Writers love praise and hate criticism (doesn’t everyone?!), but can a bad review end a writing career?
What’s a Good Book Review?
• Clear, concise writing about the book being reviewed.
• Mentions the book’s strengths (and weaknesses if there are any).
• Lets the review venture an opinion (whether positive or negative).
What’s a Bad Book Review?
• Waffles at length about the writer/writer’s career/other books by the writer, anything but the book being reviewed.
• Fails to give the review readers a clear idea of whether or not they would buy the book under review.
• Personally attacks the writer and/or publisher, continues a personal vendetta or is a flame masquerading as a review.
I both write and review. As I reviewer I know what it’s like to receive a book you know has been worked on and accepted by an editor (I’m ignoring self-published books here). It’s actually OK for a reviewer not to like a book. It is possible to admire someone’s writing but not personally like it. I stick to a formula and try to be fair: mention what the book is about or give an impression of the style of the book, mention the book’s strengths, mention where the book’s not so strong and give an opinion. Overall the aim is to let review readers know whether they want to read the book being reviewed or not.
As a writer I know what it’s like to finally hold a book with your name on the spine, anticipating reviews. It takes courage to put something you’ve worked on, sweated over, checked, edited, re-written, edited again out there in the public arena, whether that’s at a reading or via publication.
But can a bad review wreck a writing career?
Tess Gerritsen at murderati thinks so. She cites the example of a debut author getting slated by an influential publication and cites a further example of Stephen King receiving an review from the same publication that almost made him stop writing entirely.
A bad review can be disheartening, can make writer stop and think whether writing actually was for them. But neither Tess Gerritsen or Stephen King gave up writing. True they paused, and used that pause to access whether writing was actually worth it. But they didn’t stop.
How to respond to a bad review?
Who wrote it?
Was the review writer a member of your target audience? If not, their negative opinion reaffirms that they are not your target audience so they don’t ‘get’ your book. Does the reviewer have a reputation for being constantly negative or deliberately controversial? In which case the problem lies with the reviewer, not the book. Some critics really do believe their job is to criticise and never praise.
Was it a one-off?
If one member of your target audience doesn’t like your book: that’s OK. That’s part of what makes us all individuals. If more members of your target audience don’t like your book: that’s a problem. Time to re-think your marketing strategy and find another target or marketing niche. One bad review won’t make any difference.
Where was it published?
If the bad review was in an influential trade journal, it’s annoying, but has it actually had an impact on book trade orders and/or sales? Does the publication have a reputation for a negative approach to reviews or particularly dislike the genre or style of the type of book you’ve written?
Is it accurate?
If the reviewer has completely missed the point: the reviewer’s at fault. If the reviewer doesn’t like the genre you write in, remember they have the right not to like your book.
If the review is full of typos, suggests you’re writing a historical novel when it’s set in the future or has misquoted where there are quotes, consider writing to the editor pointing out the factual errors. But do not criticise the reviewer’s opinion.
Encourage friends and trusted readers to post reviews on sites that take book reviews. Find some blogging readers who could review advance copies of your book. Study magazines and find out which editors and reviewers positively review books like yours, ensure they get review copies. By getting the positive reviews out first, you dampen the effects of any negative ones.
If a review does trigger a bout of writer’s block, take time out to consider where you want to go with your writing. It’s not easy to take a step back and consider a review objectively. But if that review is not accurate or is clearly not a review at all (because it’s a flame/vendetta/so badly written it should never have been published), it’s not worth paying it any attention. Ask people you trust to read the review and get their opinions.
A bad review cannot wreck a writing career. It can make you pause for thought, but if you were really made to be a writer, it won’t be long before the next idea/plot strand/theme/issue prods and demands to be written.