Monday, December 5, 2011

ASK PZM: Dec 2011 reviews


Q: If I ask for reviews for my novel, but some of them are negative, should I still post them?

This question is actually a much larger question – the whole arena of negative reviews.

Let’s start with Amazon:

As you may know, people are often suspicious when they see only 5-star reviews for a book. Even if all the 5-star reviews are authentic, there’s a feeling that not everyone likes the same book.

In other words, a partially negative review could be a benefit because it could help all the 5-star reviews look more authentic.

Tip about Amazon Author Pages: You can now get a customized URL for your page. I just got mine – )

And while we are on the subject of Amazon, make sure for 2012 that you have updated both your Amazon public profile (the one that connects with book reviews you do on the site) as well as your Author Page. This includes adding to your Author Page any new blog feeds, which I just did for my new site (an attempt to combine my books and my volunteer activities into one coherent site).

Now let’s move on specifically to negative reviews:

Sometimes you ask someone to review your book and the person writes back that he/she could not give you a positive review so do you still want the review written? In this case I think it is perfectly fine to thank the person but say you do not want the review.

(Remember, a negative review is not necessarily about your book; it can often be about something in the reader’s life that triggers a negative reaction to the subject matter. I actually saw an example of this early on with my novel “Mrs. Lieutenant,” which takes place during the Vietnam War.)

Then there is the case when someone has posted a review of your book that is so off the mark that you feel compelled to answer. Now you cannot answer a review directly, but you can write a blog post elsewhere to address the subject. I did this for my ebook technothriller “Lt. Commander Mollie Sanders” in this blog post “A Fictional Character Is Fiction” at

Later this book got a negative review on Smashwords that I’m still shaking my head over. Here is part of that review (with its punctuation and grammar errors):

… I suspect more attention to what naval ranks can do (Lt Commander is a low rank) more consistency in what characters are called (too often characters are giving different names)…

First, a lieutenant commander is NOT a low rank in the Navy. It is the equivalent of a major in the U.S. Army, and LCDRs can indeed (and do) command ships. In the ebook, Mollie Sanders being the third highest-ranking officer on a sub is NOT incorrect.

Second, the switch in names has to do with point of view. If the POV is of Mollie Sanders, then she refers to people the way she thinks of them. When the POV (in a different section of the book) is of a different character, he/she refers to people the way he/she thinks of them.
But again, there is nothing I can do about this review (which currently is the ONLY review for “Lt. Commander Mollie Sanders” on the ebook’s Smashwords page).

In other words, I have to grin and bear it.

Now a little more about the situation when you are directly sent a negative review and given the choice whether to use it.

One suggestion is to look carefully at the review. It is really incorrectly negative or are there worthwhile suggestions in it?

My co-author (and husband) Mitch and I got one rather even-handed review for “Lt. Commander Mollie Sanders” in which we both felt the “negative” comments had some merit. Thus we felt the review was okay because it expressed a different perspective on the book.

(The negative reactions have tended to be from MEN in the military who want to believe that WOMEN in the military are treated really well. As the co-host of a year-long BlogTalkRadio interview show about the military, I heard plenty of first-hand testimony that this is not necessarily true. But I understand that people like to believe the world exists as they see it.)

I have used several personal examples in the answer to this question because I believe that we authors have to clearly understand that the reason for negative reviews often has nothing to do with our books. And we must keep this in mind when evaluating the negative reviews.

It is important to distinguish that a review may not be negative overall. It may only have one negative section that clearly reveals more about the reviewer than it does about the book.
And then there is the question of Amazon unilaterally eliminating reviews of our books, whether those reviews were overall positive or negative. We discussed this in the November “Ask PZM” – “Is Amazon a friend or foe of authors?”

Let me pose a question in return for this month’s column:

How influential do you believe reviews are to people’s interest in reading a book? (I’m not talking about reading reviews to know about a book without actually reading the book. I’m talking about reviews that motivate a reader to buy/read the book.)

In other words, how powerful a motivator is a positive review and how damaging is a negative review? Are there times when a negative review might actually encourage people to read the book?

"More Changes on Amazon for Authors -- and More Confusion"

© 2011 Miller Mosaic LLC

Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller on Twitter) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the co-founder of the marketing consulting company Miller Mosaic LLC, which works with clients including book authors to effectively use social media, blogging and WordPress websites.

She is also the author of fiction and nonfiction books and has a new website at about her books and her volunteer activities.


  1. Negative reviews aren't fun, but they are a part of life. One negative review that I got for my booklet was hard to swallow, but when I read more closely, I could see that it was just not what this person was expecting (and not what the booklet was intended for either). Having a good perspective and reading between the lines does help us approach negative feedback more positively and constructively. Thanks so much, Phyllis, for the wise words and encouragement. Thanks, Joylene, for hosting her!

  2. Great thoughts! The positive being balanced by the negative is something that I learned as a psychology student. When writing a recommendation letter, it is often better to write a few positive statements balanced out by one negative statement. This encourages the reader to believe that the recommendation is actually reliable! Interesting, eh? So yes, negative reviews are actually a good thing.

    Also, I think negative reviews are essential for a controversial topic, because it gets readers thinking. For instance, as you stated, Phyllis, the role of men vs. women in the military is a hot topic amongst many. Men commenting negatively on this aspect might actually inspire women to buy your book.

    Thanks for a fresh look at negative reviews!

  3. Karen and Adriana --

    Thanks to both of you for such thoughtful comments about my post on negative reviews.

    We have to remember that often negative reviews are not about us but about the reviewer.

    And then we have to move on instead of dwelling on a negative review.


