What to do about bad book reviews

The answer: nothing.

If you are an author who is about to publish, my best advice is this: expect bad reviews. Rather than see them as criticism—as reasons to feel depressed, reach for the vodka, and wish you’d never published–think of bad reviews as one of the hallmarks of a successful book. Some of the greatest books ever written have garnered plenty of negativity. Consider the following critically acclaimed best sellers and how many 1-star reviews they have on Amazon:

Eat, Pray, Love = 629

The Help = 185

Water for Elephants = 176

Life of Pi = 155

Unbroken = 48

Of Mice and Men = 48

People will pan your book for all sorts of unworthy reasons. They include:

They’re still mad about something you did 20 years ago. You can count on your jilted lovers, envious former co-workers, and anyone you’ve had a falling out with over the years to go on Amazon and claim to hate your book, even though they have not read it.

They don’t know their facts. One Good Reads reviewer complained that the Dovekeepers, a historical novel based on the Masada massacre in 70 CE, didn’t have a “Christian focus.” The book is about a sect of Jews called the Zealots and, to a lesser degree, about the Essenes.

A different Good Reads reviewer also panned the Dovekeepers for being “unrealistic.” In particular, she didn’t think anyone would choose suicide over enslavement. Again the Dovekeepers is an historical novel, a fact that seems to have been overlooked by both reviewers.

They just can’t believe anyone could write something so good. Therefore it must be bad. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an extensively reported work of nonfiction based on the lives of many families in the slums of Mumbai. It has won many awards because the author’s extensive access, reporting and rapport with her subjects allowed her to write a work of nonfiction that reads like fiction. As a result, some reviewers have written, “This reads like a complete work of fiction…. Nothing appears factual.”

They hate books like yours, but they read and reviewed it anyway. One reviewer of the mega-bestseller Wild, a memoir, wrote, “I’m not sure this genre is my cup of tea. I didn’t like Three Cups of Tea, I abhorred Eat, Love, Pray and I didn’t like A Million Little Pieces one bit.” She goes on to explain why she hated Wild for all the same reasons she hated all of the successful books in its genre.

They wish they’d written such a successful book. Or even gotten a book deal. So in their review, they say, “I can’t believe this book ever got published.” Consider this line from a review of Eat, Pray, Love, “The idea that someone was given an advance to write a book about finding herself is… well, pretty disturbing.” From another review of the same book, “I could not understand how it became a best-seller – how could I be so out of touch with my fellow readers?”

They only like happy books. Many of the 1-star reviews of the novel One Thousand Splendid Suns, a book that is structured similarly to a Shakespearean tragedy, complain, “I found this book to be very depressing.”

The list goes on. If you have a sex scene in your book, you can count on a reviewer to accuse your book of being offensive. If you don’t have a sex scene, a reviewer will ask, “Why didn’t this book have a sex scene?” If your book is brave and honest, reviewers will say it’s too honest. If it’s not brave and honest, reviewers will say it’s not brave and honest enough.

You get the idea. You can’t please all readers. If you try, you’ll end up writing a safe book that gets no one-star reviews—and no 5 star one’s either.

Risk criticism. Write a great book. Err on the side of bravery. Smile every time you see a bad review, because that means you did your job as an author.

