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How to Handle Bad Book Reviews


By Jody Hedlund @JodyHedlund

I recently got a REALLY bad review on my book, Love Unexpected. The title read "No! No! No! Dirty, dirty, dirty!" The reviewer left one-star, but I'm sure she would have left a negative number if that were possible.

When I first saw the review title, I was startled. I thought there must be some mistake. After all, my book is a Christian romance. It's devoid of bare-chested men, bodice-ripping, and bawdy bed-rolling. In the publishing industry, my book is categorized as a "sweet romance."

Granted, within the spectrum of sweet fiction, my books tend to be a bit edgier, truer-to-life, with grittier themes. Even my new medieval YA series doesn't shy away from darker themes like Bubonic Plague and gruesome torture methods. It's also true that the romantic elements in all my books (adult and YA) while "sweet" are definitely more realistic and emotion-evoking. However, the relationships are all very chaste (especially in my YA).

So you can understand my confusion when I saw the title of the review. After clarifying that the review was indeed referring to my book, then I chuckled. I thought it was funny that someone in this modern age of Fifty Shades of Gray considered my book "dirty."

Besides, dirty is a word I'd use for those slushy muddy footprints on my kitchen floor left by my children when they don't take off their boots. Dirty isn't something I'd use to describe a budding relationship and the ensuing sensuality that develops between a man and a woman. I'd actually describe it as beautiful.

My point isn't to elaborate on how sad it makes me that there are people who view sexuality as dirty. Rather my point is to say that ALL authors get bad reviews. This isn't the first I've received and it certainly won't be the last.

Authors will get stinging, biting, and even caustic reviews. Readers may nitpick about things we can't even remember writing or not say anything specific at all except that they hated the book. Sometimes an issue, character, or theme may upset them, and we can only scratch our heads and ask, "How did they get that out of my book?"

But the thing about reviews? They're for readers, not writers. Reviewers are allowed to say whatever they want (although even as a reader who sometimes leaves reviews, I have the personal policy of being graciously honest).

All that to say, writers have to learn how to handle bad reviews because it isn't a matter of "if" we get them, it's a matter of "when." So here are several pieces of advice for handling those bad reviews:

1. Either develop thick skin or don't read the reviews. 

As I mentioned, the reviews aren't really intended for the author to read. They're there for other readers. So if we read them, we need to go into them with the mindset that we'll face open, honest, feedback. If we can't handle it, then we need to stay away (and that's perfectly acceptable; everyone needs to know his or her limits).

2. Don't take the reviews personally. 

Remember this is a business. Nowadays every product out there gets rated. Recently when I was in the process of buying a new comforter for my bed, I scoured the reviews of each potential purchase. I wanted to be alerted to problems or flaws in the product before finalizing my decision. I appreciated the reviews in helping me narrow down the many choices. Reviews are helpful, even the "bad" ones.

3. Remember that reviews are subjective.

Readers view the pages of our books through the lens of their unique backgrounds, personalities, and values. All of that will shape their reading experience. Some readers who are accustomed to reading erotica may find my books boring. Other readers who prefer the sweetness of Little House on the Prairie may be offended by the kisses.

4. Focus on the positive. 

The "dirty" review is the only one-star review I have on that particular book. The majority are 5 stars. And the majority of readers have only positive things to say about the romance relationship. If we're pleasing the majority, we can't cater to or worry about the minority.

5. Never respond to those bad reviews. 

We can commiserate in private with other author friends. We should share our frustrations (or our humor) with our inner circle. But we should never, ever, comment back on reviews or defend ourselves (even if it's legit). When we do so, we only make ourselves look worried or defensive (too much like a hovering parent who always comes to the rescue of a bullied child). We should let our works stand on their own two feet without intruding as the author.

How about you? How do you think authors should handle bad reviews?


