Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

You Can Never Predict Your Bad Reviews

Everyone knows they're going to get a bad review. Whether they come in the form of a query letter rejection, baffling missives from publishers, or, after publication, getting Michiko Kakutani'd in The New York Times, everyone, and I mean everyone, gets bad reviews.

Since you know these bad reviews are coming, it then seems to follow that you will be able to guess which parts of your book people might not like.

Guess what: You cannot.

You'll never guess what people will find to criticize in your book. You'll always be surprised. There's a reason I used this GIF to illustrate the experience of receiving a review in my Publishing Process in GIF form post:

You can't see them coming, they catch you wildly off guard, and they're rather terrifying.

I actually think this illuminates an interesting part of the writing and revision process. It's almost as if we are so worried making about certain mistakes and weaknesses, we actually head them off and don't end up making them. You might be deeply worried that your pacing is too slow or your dialogue is weak. Then, by merely worrying about them, chances are you took the necessary measures to counteract the problems. But those problems are still in your head.

Those won't be the things that people pick up on. Instead, the bad reviews stem from problems we couldn't see, they might even pick up on things that aren't even there entirely and, of course, the whole shebang is just an inevitable result of the subjectivity of reading. Some people just ain't going to like your book.

It's tempting to think you can outfox a bad review. You can't. They'll always end up taking you by surprise.

Art: Horse Frightened by a Lion by George Stubbs


Matthew MacNish said...

I think you're missing a word after "you took the necessary..."

Otherwise. Great point. Still, I'd probably be willing to put up with bad reviews if I could only get published.


Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Matt.

Matthew MacNish said...

You're welcome. I was thinking "actions," but measures is even better.

Eden Ashley said...

Nail on the head, Nathan. You know it's coming but you still can't prepare! Too bad you're so popular. Otherwise you could share your craziest left field review.

Bryan Russell said...

The weird irony is that as the number of people who like your book increases, so will the number of people who dislike it. Though hopefully, you know, at a slower rate.

Anonymous said...

Tell the haters to suck it. Eh, I mean, well, we're all entitled to an opinion, right? ;)

Landra said...

A good reminder as I get closer to the publishing arena. Thanks for the post.

Kristen Pham said...

That first bad review really makes your heart stop, no matter what you tell yourself. Why is it that one always feels like the truest one?

Shawn said...

Wait wait WAIT A MINUTE!

I'm going through this fresh hell of the publishing gauntlet merely for some paltry scraps of validation and adulation... And you're telling me...

You're telling me...

Somebody might not LOVE my book?

Dude. Sorry. That's just crazy talk.

Chica Latina said...

You're TOTALLY right! They're always gonna get ya. You just can't please everyone. That's why I only aim to please myself first and mostly. =D

Stephen del Mar said...

I love that what one person dings me for in a story someone else will rave about. It's a good lesson in humility and as you said, you just can't please everyone.

Mirka Breen said...

Most books published anywhere, traditionally or self, don't die of bad reviews. They die of NO REVIEWS.

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo said...

Whew. So as long as I obsess about everything, which I do, I should be good. ;)

Cynthia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cynthia said...

I've noticed that a book that is on any bestseller list, about to be made into a movie or TV show, the recipient of an award, and/or considered an "overnight success" is likely to get some bad reviews. For some reason, it seems that Good News for an author- even something as simple as them being published- can mean increased scrutiny of them and their work.

A bad review is just one person's opinion. And I find that sometimes the delivery of the bad review can shed more light on the reviewer than the book itself.

At the end of the day, we just have to be happy with who we are and the work that we created, and know that we can't please everyone.

Kristi Helvig said...

My book isn't out until next year, so I have a few months left before I experience this, but I've had friends go through this. They've told me there are usually 2 kinds of negative reviews: 1) honest reviews with constructive feedback and 2)mean-spirited troll reviews. They said to ignore the trolls as much as possible, and use the ones containing constructive criticism to make the next book better. Easier said than done, I'm sure. :)

Peter Dudley said...

I would say the same thing of a good suite of beta readers. Unpredictable. I'd also totally agree with your hypothesis that merely by predicting an issue, you've probably already done enough to mitigate or overcome it.

Nancy Thompson said...

Yes, they do sting, but the severity of that pain differs on the source. If they're posted on Goodreads, I tend to just shrug them off. If they're on Amazon, however, they hurt a bit more. I just received my very first bad review on Amazon. I will admit, even though the reviewer didn't have much to say except to say it sucked, and I suspect the source may be an unknown enemy, it wasn't pleasant. But I'm getting my revenge now in the way of sales. I guess they may be right at times; there's no such thing as bad PR.

