Monday, January 16, 2012

Why you shouldn't worry about bad reviews

It happens, every once in a while, that someone posts a negative review online. And most of the time, it passes without much incident. The internet either nods silently or mumbles disagreement, and the world moves on. But on occasion, some author decides to take personally the fact that someone on the internet didn't like their book. Results are generally bad all around.

Well, it looks like we've got another batch of drama on our hands. I'm not up on the details, partially because I'm not really in the loop about what goes on at Goodreads and partially because I don't really give a crap. From what I understand, some authors took exception to some Goodreads reviewers logging poor opinions of their books, which eventually led to two factions spamming 1-and-5-star ratings at each other.

Now, I'm not going to judge anyone involved since, like I said, I'm not really up on the details. But I'd just like to point out that an author who publicly criticizes a negative review of his work is, at the very least, employing very bad marketing strategy. Believe it or not, bad reviews are good for you.

Since I've been reading too much Cracked lately, I'll handle this as they would: A list of numbered points.

1) A bad review still gets the word out.

Let's be realistic: the sole reason authors submit their works for review is publicity. Certainly, a good review will make for good publicity. But even a scathing review, if it's competently written, will give the potential reader an idea of what the book has to offer. Whether or not the reviewer likes it is immaterial: he's still getting the word out to the potential reader, who will know better than the reviewer what he wants to read. 

For example, take every gamer's favorite cantankerous Aussie, Yahtzee. Nearly four years ago, he published a rather scathing review of The Witcher that is what convinced me personally to buy the game. (Which I have never played, but that's my own damn fault for not checking the system requirements.) How? He mentioned a number of features: an in-depth alchemy system, strategic rather than twitch-based combat, and a bevy of sidequests, that appealed to me. He obviously found these to be flaws in the game design, but that doesn't matter. I knew what I wanted out of a game, and what he was describing matched my expectations. 

Your readers are not stupid, nor are they sheep. They go where they can get what they want, and a review, good or bad, will let them know what you have to offer.

2) A bad review is still a mark of the reviewer's respect.

Most writers want two things: to make enough money to support themselves just through their writing, and to be listened to. And good or bad, a review of your work indicates that you're worth listening to. If your work is read but not reviewed, the implication is that the reviewer doesn't find you worth notice.

Put another way: let's say you're at a party, and you ask your pal Alan about a mutual friend Bob whom he respects but has recently had a disagreement with. Alan will probably say something along the lines of "Oh, well Bob says [whatever], and you know Bob's my friend, but personally I think he's way off the mark here...," and so on. That's the bad review. On the other hand, ask Al about another mutual friend Chuck, which he has the same disagreement with but doesn't like one bit, and he'll say "Pfft. Who cares about Chuck? Chuck's an asshole." Since Bob has gotten the bad review, you may think Chuck has gotten the very bad review. And you're wrong. Chuck has gotten no review. He has been dismissed as unimportant. He is not worth the reviewer's time.

As a book blogger myself, I can tell you: we have a lot of books to deal with. Recall my graph from last week and note that even on a slow month, there are around 40 new books in my particular subgenre to deal with. True, many of those are re-releases, new editions, or random not-really-on-topic stuff, but what remains is still a lot to go through. You have to whittle it down somehow, and the most common way is to cut out books you doubt will be worth talking about. So when someone posts a review of your work, it indicates that they were confident enough in your skills to give you a shot, and they found enough substance in your work to comment on it. These are both good things, regardless of whether or not the reviewer liked what you had to say. If you repay their respect by questioning their right to critique, who's the real asshole here?

But let's be honest. Not all reviewers are worth respecting. There are some who just post two lines (or less) on an Amazon page, attach one star, and call it a day. Shouldn't you worry about them giving you an undeserved bad name? No, not really, because:

3) Nobody listens to generic hate.

Let's take for example that great literary kerosene on the fires of the internet, Twilight. Look up New Moon on Amazon, or just follow this link because I did the work for you already. Specifically, look at the customer reviews, sorted by how many people found them helpful. At the top of the list, reviews are detailed and thoughtful. They're not always positive, but there's much more meat to them than "OMG TWILIGHT SUX WHY THIS POPULAR I DONT EVEN". No, to find those, you have to head down to the bottom; to the reviews that nobody found helpful.

Potential readers aren't swayed by people who obviously don't know what they're talking about. I mean, think about it. Say you have this friend Deb, whom you ask about the new book you know she's been reading. She says, "Ugh, I hated it." You ask why, and she says "I just did." Does that give you the information you were looking for? Of course not. It just tells you that Deb didn't like it. Deb also doesn't get The Big Lebowski, which is obviously one of the great movies of the 90's. How does Deb not liking the book, without context for her dislike, predict whether you will enjoy the book?