34 comments:

  1. You are so right, not everyone enjoys the same book. I am often shocked when I read a bad review on a favourite classic. AS authors we can learn from the bad reviews (If constructive) and enjoy the good reviews, knowing a reader got it!

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  2. I hate when someone gives me a bad review because the book isn't what they thought it was. Someone gave my preteen girls' book The Christian Girl's Guide to Being Your Best one star because they thought it was a Bible study! I don't have that many reviews so it pulls the total score down. All because she didn't read the book description before ordering. If she truly hated the book that would be a different matter. Also, hate when they give it a bad review because shipping was slow. That has nothing to do with the book.

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  4. Great advice! I just dealt with this issue last week. Not only did the reviewer disagree with an article I'd written for a magazine three years ago, they went out of their way to email me and say exactly why they didn't like it, along with calling me names. I'm a recovering people pleaser and if this kind of thing had occurred five years ago, I would have been devastated. I'd have crawled into bed with a gallon of Blue Bell and withdrawn from society, collapsing in on myself like a dying star. lol! Thankfully, God has done so much healing in my heart and mind in the intervening time that, upon reading the criticism, I just laughed. I asked myself if my perspective had changed since writing it. No. Did I feel God leading me to write this article? Yes. Do I want to spend my energy trying to please this anonymous person or my Savior? Savior. So I closed my computer and went to bed with a peaceful heart. Blue Bell was still involved but not because I was in despair. :)

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  5. I'm chuckling here because I would never consider your stories dirty. Like you said, the development of emotion and sensuality between a man and woman is not only true to how God made us, but beautiful. That said, your advice is so good, and as a non-published writer I transfer that advice to contest reviews and critiques. Thick skin and not taking them personally are essential. And when it's a critique, I'm prayerful to find the important points in a particular review to see how I can grow. If a critique comes back way different from other critiques, I can toss it out. But usually, there is always a good point. Something to take away and learn from. I understand this is different than reviews of published fiction because with a critique I'm actually asking for help. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  6. I haven't read any of your books yet, I'm planning to as soon as I can get through the pile I already have, but I just went to read the review just to see for myself. In it she mentions how your book is a lot like the 'Short Straw Bride' and that the 'Short Straw Bride' is dirty. I had to laugh. I loved that book, and if yours is even close to it, I am definitely going to read it.

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  7. You make good points, and I agree with every one of them, mainly because I've learned them the hard way. I go back to what I was told many years ago (but keep forgetting)--it is impossible for me to be universally loved and respected, no matter how I think I deserve it. : ) Thanks for sharing.

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  8. I don't usually read reviews before I choose to read a book. But on the occasion that I read reviews first, I have actually selected books to read based on its less-than-five star reviews. Honestly, when a book gets nothing but five-star reviews, I might sometimes get a little suspicious.

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  9. Jody, I can't believe someone actually said that Love Unexpected was "dirty!" You definitely have the right attitude, and there will always be someone somewhere who will say something totally inappropriate. Best to just ignore it and know in your heart that those 5-star reviews speak for themselves. Love Unexpected was such a beautiful story of love. Whatever you do, don't change your style for anything or anyone. Keep on writing the enchanting, haunting, sensual books that make us feel a part of the story!

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  10. Hello, Jody, and thanks for your wonderful article. While I appreciate what you're saying and I think it probably works in most cases, I'm not sure it works in every situation. I think it depends a great deal on exactly what a reviewer is saying about you and your book. If, through your book, you're being accused of things like racism, discrimination, or being sexually explicit when you're not, etc., you may want to consider openly disputing these. Especially if it affects your sales or your profession. (Think of the Fire Chief in Atlanta who was recently fired from his long-time job as a result of a putting a few mere Bible passages in a book he wrote exclusive of his employment.)

    When reviews cross the line from being just opinionated and irrational and become seriously libelous, then by not saying something about it, you might actually appear as though you are in agreement with the reviewer. I know there’s a legal term for this, but I can’t think of it at the moment. Remember, we're in an age when doctors have sued patients for libelous reviews when it's hurt their practice and reputation.

