How to Turn Negative Feedback into a Positive Experience
Bad reviews hurt. There’s no way around it. But bad reviews don’t only happen to published authors— and they happen in places besides Amazon. There are other websites, word of mouth, and even feedback online or from family and friends who read our books.
Anything that makes it seem like our readers are “less than enthusiastic” about our work can be something that prevents us from moving forward with our goals. And we never want the opinion of others to stop us from doing what we love.
Here are some things to remember when you see a review you don’t like:
A bad review doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your story.
I have an analogy for you.
I don’t like peanut butter. When this comes up, it seems to bother people.
A lot of times people try to talk me out of it.
“Ok, but what about peanut butter cookies?”
“What if you take peanut butter and dip it in chocolate?”
“What about in granola bars? You can’t even taste it!”
Here’s the thing. I don’t like peanut butter ever. Never have, never will. Not even in cookies. If someone brought me a plate of peanut butter cookies, I wouldn’t eat them. If I had to give them a rating… it would be low. Like, one star.
Nobody has ever taken it personally when I refuse a peanut butter treat they made. They recognize that the problem is with me, not with the cookies. There’s no self-loathing, no embarrassment, no sleepless night pondering about what they could have done differently to make me like the cookies.
I don’t like peanut butter. That’s weird. And it’s my problem. Not the chef’s.
This is the same attitude we can apply to our books. Some people won’t like some aspects of your book, but it doesn’t mean that any of those elements are bad or wrong. It doesn’t mean that you as an author are “bad.” It means the reader doesn’t like those elements. And no amount of rewriting or editing could have changed that. Your story contains peanut butter, and I don’t like peanut butter.
When we look at those one star reviews, we tend to look back at our recipes– I should have added more sugar, maybe I should have used real butter, or maybe I should have put a chocolate Kiss in the center!
In the author world, we may say: I shouldn’t have included a love triangle, my characters shouldn’t have been superheroes, or I should have made this fiction instead of a memoir.
Maybe you did everything right– maybe your reader just doesn’t like peanut butter. In these instances, it’s important to monitor our thoughts and mindset. Our internal responses to those one-star reviews can be: you don’t like peanut butter? That’s too bad! These cookies are SO good!”
A one-star review may mean that there IS something wrong with our story
Writing is a skill we develop over time. Most authors’ stories improve as they continue to write.
I was just diving into some books by an author I hadn’t read before, and I asked my friend where I should start. She said, “Probably with this book —,” she said, as she showed me the title, “but keep in mind that it’s his first one.”
I haven’t read the book yet– because my to-be-read list is really long, but I get the impression that the author’s stories have improved over time. It seems like his first book isn’t nearly as strong as his future ones. That improvement, like ours, comes as a result of experience, feedback, and reviews! While we’d all probably like to hear about our typos before the book is published and getting reviews, seeing a reviewer mention them might be the incentive we need to make different arrangements with an editor. It’s an opportunity, if you’re self-published, to go fix it.
Seeing multiple complaints about a whiny character or a plot decision that seems too far-fetched can help us hone our craft and make our stories more authentic for our readers. For the next book, we may do things in a different way, in a better way. Receiving bad reviews is an opportunity to learn and grow, not a reason to give up and hide. Our internal response to these reviews can be, “Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll take that into consideration in my next story.”
An average review is not a bad review
We’re going to talk about math for a minute. Statistically speaking, there will always be an average. But as your number increase in value, the number that becomes the average will increase.
Let’s pretend I’m an English teacher and I’m going to grade 100 essays, and I’m going to grade them on a bell curve with the American public school grades, meaning A B C D or F. Pretend that most of the students receive a grade of 70%. Grading on a bell curve means most students will receive a C grade. Anything above that is spectacular, anything below it was less than.
Let’s pretend that this “average” grade is three stars for our book.
