Bad Review? Hmm, Is there Anything Good to Say About Them?

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Helen Hollick

Funnily, enough, yes there is! I look at reviewing novels with two different hats (and I do actually wear hats!) as Managing Editor of the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and as an author myself. As Managing Editor I have one main goal, and that is to improve the standard of indie-published novels. Indie (that includes all forms of self-publishing, whether using a company to help you produce your book, or completely Do-It-Yourself) has received a bad press over the years, with the assumption that if it isn’t good enough for traditional mainstream publishing, then it must be rubbish. Fortunately this out-of-date, somewhat bigoted view is rapidly receding because it has been proven to be wrong. Indie can, and often does, mean “darn good read”.

11063480 758554730928546 1660395094942344108 n 1I have a splendid US and UK-based review team and, as with Indie B.R.A.G., our criteria is to review novels that we would recommend people to buy. To this end, we will not review a self-published book that is incorrectly formatted: you’d be surprised how many books we receive that have such tiny font you need a magnifying glass, or the text is left-justified (i.e. ragged margin on the right… margins should be straight on both sides in a published book.) Many are full of errors that should have been picked up at proof-read stage to the extent that it seems obvious the book has not had a proof-read, probably not a copy-edit either – and definitely not a full technical edit. Sorry to say this, but a family member who is/was a teacher is not a professional editor. In fact I reject more books from academics and teachers than I do from writers with no qualifications whatsoever. You might know your grammar and syntax, but can you tell a good story?

A badly produced book will garner a bad review, however, one thing we do try to do at H.N.S. is be fair and honest. If the story is good but it needs another polish we say so. If we think an editor would have helped the author bring that bit of realistic sparkle to a character we say so. There is nothing wrong with fair, honest and constructive criticism, although yes, it is disappointing to read the not quite so good review, the one you were not expecting because, let’s face it, you were hoping for a glowing five star one. (Incidentally a four star review is often paid more attention to by readers than the five star ones.)

I have received rude responses which range from, “You don’t know what you are talking about,” to, “I’m an academic history professor. How dare you say my book reads like a lecture!” I even had a threatening email from the person who responded with that one.

What baffles me, do these aggressive people truly believe that by being rude I will re-review the book with five stars? On the contrary; the email gets deleted, the sender blocked, and the book goes into the trash bin.

So how to respond to the less-than-enthusiastic review?

Simple answer. Don’t. If you must respond (really? Why?) Then do so once, and do so politely.

Go away, have a coffee or something, calm down, then read it again. You might just find it is not as bad as you first thought. I have thirty-seven reviews for my nautical adventure, Sea Witch on* from twenty-nine 5 stars, down to one two star.

**[The Errors are as published]

My hopes for this book were up after reading the reviews here, but I must confess I was very disappointed. First of all, the plot is confusing. There is no clear line through the book. Second of all, the story is not deep. The characters are not well described, so their feelings and reactions do not seem natural to them. Oh, I did understand the love between the two main characters, but only because it was stated black on white, several times – it is simply not possible for me to feel this love the two characters apparently share. For me, a book is not good if I don’t at least can feel sympathy for the main characters, and understand their line of action, and I certainly cannot with this book. Last, there’s an enormous mount of text used to describe certain more or less uncomfortable events. An amount not balanced to the amount of text used to describe the characters. It seems unnecessary and wrong for the plot.

So, to me this book is not an example of good writing, not even a good story. Furthermore, there were several errors in this version of the book, which is very disturbing. The only reason why I give this book two stars instead of one is that I actually came through it.”

It is a disappointing review, I want everyone to like my character/s and to enjoy the sailor’s yarn adventure, but not everyone likes the same things, so fair enough. What is galling about this particular review, however, is that the reader then goes on to say: “I’m sorry for mistypes and grammatical errors in this review – English is not my main language.”

Maybe, just maybe, he/she did not enjoy the book because English is not his/her language? Which is not my fault, so why leave such a comment in the first place?

