Every author I know has a love/hate relationship with book reviews.
On the “pro” side, flattering reviews shine a light on what you do right as an author. Writing is a lonely pursuit, and unless you work very differently than I do, nobody’s standing behind you in your office or the coffee shop to cheer your great literary twists and triumphs when they first hit the page.
Good reviews are like delayed applause. You did something right, and positive reviews are proof that the world agrees.
But on the “con” side, negative reviews can be like a dagger in your side. Those little buggers shine lights on every insecurity you’ve ever had. If your description skills are weak, negative reviews tell the world about it. If you aren’t great at character development, negative reviews will inform you of that truth … with an edge.
And that’s just the constructive reviews — the ones that, if you were in the mood to do so, you might actually agree with even if it hurts. Plenty of poor reviews aren’t really constructive at all. They just say, in as many words, that you’re nothing more than a hack. That your book is the worst thing ever. That you are (and this is a real review that Dave and I got) “a maggot crawling out of a trash can.”
Bad reviews can hurt, and that’s why many authors never look at their reviews. Or, if they do look, bad reviews are why many authors doubt themselves, or have bad days.
Given the title of this article (and given all I just said), you might be wondering why in the hell you’d want to invite more people to review your book. You might know intellectually that getting reviews is a good thing, but you also might be thinking, “But what if they’re bad? How do I get more good reviews? How do I steel myself against bad reviews, since they’re likely to come anyway? If reviews are so important, how can I ‘tip the scales in my favor’ — and put the whole issue in better context — so that reviews can help me more than smash my pride? And really … is it all worth it?”
The answer is: YES, getting more reviews is pretty much always worth it … even if some of them are less-than-wonderful.
But before we jump into how to get more of those reviews, let’s detour first into why.
Why reviews matter
Reviews tell readers whether or not a book has pleased its past readers (and hence, whether it’s any good, and worth the risk for anyone considering buying), but the bigger reason reviews matter has to do with the crowd effect.
Imagine driving by an amazing looking restaurant. It’s your favorite kind of food, and the website shows that their prices are reasonable. This looks exactly like your kind of place, and your stoked to give it a try.
But now imagine stopping at that restaurant and finding no cars in the parking lot. You walk through the front door, and the place is empty.
Nobody is at this restaurant and you see no signs suggesting that anyone ever does.
Are you still interested in eating there?
If you’re like most humans, the answer is, “Probably not.” Even if the restaurant’s ad was super convincing, you’re probably still not interested. Even if the host up front is very nice, and even if you’re dragged to a table and greeted immediately by the world’s best waiter, you’ll probably be ill-at-ease if you stick around. Even if the smells from the kitchen are amazing. Even, I dare say, if you eat your entire meal and love it. Even if you leave completely satisfied, you’ll probably be a little unsettled about your restaurant experience.
And if you drive by it ten more times and never see anyone there, chances are you won’t eat there again … because even if you like the place, you’ll always feel just a little uneasy about the fact that you seem to be the only one.
Nobody wants to be the only person to attend an event, visit a venue, or partake of a service. In most cases, nobody wants even to be the first person to go. Being the second person is a little better, and being tenth is better still. And as paradoxical as it might seem, most restaurant-goers are most comfortable with their choice when the place is overbooked, and there’s a line out the door.
Humans are social creatures. We make our decisions, in part, using the decisions of others. There’s something uncomfortable about feeling alone in your opinion, and that’s how you feel when you’re the only person who likes that otherwise amazing restaurant. It’s also how readers feel when they visit your book with no reviews, traffic, or chatter anywhere online. When nobody talks about your book or offers opinions on it — be those opinions good or bad — nobody else who sees it feels like giving it a try.
For this reason — and within some common-sense limits — the fact that you have reviews almost always matters more than how good those reviews are.
I’d rather have a book with one 3-star (out of five) review than a book with no reviews at all.
I’d rather have a book with ten 3-star reviews than a book with one 5-star review. Books with a single glowing review look rigged: Maybe the author got his mom to review it.
And when the number of reviews gets really big, it almost doesn’t matter how good the reviews themselves are. Fifty Shades of Grey, as I type this, has almost 8000 1-star reviews on Amazon … but with 44,000+ reviews in total, nobody cares.
Even if every single review were 1-star, people would still read it just to see what nearly fifty thousand people felt compelled to review. Because with that many reviews, just think how many people bought it!
A deserted restaurant parking lot, it ain’t.
Of course, things aren’t quite so black and white. I deliberately chose extremes (a restaurant with no customers and a book with thousands of bad reviews) to illustrate a point. But let’s not lose sanity along with that message.
It’s true that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. It’s also true that an absence of any crowd is repellant to anyone thinking of wading in. Social proof matters, and in the book world, reviews form most of that social proof.
