Dealing With Bad Reviews

by | Dec 20, 2007 | The Writing Life | 51 comments

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Internet is pretty awesome. I didn’t step into a single store to do my Christmas shopping, there are boundless opportunities to waste time, we can settle petty arguments about who is right about song lyrics, and any medium that gives us instant access to video segments about drunk monkeys is fine by me.

But there’s a downside to the Internet: it makes people mean.

You know what I’m talking about — the anonymous posters who write horrible things they wouldn’t say in person, the sniping and the trashing, and the general snarky tone that has become the Internet’s stock in trade. We’ve all probably been guilty of it at one time or another – there’s just something about the anonymity of the Internet that makes people lose their minds.

I bring this up because this meanness has become an unfortunate part of the landscape for authors. There have always been bad reviews, and one could make the case that getting trashed in the New York Times Book Review hurts the worst because of the size of the platform (or one could make the case that hey, at least you’re getting reviewed in the Times). But nowadays, because of the Internet, everyone can be a reviewer, and now authors of even well-liked books have to deal with an abundance of nasty reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and lots of mean comments easily available on the Internet. And some of these reviewers, especially the anonymous ones, say things that would make H.L. Mencken blush.

So while everyone has to deal a lot of rejection even to get into the mainstream publishing game, unfortunately it doesn’t end when you’re a published author. It takes an exceedingly thick skin to be an author these days, perhaps moreso than at any time in the past. And while I’m not an author myself, I work with enough to know that it’s not always easy, and getting sniped at, even when it’s a stupid snipe, really hurts.

I guess I’d like to make a plea for authors to remember the jealousy that’s at the heart of most bad reviews and for everyone to try not to be mean just because no one can punch you through a computer screen.

Of course Longfellow said it a tad more eloquently:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”


  1. Sue Eves

    Well said Nathan and Longfellow!
    Thanks for all your support to newbie authors and hope you have a jolly good holiday!

  2. Arjay

    I’ll drink to that. Here! Here!

  3. Kaleb  -

    I know. I don’t ever write reviews of things I don’t like because I think it could be ME they’re writing about one day. And you can’t take it back.

  4. David

    Maybe some day people will be able to punch each other through their computer screens! Or whatever we’re using instead of screens then.

    Boy, the Internet will really be awesome then! Or fearsome. And people will spend more time deleting what they’ve typed. Or whatever we’re doing instead of typing.

  5. Anonymous

    I think it just goes back to that whole thing of writers having to grow a thick skin Nathan. Technology…specifically internet and internet blogs and forums open up a whole new world. In every world we have good and bad and we have to develop ways to have regulations for where there it needs to be and just cope with the rest I suppose.

    PS: I’m seriously addicted to this blog

  6. Richard Lewis

    First, a poem by Clive James:

    “The book of my enemy has been remaindered
    And I am pleased.
    In vast quantities it has been remaindered
    Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
    And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
    My enemy’s much-prized effort sits in piles
    In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
    Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
    One passes down reflecting on life’s vanities,
    Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
    Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy’s book —
    For behold, here is that book
    Among these ranks and banks of duds,
    These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
    Of complete stiffs.”

    And let’s not forget how the Longfellow poem ends (let’s at least affirm the optimism and not dispute the religion): “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good will to men.’

    Till, ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day
    A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
    Of peace on earth, good will to men.

  7. Josephine Damian

    Nathan, I discussed this very same topic on the Murder She Writes blog.

    I said it there, I’ll say it here: I see more authors getting their friends and family to post false rave reviews to incite people to buy their books, than I see people giving false nasty reviews because they have some kind of “agenda.”

    I consider the fraud of getting people to spend money on bad books to be the greater crime than the slander of an author.

    For once, I’d like to see an author own up to the fact that they wrote a less than wonderful book, and therefore that’s the reason they got a less than wonderful review, and not because some “wanna-be” was jealous.

    I see more good reviews than bad ones; I read more bad books than good books, and I ask myself: What’s wrong with this picture?

    The reason I dis-banded my book club is because I got sucked in by false rave reviews, and put truly awful books on our reading list, books that were panned by the entire group, folks who were quite angry at me for assigning the bad book, and all I could do was sit there and say: But it got great reviews!

    And I’m gonna stay on my soapbox and remind you guys that just because someone posts under a certain name, as opposed to “anonymous,” that doesn’t mean that’s who they really are, or that’s their real name. I can get an email or blog or myspace or amazon account under any name I make up, and flame some author in a review without any real consequence.

    All right, I’m done venting.

    Don’t forget, tomorrow’s Travis Erwin’s birthday. Stop by his blog and say, Hey.

  8. CarBeyond

    I Invented this wonderful machine for cars that takes all the $%^&**$#@ road rage remarks and translates them into civilized language and then posts them on a screen with light-up letters on the rear of their car (or a screen that raises up over the car) for other drivers to read.

    Such a translation might take such remarks as “move the f over” to
    “would you please make room for me to change lanes, this is my exit” etc.

    Perhaps I should make one of these for the Internet too?

    (I am thinking about calling it the Polite Editor or The Rephrase Machine, short for the, um let me rephrase that machine.)

  9. Kimber An

    It’s so easy to be selfish and such hard work to be considerate of the feelings of others. However, being nice is so much more pleasant.
    I think being mean makes some people feel powerful, but it is a false sense of power in the end.

  10. moonrat

    i’ve had occasion to think about this. i feel bad (as the hostess of a book review blog) because the top google hit for one author is my very negative review of her book. but on the other hand, her book made me angry and frustrated. i know i have a right to dislike the book, and i have a right to blog on the internet. but does the accessibility of modern technology preclude ethically presenting our opinions about things? the author did “publish” the book–does that not make him/her eligible for public scrutiny?

    i do agree that meanness, bashing, and personal jibes are really tasteless (not to mention unhelpful). but even if we’re dealing with professional critique, it somehow feels a little dirty to make negative opinion so widely available.

  11. Laurel Amberdine

    I don’t think anyone understands how sensitive authors are about their work. I don’t understand how sensitive I am about my work until I all the common sense and rationalization I can muster fails and I collapse into a heap of gibbering spaz.

    So… yeah. Everyone please have pity on the poor artist who stripped their skin off and showed you their heart. Even if you didn’t like it. It’s not just a book.

    I deliberately use my own name online so I never say things any meaner than I’m willing to own up to. Though sometimes I write up really long rants and delete them…

  12. Nathan Bransford


    That’s an interesting point. You can definitely make the case that negative reviews, while difficult for an author, further the cause of literature by acting as a filter process. But I hear you — the digital age makes those reveiws more widely spread.

    Ultimately I was gearing more for the mean reviews and ones that are more mean-spirited than just negative. I think we can agree on that. If I see one more person call a book “a piece of trash” on Amazon…

  13. AmyB

    I have to admit, when I’m looking for a book to buy and relying to some extent on reader reviews on amazon, I always try to read at least a couple of the negative reviews. They often tell me a lot more than the positive reviews about whether I’ll like the book or not. Sometimes the negative reviews make me want to buy the book.

  14. Heather Wardell

    I think there’s a difference between a bad review and a trashing. If, for example, the book is genuinely not enjoyable, doesn’t make sense, or is just poorly written, pointing those things out is giving the book a bad view… which it deserves.

    The “piece of trash” comments are obviously trashing, and I’m with amys in thinking those say more about the reviewer than the reviewed book.

    The part I think would really hurt is having your published book trashed for something, such as bad copyediting, that isn’t really your fault.


  15. A Paperback Writer

    I’m glad Richard Lewis put in the rest of the Longfellow poem because it’s always bothered me a bit when folks end the song on that verse — a bit depressing.
    However, I’m actually comforted by this post. It’s nice to know that if I ever get something published so that it can get reviewed, I’ll be ready. Hey, I deal with rude people on the freeways and at the junior high school every day of my life. I’m glad this will help me out in the writing world.

