My new novel ALIVE is coming out in less than a month. That means advance copies have gone out, and the first batch of online reviews have come back. Most of the reviews are great (happy boy!). Some — as is to be expected — not so much. A few of the 1-stars are downright nasty. Does that frustrate me? Of course, although not as much as it used to. So, I thought I’d take a moment and share some of my hard-earned experience with my fellow creatives on how to deal with this ever-present situation.
The “TL:DR” short-hand of this long column is at the very bottom.
You worked your ass off on that book (or record, or video, or drawing, or piece of jewelry, or photo, etc). You put time into it, you took great care to craft the best piece of art possible, you used all of your skill — did the best you could. Then, you put it up for sale. And then, someone comes along and trashes the hell out of it. Online. For all the world to see. Forever.
The words glow before you, red-hot branding irons of dismissive rage. The usurpers, they have maligned you, they … they … they just don’t understand! To the battlements! We must fight this injustice and layeth the smacketh down upon this horrid person who said such awful things about the art that took you months (or years) to birth.
“Those rotten sonsabitches, Scott! Creators must fight for their vision! We must engage! We must attack! We must change their minds! We must educate!”
In a word: no. What you must do is not a damn thing.
When I had only one or two books out, each review felt important, significant. Reviews, if they came at all, were rare, and if your book has three stars, that’s going to affect your sales, right? Yes, that is right: negative reviews affect your sales.
“See? I knew they did! They have no idea how much work went into what they are bagging on! So tell me, Scott, how do we go after these pricks?”
Bottom line: you don’t “go after them.” If you do, you wind up in an Internet Pissing Match. Know how those end? You wind up wet. And also smelling of urine. Not a good look.
It’s not like I knew that coming out of the gate with my first few books. I had to learn the hard way. I ignored the advice of my confidants, of experienced peeps in the industry that I admired. Know what? Sometimes doing stupid shit and getting your ass kicked for it is the only way to learn. And learn I did.
Now that I’m more of a seasoned vet, I’ll break down some questions I am betting you have (because, despite what I just wrote that you just read, somewhere in your thick skull is the thought well, Scott just didn’t do it right, I know there’s a way to fight these ass-hats!).
Q: How do I deal with a 1-star review?
A: You don’t.
Don’t do a damn thing. This is a game, yes — a game you can not win. So don’t play.
Q: But Scott, you’re quick to anger, have you ever reacted with bad reviews?
A: Yes, and I wish I had not.
As I said above, when 1-stars hit your first few books, it can be hard to take for some creators. I was no exception. I tried to argue with 1-stars, reached out to them to explain “why they missed the point,” even got into pissing matches with them. All of it was a waste of time and made me look like a bullying, overly sensitive asshole (see above: a game you can not win). When it comes to engaging online with negative reviews, it doesn’t matter if you’re “right” — the average person online will think you are the douchebag.
Q. But it hurts! (Okay, that wasn’t a question, it’s a statement) — S: But it hurts!
A: Yes. Yes it does.
You pour your heart and soul into that book. You’ve clocked countless hours. Even if you’re a pro, if you factor out the hours worked to the money made, you’re probably far below minimum wage (yes, there are exceptions). Too bad. You’re in the marketplace, baby. If you want to hear only nice things about your works, show them only to your mom.
Q: But their shitty review, it’s wrong! Can I correct them?
A: The complex answer is: “sometimes.”
Here’s a recent Amazon review excerpt about a book from my INFECTED Trilogy: “every comment from every one-star review is right.” I’m glad she took the time to read them all! Then, the follow-up comment, where the reader rips into my female characters and says they are all incompetent: including, I suppose, Margaret Montoya, who is not only the character that figures out what’s going on, she’s the one that makes the impossible call at the book’s end: “The women come across as incompetent at best. Worthless at their worst.” That was said about a book in which the female character saves the f-ing world. The takeaway? People are going to imprint their worldview onto your work, they are going to see what they want to see, whatever reinforces their particular belief. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
The trouble for me isn’t is someone has a bad opinion of the book — that’s going to happen — it’s wondering if they actually read book at all. That’s hard to deal with. It also comes with the territory.
Q: Aren’t ones-star reviews damaging?
A: Yes. Yes they are.
Unfortunately, anyone telling you “reviews don’t matter” doesn’t know what they are talking about. Yes, they matter. Don’t like the 1-star? Work hard to develop an audience, find the people who like your work and engage with them. When you put out a book, there’s no shame in telling your audience: “Hey, if you enjoyed Book X, why not take five minutes and leave me a review on Amazon and Goodreads. It takes nine 5-star reviews to counter a single 1-star (to get your average up to 5-stars). That’s a lot of work, but asking your fans to support you is a great way to proactively combat 1-star-itis without getting into a pissing match.
It takes nine 5-star reviews to counteract a single 1-star (to get your average up to 5 overall). That’s a ton of work, but the process of finding people who love your work, engaging with them and creating an audience that will help you is worth the effort — not just for Book X (or Product X), but for your entire career.
Q: Okay, Mr. Know-It-All, then what is your final advice for dealing reviews?
A: Don’t read them.
This is good advice — advice that the advice-giver (me!), doesn’t even come close to following. In a big batch of “Do as I say and not as I do,” I’m telling you the key to happiness, Nirvana, inner peace and all that happy horseshit is to not read online reviews at all. Focus on building your audience, engaging with them, and making your next great creative work.
Q: What about the “1-Star Trolls” I’ve heard about? Are they targeting me?
A: Most likely, no.
Yes, there are 1-star trolls out there, people who make a hobby out of taking a 1-star shit on as many creative works as they can. I hope they leave yours be, and I hope they leave mine alone as well. Anne Rice has been trying to do something about this. She’s even planning on writing a small book about it. So this seems to be real, yet it affects such a small percentage of creators that it’s best assume your 1-star review came because someone hated your work, honestly and on its own merits.
TL:DR: HERE IS THE REAL SECRET TO DEALING WITH 1-STAR REVIEWS:
I wish I’d figured this out sooner in my career. Think of your favorite book, album, etc. Got it? Now, go look it up on Goodreads or Amazon. Click on the 1-stars. Read. Realize these 1-stars are about a work that you (and others) might consider a flawless masterpiece. Realize that if people can feel that way about what you consider a great work, they can also feel that way about your work. And that’s okay.
Here’s a couple of examples, something mass-market but classic, Stephen King’s “The Shining,” the celebrated “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway, and a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
The Shining, by Stephen King
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart