You’ve passed the first hurdle, getting your work published, and now it’s out there in the wild, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature. You’ve made it. Rejection is a thing of the past, a bad dream from which you have now awoken. Right?
The truth is the ante has been upped, and the stakes have been raised. Your work is now available to the—Gasp!—public. Unlike an editor who maintains some level of civility and professionalism when rejecting you, the book-reading world at large is under no such constraints. They can and will tell you exactly what they think in the most direct and even brutal fashion. An editor who doesn’t like your work will send you a vague form rejection filled with soft, professional niceties. A guy on the internet who doesn’t like your work will say you straight-up suck and the world should avoid your craptacular writing at all costs. That kind of stuff is certainly tough to hear when its aimed in your direction, but the public is plunking down their hard-earned cash, and this affords them the loudest (and sometimes cruelest) voice of all critics, the voice of the consumer. Brutal reviews hurt, no doubt, but they do keep you humble—they’ve certainly humbled the fuck out of me on occasion.
Okay, lets lay down some rules how to handle bad reviews. There’s really just one. Here it is. Do not respond to negative reviews. Let me repeat that. Never, ever respond to a negative review. Ever. There’s practically no way to avoid looking like you can’t take a little criticism. And by responding, I don’t mean just on Amazon or wherever the review actually happened. I also think it’s a bad idea to call attention to the review on your Facebook page, your Twitter account, or even your blog (it’s really the same thing as responding). You’ll notice I haven’t posted any of my bad reviews here. That’s not because I’ve never received one; trust me, I have paid my dues. This is just an instance where I actually follow my own advice.
Worse than possibly making you look bad in public, responding to bad reviews has the potential to fuck you in ways you can’t even imagine. There have been numerous incidents where authors have responded to negative reviews in shockingly childish ways, and then the tantrum goes viral. You can guess what happens next. The internet unleashes its full and not-so righteous fury upon the offending writer. I’m not going to link to any of the specific incidents because, honestly, I don’t want to pile on, and I think these authors have done their penance. If you really have to see for yourself, just type something like “authors responding to bad reviews” into Google and let the horror unfold. If that shit doesn’t convince you, nothing will.
In each case where an author has misbehaved and it’s gone viral, the author did himself or herself no favors by calling attention to the review. Yeah, the internet is forever, but it’s also filled to the brim and overflowing with a constant stream of digital diarrhea. Chances are a bad review will be buried under a hundred layers of cat videos and dick pics within days. So leave those bad reviews alone and let them fade away.
But what if something in the bad review is factually wrong? I don’t think you should respond to that either. Look, if you’ve got fans, people who like what you write, and someone posts a review of your work that is factually wrong, your fans are going to let that reviewer know, and they don’t have to be nice about it. I’ve seen reviewers get absolutely savaged by an author’s fans over an abusive or factually dubious review. Someone stumbling upon that review after your fans have had their way with the reviewer is not likely to think negatively about the author. Now, if it’s something really egregious or straight up libel, you probably should take action, but I still don’t think that action should be responding directly to the review. For starters, almost every place someone can post a review, someone can report that review and potentially have it removed. You can totally be that someone.
At the end of the day, no matter how good something is perceived to be, there will always be someone who hates it. This goes for every writer under the sun, even the greats. For example, look at a real titan of speculative fiction, George R.R. Martin, whose success is undeniably gigantic and whose work I enjoy. Go out to Amazon, look up the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, Game of Thrones, and look at the reviews. George has a whopping 7,290 reviews on Amazon, and 73% of those are of the gushing, five-star variety, but 4%, that’s 303 people, think he’s terrible and gave the book one star. Are those 303 people wrong for not like Martin’s work? Nope, and the people who don’t like your work or my work or any writer’s work aren’t wrong either. Reviews are someone’s opinion, and opinions are not objectively wrong.
As a writer, you just have to come to grips with the fact that despite all the success and accolades you might acquire, someone is looking at something you wrote and thinking, “Well, this is shit.” It will always be that way, and accepting it is just another step along the winding road of Rejectomancy.