Our Love/Hate Relationship With Reviews

“A performance marred by embarrassingly banal in-between song patter.”

A sentence never to be forgotten. Not decades after it was written, not with hundreds of other (more complimentary) sentences since; not even with a lifetime of new experiences to create a buffer. Because that sentence was part of a milestone: my first bad review, penned by a critic for a premiere music magazine at my very first Los Angeles gig. Harsh. I never forgot it. And I’ve attempted to be neither embarrassing nor banal in anything I’ve said since!

Let’s face it: bad reviews suck. We can get hundreds of good ones, countless accolades and acknowledgments, but regardless of the applause that accompanies our endeavors, we tend to hold onto the words that pierce our creative skin, hurt our fragile sensibilities; shake our sense of who we are as artists.  But, frankly, even with their potential for destruction, we need them. We want them. We seek them out; promote, push, and pander for them.

In fact, the accrual of feedback-by-review has now become a demand. We’re told one must get reviews for any chance at marketing success. Independent artists are instructed to go after them with such verve and vengeance that all manner of shenanigans have emerged, a disturbing trend we’ll touch on later. But, for the moment, let’s discuss some “best practices and protocols” for handling the bad ones.


  1. NOTHINGDO NOTHING. There’s nothing to do about a bad review. It’s out there, it’s being read, and it’s likely to remain searchable forever. I know…but let it go. It’s one person’s opinion—one person. If you choose to read your bad reviews (and really, who doesn’t, beyond A-listers for whom reviews have little import?), do it, acknowledge the gut-punch, then put it aside. Go out for a long walk with music banging through your headphones; come home, have some good food, take a shower, then get on with your life. Ideally, go write something brilliant. In a shorter period of time than you think, you’ll be over it. Trust me.
  2. DO NOT READ IT AGAIN. File it if you feel the urge to keep it for some future reference, but, better yet, banish it to cyberspace or your recycling bin. When you make the mistake of reading it enough times to, then, remember the worst of it years later (see above), you’re doing yourself a disservice.
  3. DO NOT GO TO FACEBOOK TO ANNOUNCE OR COMPLAIN ABOUT IT. While some consider FB groups to be forms of group therapy, the tact of posting your pique about a bad review comes off as amateurish and unprofessional. Every writer—even that New York Times bestselling writer—gets bad reviews. They are the mark of a pro who’s put their work out there. See it as a “red badge of courage” and know you’re now amongst the best in the biz.
  1. DO NOT ASK FRIENDS AND FELLOW WRITERS TO RESPOND TO YOUR BAD REVIEW. Not only is this the mark of a rank amateur, but doing it defines you as petulant and a badly-behaved community member. Why would you ask friends to troll a reviewer on your behalf?! Don’t do it. Don’t post your complaint (see #3) then ask fellow writers to go to Amazon to click “no” on “Was this review helpful to you?,” adding commentary either attacking the reviewer or extolling the virtues of said book. Both reek of desperation and gracelessness. Be better than that.
  1. DO NOT POST DENIGRATING COMMENTARY ABOUT THE REVIEWER. A fellow writer in a Facebook writers group to which I belong not only did #3 and #4, but then posted further information about how he’d researched the reviewer, discovered they’d written very few reviews, from which he extrapolated that the one written about him was bogus and they were “an idiot out to personally attack me.” It wasn’t pretty. Unfortunately, as is wont to happen amongst well-meaning colleagues, other writers got on the thread and started bashing this reviewer in commiseration, until one very wise person finally posted: “Why shouldn’t someone write a bad review? Maybe they honestly didn’t like your book. That’s their right. Why are they an idiot for that?” Exactly. Stop it. Not everyone is going to like your book. Don’t be an ass about it.
  1. DO NOT CONTACT THE REVIEWER AND ATTEMPT TO COERCE THEM TO CHANGE THEIR REVIEW. Yes, writers do do this. And it usually backfires. In fact, I saw one reviewer—who dared give 3-stars to a book with lots of 5-star “friend reviews”— come back and add further negative commentary to their original after the author got in touch to “discuss” that review. Again, this sort of “stalkerish” behavior reflects very poorly on the writer and does little to further the cause of readership goodwill. Take your lumps like a good stoic, and, once again, accept that not everyone will like your book, and move on with class and a sense of personal pride.
  1. ON THE OTHER HAND, DON’T HESITATE TO WRITE AN AUTHENTIC “THANK YOU” TO AN EDITORIAL REVIEWER… EVEN ONE THAT’S LEFT A BAD REVIEW. This may sound contradictory to #6, but hear me out: I have sent authentic “thank you” notes to every single editorial reviewer who’s written about my work…because I was honestly thankful. Editorial reviewers typically have contact information posted, which makes it simple task to pop them an email like this: “Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book. I know you have a large selection of titles to choose from, so I appreciate your consideration in choosing mine.” Then, if it was a good review, I’ll add: “I’m delighted you enjoyed the book, particularly your mention of (something specific they might have mentioned), one of my favorite elements as well! I’ll look forward to being in touch when my next book is done.” Nice, right?Now, if they wrote a bad review, I’ll add this, instead, to the opening bit: “I’m sorry the book didn’t resonate with you quite as much as I’d have hoped, but I’m glad you found at least (name whatever element of the book might’ve gotten a thumbs-up; even bad reviewers typically say one or two nice things!) to your liking! Hopefully my next book will strike a stronger chord.” Again: nice, pleasant; leaving the door open for future contact. Stay classy. It will pay in dividends throughout your (hopefully) long career!
  1. IF SOMETHING IN A BAD REVIEW RESONATES AND YOU CAN FIX IT, FIX IT! Obviously, your last step before publishing is employing the expertise of editors, formatters, and cover designers. These are non-negotiable “costs of doing business.” But sometimes (and even in some big, traditionally published books), typos are missed; misspelled words slip detection, formatting problems show up. If a reviewer points those out, be grateful; it’s like someone telling you there’s spinach in your teeth. If they remark on something more substantive—illogical plotting, or sloppiness in your narrative—and that can be fixed with minor tweaks, again, be grateful and go fix it. With online publishing, you have the opportunity to correct those issues and reload your book. That’s when a bad review becomes like good editing. Be grateful… it was free!
  1. HONOR AND RESPECT THE OPINIONS AND SENSIBILITIES OF ANYONE REVIEWING YOUR BOOK. Too many authors, particularly in the independent world, have gotten into the very bad habit of expecting 5-star reviews as a matter of course. When you belong to countless Facebook groups and various online book sites, you connect with a great many readers and fellow writers who may read your books; are all those people obligated to give you only 5-star reviews? Of course not. But tacitly—or not so tacitly, in some cases—this has become expected. Some writers are happy to offer a quid pro quo, some have no compunction about handing out 5-stars like candy at a parade, but many have expressed discomfort, reluctant to award more stars than they feel are warranted, yet unwilling to risk “in-house” rancor or tension.It’s a conundrum that has helped corrupt the review process, resulting in thousands of indie books boasting unbelievable numbers of 5-star reviews, which often (one discovers upon reading said books) do not represent their true quality. Here’s the truth on that: no bona fide author should be comfortable with reviews that are pressured (gently or otherwise), purchased, swapped, or, in any other way, inauthentic. Having hundreds of “friends & family 5-stars” should mean far less than a handful of meaningful, honest responses from readers who chose to read and review your work without prompting or pressure. Respect their opinions, even if they’re negative, come with fewer stars than you might like, or simply don’t throw the accolades you’ve come to expect. Those 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-star reviewers are likely your most honest readership; they are the ones who should be nurtured as your career develops.
  1. LASTLY, KEEP REVIEWS IN PERSPECTIVE. They’re useful, they offer marketing benefit, they can make your day or shatter your spirit, but they are not the arbiter of your worth or skill. Often they are not even the arbiter of a book’s quality (see #9). I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winning books all while pondering how on earth they garnered that award. Conversely, I’ve discovered books that took my breath away yet came with little or no attached fanfare. There are mega-selling authors whose prose is plodding and witless, while others who compose with spark and brilliance barely register in Amazon rankings. Yes, there arecertain baseline components with which we can judge good writing—technical excellence, narrative skill, creative characterization; whip-smart dialogue—but there are also the intangible, ephemeral, elusive elements of the craft that come down to personal taste, sensibility, and opinion. Therein lies the riddle of reviews.

