Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bad Reviews, or How to Hide the Bodies

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series

Any author who’s been following the bizarre Kathleen Hale review-stalkergate dustup may, like myself, be wondering whether we might be better off never looking at a review of our work again. In fact, multiple award-winning editor/author Gardner Dozois told the Clarion West class I was in a dozen years ago not to pay attention to reviews; another famous author I know never reads any reviews of his work, not even the mainstream ones by professional reviewers and critics. Not even the good ones.

Fortunately, most ordinary readers who take the trouble to write book reviews are rational people. Still, occasionally a book may hit a nerve, especially if it touches upon any of the so-called “trigger” topics which have grown so numerous that, frankly, I’ve lost track of them. Some sensitive reader will see a mention of, say, animal abuse which a writer has made up (no animal was ever harmed) for plot or character purposes, and next thing you know a perfectly good book gets a one-star review.

Unfortunately not all reviewers are rational people. It’s well-known and very clear that there are mean-spirited individuals out there—often embittered writers either suffering from envy or trying to protect their turf—who make a point of trying to take down other authors’ work. These reviews are usually easy to spot and I don’t think anyone pays much attention to them; still, they will sting.

Occasionally some even lower form of life will surface, some species of troll, and woe betide any author unwise enough to fall for their bait. We’ve all seen it happen on the net, and while we could argue about the sanity of ever allowing anonymity in the first place, there’s a simple way to stay out of trouble and keep your peace of mind: never, ever, respond to a review. No matter how incorrect, unjust, maddening, or misleading. Ever.

That can be hard to do. When someone gives a one-star review, they often haven’t read the book. Or they’re mad because the download was glitchy. Or they thought the book was about something it wasn’t. Or the person is just plain crazy—there really are a lot of mentally borderline people on the internet, and they sometimes write reviews!

But you can’t respond. Why? Because anything you say, however you say it, comes out as “you’re wrong, you really don’t get it, give me another chance” get the idea.

So what do you? This review is terrible. People are going to read this review, it’ll hurt your book, it’ll—

Stop. Breathe. I’m a gentle soul, but when this happens to me (and it has), believe me that I’d love to rest my knee on that person’s windpipe until they see the light. But if I can refrain from making any response, any whatsoever, so can you.

The reality is that a few negative reviews of an otherwise well-received book aren’t going to do any harm at all—the flame goes out quickly. If you have a couple of dozen four- and five-star reviews and two or three one- and two-stars, your average will still be high. But respond to that mean reviewer and now you’re pouring gasoline on the flame; and if you’ve had the bad luck to run into a real crazy, things can get out of hand very, very quickly indeed.

Also, on Amazon you (yes, even the author) can at least vote down the negative review—and, bam! “0 out of 1 people found the following review helpful”. You might even, over a period of a week or so, ask a friend or two who enjoyed your book to do the same: no, this isn’t gaming the system, it’s protecting your good name. And you can bet that the Amazon algorithm weights reviews according to how many people found them helpful.

It also helps to realize that as long as people are reviewing your book, it means people are reading it. And look up any of the great classics and bestsellers you like, and check out the one-star reviews they got—it didn’t hurt their author, did it?

I also recommend buying a copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections, which I guarantee will lift the most crushed spirit and have you laughing off that silly reviewer that had you reaching for razor blade just a few moments ago.

As artists, I believe we have more strength—and ultimately more resilience—than most ordinary people. To write or paint or make music, to create something we believe in out of empty air and send it out into the world, is an act of raw courage mixed with a big slug of faith, like walking barefoot on hot coals. We know we’ll survive, but we’d be fools to not expect to get a little burnt once in a while.

With mean-spirited reviews, it helps to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, my interpretation of which is to not accept the poison but leave it with the poisoner. Know who owns what, and don’t buy into someone else’s negativity. Let it go. When I see a mean-spirited review, I remind myself that there’s a better than even chance that the person who wrote it is stupid, envious, angry, or quite possibly mentally ill. It helps, really.

One day, I won’t read any reviews any more, I promise, not even the good ones; but until then, I’d still really like to have my knee on that nasty reviewer’s throat...

Have you received hurtful, wrong, unfair reviews? How do you deal with them? And where do you hide the bodies?

Further reading/links:
The full debrief on the surreal Kathleen Hale incident
Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections 

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for novella submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. Love the post title. It's also sometimes helpful to nudge a friend who you know liked your book to finally get around to posting a positive review, saying it will really help outweigh the negative (or crazy). Our supporters sometimes underestimate the value of their support until you point it out in situations like this.