  16. midnight oil

    I believe in the common decency rule. I know I’m going to get, and sometimes hope for, that hard review. I hope that people realize that in some way, some day, they will get their review as well. The trick is…honesty doesn’t have to hurt! (Not for the giver or the one receiving.)

  17. Anonymous

    It’s not just the Internet–some people become different when they step into their cars, too.

  18. Dave F.

    Long before the Internet, Eduard Hanslick (considered the most significant reviewer of the 1800’s) described Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as “music that stinks to the ear.”

    Now that’s a bad review! So completely wrong, it’s a badge of honor.

  19. Lupina

    I wrote for a newspaper for ten years, news stories and a column, and risked a letter-bashing with every issue. Once, I became the subject of a campaign to banish me from an Eastern European country because the paper’s headline writer made it sound like I preferred fast food to that nation’s cuisine. Letters calling me names and demanding I be fired poured in from as far away as Canada. All I can say is, thank God this was before most people were on the Internet. Instead of a fairly regional humiliation, the incident could have escalated into an international debacle involving Youtube mockery. The letters only ended because the editor stopped printing them after finding me sobbing in the ladie’s room.

    And yes, I’ve had a few people post a negative review or two on Amazon that I thought were unfair, but it never felt as hurtful as those letters. I figure people smart enough to be readers can look at the bulk of positive comments and decide for themselves whose remarks serve an agenda.

    But I will say one thing. I will never again even slightly disparage cooked rabbit livers.

  20. John Arkwright

    Roger Ebert’s review of THE GRADUATE included the comment that the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack was “instantly forgettable.”

    He lists that as one of his biggest mistakes.

  21. ORION

    I have been fortunate to have had lots of very nice reviews which makes the few not so nice ones easier to take.
    They thing is – all readers will not necessarily like your book and they can say that with impunity.
    “I did not like this book” is perfectly okay.
    What they shouldn’t say is “This book is a piece of crap and NOBODY should buy it…”

    In actuality Amazon and Barnes and Noble are not at all easy for an author to control. I BEG my friends to review my book over and over and only one or two has. My SISTERS have not even read my book. LOL
    The thing is, when you can reinvent yourself online as another entity it’s easier to be shitty. I see more unfair reviews than overly glowing. When I look at reviews I ignore the one stars and the five stars.

  22. Julie Weathers

    I have been thinking about the subject of the anon snipers a lot today. As far as I’m concerned the guys who make up names to post are also posting anon, so just because it has a name doesn’t make them more accountable. It just seems the ones who post the sniping attacks anon irk me more.

    Recently, some anon posters were pretty biting and personal in their attacks on someone in the writing industry. I wanted to point out how brave they are to stand up and be counted annonymously. I kept my mouth shut as there is no sense in starting a flame war.

    A friend of mine published a mid-list zombie book that really was well done. I’m not a fan of horror, but he did a good job of spinning it in a fresh way. He’s also a talented wordsmith.

    He not only didn’t ask any of his friends to post reviews for him, he didn’t even tell most of us the book was out. So, in this case, I know he wasn’t tapping his friends to write rave reviews. He didn’t need to. The wonderful reviews he got were earned.

    Along comes Bitter Jones and rips him to shreds. He tells him to go back to school and take English 101. A couple others jump on the bandwagon, because you can be rich and powerful and famous or at least point to the scathing review you wrote to with great pride to all your buddies.

    It hurt me to read those and I know it wounded him deeply.

    I don’t have a problem with bad reviews, which are justified. I do have a problem with people hiding anon and making their sniping attacks for no cause other than to make themselves feel good. I have reached a point I ignore the vitriol coming from anon posters.

    I thought about posting under a blog name or something and decided to just be who I am. If I post under my own name, I think twice before I say something stupid. I still say stupid things, but at least I think twice before I do

  23. Ello

    I agree with the pettiness of anonymous posters. I actually discussed the big to do that occured between an author and a reviewer from the Washington Post. The reviewer gave the author a bad review the author retailiated in her blog in what I (and many others) thought was an inappropriate way. I did a write up about the whole thing on my blog discussing how not to react to a bad review and the next thing I know is that I got anonymous posters making nasty comments to me and everyone who commented. I don’t care if you disagree with me. I think that’s great, but I do think that there is a level of disrespect that people have on the internet that would not occur if we met in person. Which makes the internet, in many ways, like the old wild wild west.

  24. Adrienne

    I hear you brother!

    Though at the same time some of the bad reviews can be quite entertaining, like the one I got where the person wanted to hit me over the head with a flower pot.

    Yes, specifically “flower pot”.

  25. ORION

    Oh man Adrienne…they showed you huh?

    you…you…you MEANIE you!!!

  26. John

    That’s why it always best to simply ignore anonymous comments (or comments signed with a cute handle that can’t be traced back to an actual human). If someone thinks my writing or my ideas suck, well, I’m not happy about that, but then there are people who don’t like Hugh Laurie. (I know, doesn’t seem possible, does it?) But if they can’t even sign their name to a diatribe against my efforts then the problem is theirs, not mine.

  27. Bernita

    Nathan, thank you for the gift of your blog.

  28. sex scenes at starbucks

    By the way, I nominated you for a “major award.” (It being Christmastime and all.)

  29. Merry Jelinek

    Anonymous posters seem to be a popular venting topic the last few days.

    I don’t even read the amazon reviews for the most part, I tend to pay more attention when I read a blog review or a book review in print… and while I do think that an ethical reviewer will give an honest opinion, I don’t think there’s any reason for honesty to mean nastiness.

    I’ve reviewed a few books for Mothertalk on my blog that I didn’t particularly like, which I stated but I also gave an idea of the writing style, storyline, etc, because I’m very conscious that my reading tastes are not universal.

    And yes, I think the internet has a nastiness factor because there is so little consequence for being an @ss… I think we all get a little more up in arms about it in professional publishing blogs because we assume these are also writers who should have a better handle on their words… but of course, your profession doesn’t necessitate good character, even if we all wish it did.

  30. Erik

    Road rage and internet flaming are basically the same thing.

    When humans interact with other humans through a machine, they see the machine in front of them and forget the human beyond. They are no social consequences for their actions behind the anonymity of a machine.

    This is an important issue if things like the internet are going to connect us and make a world that is closer together. We cannot do this and act as though our neighbors are machines. In the late, great Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”, this was taken as the definition of insanity.

    It is worth noting that people who wrote for a press have long said things they would never say in person. This is nothing more than a form of cowardice, and should be taken as such. Strong values like this are the only way we as a species can maintain our humanity and interact as humans. There is no great joy and warmth that springs ex machina.

  31. Rae L.

    Very well said, Erik.

    And Nathan, I’m going to print this blog post and hang it up on my wall next to the other articles of wisdom about the cold hard world of book publishing.

    It’s funny though, regarding reviews. I’ve noticed a lot of the harsh reviews are written in a way that the reviewer is trying to rewrite the book in a “well, if I wrote the book, this and this would have happened and been better” kind of way. And then there are some that just want to be amusing in their criticism for the sake of wit. Sadly, at the expense of the author’s work.

  32. Tom Burchfield

    Mmm . . I figure this is a good time to say a nice thing about a book I finished reading last night: a 1950 Gold Medal Fawcett paperback western called “The Desperado” by the long-forgotten Clifton Adams. About a young boy who’s dragged down into the bleak life of a gunman by a combination of a careless acquaintance and his own testosterone-fueled bad temper. A kind of “Rebel Without a Cause” out West . . .though he starts out with a cause, it’s all forgotten by the end. The portrait of the boy rings very true and it’s a very tough, grim West, few cliches and very well-written throughout. Good luck on finding it, though! It’s out of print.

  33. Justin

    There’s a rather popular webcomic strip where the artist put forth the following theory he called “John Gabriel’s Grater Internet Jerkwad Theory” and it goes “Average person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Jerkwad” and I’d say that’s unfortunately true for a lot of people. I’ve read some of the reviews on Amazon and wondered what it would feel like to have some of those comments be about my stuff. Yes, a lot of them are stupid (some laughably so), but they’d still probably sting if they were being directed at me.
    Thanks for pointing this our Mr. Bransford. It’s easy to forget that standing in front of the literary firing squad is also part of being an author.

    Oh, and the webcomic was if anybody was curious.

  34. Anonymous

    Unless I am mistaken, they put the Marquis de Sade in prison for his writing. Solzhenitsyn was exiled, and some authors face the ultimate test: self publication with lulu, so perhaps you “writers” who cannot stand to discover someone has tastes different from your own should remember that it could be worse.

  35. Heather B. Moore

    Great post. Agreed to all.

    I’ve read reviews of supposedly fantastic books, and have been seriously let down. It drives me nuts when reviews are obviously contrived.

    I also know reviewers who make it a point to say at least one negative thing.

    I don’t even want to get started on this . . .

    Josephine, I’m going to check out what you said.

  36. Chumplet

    I haven’t dealt with bad reviews yet. Strike that – I’ve had no reviews, except for two very nice reader reviews on Amazon. So far, everyone who commented on my blog has been kind and supportive.

    Nathan, you’re a nice guy, and smart too. Anyone who bad-mouths you on this blog (or any other one – yanno what I mean) is just a mean spirited schmuck.

  37. Denise Eagan

    Thank you, Nathan for this post, and everyone else for the comments. I’m a new author with a new book on the shelves and I find all reviews intimidating, never mind the nasty, anonymous kind. This is all very comforting, even the stories of bad reviews.

  38. Eva Gale

    Great post. And I was at Jessica’s reading all of the Goodwill Towards Man flowing about. As an author, I’m so happy to see agents stand up and say that some of the stuff that is said out there is downright mean. I also think that the authors that frequent Those Sites aren’t doing anyone a favor. And their noses are getting a bit brown.

  39. Greg

    This is why good comment moderation–or at least, comment moderation, period–is so important. Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote a great essay about it on her website, Making Light (
    I don’t know exactly where the essay is, but Teresa’s spent a great deal of time building a *community* of readers there who interact with one another.
    Trolls are not deleted–they’re disemvowelled (all the vowels are removed from their posts) and heavily mocked by commenters. If you have your own personal blog, you’re under no obligation to let annoying trolls ruin it. Unfortunately, never got good comment–or review–moderation in place, so the system can still be gamed there.

  40. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies

    I’ve only had one bad review … really a bad review by means of faint praise. It was anonymous. It was depressing.

    Pixies don’t like to be depressed.

    I’m sure there will be more. You can’t please everyone with your story or writing style. … Still, on the mobipocket list (It doesn’t come out in paper until later this year) Pixie Warrior is number 5 in the Fantasy catgory.

    Oh, the bad review? Mr. Anonymous said it was only “ok.” OK! Sheesh. That’s like saying it made him pucker up his face as if he bit into a lemon! OK! HA!

    You’re right about net-manners. They don’t exist. … Hi chumplet! Hi Bernita! Hi Starbucks … and Hi MOM!

  41. Sam Hranac

    Here’s to a more balanced tone on the internet in 2008. (Yeah, right. Like all those frosty nibblet scraping hammer jockeys out there will ever learn to love each other!)

    Oops… did I type that out loud?

  42. VirtualWordsmith

    I review books on my blog, and interview the authors when they have time to answer my questions. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have received some good books. Only a couple have been too terrible to continue reading past the second chapter (and no, I won’t say which ones).

    I don’t review books I don’t like. I apologize to the author for not reviewing their work, I explain what turned me off, and then I’m on to the next book.

    Life is too short to waste time saying negative things, and I figure people will figure out what books they want to spend their money on, no matter my opinion.

