What Do I Think About My Bad Reviews?
This will be the shocker of the century, but I don't always get glowing, five-star reviews on my books. As someone who reads all my reviews, I've been able to put together a pretty large mental catalog of the types of reviews that my books get, and I can pretty much sum them up like this: 5 and 4 star review types: Glowing: These reviews are always a nice ego boost and help confirm I did something right. They 100% gush about the book and make me feel good, which is wonderful especially if I've just read a nasty review. Sometimes they're short, sometimes they're long, and sometimes they find a way to praise me or my book in a way that really sticks with me and touches me. An example of the kind of feedback that really hit me in the feelings from my most recent book was where a few people said something along the lines of, "I've been having a really rough time lately, and this book was exactly what I needed." Without getting all sappy on you, that's the kind of feedback that really makes it feel like all the drama and difficulties I go through to write these books is worth it. Good: These reviews may not put it as eloquently as the glowing reviews, and they usually look like the reviewer just had to meet some kind of minimum character count to leave their stars. I don't mind these, of course, but if I get a 4 star review that just says "loved it" I'm often left wondering what they would've liked to see from the book to make it a 5 star instead of a 4 star. I appreciate the sentiment, but it's hard to actually do much with these or store them away to think about for the next book. Summaries: These aren't my favorite. Hopefully that doesn't offend anyone who might be a summarizer, but it's just the truth. Some people leave reviews like book reports. They will do their best to summarize the story, but oddly enough, they usually get names and details wrong, which can be a little frustrating because I'd rather potential readers look at the blurb I worked on than somebody's hastily written summary of my story. Still, at the end of the day I appreciate the effort, but I've never quite understood the reasoning behind this kind of review. 3 star review types:
Constructive Criticism: These kinds of reviews are like gold to me. Yes, it still stings to see that I got hit with a critical review, and this kind of feedback would be just as valuable at 4 or 5 stars to me, but it always seems to be the 3 star reviews are where I find this kind of review. They will usually offer a balanced criticism of my book, where they might praise some aspects that worked for them and then specifically tell me what didn't work. Maybe the characters felt flat, the ending seemed rushed, or the humor didn't work. I practically study this kind of review, because I'm always always trying to get better. Sometimes I have to take criticism with a grain of salt and trust my judgment that a certain opinion would be an outlier. Like if somebody said they wished the happy ending hadn't wrapped up so nicely for everybody, I have to realize that's not really the majority opinion among readers. So it can be a little tricky, because I have to trust my pulse of the average reader, but I also have to really take critiques to heart. If one person thought my characters felt flat, it's still worth making it an area of focus for my next book. Or if someone felt the ending was rushed, I know hardly anyone will complain if my endings unwrap a little more slowly, so that's very good feedback for me to hear. Basically, as far as critical reviews go, these are my favorite. They remind me of when I was taking creative writing back in college. We'd whip up a short story for a due date, print out a copy of our manuscript for every person in class. They'd read it over the next couple days, mark it up, and then we'd spend the next class sitting around the table while everybody said what they thought about the story. The most fun rule was that the author wasn't allowed to talk. This was such a valuable experience for me. I learned to stop trying to defend my work and just open my ears. I might disagree with some criticism, but if I'm too quick to jump in and argue with somebody for not liking my work, it will discourage anybody else from speaking their mind. It's also a silly thing to argue with somebody about. After all, arguing with someone is hardly going to convince them they actually liked my book and they just didn't realize it.
2 and 1 star (and sometimes 3 star):
Vague reviews: These are pretty frustrating. To me, if you're going to give an author a 3 star review or less, you almost owe them an explanation, even if it's a very quick one: "hated the characters," would at least something to go on. Instead, I'll sometimes get a 1-3 star review that says something like... "Not bad." "Good." "Meh." This kind of review never personally offends me. I just find them frustrating, and I wish the reviewer would actually explain why they thought the book wasn't up to their standards. Nasty reviews: These are inevitable. I don't usually see them in the 3 star range, because people who leave nasty reviews almost always seem to want to make it sting as much as possible, so why not give the lowest rating they can. But with every book, I'll eventually get this kind of review. Unfortunately, they are generally very far from constructive. I think my most recent ugly review was on Her Cherry, and the reviewer basically said "Picture a middle school boy trying to write Fifty Shades of Grey." If you've read Her Cherry, you'd know that's a pretty silly thing to say. So to circle back to the title of this post: how does that make me feel?
