Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Handle Bad Reviews (Or Not)

I really don’t like Dan Brown’s books.

To be fair, I’ve only read two of them. First, I read “The Da Vinci Code,” because at the time it was a cultural touchstone. Everyone had read it. Friends of mine who never read anything, read that book. People I knew who never bought books had picked up a copy in the super-special edition with extra artwork.


I read it. Actually, I got it in audiobook, because I tried to read the first ten pages or so and I just wasn’t getting into it, and an audiobook keeps rolling ever on and on, telling you the story whether you’re enjoying it or not.

So, yeah. I read it. And I hated it.

Here’s the funny part. I don’t remember why I hated it so much. Not fully. But let me come back to that.

I shared my vitriol over the book with various people, and I was usually met with the same three responses. 1) Yes, the book was terrible, I was right. 2) The book was just okay, but the book that came before it, “Angels and Demons,” was much better. 3) The book was a fun ride, and that’s all the reader wanted out of it.

So, here, I made my big mistake, and I read “Angels and Demons.”

The thing of it is, with authors I really enjoy, I tend to dive deeply into the waters of their back catalogue. When I first discovered Neil Gaiman (via Sandman and American Gods) I didn’t just pick up copies of the stuff I liked. I quite literally went to the bookstore and mass-bought everything he had on the shelf. What he didn’t have on the shelf, I bought on Amazon.

If I dislike an author, I try to avoid their work like the plague, even if they produce a second highly-loved work.

So, yeah. “Angels and Demons.” What a terrible book. And what’s worse, it was pretty much the same book as “The Da Vinci Code,” starting with the female sidekick and ending with the “plot coupon” story, which dragged the “hero” from place to place using clues that most people figured out long before the protagonist did.

And then there were the plagiarism lawsuits, which said that the theories Brown came up with were taken wholesale from other books. And then there were the multiple books that said everything Brown claimed as facts in his book were pretty much totally fictitious.

Meanwhile, people were making religious decisions based on the so-called facts found in the book.


As I type this, I can feel my anger rising again. After all, we’re talking about two books, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 pages, if you combine them.

By the time “Angels and Demons” wound down to its last terrible joke (that I’d heard about a million times before) I was just frothing at the mouth.

I discovered there was a strange sort of Dan Brown anti-cult in the world. With web sites that tore apart his awful writing style. Even the mainstream media was getting into it, mocking Dan’s ridiculous use of short chapters (more than 100 per less-than-500-page book). With each chapter, of course, ending in some sort of cliffhanger.

Why tell you this long story, which I could have summed up as, “I really dislike Dan Brown books?”


Here’s what you need to take away from this.

Dan Brown doesn’t care what I think of him. I suspect that, even if I was outselling the guy, he wouldn’t care what I have to say about him. He’s sitting around somewhere right now, in his silk pajamas, pipe between his teeth, having one assistant read a research book to him, while he occasionally holds up a hand and tells another worker to type up notes based on the information being read.

Sometimes, he takes a nap and lets them sort out what might be important information for his next novel.

What I’m saying is, Dan is rich, and he doesn’t care what a guy on the internet thinks of him.

But, of course, you aren’t rich. (Or maybe you are. If so, how did you end up reading this?) You don’t get to cry yourself to sleep in a big pile of money.

So, okay. You got a bad review. How do you deal with it?

The real answer is, nothing. Don’t blog about it. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t complain to your Facebook friends. If you like tracking your reviews, save the link, or print it out, or whatever you do with such things.

The internet is a tiny little place in many ways, and if you say something mean about the person who chose to write about you, well, guess what? That guy may find out. And they might not care. But they also might be furious, and decide to start an Internet slap fight, and no one wants that.

So let’s expand on that.

1. A lot of times, a review is like a bar fight. You’re not thinking clearly, and suddenly all you know is you really, really hate THAT GUY. In this case, that guy is a book or an author. So you throw a punch (bad review) and maybe it lands, and maybe it doesn’t, but the next morning, one thing is for sure – you don’t really remember what you’re mad about.

(See, I told you I’d come back to my residual Brown anger.)

After reading Dan’s books, I was not only offended that Dan Brown had written and published a book, I was angry that he had been born at all, and was sucking up space on bestseller lists while much better authors floundered.

What came of those feelings? Nothing. Dan Brown released another book, and made a bunch more money, and you know what? I didn’t read it.

When you get a bad review, you need to remember that for the review writer, it’s a heat of the moment thing. Someone didn’t like something about your book, and they’re angry about it, and perhaps they have a right to be. You took up their valuable time. Or did you? Well, no, not really. The person writing the bad review could have stopped at any time, decided the book wasn’t to their taste, and walked away.

But they didn’t. That was their call. And now they’re angry about it, and you have to let them be angry, because the other option? Bar fight.