Reviews prove (at least) that enough people have read your book to leave comments, or (ideally) that those who read it actually enjoyed it. For your average bookstore customer, that’s enough to tip their purchase decision in one direction or another if everything else is equal.
But now that we’ve gotten the extremes out of the way (even a book with bad reviews can be better than a book that’s been out for a year and still has no reviews), let’s consider the middle ground, where successful authors should strive to be.
And “that place where successful authors should strive to be” is kind of ugly sometimes.
Of course you need reviews on your books … but in an ideal world, you’d rather have good reviews, right?
And … although negative reviews can work to your advantage in the big picture, you’d rather have as few of them as possible, right?
Getting more reviews is a worthwhile goal for any author, but what you really want is to get more positive reviews and fewer negative ones. We’d prefer to see our book in the wild and feel the pride that comes along with it.
So maybe before we get to the art of garnering more reviews you’d actually like to get, we should eat our vegetables … and talk first about how to handle the inevitable reviews that will make you want to cry, punish the reviewer, or smash your keyboard against the wall.
The 6-step process for dealing with bad reviews
You’re waiting for me to dismiss the sentiments contained in bad reviews, aren’t you? You’re hoping I’m here to explain why you should ignore them — possibly because the readers who left them don’t understand your work, are bad people, were having a bad day, or are just plain crazy.
Obviously, I’m not going to do that. Negative reviews aren’t something you should ever ignore, or simply dismiss.
You can disregard their sheer bulk if there are enough to hurt your head, and there are certainly individual reviews that are totally nuts, that were left by people having bad days or readers for whom your style was never going to be a good fit.
If a sweet romance reader picks up your nihilistic serial killer novel and hates it, it’s legit to wave your hands at that reader’s review and say, Oh, pshaw — it’s not the book that’s to blame. But unless you’re one seriously unique snowflake, I can guarantee one hundred percent of your negative reviews aren’t legitimately dismissible.
And yes, that means there will be people who’ll hate your book and tell the world how hard it sucks … but who have a point worth paying attention to.
That’s no fun to hear, as an author, but it’s true. All art worth anything is destined to be judged, and all art that gets judged by more than a few people will inevitably receive some amount of criticism. It’s simply a fact of life. The alternative to getting negative feedback on your work isn’t getting only positive feedback. It’s getting no feedback at all, because nothing you’re doing is worthy of comment.
Seth Godin said that your choice is “be criticized or be ignored,” and it’s true. As an author, do you want to be criticized? Or would you rather be ignored? You have to pick one. There’s no third option.
Since you’re going to be criticized anyway (assuming you prefer it to obscurity), the best thing you can do when facing criticism is to receive it with the right mindset.
Lucky for you, we’ve got a step-by-step process for that.
Step One: Separate opinion from fact, and separate yourself from your book
The thing to remember about all criticism (other than the fact that it’s inevitable, and to some degree is proof that you are, in fact, doing something worthwhile) is that it’s just someone’s opinion. The review that hurt your pride so much and cut you so deeply? It isn’t fact. In almost every case, it’s simply what one person thinks.
Never give opinions the weight of objective truth.
You shouldn’t dismiss another person’s opinion out of hand, but separating the notion of “this person didn’t like my book” from “my book is bad” is the healthiest thing you can possibly do in this area. When you get a review that explains why your book sucks, it’s natural to feel like that person’s words are literally true: Your book does suck — and what’s more, YOU suck as a writer.
But reviews aren’t facts. They’re opinions, and everyone is entitled to their own.
You are not your work, and that means that someone who doesn’t like your work doesn’t necessarily not like you. And even if they don’t like you? So what? Again: It’s just an opinion.
Step Two: Ask yourself if you agree with what was said … and learn any lessons necessary
After you’ve separated your book’s worth (or your worth) from someone’s thoughts about it, the next step to dealing with a bad review is to look closely at what your critic wrote.
As you read (or hear) it, ask yourself: Do I agree with what they’re saying?
There’s magic in that question, but in order for the enchantment to work, you must commit to being honest. If you’re not, then every review you don’t like will seem baseless. Yet, if you have more than a few outright-bad or merely-critical reviews, at least some will have merit. You just have to be grown up enough to consider the possibility, and admit it when you realize the reviewer might be at least partially right.
If you’re adult enough to look at negative reviews without stomping your foot and having a tantrum, you’ll discover something interesting. You won’t agree with some reviews at all. If a person says, “This plot was overly simplistic” and you (honestly, without being defensive) feel that the complex is deep and layered, you can turn away for that review (for now. Step 3 may or may not require you to look at it again).
But there’s also a chance that you’ll hear criticism about your simple plot and think, You know what? This plot is maybe a bit simpler than I intended. Maybe the critic is right, and this plot has been done many times before.
