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How to Deal with Rejection and Criticism as an Indie Author. A Guest Post by ALLi’s Creative Advisor, Mark McGuiness

Mark McGuinness, creative coach to indie authors and creatives of all kinds

Mark McGuinness, creative coach to indie authors and creatives of all kinds

The great thing about being an independent author is that you side-step the usual interminable rejections by agents and publishers, and put your work out there for the world to see and buy.

No longer constrained by the cautious taste of editors, the prejudices of marketing departments, or the carping of reviewers who don’t ‘get’ your work, you can go direct to the public and let them be the judges.

But every silver lining has a cloud.

If you’re not careful, you could find you’ve exchanged the traditional forms of rejection and criticism for others that can be just as painful (and costly)…

Rejection revisited

Yes, you no longer need to live in fear of the sound of your manuscript thudding onto the doormat, or the emails that begin “Thank you so much for letting me consider your work…”. You run the show, so you decide whether your work is worthy of publication.

But what happens once you press the magic ‘publish’ button?

Do hordes of eager readers show up on launch day, buy your book and return shortly to shower it with 5 star reviews?

Maybe. Or maybe not…

Maybe it’s kind of quiet, the first day. And the day after that. A few sales trickle in, then peter out.

You try sending your book to review sites, only to meet with polite ‘no thank you’s (“I thought I was done with those…”) or silence.

You run some ads, or post on your blog, or announce the book to your mailing list – and still nothing, or next to nothing.

It feels like you’re doing everything you can to put your book in front of the audience, but no one is buying. Try as you might, it’s hard not to feel the sting of rejection.

Then you log in to check your meagre sales totals, and you see an entry in the column marked ‘refunds’. Your book cost less than a latte, but someone bought it and was so disappointed they asked for a refund. Ouch!

It looks as though Rejection is rising, vampire-like, from its grave. So what can you do to drive a stake through its heart and send it back underground?

‘Comparisons are odious’

Wherever you are on the ladder of indie success, its easy to depress yourself by comparing your numbers with someone else’s.

If you’re just starting out, you can look at your friends who are selling hundreds of books a month, and wonder how they do it.

If you’re on the ‘hundreds’ rung, you can look enviously at the ones making thousands of sales a month.

And the view may look fine from the ‘thousands’ rung – until you look at the superstars shifting millions, and feel like a mediocrity by comparison.

So stop comparing yourself with others.

Focus on where you are now, and how you can move a little further up the ladder. If you must compare, compare this month’s performance with last month’s. If there’s improvement, even a little, that’s a cause for celebration. If you get 3 or 4 months’ improvement in a row, that starts to look like a trend…

As J A Konrath says, “ebooks are forever” – that’s a long time to learn your marketing skills and help your books find their audience.

Remember, marketing is an art, so don’t expect to learn it overnight. Commit to the task, and make the most of advice from smart people like Joanna Penn, David Gaughran, Catherine Ryan Howard, Guy Kawasaki, JA KonrathMark Coker — and, of course, this blog.

indie author books

Keep writing

You knew I was going to say this didn’t you? 🙂

The best antidote to anxiety over the fate of one book is to write more books.

Not only will the books start to sell each other – I don’t know about you, but when I find an author I like, I tend to read more of their stuff – but when sales of one title dip, another may well be on the rise. So long term, more good books = more sales.

And writing will make you feel better today. It will keep you centred in what you know, and know you do well. No matter how erratic your sales, you’ll get a sense of tangible progress by writing every day and seeing your word count increase steadily.

Coping with criticism

Indie publishing can be a two-edged sword: you can get your work to market instantly, but critics often vent their first reactions instantly too.

I once published a podcast and someone left an angry comment beginning “I’m only halfway through listening and felt I had to say…”

Few things strike fear into the heart of an indie writer like the dreaded one-star review. Not only does it feel awful, but there’s research evidence that it harms sales. Two Yale researchers investigated the effect of online book reviews, and concluded that the negative impact on sales of one-star reviews is greater than the positive impact of five-star reviews.

So what can you do to ward off the criticism?

Inoculate your book against criticism – get an editor

You knew I was going to say this as well, didn’t you?

Everybody tells you you need an editor, for a reason – it will make your book better. A good editor will ‘inoculate’ your book against criticism by spotting the flaws you can’t see and helping you fix them. Far better to get your most incisive criticism from a sympathetic professional before publication than from amateur reviewers afterwards!

Now, you may be supremely confident in your writing ability… in which case you definitely need an editor! 🙂

Or you may feel you ‘can’t afford it’. But if you ask me, you can’t afford not to have an editor – emotionally, artistically or financially.

Imagine how you’d feel if you spent months writing a book, only to watch it get trashed in the Amazon reviews and never sell more than a handful of copies. Can you really afford that?

I’d been blogging for seven years by the time I wrote my first book. I’d also written a string of shorter ebooks, as well as articles in national magazines and newspapers, and reams of academic essays. I’d also won prizes in national writing competitions. So I was reasonably confident in my abilities as a writer. And by the time I’d finished the first draft of Resilience, I knew I had the basis of a solid book.