And this assumes that you actually know Deb. 99% of the time, you don't know the people who post things to Amazon. They could be illiterates from Outer Mongolia for all you know. If all they say is "I hate this and it's stupid", that doesn't help you make any kind of buying decision. So you ignore it. You go to someone who can actually articulate why he likes or hates your book.

But what if it's not just one bad review, but numerous ones? A huge tidal wave of negative hype sweeping the internet? Surely that's going to put a dent in your sales, isn't it? Wrong.

4) People will buy a hated book for the purpose of being able to talk about it.

Let's introduce another pal into your circle of alphabetically-organized friends. His name is Ed, and you meet him at the water cooler each day to chat for a bit. Say Ed is a fan of Generically Repulsive Reality Show, a show that you wouldn't touch with an eleven-foot pole. Truthfully, Ed doesn't like it much either, but it has the fascination of a slow-motion car wreck, so he watches. And every day, without fail, he shows up to rail on how awful it was the night before. Since you don't watch it, you can only shrug and say some noncommittal stuff, and Ed walks away feeling that you don't like talking to him. However, your coworkers Fanny, George, and Haley do watch the show, and are more than willing to discuss how awful it is with Ed. You're left out of the loop. Before long, you're going to be watching the same show. Not because you think you'll like it, in fact you're pretty sure you won't. But it's what everyone's talking about, and you need to keep up.

The old saying goes that there's no such thing as bad publicity. While that's not entirely true, a big buzz can  work for you even if it's negative. You can be the show everyone's watching, even if they're only watching you to laugh at you. Hey, their money's just as green.

But let's be brutally, brutally honest here: as dumb as they can be sometimes, the Internet does not simply pick random works out of a hat to hate on. Usually, there's some motivation behind it. Face it: if people are hating on your book, your book is probably bad. And this is why you need to get panned most of all:

5) Negative reviews tell you what you're doing wrong.

Nobody's perfect. If you think you are, you're an idiot. Yes, it's true, a lot of reviewers will misinterpret what your book is about, and what you're trying to say about it. But let's face facts: art is communicative. Your job as an author is to spin a story that will get your ideas across to the reader. If you were misinterpreted, or misunderstood, or the reviewer just plain disliked you, chances are you didn't do your job.

No, this doesn't mean that you should do what the critics all think you should do. It's your book, and ultimately what you say goes. But any good writer wants to grow as a writer, and that means you need someone to be able to tell you when you're screwing up. More than that, you need to listen to them.

So, when you get panned, your first thought should not be "This person doesn't understand my work. What's wrong with him?" It should be "This person doesn't understand my work. What did I do wrong?" Sometimes, you didn't do anything wrong, and the reader is an idiot. But if that's the case, there's nothing you can do about it. You can, however, look at what he says, see if maybe he has a point, and if so, use his criticism to make your next book stronger. 

But I've been dancing around the point. I've thrown out a lot of ideas regarding how pans are good for you, but no reason that you shouldn't get upset about them. What exactly makes confronting your critics poor marketing strategy? It's very simple:

6) Authors who create drama over reviews will go unreviewed.

To be blunt, critics don't need that crap. As I said before, they've got a lot of stuff to work through. If you have, in the past, created trouble for them over a review, do you think they're going to review you again? Of course not. They put their time and effort into crafting a good, honest, thoughtful opinion that could help you out, and you repaid them with stress headaches. To hell with that. If you'd rather be ignored than criticized, you wouldn't have become a writer in the first place.

Nobody can please all of the people all of the time. Someone's always going to dislike what you're doing. You can make a big stink about it, and have the internet decide your the asshole, or you can use it to drive yourself to do better. It's a matter of worldview, ultimately. You can have the siege mentality of everyone being out to get you, or you can have the hopeful outlook that you'll do better next time. Which perspective is likely to help you grow as an artist?


  1. Well said, sir. :) All valid and nicely explained points.

  2. Nicely said. To be honest I don't really agree with the YA mobs lynching the authors with personal attacks and general hating, but then again the best thing the authors could do is just ignore their critics. Not everyone is going to like your book.

    They have a lot more influence and impact than the so called reviewers. What they say has a lot more weight so if they start poking their head in, it'll attract a lot more attention than otherwise, most of it negative, since haters tend to roam in packs.

  3. Very good post! :) I myself often WANT to read a book in a bad review because the points that the particular reviewer took issue with might be exactly what I like in books etc. Thanks for posting it - and as an author, it's also good to be reminded that there is really less to get panicky about than we make it up to be. :)


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