Discussion and controversy abounded on the Novel Publicity Facebook page last week over a blog post written by Anne R. Allen, “Amazon Reader Reviews: 12 Things Everybody and His Grandmother Needs to Know”. Without going into too much detail about the original blog post, the NP folks seemed to agree that authors should not demand readers leave only 4 and 5 star reviews and never anything lower. They also seemed to agree that readers and reviewers had a right to leave negative reviews if the book in question truly warrants it.
Glowing reviews are a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong. Nothing makes me smile wider than when I am praised by someone who has read my book. But at the end of the day I am in the school of thought that says that the occasional negative review is one of the most powerful learning tools an author has.
Negative reviews, provided they are honest and not just someone with a bone to pick, are a fantastic way to diagnose the problems with your stories that you as an author might not be able to see. They have the potential to set you on the right track and give you an honest look at areas where you need improvement. They usually don’t come from people with a vested interest in keeping you happy, so you can trust them even more than you can the reviews your mom gives you.
Most of the time, someone who puts in the work to write a review is going to be a serious reader with a vested interest in seeing stories of the highest quality on the market. People who are easily pleased or who aren’t as passionate about books probably won’t take the time to write a critique. So chances are that if you’ve been reviewed it is by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
The things these people say should be taken very seriously! It’s not going to do you any good as an author intent on improving your craft to get angry or dismiss the reviewer’s opinion or to lash out at them in any way. In fact, please don’t lash out at a reviewer! The best response to a negative review that you can give is no response at all.
And now for an example of what we can learn from a negative review….
I was extremely lucky a couple of weeks ago to get a 3-star review for my novel The Loyal Heart on Amazon. This review exemplifies several different points about how to read, accept, and learn from a negative review. Here it is:
“ *** Engaging
I enjoyed reading this book. It was fun and engaging.
If I was going to offer the author some pointers I’d say:
a) Add a little more description to set the scene. I kind of know what medieval England might look like but not everyone would. It would also add to the atmosphere.
b) All the characters need a little more depth, back history, motivation and detail. Why and how is Aubrey so good with a sword? What did Crispin do that was so awful in the past? Why don’t the people of Ethan’s estates want him back?
c) Find another word for smirk!
OK, so that last one was a bit pedantic but it was used enough that I started to notice it.
In spite of these points and a few other minor quibbles it was a pleasure to read and I should say that the sex scenes are really well written. It moves along at a good pace. I liked it enough that I’ll be reading the sequel.”
So that is my 3-star review. It’s actually pretty flattering. But the meat of the lesson is in the pointers. Each of the reviewer’s three points brings up a different issue in how to accept a critique.
The first point is about setting and description. This is a Style Critique. The reviewer would have liked more description. My personal style is not to spent too much time on description. I would rather create the setting through dialog and action. But what this point tells me is that there are readers out there who would like to have more of a picture painted in their mind. I can be mindful of this in my future books and look for ways to set the scene better going forward.
The second point is about character. This is more of a Content Critique. Of all of the points this reviewer raises this one goes the farthest to put my nose out of joint. Why? Because the answers to all of the questions the reviewer poses are, in fact, answered in the book. The reviewer just missed them. The critique makes it look as though the story is missing something that is not missing at all. But that also tells me something. Maybe I was too subtle in delivering my characters’ back stories. Maybe the way in which I presented my characters drew emphasis to the wrong things. The important aspect of this comment is to remember that while I know everything there is to know about these characters, the reader must figure it out as they go along. Next time I need to make sure that I communicate everything the reader needs to know.
The third pint cracks me up. It is a Technical Critique. Yes, I absolutely had WAY too many “smirks” in the first edition of this book. It was ridiculous. I mean, completely silly. And this reviewer wasn’t the first person to notice. I have since gone back and removed 85% of the smirks and republished the book.
So there you go. I’m sure I’ll get worse critiques at some point. I like this one though because it covers a lot of bases and makes a great example. I disagree with some of it, I agree whole-heartedly with some of it, and some of it makes me wish I could sit down and explain a few things to the reviewer. I’m glad I received this review though.
Embrace those negative reviews. They can teach you more than effusions of love can.