Compare a random picked 5 star:

I have just finished the enthralling novel, ‘Sea Witch’. I can still taste the salt, feel the rain and sea spray on my face, smell the wind and hear the waves crashing on the barnacled hull. This is a fictional swashbuckling adventure of the first order with the perfect mix of history and fantasy. Her literary style takes you back to a time and place of pirates, rogues and legend. Her descriptive passages engage every sense. The story and characters are vibrant and alive. We are taken on a rip roaring ride of excitement, love, lust and revenge. If you love The Pirates of the Caribbean, you will love this book, which I wholeheartedly recommend.”

(* has some slightly different reviews – two 1 stars which relate to a badly produced edition – not my fault, blame the publisher! I do think, however, to give a 1 star comment just because a comma is out of place is pushing it a bit!)

You are entitled to respond if there is an obvious error, the title spelt wrong, or author name, for instance. Or, as occasionally happens at HNS if a plot spoiler has been given away inadvertently. It can happen and that is annoying. If you contact the reviewer and ask for it to be removed, do be polite and sensible though. It is not a plot spoiler for the reviewer to say “X meets Y and they fall in love.” That is the plot, it is not a spoiler. “X turns out to be the murderer.” however, is a spoiler.

So what is the positive side of the poor review?

  • Maybe the reviewer has pointed out some errors you missed – simple solution, say a gracious thank you and get them fixed.
  • Maybe the review is clearly baffling: “I purchased this book and it didn’t arrive” 1 star.” Hardly the author’s fault, so why put such a comment? Complain to Amazon, or wherever.
  • Maybe the review is leaning towards the slightly spiteful? Unfortunately there are more than a few trolls out there who delight in being unpleasant. Do not answer these people – they are deliberately trying to goad you.

Readers are not stupid you know. They will see these obvious troublemakers and ignore such nonsense; in fact, might even buy the book because their curiosity has been aroused.

My favourite type of bad review are the utter inane.

  • “I read this book and it is all about battles. I don’t like violence.” Well yes, but the subtitle is The story of the Battle of Hastings.
  • “I don’t like pirates much.” So why read a novel called Pirate Code?
  • This is all about sex. I don’t like sex.” Probably not a good idea to buy a book with a semi-naked hunky man on the cover kissing a bosom-busty woman wearing black lace and little else.

The above are made up, but this last review is for real (although I have paraphrased.)

C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. You all know the story – put simply: four children discover a fantasy world which is bewitched into being eternal winter. One of the children (Edmund) is jealous of his sister. He meets the witch and is lured under her spell. How? Because she treats him to a whole boxful of Turkish Delight.

The review – and you just have to laugh – is: “This book is nothing but a marketing ploy by the author. All he is trying to do is sell Turkish Delight – does he have shares in a candy company or something?”

Moral of the story?

Calm down, shake your head, walk away and laugh at those silly people who just don’t get it!


An Amazon Near You (nice reviews to be left only please! 🙂

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The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of indieBRAG, LLC, its associates, or its employees.

3 responses to “Bad Review? Hmm, Is there Anything Good to Say About Them?”

  1. Valerie Biel says:

    Great advice! Walk away from that keyboard when you read a bad review. Nothing good will come of challenging the reviewer–even if you are sure that they’re wrong. My very worst review that I received definitely stung, but wrapped up in what I felt were rather unkind words there were some valid points. (Although it took me a couple of days to admit that.)

  2. Gloria Zachgo says:

    I love reviews, and learn from most of them. However, I had one review that was extremely bad. I assumed from what was written that they didn’t read far into the book. I try to thank a reviewer for their time and then walk away. I wouldn’t want to argue – what a waste of time. Besides, some people love turnips – others – not so much!

  3. Tahlia says:

    As coordinator of the Awesome Indies, another group of reviewers with the same aim as your group, I know exactly what you mean. i have jad the same experiences, right down to he 2 star review of my short story (subtitled A Short Story) which said. “I don’t like short stories.”

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