Opinion: Why It’s Good to Get Bad Reviews

Cover image of Theo Rogers' book

Theo Rogers turns the issue in his book “How to Get Good Reviews on Amazon” on its head and explains why indie authors should also welcome occasional bad reviews.

Why Bad Reviews Can Be Good for Self-published Authors

Everyone gets bad reviews. Yes, everyone. Pick the books you consider the greatest works of literary genius ever written and check them out on Amazon or Goodreads. I’ll guarantee that each and every one got some absolute stinkers. Now pick the greatest commercial successes you can think of. Once again, the same applies. Everybody gets them.

In fact, when a book has nothing but five-star raves, it’s generally a sign that the fix is in: that someone has stacked the deck with phoney reviews that were either bought and paid for, or written by friends and family. So much so that nowadays even the more sophisticated shills know they need place a few carefully constructed, mildly critical reviews as well.

Once real reviews start arriving in any number, you’re guaranteed to get at least a few by people who didn’t like what they read. If you can write a book that literally nobody hates, then frankly, you should be put in a lab and studied.

Of course you don’t want bad reviews to dominate. But your book’s page on Amazon or Goodreads looks a whole lot more… honest with at least a few less than stellar ratings or reviews.

Why Abusive Trolls Are Not All Bad News

Given that you’re going to get bad reviews eventually, and you may even need a few to keep your page looking honest, what kind of bad reviews do you want? Would you want polite, considered, and meticulously argued one-star eviscerations of your work that read as if they were written by professional critics? Or deranged and abusive rants?

Well Holy Hachette jobs, Batman: you tell me which you think will be more credible with readers, and ultimately do your sales more damage!

Why Your Should Not Take Bad Reviews Personally

The best advice I ever got about handling some of the lunacy posted on the internet was given to me by a good friend who happens to be both a top 1,000 reviewer on Amazon, and a psychiatric nurse in real life. What she said to me was this:

“Always remember that you could be arguing with a ten year old. Literally.”

And even if you’re not… C’mon. You wouldn’t try to reason with a total stranger ranting and raving on a street corner, now would you? (Or would you..?) You wouldn’t? Good. So why on Earth would you try it in an online forum?

Why Arguing With Negative Reviewers Never Helps

Margaret Thatcher famously said “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy”.

Unfortunately, the current divide between authors and online reviewers has been created by some pretty nasty history. If you do take on your critics, you have to understand that at this moment in time, your actions will be seen in the light of the actions of some authors who have truly gone off the deep end after receiving nothing more than a bad review.

No real reviewer thinks of themselves as “anti-author”. But reviewers do by and large believe that the book was the author’s chance to have their say. Post publication, it’s time to let readers have their own discussion.

Whether you agree with this belief or not, on a purely practical level, arguing with your critics does not work. It’s often been said that our books are like our children. I agree. Unfortunately one implication of this is that if your book ever does get into trouble, having the author leap to its defence is about as impressive as a character reference from your mum.

Perhaps the most important way in which our books are like our children is that we can’t fight all their battles for them. However much we might want to.

Sometimes we need to let go and allow them to fight their own battles. Find their own champions. People who love them not because they’re their children, but simply for what they are.

Twitter bird outlineEASY TWEET “Why bad reviews are not bad news for indie authors – by Theo Rogers: via @IndieAuthorALLi”

OVER TO YOU What’s your take on bad reviews? How do you deal with them? Join the conversation via the comments box!

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25 Responses to Opinion: Why It’s Good to Get Bad Reviews

  1. Pat Mullan December 25, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    Excellent Thio. I’m a member of International Thriller Writers and we have a Thrillerfest conference every year. Bad reviews is one of the highlights of our after dinner topics. It’s usually a competition between our most prominent writers, such as James Rollins, Lee Child, James Patterson, et al. The bad reviews are displayed on a large screen and the winner is the writer whose review is chosen as the worst of all …. Cheers, Pat.

    • Pat Mullan December 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

      Sorry Theo … misspelling your name is very bad 🙂

    • Theo Rogers February 25, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Very sensible attitude!

      (Sorry I took so long to respond, but I hadn’t been back to this page in a while.)

  2. CC MacKenzie November 14, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    Great post, Theo.

    I’ve had the immense good fortune to ‘mentor’ two new authors, one of whom is now a bestseller. Last year she received a handful of negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads because her publisher had compared her work to a mega best seller of the genre and fans of the mega best seller did not agree in very loud voices. And some of those voices on Goodreads in particular were less than kind with a very lengthy debate on the subject raging under the thread of her second book. She telephoned me in a blind panic and deeply upset. After all she’d spent ten years building this futuristic urban fantasy and wasn’t trying to emulate anyone in the first place.