21 Ways to Make Sure No One Writes About Your Book

  1. Send a blind press release to every blogger you find listed in a PR database. Do not bother to study each blog. Start your release, “Dear Blogger.”
  2. Pretend you are a blogger’s biggest fan. Start your pitch, “I love your blog!” Assume the blogger won’t be smart enough to figure out that you not only don’t love his or her blog, you’ve also never read a single post.
  3. Leave comments on various blogs, saying, “Nice post. You might want to check out my book.”
  4. When journalists ask what makes your book news worthy, reply, “My friends love my book. You will love it, too!”
  5. Send your book to every magazine editor listed on the masthead. Do not bother to include a short paragraph that sums up your book. Assume that magazine editors have enough time to read every book that comes across their desks.
  6. Don’t bother to study various magazines, newspapers, or news shows to see how your book might fit into their coverage. Assume good journalists will figure this out on their own.
  7. When a journalist writes to you asking for an email interview, answer, “I’d prefer we talked by phone.”
  8. When a journalist calls on deadline, don’t return the call until the following day.
  9. Make your contact information hard to find. After all, no one wants spammers or strangers calling or emailing them for no reason, and good reporters will go the extra mile to find you.
  10. Pretend to have credentials you don’t have. Newspapers reporters love getting duped and will always come back for more.
  11. Burn as many bridges as you can. Use people whenever possible.
  12. Open a Twitter account and send out the following tweet every day, several times a day, “Buy my book!”
  13. When a magazine sends you an article for fact checking, don’t respond.
  14. When a magazine sends you an article for fact checking, become miffed that you weren’t quoted more extensively. Call the editor and pitch the biggest fit imaginable.
  15. Do not send real books to reporters. Ask them to read a PDF file instead. This will save you money on postage.
  16. When an Earth-conscious reporter asks for an e-copy of your book instead of a print copy, say, “My publisher told me I’m not allowed to send e-copies because someone might pirate them.”
  17. Spend your entire advance on a huge book party. Invite all of your friends. Do not invite a single reporter.
  18. Start thinking about promoting your book on the day it hits the bookstore.
  19. Don’t form relationships with journalists and bloggers. After all, your book is awesome. An awesome book is all you need to get a reporter or blogger’s attention.
  20. When reporters don’t respond to your pitch, berate them for being stupid.
  21. Don’t promote your book. Let it speak for itself.


What Should You Call Your Book?

  1. Make a list of all of the words that describe your book. Split the words into categories of nouns, adjectives and verbs. Then mix and match them at random to create word phrases. Don’t edit yourself. Just have fun and see what comes up.
  2. Think about this question: How is my book different? Your title should convey how your book is different from others in the category.
  3. Make most of the words in your title single syllable words. These words will be a lot easier for you to say when you are promoting your book on television. As a general rule: if you can’t quite say the title when you are relaxed, you’ll trip over it while on TV. 
  4. Keep it to four words or fewer. This makes your title easy to remember. That way, when you talk about your book on the radio, at cocktail parties, and other places, people will be able to remember it and call it up later when they are at the bookstore or shopping online.
  5. Write out your title in big block letters. Then stand far away and look at it. Is it easy to read from far away? If a title has a lot of Ls and Is, it won’t be easy to read from far away.
  6. Make the message clear. Promise-driven self-help titles sell. That’s why the Abs Diet, the Flat Belly Diet, and Wheat Belly are all huge diet books. People want flat abs. When coming up with a title, think about what your readers want. Then promise those results with your title. If it’s a self help book, your title should answer the question, “What will this book do for me?” 
  7. Make the message relevant. The 4-Hour Workweek is a huge bestseller that was rejected by every major publisher except one. Why did so many publishers turn it down? It was originally titled, “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit.” Sure, it’s interesting and intriguing, but people don’t spend $24 because they want to be intrigued. They spend  $24 because they want to learn something that is relevant to their lives. Few people want to learn how to deal drugs for fun and profit, but nearly everyone wants to know how to make a good living while only working four hours a week, especially if they can do it without breaking the law.
  8. Take a stand. Say something that readers don’t expect and you’ll create word of mouth buzz. Some examples: Talent is Overrated, Marry Him, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
  9. Don’t emulate famous authors. Celebrities and famous authors like Malcolm Gladwell can give their books obtuse names. That’s because readers will buy these books based on the author’s fame and not based on the title. Just because a title worked for a famous person doesn’t mean it will work for you. The best titles to emulate are the ones that worked for unknown authors.
  10. Don’t ask your friends if they like your title. Ask them if they would buy a book with that title. There’s a big difference. People buy what they don’t like, and they like what they don’t buy. Similarly, don’t shoot down titles because you don’t like them. Liking is subjective and often completely out of sync with what sells.
  11. Don’t listen to your friends. If they are not the target audience for your book, it doesn’t matter what they think. If you want to test your title, test it on people who are the target audience, not on your friends.
  12. Break all the rules. Don’t follow any rule on this list 100 percent of the time.


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