The Silver Lining of Bad Reviews

by Jami Gold on May 2, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Clouds with a glint of sunlight and text: Are Bad Reviews *Always* Bad News?

I’m still struggling through recovery after my latest (and maybe last? *fingers crossed*) surgery last week. (It doesn’t help that due to my recent C.diff. infection, I can’t even take ibuprofen for the pain or swelling and am stuck with only ice packs. Ow.)

So I’m rerunning (and adding an addendum to) a post from a few years ago about how bad reviews can be good news. Now that I’m published, I know even more just how true this post is… *smile*

Rejection in some form or other is part of life. From the Christmas present Santa didn’t bring us (despite our begging) to the cute guy/girl who wasn’t interested in us, rejection happens and it’s no fun. Add those emotions to a project that we invest a lot of ourselves in and spend a lot of time on—writing—and we’re bound to be upset.

Whether we pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing, rejection is a given for writers. That certainty is especially evident when we consider that rejection includes the usual rejections from agents or editors who don’t love our work, the potential buyers who decide against clicking the buy button, and the negative reviews that will accumulate.

Since rejection is a given, we can’t avoid it. Our choice simply comes down to how we’ll handle it. Will we let rejection hold us back, or can we see it as a sign that we’re doing something right?

Rejection Isn’t Personal, Really

Deep down, we know reading is subjective. We know that with every trendy book “everyone” loves but we don’t care for. We know that with every book on our shelves we haven’t yet made an effort to read. We know that with every free book we don’t download because we know it wouldn’t be worth our time.

Despite knowing all of that “reading is subjective” stuff, we still see authors take bad reviews personally. If that attitude results in public complaining, the situation usually turns ugly.

Business 101: We Can’t Appeal to Everyone

Business 101 states that it’s easier to start a company by appealing to a small group of people—a niche—and growing bigger over time. I’ve seen countless advice tidbits along these lines: “Don’t try to appeal to everyone. Concentrate on a niche target audience first.”

This advice recognizes how it’s easier to keep a small, focused group happy. If we and our readers are all focused on the same thing, such as our love for such-and-such story trope or sub-subgenre, we don’t have to worry about appealing to those who don’t love that aspect. We won’t be tempted to split our focus on other story elements.

Many start-up businesses fail because they try to grow too big, too fast. Their limited time, money, and attention is too divided to do any aspect very well.

In the writing world, this might mean that we focus on one series or genre at a time until each one is rolling and successful enough to require less of our energy to keep the momentum going. Once we have a solid base, then we can look to expand into other markets, other niches, other series or genres.

The Problem with Expanding Beyond Our Niche

Yet the rejection problem accelerates when we appeal to those outside our initial niche. Wait, appealing to others is the cause of rejection?

Yep, if we’re appealing to only those in our initial niche market, our readers are more likely to have similar expectations, and thus be satisfied with our stories. Hello, positive reviews! However, that means we’re also limited in our potential readership.

On the other hand, if we’re appealing to those outside our initial niche market, our readers are more likely to have varying expectations, and thus have wildly different levels of satisfaction. Some might be very dissatisfied—and we need to brace ourselves for negative reviews.

We see this in the business world too. A USA Today article by Bruce Horovitz quotes Forrest Morgeson, director of research at the American Customer Satisfaction Index, on why McDonald’s ranks lowest in customer satisfaction among fast-food chains:

“”With size comes a much more diverse group of customers,” says Morgeson. “As your customers get more diverse, it gets more difficult to satisfy them all.””

Notice the message there? McDonald’s is the biggest fast-food chain, so it’s a given that their customer base is harder to keep happy.

The Bigger We Are, the More Will Be Unhappy

There’s a reason experienced, multi-published authors say that receiving bad reviews is a rite of passage. On Twitter, Yasmine Galenorn shared this truth about bad reviews:

“If you can’t handle bad reviews when you’re starting out, wait till you have a lot of books on the shelves. IT GETS WORSE. #dealwithit”

Laura Anne Gilman added her take:

“The moment your books go beyond a dedicated readership, you’ll get negative reactions, too. All part of the gig.”

Bad reviews are often a sign that your readership is expanding beyond your dedicated fans. This is usually a good thing. Yes, some of those outside our target niche won’t like our work, but some will like it.

Growth Brings Pains and Opportunities

That’s the silver lining. Yes, we will face rejection and bad reviews, but many times those hits to our ego come with an expanded readership and opportunities. Some of those new readers will become just as dedicated as our original base.

2017 Addendum:

I’ve mentioned before that it can be risky to offer freebie books, as they often receive lower reviews. One reason many authors choose to give a book away is to broaden their readership and introduce their work to others. However, as noted here, that broader readership is more likely to dislike our book as well.

Now that I’m published and offering one book for free, I know just how true this point is. Free leads to more readers, which also leads to gaining the attention of those further from our core target market, which then often leads to more bad reviews. There are pros and cons to every choice. *smile*

If we’re not getting any bad reviews, that’s probably a sign we’re not reaching beyond our base yet. Maybe for some of us, that’s exactly what we want. Some authors are happy with a small-but-dedicated readership. I know some very niche authors who have zero interest in finding new readers. That’s not a bad attitude to have if it matches our goals.

But others do want to expand and grow. In that case, we have to be prepared for an increase in bad reviews. That doesn’t mean our story is “bad” and everyone else was just lying or coddling us before. Those new bad reviews simply mean that not everyone caught up in our expansion plans will be a good match for our writing.

That’s normal and part of the growing pains that come with growth of any kind. Writers aren’t immune.

If we’re trying to grow and expand, we should consider bad reviews a “badge of honor.” Be proud of those bad reviews. They’re evidence that we’re not letting fear of rejection hold us back, that we’re not being timid, and that we’re successfully reaching beyond our base to find new readers—some of whom will love us. *smile*

Do you struggle with feelings of rejection? Are some kinds of rejection harder to take than others? Have you seen bad reviews from those outside the initial target market? Do you agree that rejection is often a result of growth beyond the familiar and comfortable? Does that idea help rejection seem like less of a “bad” thing?

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2 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Kathy Steinemann May 2, 2017 at 10:31 am

Thanks, Jami.

We should all realize that the most famous authors receive a few bad reviews. If we learn from legitimate bad reviews, we improve and grow.

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Clare O'Beara May 3, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Hope you are much better soon, Jami!

We need to face the possibility of poor or lacklustre reviews, but don’t take it personally. Just tell your friends about the good ones. After all, books which give excerpts of reviews on the early pages, never quote from the confused-sounding reader who wasn’t sure if their Kindle loaded it properly.
Another way to look at it is that the writer is an artist. She does not follow her book around the world, explaining her art. Each reader will interpret the art in an individual way.

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