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Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones—But A Bad Review Can Cut You To Shreds

You’ve poured your heart and soul into your latest book. Now it’s making the rounds of reviewers, and you’re holding your breath, hoping—no, praying—for gushing critiques, praise and admiration, five-star ratings. Because, as all authors know, endorsements from established reviewers can make or break a book.

After a few nerve-wracking, nail-biting weeks, the first reviews appear. Relief floods your chest. They’re not so bad after all. If ratings were grades, you’d get a B+. You can live with that. You’re happy. Your publisher is happy. Now you can pretty much count on your readers being happy too, as their positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads will definitely fuel sales.

This is the good scenario, the one every author prefers. But it doesn’t always happen this way. Why? Because there’s always someone—reviewer or reader—who trashes your work, gives it a two thumbs down or a dismal rating. It might be a caustic reviewer who nitpicks your plot and disses your characters’ motives, or a sharp-tongued vitriolic reader whose diatribe gets posted to every social media site. No matter how many accolades your book receives, bad reviews pierce the heart, cut to the bone and fester in your mind.

Even best-selling authors aren’t immune. Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was a huge hit. Glowing reviews. A movie deal. Then came APE HOUSE. One national newspaper reviewer deemed it a disappointing and silly story with trite characters, and couldn’t understand why the publisher hadn’t given it a good edit. Ouch! Although the review contained a nugget of truth, the harsh critique took a bite out of sales, bruised the author’s literary reputation—and probably made her crawl into bed and tug the sheets up over her head. Because for all our successes and accomplishments, it’s only human nature to dwell on the bad stuff and replay it over and over like a stuck record until it consumes us.

What should you do when your work is attacked? Should you just stand back and say nothing, especially if a poor review is undeserved or excessive? Some authors fight back with rebuttals, but that hardly solves the problem and may fuel the flame, making the author seem vindictive and ranting in an online version of a shouting match. It might seem unfair, but often the best approach is the meditative way of examining it dispassionately and letting it go, letting it roll off you like “water off a duck’s back.”
Is there anything you can learn from bad reviews? Absolutely. If several reviewers point to the same defects in your book, pay attention. This isn’t a matter of one reviewer having a bad day. This is a major structural glitch that you need to mull over, absorb, and remedy so as not to make the same mistake in your next book.

It’s never easy trying to digest a bad review. But criticism is a part of the entertainment and movie industry, and we authors are entertainers, of sorts. When you put your work or craft out there for public inspection, you’re bound to get shot down sometimes. No matter how famous you are.

Jacqueline Horsfall is the author of over 20 books and hundreds of magazine pieces. The worst bad review she ever got was a questionable one-star rating for a children’s joke book because the reviewer had received it from the retailer “with a torn, dirty cover.”

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