Which is exactly why I hired a pro to help me make it the best it could be. Gary Smailes gave me a fresh perspective on the book, helping me build on the good bits, fill in the gaps, and add some valuable new chapters.

I also sent the drafts to several smart people whose opinions I trust – including John Eaton, Jarie Bolander and Quentin S. Crisp – for critiques of different aspects of the manuscript.

Now, the finished book isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than the first draft. So it’s less likely to attract negative criticism, and even when it does, I know I’ve done my best to put out the best book I can.


OK that’s before publication, what about afterwards?

Let’s assume you can handle the 5-star reviews or and the gushing emails from fans – what about the 1-star reviews, and the snarky comments on your blog, Twitter, or Facebook?

Watch out for your Inner Critic!

Don’t let your Inner Critic make the criticism worse by chiming in and amplifying it. Learn to recognise the voice of your Inner Critic, so that you can distinguish it from the external criticism, and deal with the latter on its own terms.

Mindfulness practice can help you stop your Inner Critic getting out of hand. (And with careful handling, it could even become your best friend.)

Who do they think they are?

Before you get into a funk about criticism, check where it’s coming from. Here’s a ‘hierarchy’ of critics to help you decide how much weight to give their words:

  1. Anonymous — If someone isn’t prepared to put their name to their words, I have a hard time taking them seriously. So should you.
  2. Real name — If someone leaves their real name, they are at least prepared to own up to their opinion. And they are generally more reasoned and polite.
  3. A name linked to a social profile — This gives you more of a sense of who they are, and how well-informed their judgment is likely to be.
  4. A name linked to a blog or website — Now you can see a sample of their writing! This can make you feel a whole lot better. 😉
  5. A fellow author — Someone who should know their craft, and be in a position to give you a valuable critique. If they aren’t feeling too competitive!
  6. An expert — Such as a writer you admire, an editor, agent or other type of expert. Again, they should be able to give you an insightful critique, and it’s worth weighing their words carefully.

What kind of criticism is it?

The word ‘criticism’ covers a multitude of meanings and sins, so it’s worth knowing what you consider genuinely constructive (i.e. worth listening to).

Here’s how I do it:

Constructive criticism
  • Perspective — the critic makes their own viewpoint clear, without claiming to be all-knowing.
  • Specific — the criteria are clearly spelled out, so you know what the judgment is based on.
  • Examples — the critic backs up their judgment with specific examples.
  • Respectful — the critic doesn't pass judgment on you as a writer, only on the work in front of them.

If the criticism meets these criteria, it’s worth asking yourself whether you agree with the critic, and if so, what you can learn from the criticism and do differently in future.

Destructive criticism

  • Lack of perspective — the critic speaks as though he or she is the ultimate authority.
  • Vague — the work is dismissed in general terms (‘awful,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘no good’) without specifying what criteria the judgment is based on.
  • No examples — the critic fails to back up their judgment with specific examples.
  • Disrespectful — the critic is rude, aggressive, or otherwise insensitive.

It’s up to you whether you give destructive criticism the time of day. You may well decide to ignore it. Or if you have a thicker skin, and you like to learn from all kinds of experiences, you could ask yourself:

Does this person have a point – even if they aren’t expressing it very well?

If so, what can I learn from it?

Personal abuse

Don’t give these people the time of day. As we used to say at school, “They’re only after attention” – so why give it to them?

If it’s seriously nasty or threatening, you may want to contact the site owner to get it taken down, and in extreme cases, report it to the police. Plenty of trolls are finding to their cost that online anonymity ain’t what it used to be.

How do you deal with rejection and criticism?

Which of the ideas in this article resonate most strongly for you?

How do you handle rejection and criticism as an indie author?


This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. About the editor:

    I was on one forum for authors and reviewers and came across one author who had posted a thread – I not entirely sure who he was railing against (editors, reviewers, or converting promos into sales) but in summary:

    1) he had made use of someone who had edited his book for free
    2) He had feedback that said the basic story was decent but needed some editing/proofreading/formatting
    3) That whilst he had plenty of reviews on his freebies, there had been no real conversion into sales.

    He couldn’t understand that he’d HAD an editor but they were clearly no good, so what was the point and why cant he convert into sales?

    I wanted to point out several things to him, but backed off, as I suspected that it wouldn’t end well as I doubted he was in the right frame of mind. What I wanted to say was:

    1) If your book was written the way you’ve written this post, then yes, you needed an editor
    2) You get what you pay for. Even experienced, expensive editors can’t *always* work miracles. Free ones never. They can only work with what they’re given and if you have given them a mess….
    3) Take a hint. If everyone is telling you “concept is decent, execution isn’t”….work on the execution. Don’t blame someone else, especially the ones you’re not paying!!

  2. David, I’m going to put aside my writer hat and comment as a reader.

    One star reviews don’t mean anything to me unless the majority of the reviews are also one stars. Some of my favourite books have average and dismal reviews but the general reviews are the ones I’m most interested in. If a story seems interesting I will read it.

    Writer hat on again.

