Dealing with a Bad Review

photo by _marmota

Today’s guest is C.W. Gortner, the bestselling author of five historical novels, including his most recent book, The Queen’s Vow, about the tumultuous rise to power of Isabella of Castile, and The Tudor Conspiracy, an Elizabethan spy thriller.

He holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California. In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into fourteen languages to date.

Of his penchant for writing historical fiction, C.W. says,

“Whether I’m recreating the passions of a legendary woman from the Renaissance or delving into the fictional drama of a spy in Tudor England, for me writing historical fiction is an exciting journey into the unknown …  I write historical fiction for the same reason that I read it: because I crave the emotion of the past.”

You can learn more about  C.W.’s work on his website and his blog. Visit him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter: @CWGortner.

You can also view the book trailer for The Queen’s Vow here.

As accomplished as C.W. is, he too has experienced his share of negative reviews. When asked why he chose to share his perspective with Writer Unboxed, he says, “I think every writer has experienced a bad review and will relate. Plus, I don’t want anyone to make the mistakes I have.”

Dealing with a Bad Review

So, you got a bad review. No, not just bad: horrible. As in, this reviewer said everything you imagined someone saying in your worst nightmare about your book. You weren’t expecting it (writers rarely are) and at first, you just sat there, stunned. Unable to believe anyone would take such offense to what is, in the final say, only a novel. It didn’t help that as you re-read the review with that bewilderment that sets in when you realize someone out there really dislikes your work, you found an enormous spoiler that the reviewer apparently included out of sheer malice, to prove how unworthy you are.

Things NOT TO DO when reacting to a bad review:

  • Don’t rush onto Facebook, Goodreads, Librarything or any other social media site, to rant. Someone who knows the reviewer will find out. They always do. Before you know it, you’ll be enshrined as an Author Behaving Badly— sort of like a star on the Walk of Shame for authors.
  • Don’t dwell on it. It’s subjective. Which means it represents ONE person’s opinion. Mutter a curse and move on. You’ll be much saner for it.
  • If a criticism hits you in the gut, pay attention. Sometimes (and it may hurt your soul to admit it) a bad review has something to offer that can help improve your writing.
  • Don’t e-mail your editor, agent, or anyone else connected to the publication of your book to demand immediate action. In other words, pretend the review doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned. Publishing professionals are optimistic by nature.  No one wants to hear that a book they’ve put effort and money toward got creamed.
  • Don’t believe everything you read. While a bad review can be insightful, it’s not a reflection of your talent.

Things TO DO when reacting to a bad review:

  • Drink. Heavily, if need be.
  • Shop. Buying something expensive helps.
  • Call a friend. That’s what friends are for: to help you through the crisis.
  • Remember why you write. You do it because you must. So, take it on the chin.
  • Last but not least, never forget that no matter how much one reviewer hated your work, chances are another will love it. And a good review always trumps a bad one.

A bad review – or several— is, of course, one of the unavoidable pitfalls of being published. It comes with the territory and there’s no handbook for how to deal with the emotional impact. Some authors cry. Others get drunk. Most get mad. A few take it in stride, or at least, pretend to. After all, it’s our book someone just skewered—the tangible fruit of years of hard labor. We’ve sacrificed time with family and friends; walked the dog aimlessly, muttering like an indigent; burned or forgotten meals; lost sleep; tussled and agonized over a single word, even screamed when no one was looking.

Writing is tough. It takes perseverance, ego, and a hint of insanity. We spend all this time locked in our head staring at a blank screen or paper, conjuring imaginary things, and hoping, praying, someone else will care enough to want to read it. Then, insomniac, battered, in need of a shower and something other than tuna sandwiches, we turn the manuscript in and have to deal with everyone else’s opinion of it— our agent, editor, the marketing team. In their own ways, they will shape our work into something that can be packaged and sold. Sentences we slaved over will be cut without mercy; scenes shifted here or re-crafted there; a character will be eliminated and another, to our astonishment, will hijack the plot. We’ll go back over the same lines time and time again, until we can recite them from memory and our spouse or significant other starts to look at us furtively as we sit hunched, crab-like, over those first-pass pages, and remarks that perhaps it’s time for us to take that long-delayed vacation . . . .

In the end, the idea that began as a seed in our febrile brain, nurtured on imagination and the internal chug-a-lug of I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can will become a cooperative project, a team effort— a book.