    Also, if you've hired a PR company and paid them a lot of money to send your book to bloggers for reviews, you'd expect said company to have already screened their bloggers and to have found bloggers geared toward your genre who have a history of credible and rational reviews. For instance, if your book is about new ways to cook beef, you don't want the PR company to send your book to vegetarian bloggers. It's already a recipe for disaster. (No pun intended . . .) And yes, in such a case, I think it's important to say something to the company you've hired, to correct the problem right away. You would be expecting not to see reviews like "dirty, dirty, dirty," in such a situation.

    Even so, I do generally agree that the best thing a person can do is to let it roll off their backs. Reviews such as you're describing usually say more about the reviewer than the book they're reviewing.

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    1. In this case, I think that some of the review companies may want to be careful when sending regular mainstream Christian fiction to an extreme conservative reviewer. It is sort of like me reviewing Amish fiction. I tend to give it a bad review. It might be a great book, but I don't enjoy them. This reviewer has extreme views on what she considers sexual content and swear words and notifying the publishers she reviews for would not be bad.

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  11. With my natural curiosity, I had to read the review. You can certainly say she was thorough.

    I do think it is best that authors not respond to negative reviews and you are right, we must have thick skin. As a reader, I've often purchased books based on those one star reviews.

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  12. When I read that review for the first time, my reaction to it was that it was laughable. I know to the author, that may be hard to do. This reviewer reviews to a very small demographic and if you look at the words she deems swear words, or what she considers sexual content, it is no wonder she thought your book was dirty. I had to stop and wonder if we read the same book. You have some great points about the reviews. This is her opinion of the book. But I also think this one reason it is important for authors to interact with book reviewers and readers. There should be some sort of accountability as believers, especially. Should we publicly slander a book and at the same time it's author by using language like "dirty" to describe a book that only a naive young teen would think meant that? I love to see more interaction between readers and authors, either privately or even on FB etc. not about the reviews, but just about their own reading. It helps the reader to see authors in a light like themselves. In this sweet girl's case, she truly has good intentions!

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  13. Couldn't agree more. Great post.

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  14. I love each of the points that you mentioned, especially #4. When I read a bad review of my book, I have to remind myself that the majority of people who have written reviews are positive. The main reason that I read reviews is so I can adjust my strengths and weaknesses based on the readers' opinions (to an extent, of course).

    I would say that I have thick skin, however there are a couple of reviews that have affected me. When this happens, I only allow myself to read the review once. I will then re-read a positive review (or an email I received).

    We shouldn't try to please everyone. Ultimately, we should write the book we feel lead to write. Then, once it's released, we should allow readers to give their opinions. As you mentioned, this is a business, and we each have the right to share our thoughts on a book based on our taste & worldview.

    Thanks for sharing this, Jody!

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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  15. Also, after reading the review on your book, I'm interested to see what kind of review that person would give on the Bible. That's all I have to say about that. ;)

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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  16. Wow. I've read all of your books, and this surprises me. But you're right...each reader brings their own tastes and experiences to the story. I read GONE GIRL and absolutely loved it. My cousin didn't like it at all. It just goes to show you how subjective it all is.

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  18. Thanks for all of your comments, everyone! I really appreciate all of your feedback and thoughts! It's been very enlightening to hear all of your views!! Love it! :-)

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  19. Great advice! Thanks for sharing.

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  20. Great advice! Thanks for sharing.

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  21. Now I admit to sometimes leaving critical reviews, because I believe in being honest- though I try not to be personal.
    Once one person wrote a comment thanking me for mentioning that there was a fairly graphic rape scene in one Christian Book (which even I had to skip over), as no other reviewer had mentioned this, as she would have found it personally distressing. In that regard, I am glad I could be of help.
    I must say myself as a reader I like so see both sides, to make a more informed choice.