Jacqueline Howett said...

So now we know!

It is- what it is!

In the end, none of it really matters! But it might take a while before you can say that! :)

Some nice comments here, so far!

Victoria said...

One thing that really helps me when someone harshly criticizes my work is to read the Amazon one and two star reviews of books that I have loved or that have been hugely successful. That way I can see what good company I'm in.

Anne Mackin said...

I found this very comforting--and very true. Thanks for writing about this.
I think that, in addition to the mistakes we may not be aware of making, there is the problem that every reader or reviewer is individual and idiosyncratic. Readers and reviewers have preferences and they have tics. I know that I haven't enjoyed a couple of books admired by most literati, and I know that I love some books that have a limited audience. You can't please everyone, as they say (and writing perfectly is pretty difficult, too).

Kristy F Gillespie said...

Great post, Nathan!

I actually really enjoyed A Casual Vacancy and I've never read any of the Harry Potter series.

If you'd like to check out my review:

Bruce Bonafede said...

"...there's no such thing as bad PR." Don't believe this old cliche. Ask the people at Asiana Airlines.

I think you're right, Nathan. You can never outfox the bad reviews. The good news is that now, thanks to the Internet, anybody can review anything, so the influence of a single review has been greatly reduced, including the influence of "professional" reviewers in the media. This is a very good thing.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Nathan: yes.
I agree.
Though I disagree with Mr. Bonafede. Sitting as I am with a Thriller/Mystery that's been apparently bought by readers and online since late May, but not one review, I am beginning to think even a bad review at least may draw attention to your book--and even intrigue readers enough to want to see if they agree with the reviewer.

That said, one of my favorite lines in B.R. Myers seminal work, "A Readers Manifesto," remains his one title revie of the much-hyped, talked about, and made quickly into a movie "Snow Falling on Cedars."

Myers points out that just because reviewers like it, or claim to, perhaps because others are doing the same, does not mean necessarily it is a good book, or one readers will enjoy actually reading. He calls it "Sleep Falling on Readers."

As you know by now, I neither write to be published, nor to get rich. I write because a story basically insists it seems on my telling it, in my way. And I hope enough people enjoy it to keep me in money for expenses such as paper, ink and, in the olden days, postage.

I am often amazed at what becomes a "best-seller" or a popular book, or gets made into a movie almost before the book is even available. I'm sure it helps to have marketing "tie-ins" such as toys or even halloween costumes. None of which really anything I've ever written really lends itself to.

But you also know by now I judge my success more on what people say about my writing than anything else. If I've conveyed a story I want to in the way I choose successfully, and people get the point if not like my style, I'm happy.

And I always refer back to the books now foisted on English majors, many of them apparently being too "dark" or "adult" or this or that for their original intended audiences--teenagers, or "youths" approaching if not at the "age of majority," as in "young adults."

Books like the once again recently exploited and profited from brilliant The Great Gatsby, which never earned F. Scott Fitzgerald either the income or fame and praise he longed to repeat after his "This Side of Paradise."

So. I think bad reviews are like failed relationships. They come with the territory, and having a few just helps keep you honest or at least from getting too big a head.



Rachelle Ayala said...

That's funny. I just posted my "My Favorite One-Star Reviews or Bad Reviews to Make You Laugh" on my blog today because another author friend of mine was complaining about a review. I figure if you can't lose them, you might as well laugh about them.

Great point about how you can't see them coming, but you can always decide how you'll react.

Mary Horner said...

It's hard to read a bad review, but if it contains constructive criticism, writers can try to let some time pass and take a few steps back before deciding if the opinion is valid, and if accepting the criticism will improve the writing.

Anonymous said...

This was a nice post, and very generous. Every time I think I have suffered the worst review over something silly that everyone else understood, it happens again. I also have suffered through fake bad reviews.

I wouldn't mind the bad reviews as much if everyone who left a review was required to stand behind his or her own name with the review. But the system as we know it is flawed, and reviews are written to garner attention to some reviewers. It is a system that promotes sock puppets and fakes who leave bad reviews for a variety of of which I am convinced is mental instability.

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

Yes, I have gotten my share of bad reviews and will continue to get them. I have made almost $2 million in profits from my books. How much have the critics who post bad reviews made?