2. Sometimes a review gets under your skin because there might be a grain of truth in it.

I personally once got a review that said (in the comments) that some people just shouldn’t publish.

Dude. I’m not made of stone. That’s hitting below the belt, right there. And this came after a review that tried really hard to keep the gloves on, essentially saying they hated the book while acknowledging that there was probably someone, somewhere, who MIGHT like it.

(Okay, here’s where I’m going to violate my own advice here, but only as an example. Yikes. Good plan, right? Coming here and saying, “Don’t do this!” while I’m doing it?)

Now, here’s a hard truth. I’m indie published, and it wasn’t originally by choice. I wrote a novel, I couldn’t even get an agent to look at it (which still perplexes me, but I digress) and so, with the whole indie publishing movement taking off, I decided to give it a try.

But I’m a writer. We overthink everything. It’s what we do. And so, some nagging part of my brain always, always, always says, “Well, maybe the reason you never got an agent is that you aren’t good enough.”

And this review (or rather, the comments to the review) grabbed that emotion and thrashed it. Hard.

Now, in a bar fight, if someone takes a swing at you, the smart thing to do would be to leave the bar. You walk out, get in your car, you drive away, and the fight is over.

Instead, most people will swing back.

And this was a rare instance where I kind of wanted to. Not to make the author of the review look bad (an opinion is an opinion is an opinion) but because I wanted to look good. Maybe cite some sales stats. Talk about my reviews (between seven books I’m sitting at 4 stars on Goodreads, which is kind of impossible… and I’m higher on Amazon).

For that matter, I’ve got some high-profile kudos. A Kindle bestselling author has endorsed my work. And three actual, published-in-bookstores authors have endorsed my work as well.

The point is, “not ready to publish” hurt, and I wanted to strike back.

But I didn’t. Except here. Kind of. But not really.

If the author of the review ever finds this (I doubt it, as I imagine self-same author will never, ever, ever Google my name) hey, buddy, no hard feelings. Sorry you didn’t dig the book. I thought it was your kind of thing, and clearly it wasn’t.

The point is, a review can sometimes hit on the one thing that really bugs you. Leave it alone. Unless there’s something you can do about it.

In which case.

3. Take the criticism, and improve.

Now, in the case of that review, there wasn’t much to take away, besides “don’t publish.” Unless I’m being overly sensitive.

But I do see things all the time, like, “numerous typos” (mostly in indie books, but not always) and “story doesn’t go anywhere” and “this passage was confusing.”

Some of that kind of thing is immediately fixable. If there are errors, and you’re indie published? You can fix those. Make a corrected file, upload it, and Amazon will push out the fixed version to your readers, free of charge. How great is that?

If you get one comment that someone just didn’t like something, let it go. But if five people tell you that your story is too slow, then your story is probably too slow. You can choose to correct it, but you might be better off taking that lesson and applying it to the next thing you’re working on.

The same with character problems. Or too many flashbacks. Or passages that confuse readers.

Now, here’s the thing. When I wrote my first novel, it started with a lot of flashbacks, along with information about what was going on the present day. I worked hard on those passages, making sure dates lined up correctly, that the story kept moving forward, and so on.

And I got a lot of really excellent reviews. But I also got one person who said it was confusing, to the point where they had to read the opening multiple times to figure out what was going on.

What happened there?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

So I got a bad review, and you know what? I posted it to my Twitter feed, because it was a new review, and even though I didn’t agree, well, hey, it’s an opinion, and I find opinions interesting.

Did I take it to heart? To a certain extent. My last few books have been much more linear. But that wouldn’t prevent me from doing something complicated again.

I would do it, however, with the knowledge that some people just aren’t going to be able to handle that. And that’s valuable info to have.

4. Enjoy every review. Even the bad ones.

I had one friend who, when asked what people thought of their book, posted a list of ten reviews saying how much their book sucked.


I dunno. But I learned something from that. Even bad reviews can be kind of fun. “Some people just aren’t ready to publish” is pretty scathing, but it’s also super-fun to use when selling your book. “Come! Read the book that should have NEVER BEEN PUBLISHED. I DARE you.

Because in the end…

5. Remember that it’s just an opinion. And just having your name out there can help you.

Over the years, I’ve read reviews of books and movies where the object in question got a so-so review. But the pop culture flotsam in question sounded like the kind of thing I’d enjoy, and I consumed it. Most of the time, the review was right. But sometimes, it just didn’t hit the reviewer the way it hit me, and I found a new thing to enjoy.

The truth of the matter is, if you put something out into the world, sooner or later someone is going to judge it. Let them. They wanna. Or need ta.

And if it helps you, take something from it.

And if it doesn’t, walk away, and maybe someone out there will find their curiosity piqued.

Just keep writing. That’s your job.

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