Reading feedback from your readers can be a frightening experience, similar to a terrifying but thrilling roller coaster. A good review launches you to the highest heights and a bad or mediocre review can send your self-worth plummeting into the deepest depths of darkness. A five-star review says you are worthy of life, a one- or two-star review says you should rethink all your life choices.
So, should you read them? Or ignore them?
Let’s look at the potential gains and losses to decide.
Bad reviews are hard to read. After publishing my first book, I would a review that was less than amazing and the words would get in to my head, haunting me every time I sat down to write. The mostly honest, sometimes brutal feedback was hard to take and it was crushing to my ambition and my fledgling self-confidence. But then I would read a great five-star review and my confidence would climb and my motivation to write more and better increased.
Good reviews were helpful and inspiring but bad reviews were awful and demoralizing. For a time, I stopped reading any reviews at all because I couldn’t look at my reviews and only choose to see the good ones. But not reading any reviews ever didn’t work for me either, because I needed to see what my readers liked. To see that someone somewhere did indeed like my books and my writing. It was a dilemma. I really needed the positive affirmation but I couldn’t find a way to get it without injuring my delicate psyche. I’m only now, five years after publishing my first book, brave enough to even admit that I had/have such a volatile relationship with feedback but that’s a different blog post for a different day.
I needed feedback, but depending on the day, what kind of feedback I needed changed. And I couldn’t cherry pick the reviews that I saw. Even during the time that I was actively not reading my reviews, I would still sneak over to Amazon and peek through my fingers, scanning for a five-star review to provide a hit to my self-confidence. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want feedback. I’m committed to self-growth and that only happens when you are open to criticism, but the old adage of praise in public and criticize in private really stuck with me. An email from a reader with constructive feedback was much easier to take than a highly public 2-star forever etched on my book’s page on Amazon. I did this psychotic dance with reviews and criticism for almost three years.
It wasn’t until after I published my fourth book, Maya Vanishing, in 2015 that I began to change my attitude towards reading reviews. I read a couple of reviews that were so diametrically opposed to one another that it changed everything for me. Changed so much, in fact, that I’m going to actually quote a two-star review here, right in this article. Five years ago I would have preferred to cut off a finger than to advertise that there were people who didn’t love my work. Because if anyone didn’t like my work, it must have meant that my work was crap. Extreme thinking, much?
Deep breath. Here’s the bad review.
“I purchased this sequel to Roanoke [Vanishing], hoping it would get better. Didn’t. The writing never improved. There was tremendous physical violence against the main character, Avery. The ending was wholly unsatisfying. Just cannot manage a third one, should there be one. I’ll have to continue to wonder what happened to the Mayans…”
Punch to the gut, right? So much to be sad about. They didn’t think my writing was good or getting better. They didn’t like some elements of the story, including the ending. They won’t read the third book when it comes out. The hits keep coming. This is the kind of review that would send me under the covers for days, questioning all my life choices and regretting all the things including my choice to have children and spread my horrible cursed lack of talent to a future generation.
But then, I see this review. Same book. Ready? (This one is easier for me because it’s five-star and somehow validates my life choices up until this point, including what I had for dinner last night.)
“I became enthralled by this book from the very first sentence. I started it this morning and was unable to put it down. I finished it early this evening. Great quick read! I highly recommend this book.”
What in the what, right? How could two people read the exact same thing and have completely different perspectives. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, right?
Here’s the take home message and it’s something my grandma probably taught me when I was a little girl but I somehow refused to believe. I can hear her now, “You can’t please all the people all the time, Auburn.”
And that’s the secret to reviews, really. Recognizing that your reviews actually help you to define your target audience, your ideal reader. I needed to understand that those folks leaving five-star reviews were my people. They loved my stuff. The two-star review folks, they weren’t my audience. There’s gold in recognizing that and suddenly, with that perspective shift, there is a wealth of information to mine from my reviews. Now I can look at them for useful information. Who are my people? What else do they like to read? How can I market to those people. And what is that those folks like about my writing? Find that out and do more of it, right? See, a veritable gold mine.
But first I had to get over the crushing feeling that someone, somewhere would read my stuff and want to throw it in the trash because it was too terrible (to them) to be worthy of existing and I had to bury the innate tendency I had to apply that lack of worth to my person. A review on my book was not commentary on my value as a human.
The take home here is this: toughen up, accept the reality that you can’t please ’em all, and then read your reviews and use them as a tool to make you a better writer, a more successful marketer, and a more secure professional. (And a less neurotic human.)
Reviews are your friend. Read them, learn from them, and then become better!
For more tips on author education, including videos and articles, check out Learn Self-Publishing Fast.