    After reminding her that yes reviews can hurt and sometimes feel very ‘unfair’ and filled with inaccuracies etc., but one day she’d look back at how she was feeling and realise it wasn’t the end of the world. Every single writer who publishes work will receive negative reviews that may spark a debate among readers. This, I believe, is wonderful! It means the work has touched a nerve with readers. My advice was Do Not Engage with reviewers anywhere (unless it’s to thank a blogger for taking time to review the work whether they like it or not we must always be professional and polite) and try not to read reviews in the first place. The awesomeness that is James Scott Bell gave me that advice and 95% of the time I follow it. (Readers tend to alert me to reviews, both good and bad if it’s a troll for example). I also reminded her that once a reader purchases a book, that book now belongs to them and frankly they can say and do what they like with it (except break copyright laws).

    Twelve months later and she’s in a much better place, more relaxed and can take the rough with the shiny!!

    It can be a steep learning curve, especially for new authors, not to take stinging reviews to heart. But that’s all part of being able to take constructive criticism and part of learning the craft, too.

    As for badly behaving authors attacking reviewers or trolling other authors in reviews (yes, I’ve seen those under attempted anonymity, too) I believe they are very few and far between. There are posse’s of new indies in certain genres that scratch each other’s back, but readers see through the smoke and mirrors and relentless five star reviews posted within an hour of publication. Authors who indulge in the practice do themselves and other indies no favours, readers are far from stupid and they soon spread the word.

    • Theo Rogers November 28, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      And if I may say so, that was also a great post! 😉

      Reminds me of something that happened to another indie author friend of mine a while ago. The very first time she got a bad review, her husband basically said “Well, that’s it then” and got out the help wanted ads.

      Fortunately she was wise enough to take the “Yes, that’s nice dear” attitude and stick to her writing. She now has the kind of sales volumes that I can only dream of, and is making a very nice living out of it, thank you very much.

  3. John Yeoman November 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    I agree absolutely that the occasional bad review should delight an author. ‘A writer who offends nobody has nothing to say.’ Given the diversity of cranks on the web (yea, and even at Goodreads) somebody is bound to misread a novel or, more usually, not read it at all but attack a target that exists solely in their own minds. I once got a fiery email from a lady who unsubscribed from my list because my latest blog post was titled: ‘Why Men Don’t Like Women Authors and Vice Versa’. ‘It’s sexist!’ she cried. Of course, it was. The purpose of the post was to examine sexism in reader perceptions. But she hadn’t read the post…

    For as long as Dan Brown (arguably the worst popular author ever published) can draw five star ratings at Goodreads, and Anthony Burgess rates the occasional one star, there’s hope for us all…

    • Theo Rogers November 28, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

      I agree there’s a lot to be said for offending at least someone!

      It’s also a good idea to look at not only the absolute pannings some real masterpieces have gotten, but also the 5 star raves of books that truly make your eyes roll.

      Helps keep it all in perspective.

  4. happyjbelle November 10, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

    Reading is subjective and a matter of personal taste. We can love or dislike a book for many reasons – even very personal reasons that may have nothing to do with the plot or quality of writing. For example, one of the characters could remind the reader of someone in his/her life that they do not like and taint the whole reading experience for them. Unless the majority of reviews are negative, the few negative reviews one might receive may simply be considered a matter of personal taste – the book was simply not for that reader.

    Anytime I have given a poor review, I do not bash the book. I lead with a comment towards new readers that might have similar tastes as I do. Example “There is no dialog/action for the first 25 pages. It’s beautifully descriptive but if you need more action, you may find this book boring.” or “If you don’t like the bad boy type for a leading man, this book will not be for you.”

    I am hoping by doing this 1) it will let the author know that this book wasn’t for me and not to take it personally and 2) this may prevent those who are not the intended target audience for the book from reading it – which will avoid more 1 or 2 star ratings.

  5. Jack Eason November 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    I wouldn’t mind, but nine tenths of the one star reviewers can’t even spell…

  6. Liz Broomfield November 6, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    What an interesting article! I agree that all five-star reviews shouts inauthenticity (OK, all of mine on one of my book are 5 star, however, one of them records that something was missing from the book, he contacted me about it, I added it, and he’s added the star back on for my quick response and update – wonderful!). I am always pleased with 4 star ones, and even my most critical one makes it plain that the book wasn’t what he was looking for (too many cardigans, he said!) but that wasn’t the book’s fault, so I took that positively, too.