If you find yourself agreeing with criticism, note that feedback for next time. We’re not suggesting you pull your book off the market and change the whole thing, but at least you’ll know to pay more attention to that aspect of your writing next time.
Asking yourself if you agree with non-hateful, constructive criticism is one of the best ways to improve as an author … assuming your pride will let you take the hit.
Step Three: What does the majority think?
Remember how I said above that you can maybe sorta ignore criticism that you honestly consider but ultimately disagree with? Well, this is where it might catch up with you after all.
If you’re smart and willing to learn from experience, you’ll pay attention to trends in your reviews more than to individual reviews. This is the trump card that can override your decision to ignore what you you don’t agree with.
If one person thinks your plot was too simple but you disagree — okay, fine. That particular tie goes to the house.
But if you have ten reviews and five of them mention an overly simple plot, you’re a fool if you decide that you’re right and all those other people are crazy. Five out of ten people who mention the same thing are probably onto something … so unless the other five explicitly state that your plot was complex and NOT simple (and that you’re the only one who feels that way), ratcheting up your plots is something you should seriously consider.
Step Four: Don’t argue
Just … don’t. If you need to correct a factual inaccuracy mentioned in a review, go for it. But don’t give into what can be a very tempting tendency to argue your book’s merit against someone who didn’t like it.
If someone doesn’t like something you’re doing and it’s just a matter of opinion, let them have their opinion without argument. Never debate reviewers in your reviews themselves, don’t email them to argue, and definitely don’t spar with them on social media. Facebook is full of horror stories about authors who had a problem with a review … then made spectacular asses out of themselves when arguing against them.
Step Five: Don’t bias toward negativity
Human brains are great at keying in on what’s wrong in a situation. In the case of book reviews, this means that if you have 99 good or neutral reviews and one serious stinker, you’ll tend to obsess over the bad one and forget most or all of the others.
That’s a mistake. In your mind and emotions, give as much (or sometimes more) weight to the opinions of people who love your work as those who hate it.
Step 6: Move on
No matter how you deal with your bad reviews, in the end you must close the webpage and move on. Whether your book got good, bad, or indifferent reviews, there comes a time when you’ve absorbed all that can be absorbed, learned all the lessons, and gleaned everything you’re going to glean. When that happens, stop checking back. Stop stalking those who leave bad reviews online and hating their families. Stop crying to your diary, or throwing confetti in celebration of your awesomeness.
You’re a writer, not a professional review-reader. Move on, write the next book, and do everything you can to make it better than the last one.
How to get more reviews
Reviews are largely a function of your overall number of readers, meaning that as you get more, you will also naturally earn additional reviews. If 1% of readers review books (which feels about right in our experience), the best way to get 100 reviews is to make sure at least 10,000 people read your book.
This first review-getting strategy is so simple, people miss it. The expression goes, “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.” That’s true in many things, including reviews.
There are a few ways to ask your readers for reviews. The simplest is to to ask one-to-one, but it’s direct enough that it skeeves-out the majority of naturally shy writers. Put in enough time authoring and readers will eventually start to get in touch with you via email, social media, or sometimes in public at a conference. If someone emails you and tells you how much they loved your book, why not ask them if they’d be so kind as to write a review?
This simple strategy works more often than you’d think, and as long as you’re polite and grateful, it can be a great way to add a few good reviews at a time.
That’s a simple and direct way to get reviews, but it’s not very scalable. The most scalable way to ask for reviews is to do so via a CTA (“call to action”) page in the back of your book. Add a page to your book after the main story so that as soon as someone finishes your book, you ask (kindly, with manners) for that reader who just finished your work, and hopefully enjoyed it, to review.
Now, far from everyone will leave a review just because you add a CTA asking for one, but many more will do it than if you don’t include the CTA. The page should be brief and should include three things.
The first is an actual ask: “Please go here and review my book.” Timid authors allude to the need for reviews but don’t outright ask. DO ask.
The second is a link to wherever the reader can leave their review. If you don’t provide a direct link (and instead expect readers to hunt down the how-to of review-leaving on their own), you’ll lose people. You’re asking for a favor, so have the courtesy to make things easy.
The last thing to include is a reason why you’d like a review. This is really important!
The word because is very persuasive. Please leave a review has meaning, but Please leave a review because [reason] is FAR better.
Explain how reviews are what let indie authors keep writing, and that leaving good reviews is the very best way to support you, if they’d like to lend their support … which at least some will.
2. Be awesome (or at least worth mentioning)
At the risk of stating the obvious, some work is just more worth mention than other work. If your book is “meh,” there’s really no reason for anyone to talk about it, negative or positive. If your book provokes emotion, though, people will want to share their thoughts about it. So be awesome, and give people a reason to talk.