  43. Jason R. Thrift

    This is a funny blog!

    All I can say about reviews is simply this…if you can elicit an emotional response from the person who reads your story or views your film, so much so that they have to tell other people about it, good or bad, you've done your job as an artist!:)

    It's painful to get a bad review, but it's a review nonetheless. From my experience people that leave bad reviews often times regret it later, because of several of the reasons cited above. The anonymity of the internet! It can make you whatever you want to be. Unfortunately, more times than not, most people don't utilize it either way because it actually takes effort to post something about another or to even care enough about something to warrant an opinion on it.

    Not to mention that some people see a bad review as a reason to read or view something to formulate their own opinion of it (which is often very different from the person they listened to who had reviewed it). It's called freedom of expression, last time I checked.

    It has always amazed me at how some people believe they know more about something, or could somehow do it better yet never even try. They're never willing to take the risk to reveal their skin and take the beating. Besides, authors already beat themselves have to death when they miss a typo, used bad sentence structure and didn't intend to, or in some cases just flat miss the point they were trying to convey. It's tough, but you get through it and as someone once told me you write and write and write some more until you get it right.

    But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong…

    One last thing, I come from the old philosophy of the ancients (my mother) "If you don't have something nice to say about someone, then you shouldn't say it."

  44. Adele

    Thanks for this post! I just got my first negative review and it stings. The reviewer was accidentally sent an unedited galley and although I offered to send her another copy (the correct copy) – that was all she wrote…She gave me two stars, better than one, but not good either. I examined it constructively, but realized many of her complaints had been corrected or were just strong opinion due to her political viewpoint. She doesn't like thrillers and I wrote a thriller so it's not unusual that she didn't like the story. I realized that you should be levelheaded enough to take constructive criticism from the review, but also not give up on your work if the review is mean – ESPECIALLY if feedback from other readers has been good. If it affects Amazon sales – well I cannot control or worry about that!

  45. Randi Black

    I just got my first bad review. Someone had written a laundry list of reasons why they didn't like my book. Some of her reasons were helpful, but the, never mind. I dropped her a line and thanked her. Her only response was, "Holy crap."

    So now, parts of her review have made their way into the product description of my book!

    The important thing to remember is that a review says just as much about the person writing it as it does your novel.

  46. Anonymous

    I received some bad reviews on my work and it was difficult to read; I'm trying to deal with it but it's not easy.

  47. Allen J Johnston

    Although this is an old post, I must agree. But, let me put a bit of a twist on this that will make you smile. Use the negative review to your advantage. DO NOT respond in a way that shows you taken it personal. Thank them and think it through. Take a look at my negative post and you will see how I turned it around to gain positive attention. Feel free to go to Amazon and search for The Divine Apprentice. It is the only non 5 star review. Won't be hard to find. 🙂

    Allen J Johnston

  48. Anonymous

    I just discovered this blog and I really like it. I received some bad reviews on my book. And it made me feel bad but I'm slowly brushing it off my shoulders. The review originally came from one person but a few of her followers joined in on the drama. And get this. Some of them had not even read my book. That just made me laugh. But I wonder should I go ahead and thank her for leaving a comment. Although, she bashed my book, and it was nothing constructive about what she said. Should I do that? Or say nothing at all? What do you all think? I'm opting for nothing because I would never tell someone what I really think of their negative review.

  49. KoahWisdom

    Well I have had a bad review from someone I know didn't read the whole book – this to me is trashy. If someone doesn't like the book -fine. But, to give a negative review of something you didn't really read is nonsense. I responded professionally and politely by commenting on his review and pointing out some of the things that he left out.

    Overall I don't care for the amazon review process – it is too easily manipulated. My work is important to me and I will defend my work.

    But, I also know that reviewers don't create or produce anything. It is easy to just give opinions, but to create something takes talent, passion, dedication and hard work – reviewers don't need or have any of those things. Deep down I think they are just wannabees who like to criticize b/c they can't do.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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