Now let’s say that in my English class, my students rewrite their essays and their scores all improve dramatically. Let’s pretend that the average grade is now 90%. Most of my students wrote an essay that was near perfect. The problem is that our average just got a heck of a lot higher. It’s more difficult to reach that level, to write an essay and have it scored at 90 out of 100, but since that’s what most students are doing, that becomes our average. That becomes our C grade. That becomes three stars.
This same math happens in reviews. Some readers review books on a scale of, “Is this as good as I was expecting, or was it better or worse?” And if it’s exactly what they expected in relation to all the other books they’ve read, it’s three stars. But there are a lot of good books in the world. Exceeding the average of all of those good books is hard. Writing right in line with all those talented authors is a huge accomplishment. But mathematically, it’s three stars. It’s average. Most successful writers are just like that.
Three stars is not a ‘bad’ review. We live in an age where we’re expected to be above average, but when the majority of people are above average– above average is just average. It’s a moving target that we’ll never reach.
I see this so often online where authors will post a screenshot of a 3-star review that talks about all the great things in their novel, and the author asks “But why three stars?” Math. That’s why. You wrote a good book. It was average in a very elite group. The average pace for the Olympians running a 100-meter dash is still really really good pace. But only a small percentage of participants are taking home medals– the coveted 5-star review. Because even though all the Olympians are super fast, you have to be above that incredible speed in order to win.
Now, not all readers leave reviews like this. Some will give stars on a book they enjoyed, a book they’d read again, or a book with a compelling character and a cohesive plot. You’ll get some fantastic five-star reviews from those people. But there are some who are reviewing on a bell curve, and falling right in the middle of that bell is a great place to be! Your internal response to the three-star review is, “Hey! I’m right on par with all of my favorite authors.”
Bad reviews make your good review look good
Ok, pretend you’re comparing two items on Amazon. One has ten ratings that are all four and five stars and the other has a thousand, with mostly four and five stars, but it includes 3, 2, and 1-star reviews. Which product are you buying? Most of us are hesitant to spend money on a product with few reviews. It means, typically, that few people have purchased it. And that leaves us wondering why. Is there something wrong with it? Did everyone else see the fine print that I can’t find? Is there a red flag somewhere? Why aren’t people buying this product?
Anyone can publish a novel online, and their friends and family will leave gushing four and five-star reviews. When I see a novel with lower star ratings included, I recognize that, as a novel, it probably has a much larger audience. When you begin receiving 1 and 2-star reviews, it means your book is seen, picked up, purchased, and read by a lot of people. You’re attracting people who aren’t related to you. You’re attracting people who aren’t your target audience. You’re attracting people who haven’t read your work before and don’t know what to expect from you.
It means your marketing efforts are working. It means people are talking about your book at their work and their school. It means people are giving your book as a gift, picking it up in the store because of the cover, they’re clicking on the ad on Amazon. They follow you online, think you’re great, and are curious enough to spend money on your product. Occasionally, they won’t like it. If the bad reviews all say the same thing, it may be an issue you can address as you improve your storytelling skills, but a lot of times it just means that you have stepped into another level of visibility. And that means incredible things for your story’s potential.
I addressed this a little bit in the beginning, but as a reminder, this applies to actual reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, but it also applies to feedback. You may choose to post an excerpt on a Facebook writing group, and you may get
‘bad reviews’. You may tell your co-workers about the story you’re planning, and you may get some ‘bad reviews’. All the same tips apply.
When you receive these ‘bad reviews’ in whatever form they come, I challenge you to ask these questions:
– Is this a bad review or is it just less enthusiastic than I would have liked?
– Is this review coming from my intended audience? Or, in other words, does this reader like peanut butter? If not, disregard their review.
– Is there an element in my story that is getting mentioned repeatedly, and is there a way I can resolve it either now or in my future stories?
Not everyone will love your book, no matter how close to perfect it is, but don’t let their lack of love stop you from loving your book. And definitely don’t let it stop you from writing more tomorrow.
If you’re receiving bad reviews and you’re just not quite sure what’s wrong or how to fix it, book a chapter edit! I’d love to read through your work to help you find the areas you can improve so that you can reach your writing goals.
Click here to book your spot.