    Your book has more positive (27 is great) than negative reviews so you should focus on that. A writer friend recently told me that you should ignore the bad reviews. I will add that unless all of your reviews are hovering around the one star, you have little to worry about. Focus on the three and four stars. They are the readers who liked your book but might be suggesting some things that could be improved on for the next one.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eliza. Makes sense to me and I’m moving on. But if Amazon is censoring reviews to control self-promotion it ought also to be expressing some judgement on reviews that don’t reflect the actual product under review. This is misleading to readers. Thanks again for your thoughts.


  3. Excellent piece by Mark McGuinness! He touches all the bases I’ve experienced since my first novel, “The Duplicata,” appeared in August 2012. The highs_within 60 days twenty seven 4 and 5 star reviews and one 1 star. Wow! Full disclosure , 4 were from “friends” and 7 were from beta readers obtained via advertising and the web site or general readers. In full fairness nobody was promised anything except an autographed copy and no minimum star count was required. We specified that we wanted all reactions–good or poor..

    Well, we got one in December. Here’s how it started:
    1.0 out of 5 stars Ugh
    “Kill me before I read another stupid book like this. Seemed like it would be interesting, suspense and romance is my favorite combo but I really disliked these characters. The male leads this unbelievable life as both a race car driver/ journalist. He must be terrible at both. He just assumes if he asks people questions they will speak only the truth… and sadly, that’s..”

    And it went on (go here) to label the central character’s life as a prodfessional driver of race cars and a motorsports journalist like this: “The male leads this unbelievable life as both a race car driver/ journalist. He must be terrible at both. (ED: I can name 5 people occupying those roles today) He just assumes if he asks people questions they will speak only the truth… and sadly, that’s mostly the case. No great revelations… and he does not do anything a real race car driver would do in reality to prep for a race… he just flies to whatever destination the race is, gets in the car and races, catching a plane back to the US in between. Seriously?”

    This is clear evidence that not only does this reader no nothing about the subject, he didn’t read the book. That is definitely not what went on. But I don’t know what to do. Amazon is displaying this single , grossly misleading review by itself along side the 27 great reviews with the only comment :most helpful negative review. If Karen is right right about negative reviews being more important than positive reviews then Amazon is killing me (and itself) with this unfair and unbalanced presentation of good/bad reader reviews. And sales are awful.

    The review is so grossly off the mark with the central claim of unbelievability and unlikeable characters that I went to see the reviewers other reviews. The reviewer is prolific and mostly complimentary. Since a screen name is used I have no way to reach the assumption that I am known to him and this is personal. It sure is overblown and I think Amazon is not doing authors and readers and itself a favor printing diatribes which are not factual.

    By the way, several reviewers made very favorable comparisons to well-know, current writers like Robert Crais, Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker. That is really fun!

    Now having patiently read through the author’s completely unbiased complaint (LOL) please note that after the first re-write I hired the best editor I could find to edit my book., Steven Manchester who just published an Amazon best Seller, “Twelve Months.” He made significant improvements in the book and was very complimentary in the process. He is quoted on the back cover. I could think of no hidden agenda which would make him do that as a paid, (well) professional editor reviewing a first novel. He is a good guy but not Santa Claus. So I am flummoxed and confused about this corrosive experience.

    So, now I will begin the second adventure of Ned Pearson as requested by 20 of the 27 positive reviewers. Seem like the only thing to do. And great therapy.

    All comments are welcome (if you’ve actually read this one. :)).


    1. Well, if you want a glass-half-full way of looking at it, there is a competing theory that having a few bad reviews mixed in with the good ones looks more credible than having relentless 5-star positivity.

      And if it were a sports match, 27-1 would be some scoreline. 🙂

  4. I’ve only had destructive criticism so far from another author in my genre. I chose to take the higher road and ignore said person.

    An editor is the best protection authors have. It is worth every stinking penny to ward off reviews, BUT make sure it is a reputable editor. Another set of eyes, no matter who they belong to is awesome, but make sure you at least find one professionally trained editor. They are pricey, but many will work a chapter/section at a time, they may have a payment plan available, or you could always save up.

  5. I’m used to rejection. I’ve been passed over by traditional publishers and agents. It prepares a writer for the big world. I’m self published now, barely a couple of months, and I must admit the critique of readers is a little tougher to take.

    While the reviews so far have seen positive, I had a wobbly moment over the weekend when I read a ‘middling’ review of my book. On second reading, it wasn’t actually a bad review. I was just making myself feel worse because it wasn’t an ‘oh, isn’t this is amazing’ review. There are some really good points in there, things I plan on taking into my next book.

    I agree with the editor part. I hired one and I’m so glad I did. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I can only take my book so far and a professional set of eyes on my work is invaluable.

    1. On second reading, it wasn’t actually a bad review. I was just making myself feel worse because it wasn’t an ‘oh, isn’t this is amazing’ review.

      I feel your pain! There’s a theory that we’ve actually evolved to be more sensitive to criticism than praise – survival first! – so that’s a pretty normal reaction. Especially if you have high standards.

      And no, no shame at all in hiring an editor – it’s a sign of a professional.

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