These quotations apply:

"Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain ... and most fools do."
- Dale Carnegie

"Trying to blow out someone else's candle doesn't make yours shine any brighter. In fact, yours is the one that is dimmed the most."
- Dave Erhard

"Did you know that highly spirited successful souls are thankful for the critics, the faultfinders, and the nit-pickers of this world for constantly trying to put them down? This gives these highly spirited souls the inspiration to learn how to fly, to soar even
higher with their dreams, to make an even bigger contribution to this world, and to be rewarded even more handsomely with the finer things of life that the Universe has to offer.
- from "Life's Secret Handbook"

"People's disrespect, insults, and criticism of highly successful people just shows how shaky their own position is and how lousy their internal world must be."
— Unknown Wise Person

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
— Mark Twain

Writing a book is easy when you don't know how. It is very difficult, however, when you do know how.
— Dave Erhard

"A non-doer is very often a critic — that is, someone who sits back and watches doers, and then waxes philosophically about how the doers are doing. It’s easy to be a critic, but being a doer requires effort, risk, and change."
— Dr. Wayne Dyer

"Do not fall into the trap of being the cowardly soul, the one who always criticizes, but knows neither victory nor defeat. How easy it is to be critical of
successful souls, when you yourself
have not accomplished anything
important in that particular field,
when you do not even know the
struggles and failures that successful souls endured on their
personal journey to success."
— from "Life's secret Handbook"

"Spend your time and energy
creating, not criticizing."
— H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

In short, most of the people posting negative reviews are opposition looking for something to oppose. You can imagine how far these people get in life.

Ernie J. Zelinski
International Best-Selling Author
"Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free"
Author of the Bestseller "How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free"
(Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
and the International Bestseller "The Joy of Not Working'
(Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

Iola Goulton said...

Frankly, you should be more worried that Harriet Klausner only gave you four stars than someone else gave you two stars (character development for a generation who think Captain Underpants is cool? That's hardly a negative).

For anyone who hasn't heard of dear Harriet, she has her own Appreciation Society. Google it.

wendy said...

From what you wrote, Nathan, bad reviews sound like a microcosmic analogy of life: What you fear never happens. And, also, what people say about you, doesn't define you, it only defines them. How you react to another person's criticisms and actions is what defines you.

Heather Webb said...

Great post. I'm gearing up for a launch at the end of the year and the negative reviews are what I most dread...and yet, I know they're coming. It's inevitable, as you said. This goes back to writing for ourselves and being happy with and proud of what we've produced. And I loved Wendy's comment---"what people say about you doesn't define you, it only defines them". Perfectly brilliant and true.

AD Starrling said...

We're all told to develop a thick skin when we publish (trad or self). It takes time and training to grow a rhino hide. I think anyone who states that a bad review doesn't matter to them at all is probably not being truly honest with themselves.

My approach to negative reviews is two-fold:

1. Learn from the constructive criticism if it is offered.

2. Don't let one negative review overshadow ten good ones (as humans, we do tend to obsess about the negative before appreciating the positive in life).

Saying that, keep a bottle of booze close by when you're reading that negative review ;) And never challenge a reviewer about their opinion. They're allowed not to like your work.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I think one of the most hazardous things about bad reviews is that after the first few, you may be tempted to change what they didn't like-- they thought your dialogue was stilted? Spice it up! They thought your characters were not complex enough? Go overboard with depth!

But none of it matters because it's all subjective. Don't change yourself just because people didn't like something.

Anonymous said...

"I think one of the most hazardous things about bad reviews is that after the first few, you may be tempted to change what they didn't like-- they thought your dialogue was stilted? Spice it up! They thought your characters were not complex enough? Go overboard with depth!"

Watch our for that if you are indie publishing. There are people who actually do check to see if authors wait for bad reviews, and then take the books down, revise them, and put them back up again. I have seen indie authors sliced to shreds for doing this.

Mira said...

Great post, Nathan. I really love your take on the writing process, you bring some really important points out into the limelight.

I also love the term "outfox". :)

So, I keep saying I'm going to refuse to read my reviews when I do publish. I don't know if I'll have the strength, but that's my intent. I know reviews can be really helpful, but I don't trust myself not to completely fold under the whole thing, so I'm going to try to avoid them. We'll see - probably famous last words. :)

Viswa @ honest reviews said...

Yes, I do accept with Nathan's point here. You do get bad reviews even for a good book just because there may not be enough good with who actually criticizes your work. When your book gets good name , obviously there are many people who wish to find faults in it, just to prove they are unique. So, we can call them critics.Being a critic they do evaluate our work only for faults and only faults :-). Every publisher has to take those points if they are useful for them in future.If those critics are just buggy comments, leave them just as if dogs bark at you, doesn't mean you are a thief.
But i do believe a good book will always win the heart of good people slowly that even as a publisher you may not recognize the pace of it.

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