A debut author I know recently wrote to ask:
[Ho]w do you assess a poor review from a Goodreads member (or anyone, I suppose)? Being new to this, I’m looking for some great tips on developing a thick skin.”
First, it’s worth noting that there are different kinds of poor reviews. Reviews of the “I hate your guts and your book’s guts” variety are one thing, and thankfully they’re pretty rare. (Erika Robuck wrote a great post on venomous reviews  this past February, addressing how some authors cope.) Usually reviews are a mixed bag of things that did and didn’t resonate with readers, and aren’t meant to make an author feel like s/he should give it up and become a banker.
Let’s assume you have a mixed-bag review, and you’ve read it and you want to know… Now what? Can you take anything from it of value? And if so, how can you do that without becoming completely neurotic?
Let’s start with what you probably already know. It bears repeating:
- It’s not personal. Reviewers are judging your story and not you as an individual. Embrace that distinction, and you’ll find it easier to read a range of opinions about your work with little or no defensiveness.
- Distance grows calluses. Some authors can read mixed reviews right after their book’s publication and be unaffected. Other writers need more time, or to be absorbed in a new project before they can read criticism without a spike of anxiety. Whatever your tendencies, know that distance can make it easier to wade through reviews.
- You can’t control this. And here is a theme. You can control little about the business except for the story itself, and you most certainly cannot control how readers who are not your friends and family will receive your book. You don’t know their names, their occupations, their levels of education, what they generally like to read, if they’ve had a bad day, etc… All you know is that they took the time to read your book. And as author Sarah McCoy once wrote , “That alone is worthy of respect.”
- Authors who debate their readers’ opinions look petty and immature, nine times out of ten. It’s so easy once you understand this point: It’s their book. Their. Book. They have paid for the right to like it, love it, hate it, or feel nothing at all about it.
Here’s what you may not know:
- Reviews–good and bad–can help you understand your readers. You know the readers who “get it” when you read their reviews. They’re the ones who identify with a character or theme or in some other way convey that they understand the point of your novel. And while you may want to learn more about them–and maybe you should–consider the readers who didn’t love your book, too. Sometimes there’s a clue as to why there was no love match in their review. The reader mentions their preference for fast-paced books when you’ve written a thinker. Or a hatred of female protagonists. Or cursing. Or female protagonists who curse. They only read the first eight paragraphs on their phone, then quit to play Ruzzle, and never got back to it. Maybe they aren’t reviewing your book at all, rather they’re complaining about the review system or shipping or some other thing that is utterly off the point. And so you shrug off that one-starred wonder, because that guy was never going to be your people.
- Readers who “get it” but don’t love everything are your most valuable readers. Why? Because these people were invested in your story in some important way and you lost or nearly lost them, and they have taken the time to voice their disconnect. Hear, process, and potentially learn from their reasoning–how you hooked them; when, where, and why you lost them–and you may be able to more effectively maintain reader connections with your next stories.
- Criticism that trends is your most valuable criticism. You’ve heard it a dozen times now. The setting is flat. The characters are off-putting. The story lost focus. The ending is underwhelming. It’s probably time to believe it. And while you can’t use this enlightenment to make your existing novel better, you may be able to apply its lessons toward your future books.
- It’s not a crime to tune it out completely. Some authors step away from their book once it’s published, believing it’s no longer theirs, period. Others don’t want to be a part of the review scene at all, because it’s anxiety-spiking. If you want to avoid review sites, do; you’re under no obligation to read your book’s reviews. But consider having an outside party summarize them for you on occasion, because you may benefit from what you’ll learn.
Criticism is essential to our evolution as writers, and there is no truer pool of it than readers on review sites who are not your mother, sibling, spouse, or Aunt Mabel.
What do you think? How do you assess criticism on review sites, if you do? What’s helped you to develop a thicker skin?