Dealing With Bad Reviews

I’ve gotten some bad reviews in my time. Michael Alvear’s book mentions some statistical study which says that a single one-star review can destroy the sales of your entire product (or something along those lines). That’s probably an exaggeration, as even insanely popular and widely-beloved books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have one-star reviews. Many of these look like they should be directed to customer support rather than J.K. Rowling.

I can say, however, that sales of a book I wrote about living in Korea ground to a halt once someone complained about descriptions of garbage and prostitutes. The problem with that is, if you come to Korea, you will see this stuff all over the place. The reviewer objected, if I recall correctly, because she knew some Koreans and thought they were wonderful people. How does this relate to my book? I don’t know.

So. The eternal question. How does one deal with terrible reviews? I think the answer should be, if the review is fair, respect it and leave it. If the review isn’t fair, try to get it removed.

I just got two terrible reviews for my book. It’s a major disappointment for me, obviously. I published a couple of sci-fi books last month. To be honest, they haven’t been selling nearly as well as I’d like them to, and these reviews will almost certainly make the slog to eventual victory—defined as being able to quit my day job—that much harder.

But the reviews are fair. They complain about the same issues mentioned by other, more positive reviews, namely the presence of politics in a sci-fi novel. I thought this was necessary, since the book takes place in the present and deals with present issues (diverse people with diverse viewpoints working together), but I also recognized that it was a risk (like this post) and would turn some readers off. But you can’t please everyone.

For the moment, I’m not devastated by this. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it, a little. If you can’t stand the heat, you should stay out of the kitchen—but if you stay in the kitchen, the heat gets a little more tolerable. It’s the same as picking up women (or men, I suppose): the more you get rejected, the easier rejection is to bear. And, eventually, in the words of Beavis and Butthead, you SCORE.

Thus far I’ve dealt with this miniature disaster by going for a run. Running is basically my cure-all. I’ve found other forms of exercise (like working out) don’t really improve my mood at all, but even a few minutes of running keeps me more or less in control of my mood all day long. I’m under a lot of stress lately, as my family is moving to America and my books aren’t selling enough copies, so this is absolutely a must for me. I’ve run almost every day for the last two weeks, and while the results haven’t really been too clear when it comes to my weight (since you have to burn about 3000 calories a week, while eating the same amount of food as usual or less, to lose five pounds, and this number depends on the weight you start with, since you have to burn more calories to move more blubber), the difference in mood is immediately palpable. I just…don’t go over the deep end. I still feel emotions, but they don’t control me.

There are other obvious ways to deal. Whine to friends and family. Go for a walk and listen to a podcast (like The Dollop) that will not only make you laugh, but take your mind off of your troubles. Cut yourself. Actually, don’t cut yourself.

The best thing to do, of course, is to keep writing. Hone your craft. Try checking out the books that have made a massive difference in my life: Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, On Writing, Story (by Robert McKee), Heinlein’s Rules, and Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour (and the rest of the books in this series). I’ve found that looking at a few pages of any of these books is inspiring. In my dream office I not only have paper copies of these within arm’s reach (of my treadmill / standing desk which also generates electricity…), I also have framed portraits of my favorite writers to inspire me: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Gogol, Nabokov, Homer, Ovid, and others, specifically so I can take them down from the mantelpiece one by one and shout something like: “Leo! I don’t know what I’m going to do this time! Someone left me a one-star review!”

One day I hope to write books that my idols would like.

The most important thing, obviously, is: don’t respond to the reviewers unless you intend to do so nicely. Even then, I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’m clearly no expert, but I would just let sleeping dogs lie (sorry for all the cliches in this post). You shouldn’t argue with a pig: you just get dirty, and the pig likes it. My other sci-fi books have little or no politics in them, and I’m tempted to mention that to these reviewers, but I doubt it’s worth it.

As for getting the reviews removed, it can actually be done. I know, because I’ve done it. While I was trying to promote a Korea-related book on r/Korea, I got into a spat with some of the posters. I don’t remember why and I really don’t want to go back and find out. I did promote the book with the moderator’s permission, although he warned me that the subreddit has a fair share of negative nancies, and what wound up happening was that some of them actually took the trouble to go to the book’s amazon page and leave one-star one-sentence reviews. I was CRUSHED. I didn’t know what to do, so I begged amazon to remove the reviews, since the reviewers obviously hadn’t read the books, and for once, the company that worships customers and doesn’t give a damn about sellers actually listened to me, and removed the reviews, whereupon the negative nancies thankfully lost interest.

I’m guessing that amazon will ignore you completely unless you have an incredibly strong case, however. At the same time, people have a right to express negative opinions about your work; and if they’re all saying the same thing, you should definitely listen. I used to ask some of these people to show some of their own artistic work for me to critique, but this was viewed, for some reason—probably because it’s incredibly petty—as a ridiculous request. Reviewers are permitted to review you, but you are not permitted to review them. At the same time, people talk shit about Steven Spielberg’s movies, even though they’re awesome, and I can’t recall the man ever complaining about bad reviews (although since he’s a human being he must do so at least privately). I’ve read that when he’s finished with some huge project, he just relaxes in his massive home, and he watches all the big movies he’s missed over the last six months or whatever straight through, enjoying them way more than most reviewers apparently do. But, as one of my students once said, that may be “just ima-jee.”

I have to get going. I hope this post doesn’t make me look like too much of a loser, and that it helps everyone with a negative review out there deal with it. As I said, you can’t please everyone. Life, or the universe at least, goes on.