In conclusion: weigh the ones you receive with a healthy dose of perspective. Enjoy them, learn from them; allow them to thicken your skin, but give them no more weight than they deserve. They are just one person’s opinion. More importantly, know your own work so well—your voice, talent, skill, and uniqueness—that the opinions of others have no bearing on your sense of who you are as an artist. Once you’re there, reviews become just another fascinating part of the wild, exhilarating ride that is being a published author.

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

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  • Rebecca D'Harlingue: Thank you for your comment... I've experienced similar silliness in Facebook writers' groups and I've learned to steer clear of debate on the topic. There's too often a sort of desperation attached to the quest of GETTING reviews, mixed with the desperation of what to do when you get bad ones I get it, I really do -- my first editorial review on my second novel was snide and dismissive, which did not make me happy! But we cannot get bogged down in weeds. We write, we put it out there, we hope for positive response, and then we move on to write more!

    All the best to you in your upcoming book!

  • Marilyn DuPont: Thank you for taking the time to read the piece and leave a comment. This issue of reviews is so damn fraught, I hear writers debate elements of it almost every single day on social media. Your take on it, consequently, is exactly right!

  • My book is not out yet, but I know I'll find your comments helpful when there are inevitably some bad reviews. I have belonged to a book group for over thirty years, and even within that group, our tastes vary. I once recommended and then reviewed for the group a Pulitzer Prize winner. Only one other person liked the book. Someone even asked me why I had recommended it. A good reminder that you can't please everyone.

  • Marilyn Dupont Querying

    This is by far the best article I've read regarding negative reviews. This is important and soul-saving advice for everyone (not just artists) as we navigate a media-crazed world where so many people feel it is their duty to judge and comment on every aspect of another person's life.

    Thank you so much.

  • Vivienne: Thank you for reading and for your lovely comment!

    As to your question: I'd always been squeamish about directly asking readers to review my work, but I've come to believe it's an essential marketing step. I now include that request at the end of my books, even, occasionally, in social media posts.

    Part of my ultimate acquiescence to the trend was this: I noticed -- in going to restaurants, stores, even mechanic shops! -- that almost every business I patronized handed me my receipt with the request to "go to our Yelp page and leave a review.", I noticed I had no resistance to being asked or in actually leaving a review, so I thought: if it didn't put me off in that situation, why would I, as a writer, presume it might put off a reader?

    So I made the decision to always ask.... directly and without apology. Here's my spiel: "Thank you for reading my book; know that I very much appreciate your readership. As an independent author, it would be of great benefit to me if you could also leave a short review at my Amazon page. Please feel free to be honest (5-star reviews are NOT required!), to be brief, and to share any thoughts that may strike you....they're all welcome. Thank you in advance!"

    Or something like that! :)

    Some people follow through; others say they will then don't for one reason or another, but no one ever has been, or should be, offended by the request. We live in a social media world!

    Go for it! :)

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Thank you for this excellent article. I agree with your tips and follow them. I do have a question: I receive requests from authors to read and review their books, and at the end of the story, they will ask, "If you like the book, please leave a review." I don't ask people to review my book if they like it, but would you recommend an author to do this?