    Then again, I’ve had no real stinkers apart from the troll who commented that the images in a book don’t work. I did post a response to that one – that there are no images in the book in the first place! Just to make sure people read that correctly.

  7. Julia Bell November 5, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Just getting any feedback from a reader is great. If someone is talking about your work then at least they’re interested.

  8. Dan Holloway November 5, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    I wear my one star reviews with pride. Especially the one that reads:

    “I want to erase this book from my mind. While parts of it are well-written in a lyrical fashion, this is by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read. Out of thousands and thousands of books–including more than a hundred about serial killers and psychosexual deviants–this book has the single worst and most disgusting things in it I have ever laid eyes on.”

    Better cover blurb than I could ever have come up with!

    On a serious note, whilst it absolutely goes against the spirit of indie to tell authors what to do, it does frustrate me when I see authors complain about reviews and some of the more common reasons I see from indies, either talking about sales impact or their star rating average and how that affects their ability to get Bookbub promotions shows an utter misunderstanding of what the arts in general and reading in particular is about. I’ve even seen more than a handful of authors who write rabidly about their freedom to say absolutely anything in their books regardless of the consequences who will then happily slam reviewers and suggest that readers should keep quiet. If anyone in the books business gets to have their cake and eat it, it’s readers – most decidedly not authors!

    • Theo Rogers November 5, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

      That is an AWESOME 1-star review!!! 😀

      Reminds me of when the Evil Dead II came out: apparently some reviewer at the time described it as “a playpen for psychotic three year olds”.

      They put it on the poster.

      As for the rest… I try not to set myself up as any kind of moral authority. I mainly just focus on telling people what works and what doesn’t. And taking on your critics most definitely falls into the “doesn’t” pile.

      In fact, it’s pretty much as deep into the “doesn’t” pile as you can get.

  9. Janna Gray November 5, 2014 at 6:41 am #

    I agree … don’t take bad reviews personally … after all people are entitled to an opinion! However, I do feel critics should not slam other reviewers for having an opinion which differs from theirs.

  10. Glynis Smy November 4, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    I ticked along with my 5* reviews and smiled at the few royalties trickling into my account. The moment I received my first 3* review, I air-punched the figure in my sales box. It did me no harm. I have seen 1* reviews that state it is a ‘great read’ … not quite what the authors hoped for but I do hope their sales increased.

  11. Orna Ross November 4, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    My favourite take on bad reviews or press comes from the Irish writer, Brendan Behan: “There is no such thing as bad publicity. Except your own obituary.” Thanks for a great post, Theo — we are shortly going to release a programme called “Ethical Author”, which will firm up ALLi’s guidance on how to handle reviews and media.

    • Theo Rogers November 4, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

      You’re very welcome, Orna! I’ll be very interested to see how that programme turns out.

  12. Fenella J Miller November 4, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    I agree that some of the 1* reviews must come from, if not 10 year olds, then teenagers. When Amazon changed the rules so a five word review was acceptable I got a spate of ‘Don’t read this crap book’ and other similar offerings. I do click the ‘no’ button under the review but that’s the extent of my interaction. I rarely read them anyway – I write the best book I can, have it edited and proof read, employ a cover designer, so why get upset when some reviewer complains that the book is unedited/proofed?
    I was a tad annoyed when one said the book was written by an amateur – after 30+ successful titles I think that was uncalled for.:)

  13. clare weiner November 4, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    Yes: the only person who won one of my books in a Goodreads Giveaway gave it a thumbs-down review. However, it was patently clear that he had expected the book to be other than it was: so anyone who read what he wrote and did want a novel based on a romance between young bio scientists, with a lot of the science present on the page, would know in advance whether or not they would like it – useful to buyers!

    I guess I did make a mistake with the title – Baby, Baby (which related to the fertility research angle) could actually be very misleading in the ‘is this romance erotica?” department. Lesson for author here.

  14. Helena halme November 4, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    One of my MA in Creative Writing tutors told me that ink on paper is always positive. We were discussing ‘no thank you’ replies from agents. ‘They wouldn’t bother to reply if there wasn’t something in your manuscript that had impressed them,’ was his next comment. I think same goes for negative reviews. The way I look at it, any comments are a bonus, even the crazy ones. (Obviously I don’t bother with agents any more).

    Good post, thank you for sharing your expertise.


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