Not good? Haha. I guess that's kind of a no-brainer, but whether everyone will believe it or not, I work really hard on my books. It's the majority of what I think about for the entire writing process, during and after my work day. I think about my characters and plot while I'm driving, while I'm eating, while my kids are playing. It pretty much consumes me. I sometimes have to sacrifice family time on weekends or after work to catch up on word count or fix something I realize needs fixing in the story.
By the end of the month, it's like I've just finished a marathon, and I feel beat up mentally and physically. I'm always trying to out-do myself and write something that pushes the bar higher and lets me prove to myself that I'm growing and learning. So basically, it's a lot of work and a lot of love goes into these books. Some people want to try to spoil that by getting personal or saying things or making criticisms that don't even apply to the book. I'd love to say I just brush that right off, no big deal, but it wouldn't be entirely true. It absolutely stings. It doesn't change the way I write or my plan for future books to see someone claim my book was loaded with grammatical errors, typos, and skipped words. I know my editing process, and I know usually three or four mistakes will slip through to the live book, but those typically get sent to me by conscientious readers within a few days, and I fix them right away. But potential readers don't know that.
I think that's what makes it sting. People writing nasty reviews, if they choose, can make vague claims that sound plausible but aren't actually true. And at the end of the day, what they're trying to do is stop people from buying or borrowing my book. I almost hope they don't actually think of it that way, because I'd like to think people aren't that cruel.
Some people are more or less out to get authors. Somewhere along the way, they heard a rumor or even something true about the author that makes them start rooting for the author to fail. When an opportunity presents itself to do something mean to the author, they do it. Of course, they don't leave a review saying... "I don't like this author because I've never read their books but I saw some juicy gossip about this author on social media once, and it was easier to believe it than try to find out if it was true. So screw this author and everything they write. I hope their career fails and they have to quit!" AHEM. Sorry. Can you tell I get bothered by those kinds of reviews? But the person who feels that way would never say all that in their review. Instead, they are the ones who leave a review saying, "Imagine Fifty Shades of Grey written by a middle school boy." Boom. Damage done. Some number of readers will never read my book because that individual decided to play mean girl, and it's not fair. Sorry if I seem a little too worked up over this, but it's something I've been watching on my books for two years now and I've got a lot of bottled up frustration over it. What's the Takeaway? I think if there's any takeaway from this, it's just to be mindful of the kind of reviews that are helpful to authors. And as weird as this sounds, if you really care so deeply about stinging an author's feelings, read their book like you're studying it for a test and try to actually find a valid criticism. Tell them what they did wrong in a constructive way, and it's still going to sting a little bit, but it's also going to help them improve, so you get your satisfaction but you also do something good in the process. If you loved a book, take the time to tell the author why. Sometimes that gets glossed over in positive reviews. "This is her best book yet" or "absolutely loved it" are great to hear, but it's also really helpful to hear that you felt like the dialogue was extremely sharp, or that the plot was addictive. If an author sees recurring themes like that in reviews, you can bet they're going to make an effort to really re-capture those positive traits in the next book. If you didn't love it, take the time to explain why, even if it is mostly negative feedback. If you actually care about the author taking the feedback to heart, put in the extra effort to frame it in a constructive way. "Worst book I ever read" is a shut-down statement that will just hurt feelings. "This book didn't have a plot and the characters felt like cardboard," while not a kind thing to say, might also be true, and it might be something the author needs to hear. So for me, that's the big difference. Personal attacks = no. Constructive criticism = yes.