    1. Thanks, Laurel. And very very true: it's ordinately hard to get people, even friends to do that sometimes. I've read that on average one in 300 Amazon buyer/readers posts a review; looking at own stats on 'zon, On Goodreads the percentage of reviewers is probably rather higher.

      When I've done giveaways to people--friends--of a clutch of books, usually 20 or so, expressly for review, the number who follow through is typically less than 50%.


    2. Dang, can't edit comment ! I meant to say,

      "looking at my own stats on 'Amazon, I';d say closer to 1 in 100". Yes, having a friend who liked the book review to increase dilution is a great idea, especially when you have very few reviews. :)

  2. Sorry, but voting down a negative review is unprofessional. Asking your friends to also vote down said review is worse than unprofessional, it's screaming to the rafters, "I'm insecure!"
    It's not 'protecting your good name'. It's reacting from a place of fear or anger. So, someone dislikes your book? That's called street creds. Earning your stripes.
    It never fails to make my eyes water when authors--presumably the front line in the freedom of speech fight--rush to suppress those words that dare attack their babies.
    Negative reviews can actually sell books. Whatever content the reviewer hated might be just the thing another is looking for in their reading material. Those down votes may hurt the reviewer, as far as Amazon's stats on helpful reviewers, but don't forget, those forums are provided for the consumer. The consumer has a right to give their opinion, just as they do on toasters or vacuum cleaners.
    There's so much water under the bridge, with authors padding their reviews by outright purchasing them, or gathering street teams members to post rave reviews the day of release--many of whom never bother to actually read the book they're raving about--that I trust the info in a 3-star or lower review more than from the stack of 5-stars at the top.

    1. Eden, apologies for posting separately (below)rather than as a direct reply--this isn't the first time this system's caught me out. LOL. Also for mistakenly addressing you as "Edith"! :)


  3. Thanks for commenting, Edith. I agree with the point about negative reviews sometimes selling books, and the water under the bridge. I do give away some books for people to review, but always with the clear proviso that the review should be an honest one--and in the process have received several four- and three-stars rather than solid fives.

    We'll have to agree to disagree on voting down bad reviews though, and note I'm drawing a distinction between "bad" and "negative". I believe I was fairly was clear in my post about the sort of reviews I'm talking about here, and I don't mean reviews where the reader makes fair and justifiable criticism. You see it as insecurity; I see it as exercising my right to free speech.

  4.! This certainly sheds a new light on my own feelings about less-than-favorable reviews. Being an indie author has helped me grow a thicker skin. To actually harass a reviewer is crazy. Life is too short to let the opinions of others make us crazy.

    1. Stephanie, yes! A thick skin is mandatory:) On the rest, I couldn't agree with you more. As the old saying goes, "never mud wrestle with a pig, 'cause you'll get dirty but the pig enjoys it."

  5. You know, if you concentrate on writing good books, really, it's a lot easier to NOT focus on the people who don't LIKE your book. if they don't like it, they are not your audience and life is a lot easier if you aren't spazzing over it. It also leaves me time to write books. (edited/reposted for typos)

    1. Absolutely right, Shiloh. And you're earning money and enriching your readers' lives, while the bad reviewers are just, mmm, wasting their time.

      I think, though, that one should not underestimate how hurtful even the most inaccurate and silly bad review can be for some people. Those of us who've been around a while and published several books tend to grow a thicker skin anyway, or may be wired that way, but it's not so easy for everyone to just let it go.

      Your advice on focusing one's energy on writing more good books is absolutely spot-on.

  6. Great insight! I've actually had someone give a one-star review and say they hadn't had time to read the book yet--oh, but they would get around to it! I had to laugh. While I get mostly 4 and 5 stars,I've had to scratch my head over the one and two stars given because the reviewer objected to MORAL behavior--not the other way around. You just never know what will tick someone off. Good is bad, I guess. But on the upside, when a book does well despite the irrational objections, one just laughs all the way to the bank. (I'm going to tweet this link so others can read your article, btw.)

    1. Judy, thanks so much for commenting, and many thanks for tweeting the link :) Also, please forgive my VERY late reply...your comment was an outlier LOL.

      You're clearly more reasonable than I. I think that giving a poor review based on...morality?! OMG...presumably of characters or subject matter is crazy. But you're right, the bottom line is that none of these people's opinions matter if the book does well, and one really shouldn't lose sleep over *any* review :)