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  22. ..on the subject of 'gruesome torture methods' mentioned by Mrs Hedlund in her new Medieval book. I think that torture was actually less prevalent in the Medieval period then is commonly believed and then Hollywood make out.

    In Medieval England, torture was considered to be against 'common law', and was not considered acceptable except in cases of treason- and even then was frowned upon.
    Also, things like trial by Ordeal were not really in use at the time of the plague, as they were banned by the church in 1215.

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  23. Hi Jody,

    In light of this current post about bad reviews, I thought you might like to read mine. I just read your novel "Captured by Love" last night - first book of yours I've ever read but certainly not the last. Excellent writing!

    http://cozywritersden.blogspot.ca/2015/01/captured-by-love-by-jody-hedlund.html

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    1. Thank you SO much, Amanda!! I appreciate the very sweet words!

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  24. There are negative and positive points to every book, but the reviews themselves should be handled with a certain etiquette. I currently take requests for reviews, and belong to a site that provides reviews.

    http://www.bookrooster.com/for-authors/?ap_id=cmh627

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  25. I am as surprised as you that someone would classify your book as 'dirty'! If that reviewer left a photo, perhaps she was wearing a burka? True--we all have different standards when it comes to sensuality and where we draw the line, but I've passed your books along to teens. It is refreshing to read a romance without blushing!

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  26. Jody,

    I agree with all your points and I've always followed them with my books except in one case, when a reviewer made a personal attack that crossed the line into accusing me of immoral and illegal activities. I commented back twice objecting to what they'd said and gave them the opportunity to delete the review. After no response I contacted Amazon and asked them to look at the review. They agreed with my assessment and deleted it immediately. I understand not everyone will like my books. Give me a one-star if you want, but don't get nuts.

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  27. I feel sometimes like I'm in a bit of a quandary as I sometimes give book reviews in exchange for getting a free copy of the book (I do always note this in the review). If I don't care for the book, well...it sure makes it tough. I try to be honest and write what I did/did not enjoy about the story to just give the review reader the chance to decide for themselves. But as a writer, I know the importance of those reviews. I tend to just hobble through, but if any of you have advice on how to handle this, I'm all ears!

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  28. I know you have a lot of comments on this post already, and maybe you won't even see mine, but I wanted to say that I read one of your books recently, as well as your enovella. I will say that I was surprised at the amount of intimacy you were able to include in the book I read, as it is Christian fiction and thought there would be stricter rules about that. However, the intimacy in your book was all between a man and wife -- his new bride, and that is where intimacy belongs -- in the marriage, and when it is there, it can only be beautiful, as God designed.
    I am a fan after that book and your enovella and plan to read many more of your books in the future.

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  29. Hi Kelly,

    Yes, my books do contain a level of intimacy, although always closed bedroom. My books definitely aren't for everyone. There are Christian books that are more chaste and sweet than mine that may appeal to more conservative readers. But I think it's nice that we can have books, even in the inspirational market, that appeal to different audiences! :-)

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  30. Yes, we mustn't respond publicly to adverse criticism. I learned this also from personal experience. The worst review was from a granddaughter (who posted as anonymous); to rephrase a cliché, it blew me out of the sky. But that's the risk of a memoir. A risk in any genre, really. There will always be someone (or more than one) who doesn't like a book. A writer just keeps writing, as you do. Cheers!

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  31. It's funny how different readers can see your books in completely opposite lights. I recently received comments (not reviews) from two readers on Ruby Between the Cracks. Both were pursuing careers working with troubled youth.

    One suggested that it was unrealistic that so many of the adults around Ruby would have her on their radar and be concerned about her, and perhaps there should be at least a few irresponsible adults in the story. The other bemoaned the fact that Ruby was surrounded by so many unethical and blatantly criminal professionals who took advantage of her, and there should be more good guys who tried to help her.

    Same story, readers with apparently similar backgrounds, completely opposite viewpoints!

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