It’s natural to react when you’re criticized. When you first see a one- or two-star review, you may feel a sinking or burning sensation in your center. You may be hurt and discouraged and blame yourself Oh no—this reviewer thought my book was (dull, unbelievable, too descriptive, depressing, etc.) It must be that bad.” Or you might be hurt and angry and blame the reviewer. How could that person hate my book? It’s had nothing but good reviews until now. They have to be either an idiot or a troll.”
The safest response is to step back and make a space for reflection. Get in touch with your core self, the wise part of you that realizes you’re still valuable and whole. I know of an author who panicked over a two-star and recruited friends to write reviews. She got caught. The unreflective reaction backfired. I’ve read blog posts by authors who have argued with reviewers and giving in to this gut reaction also backfired. One even went so far as to stalk a troll who was attacking her. Needless to say, this only increased the author’s suffering.
I’ve been an actor and a choreographer, and am currently a professor and a yoga teacher as well as a writer. People have been evaluating me for my entire adult life, from reviews to student evaluations. The purpose of some of these evaluations is to help me improve and others are there to help people make decisions about engaging with my work. I’ve developed a kind of resilience to the tactless things people can say (college students are worse than reviewers, trust me) as well as gratitude for the positive responses, and a filter to sort out the legitimate from the petty. I still have an initial response to negative feedback, of course, but it doesn’t last long. In my professor role, I teach stress management, and one of the most useful skills is choosing the right kind of coping.
Emotion-focused coping helps you to calm down and process your feelings. Vent privately off-line to family and friends—the wise ones who won’t stoke your fear or hurt but will help you put it in perspective. Take time to relax with something unrelated to writing or marketing. After that, it will be easier to do problem-focused coping, and to decide if the negative review calls for approach coping or avoidance coping. While it’s useful to approach problems, it’s best to avoid hostile people, and to avoid engaging with reviewers or random raters in general.
Talk with your critique partners, if a review seriously troubles you. They can help you sort things out. Perhaps there’s not much basis for what a reviewer says. Sometimes, though, a review points something you could work on. It might be your marketing, targeting it more effectively to the right reader. It might be pace or dialogue. Approach the reviews that give you something useful to work on and avoid worrying about the ones that say nothing of value.
If a comment in a low-rated review is factual and well-written, it’s useful. It may filter out readers who have similar tastes and help make the right book-and-reader match. I have a two-star from a reader who wanted either a more conventional mystery or a more powerful paranormal element. The way I blended the genres didn’t suit her. She doesn’t say I wrote badly, just that the book wasn’t right for her. I got my first one-star review recently—something that’s bound to happen to every author eventually. It’s short and opinionated, without support or explanation. I don’t need to do anything with it. There’s no constructive feedback—nor is the reader-reviewer obligated to provide any. The same book has an equally short five-star that is no more helpful to a shopper who is trying to decide whether to read it or not. Potential readers tend to study the balanced, thoughtful three-star and four-star reviews more than the extremes in either direction or the one-liners. With the amount of review fraud that’s been exposed lately (and long suspected), book shoppers question the legitimacy of the reviews when authors have only good ones.
Pick a book you love by a Pulitzer-prize-winning best-selling author, a book you would give a five-star review. Read the one-star and two-star reviews. No one can please everyone. In my book club, the verdict on books we read is seldom unanimous, and the discussion gets much more interesting when it isn’t. If you have a variety of reviews, book shoppers will encounter something like that conversation, and it’s going to provoke more thought and curiosity than a bland landscape of praise.
Amber Foxx is the author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series. Books two and three in the series, Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face, received B.R.A.G. Medallions. She reviews books and blogs about everything from mindfulness and meditation to psychic phenomena to life in New Mexico—whatever appeals to her wide-ranging mind—at Amber Foxx’s website. She blogs about writing on the group blog, Ladies of Mystery. Her books are available through all online retailers.