the audience I am trying to reach?
It is fairly evident that writing and reading styles are evolving. We can choose to evolve our own writing, or we can stick with what we prefer. The $64,000 question is whether there is a market for our writing and how do we reach it.
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“The $64,000 question is whether there is a market for our writing and how do we reach it.”
Is there a market for our writing and how do we reach it is a great question. One I have been focusing on since I published my first novel in late 2007. Back then, authors didn’t have the tools that exist now to help them find an audience for their work.
Now, we have Publishers Rocket to help us define our audience and select the proper keywords and genres to reach that audience. An incredible program that helped me dig deep to find the proper sub genres that come closest to my novels.
After I started using Publisher’s Rocket, I went back and changed all the keywords and sub genres categories for my work. Since then, the reviews “tend” to come from readers that enjoy those types of stores and less from readers that complain when they read a story that doesn’t fit their ideas of the world.
I have, and have used, PR – no dice for my kind of mainstream love story. Will try again in the future – they’ve added a lot of features, and kindly upgrade for free.
I know where my readers are: the vast majority (IMNVHO) who might like PC also prefer to get their reading material from recommendations on mainstream media, vetted, and don’t consider indie. Many WILL come to Amazon – money is money – but not to search, only to buy what they’ve already decided to buy. Possibly they might see an ad that attracts their curiosity while they are there, but they’re looking for things already recommended. That’s my best guess right now.