And then, the advance copies are sent out. To anonymous people we’ve never met, to places we’ve never been. Newspapers (though these are less and less); trade magazines; online sites; bloggers—hundreds of anonymous eyes will now peruse our prose and, in a few lines, maybe a few chapters, if we’re lucky, pass judgment. To review or not review. To like or not like. After all, this person who will now sit down at their computer to write about our book has no regard for us, particularly. They don’t know if we’re a nice person or not; if we talk on our cell phone when we’re driving; if we donate to charity or spend too much money on shoes. All they care about is that visceral moment which we have no control over, when they read our story for the first time and experience a reaction. Or, don’t. So, those words we’ve struggled and fought over, revised and polished; which we prayed would be worthy of attention, will now, finally, garner words of their own—for better or worse.

In some cases, we’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost, but not quite.

Because in the end, even a bad review is still a review. It means someone cared enough to take the time to say: Hey, this sucks. Don’t bother. Buy a DVD instead. Check out the latest Wal-Mart catalog. Collect stamps. Do anything but purchase this lousy book. Yes, someone cared. And isn’t that what every writer dreams of? I know I do. So, how did I deal with bad reviews? How else?  I cry. I get mad. I pretend not to care. Then I pour myself a glass of wine and call a friend to complain.

And so it goes.

How do you deal with a bad review?



  1. says

    Yep. Criticism is tough. I think I handle it the same way. Shock. Anger (particularly if there is a factual error in the review). Sadness. Pretending not to care. And then — lo and behold — not caring. Well, actually, I wouldn’t say “not caring.” Maybe “not caring enough” is more accurate. As you say, “And so it goes.” :)

  2. Carmel says

    Ouch. A spoiler. Now that’s just plain mean. As a reader looking for a good book, I hate spoilers.

    Maybe it would help to remember that reviews are meant for prospective readers, not authors. You’ve done your best; you can’t change the book (a misspelled word or misplaced comma in an e-book, but not much else). And trust that there are readers who not only loved your book, but were helped by it — even if it’s just to block out the bad day they’re having.

    Love the tips!

  3. says

    I’m much more annoyed by spoilers than by being told I suck. Diss me all you want, but please don’t ruin my story for anybody else. Let others make up their own minds, thank you.

    The one reassurance I get from truly awful reviews (of my own work, and of other authors’) is that the most extreme reviews usually hint that the reviewer has an axe to grind, which in turn lessens their impact on my own buying decision. Calmly identifying the problems you found in a book will get my attention and consideration, but over-the-top assassination of the book, its characters, and/or its author usually make me think that this review is about the reviewer, not the book.

    Which doesn’t stop me from having a drink, of course.

  4. says

    Good advice here but what really makes me feel better in the moment is to read the bad reviews (1- and 2-starred reviews) of successful authors. Ex: Kate Atkinson has over 170 bad reviews of her novel Life After Life. Neil Gaiman has nearly 30 bad reviews for The Ocean at the End the Lane. Lots more if you want to hunt around on Amazon best seller list. For me, it takes the sting out to know that so many talented and successful authors that I admire can get bad reviews.

  5. Eileen Dandashi says

    I haven’t arrived to that place in my writing. My problem seems to be that I AM the stick in the spoke, so to speak. I FEEL that I’m not adequate enough and so I never get moving, never sweat those days of trying to get words to paper. Everything else in my life seems to take precedence over sitting and writing. I’m beginning the process of just throwing words on paper. Just writing, whether it makes sense or not. I’m also one of those who write reviews, since I’m an avid reader, and I’m trying to learn what makes a sound review, whether good or bad.

    I would gladly be in my writing profession where you are today. Thanks for sharing your struggle. I’m still at the base of the foothill.

  6. Ronda Roaring says

    A bad review, in my opinion, is a review that criticizes the work but doesn’t explain why the reviewer dislikes the work. That’s a bad review. A negative review explains why the reviewer doesn’t like the work. I dislike bad reviews. I don’t think they serve any purpose other than, perhaps, to let a person vent. I appreciate negative reviews and, if I can, try to do better the next time, no matter what I’m being criticized for. Perfection is definitely one of my long-term goals.

    One question I’ve had is why are there so many public ways to review writers (Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), yet I rarely see opportunities to review painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, etc. in the same public way. Is there a “Goodreads” for sculptors? The only time I can think of something like this is when the City of Ithaca (New York) purchased and installed on an old but architecturally pleasant bridge over the Inlet to Cayuga Lake a series of stainless steel forms reminiscent of lampshades. The populus went ballistic, and the art was eventually removed. That kind of negative publicity no one wants. However, in the artist’s defense, I think most of the complaints came down to a mismatching of styles rather than a dislike for the work of the artist.

    • Kate says

      Ronda, I like your distinction between bad reviews and negative ones. Speaking as someone who is involved in both writing and public art-making, I can say there is a difference between giving bad reviews to a sculpture as opposed to a book. I’m not familiar with the Ithaca bridge sculpture situation, but in general, the time for citizen input on a public art project is when it has been proposed and is in the process of being reviewed, open to public comment and feedback, etc. Usually for any taxpayer-funded art project, there is ample opportunity for comment before the artwork is actually constructed and put into place. Unfortunately, many people don’t participate in meetings or online reviewing processes of public artworks, and only give their “bad reviews” once the sculpture has been installed. And if the outcry is large enough, as it must have been in the Ithaca case, the artwork may even be removed, all at great taxpayer expense, not to mention to the dismay of the artist, even to the point of damaging his or her professional reputation.

      When a published book receives bad reviews from readers, it still remains in print, and is not removed from publication (short of some sort of James Frey-like fraud). The author’s reputation may be damaged, but he or she still has a published book which other readers may continue to enjoy or not, individually. If writers put their manuscripts online in advance and let the reading public weigh in on whether they should be published, even allowing them to suggest tweaks and revisions before funding it, that would be more like the process public artists go through.

      That’s not to say that there is no room to review visual art after it is made, installed, or purchased by a museum or corporation. But most art reviewing is still done by art critics in magazines and newspapers, as well as art bloggers, etc., and when those reviews are unfavorable, they tend to fall into the “negative” rather than the “bad” category, because they explain the reasons for their dislike. However, when citizens bother to give unfavorable reviews to a piece of public art, those usually fall into the “bad review” category, often with the goal of removing or destroying the artwork in question.

  7. says

    I, like Eileen above, am a newbie. I haven’t made it to that point yet. i have a review blog that is dedicated to debut authors. I read the reviews, although as a reader they rarely are a deciding factor on whether I read the book. I like to form my own opinions, therefore, they are even less of an issue when I review. In fact, I have bought books based on one star reviews, if for no other reason than curiosity. The issue here is how to react to bad reviews. If an author reacts to a bad review and either tries to argue or change the bad reviewer’s opinion, as a reader, it leaves a bad impression. I don’t agree with character assassination either, or especially with spoilers; but to react to them is like apologizing for your words. That, in my opinion, is a mistake. You believe that you have a great story to tell and stand by that. Believe in yourself! One thing I have learned: No matter how good it is, you will always have haters, and no matter how bad it is, there will be someone that loves it! Wait for the 5 star review and celebrate!

  8. says

    C.W., I have a classic example: I did an Amazon KDP Select giveaway of my first novel, and had over 8,000 downloads. My interest was in getting some reviews for that book in the hopes that it might spur interest in my more recent short-story collection.

    Epic fail! Of those 8,000 downloads, I only got one review on Amazon and it was titled “Lame.” In its terse review it said this: “I would not recommend it to anyone except those who enjoy Xrated language.”

    WTF? Who doesn’t enjoy some salty language on occasion? Actually, it’s a tale of just-graduated-from-high-school male best friends, so there are some effing curse words now and then.

    Anyway, that “Lame” stung, but only for a little while. I know that some folks will like my stuff, some folks won’t, and there’s little point in chasing anyone around online about the matter.

  9. says

    After the initially pain and paranoia, I’m definitely got something out of a bad review and it turned my writing around. Plus, I’m much more resilient now. But yes, the first stage involved quantities of red wine :) Great post, C.W.

  10. says

    Great advice and reminders, particularly the pretend it doesn’t exist point. If something is negative, the last thing you want to do is jump up and down and scream and call attention to it.

  11. says

    It is difficult to be thick-skinned when it comes to someone reading your work. I think writers tend to be quite emotional people, that’s what makes them good at what they do, but it also means that they’re likely to take a bad review to heart. I know when I receive feedback that is anything less than positive I start doubting my ability as a writer. Fortunately it has not happened much yet, but that’s only because not many people have read my work. I think the key is to write for yourself and then as long as you are happy with it, nothing else matters.

  12. Laverne says

    I’ve written fanfic for the last six years, posted on for that long. Fanfic is looked down in certain circles, but I feel that if a person listens carefully they will get valuable feedback. The majority of reviews I’ve gotten have been pretty good. The constructive ones I studied and learned from. Sometimes the poster corrected me, or pointed out a flaw in the story. I had no problem with that, and when I made the correction I’d include an author’s note thanking them.

    The ones that momentarily threw me for a loop were the “bitch crit” ones, in which the reviewer actively dislikes the author, tells them to “eat s**t and die.” Years ago someone lifted five details out of a story I wrote (even the MC’s name), posted her own fic a year later, and went around bragging that she was all original. People contacted me thinking that her story was a shoutout to mine. It wasn’t. When I posted a sequel to my first story, this person tried to organize a boycott against me online. She and her friends harassed whoever read the story, posted bad reviews and personal attacks against me on a daily basis for six straight weeks. Didn’t matter. The boycott failed miserably because people saw how looney tunes she and her followers were.

    I think every author out here should go through an experience like that once. That will toughen your skin like nothing else will.