4. Build a street team
As your author career grows, so will your mailing list of devoted readers. Over time, you’ll want to reach out to that list and ask if any of them would like to read your books in advance (and for free) in exchange for leaving you a review.
If you get into the habit of sending your books to that “street team” in advance, they’ll be ready to review your book as soon as it comes out, hopefully in increasingly large numbers.
There’s a bonus to this strategy: Because it’s your fans you’re asking to review, you’re far more likely to get good reviews than if you’d asked random folks!
4. Form and foster a fan group
This one is a little different from building a street team. Your street team is a specific group tasked with reading and reviewing ARCs (advance reader copies) of your books, but “fans” can be pretty much any readers who like what you do.
Reading is a solo pursuit. That means that if someone loves your book, there’s nobody around to remind them that they loved it when they move on to something else, nobody wanting to talk to them about it and rekindle that love, and no peer pressure to spread the word about you and your books … and, of course, leave those reviews. If you create a fan group, you’ll reverse all of that and give your fans a community where they can talk about how much they love both you and your work.
Right now, the most effective fan groups happen on Facebook, but times will change and your circumstances may differ. Just find ways to get those fans interacting with each other … and if it’s appropriate, get in there and join their conversation whenever doing so makes sense.
5. Make your readers LOVE you
This one is an extension of the items above. But to ram it home, let me tell you a story.
One of the authors in our story studio was having a hard time selling books. She assumed something was wrong — and, in terms of pure sales, there was. But what we noticed the second we started looking at her catalogue is that although her sales were small, her review numbers were HUGE. This author had tons of reviews and not a ton of sales, meaning that an absurdly high percentage of her readers were reviewing her books. And … absurd. I think around a third of her people must have been reviewing to get the ratios she had.
We don’t want low sales, but we do want high review ratios. We want people to love our books … and for a large percentage of those folks to leave reviews saying so. In the case of our author, this was only possible because the bond with her readers is insane. She emails them all the time and they just love her. So when it came time to support her, they came out in droves.
How to improve the quality of reviews you receive
But of course, you don’t just want more reviews, right? You want more good reviews. So how does that happen?
1. Get better
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way: Good books get better reviews than bad books. If you want better reviews, pay attention to your craft … and keep writing better and better books.
2. Form better relationships with your readers and create super fans
Remember our author above, with all the reviews and not-too-many sales? That happened because she had an amazing relationship with her readers.
Doing this is far simpler than it may seem. When readers email you, email them back. Be cool and treat them like people you value. When someone tells you nice things, say thank you. Be positive and cool on social media. Be kind when you meet readers in person. When you send broadcast emails to your list, ask them to email you back. Ask for their favorite parts of your books. Ask what they’d like to see more of.
Common sense stuff. You’re a human, right? For best results, act like one.
3. Guide your regular reviewers about what to say
YES, you can do this. You can tell people what to say in their reviews of your books.
Don’t write reviews for your readers to post, and don’t pay people for reviews or otherwise give them perks in exchange for online praise … but you can absolutely, positively offer tips and preferences on the kind of reviews you’re looking for.
A lot of people don’t really know how to write a good book review. They’ll either write, Fun read and leave it at that, or they’ll explain how your book was part of their enjoyable vacation. Readers will often write summaries of your books instead of reviewing them. Sometimes reviewers will include spoilers … and sometimes, they’ll go the exact opposite direction and be so vague, the review could be about an all-purpose cleaner and nobody would know the difference.
So while you can’t hold a reviewer’s hand, you can tell them what makes a good review — with “good” in this case meaning “a review that helps you out and might turn potential buyers into actual buyers.”
Ask them to be specific, explaining why someone like them would like a book like this. Did it have a role-model protagonist? Did it explore important themes? Did it compel them to keep reading no matter what, even to the exclusion of sleep or work?
The idea is simple: Ask for what you want, and you’ll be more likely to get it.
Be your own person
I know you know this, but it’s worth putting out there in so many words: The reviews you get don’t define your work, or you as an author. The sum total of who you are, what you represent, what you’re trying to say or what you succeed in saying, the ambitions you have and the legacy you’d like to leave … none of that is delineated and defined solely by the feedback you receive, either in written reviews or otherwise.
That’s obvious. We all know it. But we don’t always act (or believe, or feel) as if it’s true.
I’m stating it specifically to end this article is because while this little guide is meant to help you deal with and improve your reviews, it should always be kept in its place.
What matters is you, your work, your stories, and your longevity in this career.
Strive for good feedback whenever you can, of course. But keep in mind: What the world thinks about what you do does not define it.
Now get out there and start changing the world with your stories!
How to Write Fast - FREE Download!
In the indie publishing world of rapid releases and blistering word counts, it’s easy to end up burned out with subpar work, and a loss of the enjoyment that once fueled your craft.
There’s a better way...
Claim your free download: