July 3, 2014

The Silver Lining of Bad Reviews

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

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.

(Just the other week, I received an email from Klout, offering to send me a free advance copy of an upcoming release. (The fact that sentence—along with their assumption that I have “clout”—exists in my life is crazy, but whatever.) I turned it down because I knew the book would be a “hate read” for me due to the premise, and I don’t have energy for that.)

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.

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? 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? (And don’t forget my 4th Blogiversary Contest!)

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Comments — What do you think?

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Despite being active online (in fanfic and original fiction writing) for more than 12 years, I have yet to encounter a critic who’s as harsh as my family.

That said… Someone finding a story so worthless they want their 5 minutes back makes me cringe and wish I could give it to them, but my response isn’t exactly “This story must be terrible!” It’s more, “What did I do wrong, that someone so outside the target audience picked it up?”

Nah, I wail “This story is HORRIBLE!” over the ones I haven’t told anyone else about or that nobody else has seen yet. (Which is one of the many reasons I use Wattpad: Scenes I’m biting my nails about? Readers are loving. And, especially if I say, “I’m not sure how this turned out. What do you think?”, I get answers shortly after posting. :))

I’m actually pretty comfortable with my writing overall. I mainly get “Gah!” moments now and again, barring a panic attack. (Note that panic attacks aren’t normal for me—or at least they aren’t natural. Some of my triggers have already gone away, though I think I’ll always have a preference for sitting with my back to a corner.)

Now, if only I could figure out how to target specifically the audience(s) who’ll enjoy/appreciate/like what I write. 😀

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey I really like this new perspective of yours. 😀 I didn’t explicitly think of that business tip of focusing on a niche, but that makes sense. Interestingly, I’m aware that some of my readers like my style of work more than others, yet I never try to only show my work to them—instead, I just let whoever’s interested in reading read! For instance, I’m very aware of some friends who are particularly fond of romance (me too! ^^), so they tend to be very positive about my work because nowadays my stories are very romance focused. However, I have some other friends who are either bored with romance or are CYNICAL about the possibility of true love, so I tend to get more negative reviews from them, lol. E.g. Because they think it’s unrealistic for a boy to be so devoted to his wife. Very cynical, eh? 🙁 If I were a man, I can totally envision myself as being really devoted to my wife too, though at the same time not neglecting the other parts of my life. Or maybe I’m just very romantic-minded. XD Hmm, cool that negative reviews means that we’ve probably reached outside of our niche, and that it’s a badge of honor, a sign that we’ve expanded our readership and taken risks to grow as writers! I also think negative reviews are good (as long as they are SPECIFIC in what they’re negative about), because they make you more aware of what different readers…  — Read More »

Sharon Hughson

You’re absolutely correct. Like most other things in life (almost said everything but I’m trying to avoid blanket generalizations because they drive me insane when others make them) it’s all about perspective.
I hadn’t considered the perspective you present here. Mostly because I’m searching for an agent right now and that’s the type of rejection I’m bracing myself to encounter. And lots of it before I find the right fit for my novel.
I love your positive outlook on such a negative topic. This is the sort of worldview I wish more people adopted. Accentuate the positive, I say. Thank you for doing that today. (Looks like I need to share this post to up the comment amount so I have more chances to win my Jami prize).

Anne R. Allen

Honest negative reviews can be incredibly helpful–to the reader and the author. If you write hot romance and somebody says “this book has too much sex” that’s great for sales. Sometimes I get a one-star that sparks a big sales spike. Usually the ones that say “It’s almost as if the author was trying to be funny”. A lot of people seem to have trouble reading the word “comedy” on the cover blurb, so reviews like that help spur comedy lovers to buy the book.

And it’s so true that the more people who read you, the more people you’ll reach who just don’t like your genre. So it’s a symptom of success.

And then there are trolls. Lots of them lurking at Amazon. Some people spend their whole days leaving nasty reviews on Amazon under hundreds of “sock puppet” names. Their reviews usually say nothing specific–because of course they haven’t actually read the book. (Often they buy the book and immediately return it so they can get an “Amazon verified purchase” on their review.)

These are really annoying, but the truth is having a lot of reviews, even bad ones, can help sales, so we live with them.


I got a ‘meh’ review for a short story I published as an e-book. After the initial gnashing of teeth, when I actually READ the reader’s comments I realized they were really helpful: my marketing copy set up an expectation that the story didn’t meet (It wasn’t steamy, but the summary made it sound like it might be).

I dusted myself off and realized the reader had done me an immense favor by posting her comment. And then I rewrote the marketing copy!

Autumn Macarthur

Such good points, both from you Jami and all the commenters!

I do agree with Anne’s comment about negative reviews. I find they often tell readers more of what the story is about than the actual blurb does!

Usually this is when authors, as you said, try to keep their blurb as vague and open ended as possible wanting to appeal to a wide range of readers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that 🙂

And it’s exacerbated when the author does a big promo push and offers the book for free. So many readers will download outside their usual preferred story type when it’s free. Which is great, it’s opening us to new readers, and it’s risky, because some of them won’t like what we offer one bit!

In my genre (inspirational Christian romance), I so often see 1 and 2* reviews complaining there was no sex in the story, and too much religion. Look at the blurb and yep, there’s nothing at all to tell readers it’s a sweet Christian romance.

My take away is to make sure I put my books in the right categories, and make the blurb as specific as it needs to be. And read what the bad reviews actually say. Is there something there I need to listen to and can learn from? Or is it simply a reader who’s not in my target readership?

Lucy Lit

I appreciate your comments regarding businesses not appealing to all customers. So true! Of course rejection hurts me. Most of it is out of proportion due to my own insecurities. I have limited experience from others as it pertains to my writing since I only have one published book (so far). I embrace my single 3 star review as providing perspective. After all, I don’t like every book I read either. LOL When making buying decisions, I look at all reviews and put them into some type of context. Thanks for this reminder!

Emerald O'Brien
Emerald O'Brien

I love this fresh perspective on negative reviews. I’m a new author (debut released in May), and I’ve been lucky to have been given a lot of advice on self-publishing in general, and specifically about reviews. I’ve never heard it put this way though, and it is indeed a silver lining. I am open to learning from the critiques, but I’m glad that from now on, I can also think of things this way as well. I write mysteries, however, I also categorize them as New Adult. It’s something relatively new (to have the protags and antags in their 20’s), and I’m still trying to narrow down my reading audience. Now I think the negative reviews will actually help me do that. Great points!

Julie Musil

Jami, this is such an excellent point. I consider all the early rejections from agents and publishers sort of a “training ground” for reader reviews. We can use the reviews to help us grow and improve (if the review is helpful in that way), and we can use negative reviews to help thicken our skin.

It IS a part of the gig.

Kitt Crescendo

In my “other” life, I’ve been in retail management. 9 years with a leading wireless electronic technology company. In that given field you learn to “shoot for neutral.” I was told early in my management career to expect criticism, not to count on praise, and that if senior executives visited one of my locations to take no comments at all as a win.

When I decided to start pursuing my writing more seriously, I realized that there would be critics. If I hadn’t had that kind of experience, my first talk with my editor might have caused me to crawl into my shell and give up. Fortunately, I’d learned to recognize the difference between constructive negative feedback intended for growth and improvement and negative feedback based on either dislike or being an improper fit for someone’s tastes. The former is used to improve upon myself. The latter? I take it with a grain of salt or just throw it out with the bath water. 😉


[…] The Silver Lining of Bad Reviews by Jami Gold. Some real good advice about reviews. 🙂 […]

Jordan McCollum

I was reading an old K-Boards thread today where Courtney Milan was arguing the same thing!

“Every time I get a 1 star review, I nod approvingly because it means I’m expanding my reach and more people are taking a chance on me as an author.”,176368.msg2487798.html?PHPSESSID=7v-xj33krH6nHyG6u91X53#msg2487798

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