  4. Three years ago, I asked a reviewer to consider doing a book review for Dead Witness. About two weeks later, she wrote to say she didn't enjoy the book and would I still like her review. I thanked her and said no. But it always bothered me. I think I should have read it first, then made the decision. I based my decision on fear.

    Thanks Phyllis, for addressing such an important issue.

    Thanks, Karen and Adriana, for supporting this blog. Have a terrific week, everybody.

  5. I absolutely love your posts Phyllis! The information you give authors is invaluable. Thank you do much for this and all you do.

    Joylene, thank YOU for hosting such a gem.

  6. Karen, you're very welcome! Have a great day.

  7. The short answer is "ignore them." A longer answer is more nuanced. First, does the reviewer "get" the subject or not? If not, then the "ignore" part is easy. Bad reviews more often than not tell more about the biases and expectations of the reviewer than the quality of the work itself. Years ago during my comic book years, one magazine published a review of a comics title so evisceratingly scathing that it backfired--the comic's publisher used excerpts from the review in ads as a form of reverse endorsement--"Check us out and see if we're really as bad as they claim we are!" It worked. Occasionally there'll be a review that does point out faults or weaknesses, and that can be useful. The worst thing you can do is write to the reviewer's publication and/or site, or post your comments in your blog or other social venue. While that may make the author feel good at the moment, it never ends well.

  8. Some great advice here, Phyllis. Some reviewers I've met are quite supportive, while others come across as frustrated armchair critics. As you say, a review is often more about the reviewer. I don't think I'd want to be one. Belonging to a critique group is hard enough. In the writing class I attend, the rule on critiquing is to always say something positive before you make suggestions. As Adriana said, balancing the positive and negative. Nice job dealing with this sensitive issue.

  9. For a slight shift of focus, I did some reviewing a few years ago, and decided, out of fairness, to review self-published works as well. Bad decision. Most were agonisingly poor, and finding something encouraging to write was a challenge.

    Then came one that was absolutely terrible. A cliched story, poorly written and totally unedited. I wound up searching for passages I might like that I could praise, but the whole thing was a lemon.

    I wrote a review that was basically addressed to the author explaining why he should take it down (I think it was on Lulu) and work on it some more.

    My wife was angry at me and read the book herself; in agonisingly slow doses I noticed. When she finally struggled to the end and we discussed it she said parts were not bad, but she'd never read anything else of his. Yes, I said, that's what I was telling him.

    He was devastated by the review and asked us to take it down, which we did. I still have the book among some slightly less bad ones that I thought I might donate for the library's book sale, but I don't think I would want to include it. I don't hate fellow readers that much, LOL.

  10. Karen (Cote) -- Thanks so much for such a lovely comment! I am so pleased you find my information valuable.

    Pat, I like your expression "frustrated armchair critics." Yes, some people do enjoy belittling others. And as authors we have to rise about this.

    Christopher, you raise an interesting point. Do reviewers have a responsibility to save some authors from themselves?

    I think you did a service to the author you described because, if he took your advice to remove his book until he had improved it, you saved him from further embarrassment.

  11. (Originally posted on MWSA FB page) I whole heartedly agree with Dwight on this. While "bad" reviews are likely to occur at some point in an authors career, the author must maintain a professional profile and fight the urge to lash back. Instead, decipher the comments, find what is useful in the reviewer's remarks and ignore the rest. Use it however you can - whether it be to improve your work or in the marketing of the book. You will be the better person for it.
    P.S. As always, Phyllis does an amazing job demonstrating various ways to approach a negative review. She is to be highly commended. I would also like to thank the others who have posted comments prior to mine. Lots of encouraging statements. I fully enjoyed the post and will be sharing it. Thank you.
    Maria Edwards

  12. @Dwight, thanks for your input. Ignoring them is always an option. I think the problem is do bad reviews help sales. I don't think it hurt james Frey.

    @Hi Pat. I know when I receive a crit, balance makes all the difference. At least that's what my fragile ego thinks.

    @Chris, I'm shocked that you upset Shirley and are still breathing. Bad Chris! And yes, don't donate the books. Maybe drop them off at the nearest jail.

    @Phyllis, I love your posts! Hope you're having a wonderful day, week, month.

  13. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment, Maria. For your convenience there are many more ASK PZM articles under Phyllis'name in labels at the bottom of my blog.

    Have a great day.

  14. Maria, thanks so much for reposting here your comment from Military Writers Society of America's Facebook group. And even more thanks for the lovely P.S.

  15. Responding publicly to a negative review, no matter how gently, tends to raise the question of defending something that shouldn't need defense if it's good enough. We all probably remember Ayelet Waldman's Twitter meltdown over husband Michael Chabon's bad reviews. And Jacqueline Howett's online tantrum over hers. Of course they were both extreme cases, but we remember the books for all the wrong reasons.

    I loved John Locke's comment on his blog about bad reviews: "I like bourbon, my wife likes beer. My kids are too young to drink. You can pour the finest single-barrel bourbon in the world into a tumbler and set it on the counter of my bar, and it’s only going to be right for one out of the four people in my house. Are you gonna sit there and try to tell me that whoever created that fine Kentucky bourbon sucks at what he does because 3 out of 4 people give it a thumbs down?"

    I have to admit I don't read reviews (and seldom give them). I know my taste won't be the same as someone else's, so I prefer to browse the stores and choose books based on my own reaction to the blurbs/covers/titles. I might miss something good that way, but recommendations from friends usually fill the gaps.

    A good thought-provoking post, Katherine and Joylene. Thanks!

  16. Sorry, I meant "Phyllis", of course. Don't know where my mind is today! :)

  17. Good points, Carol. We have to have such thick skins, we authors. I'll admit I do read reviews. I like to know if normal people like me got anything out of the read. Mostly because my book budget is so small, and I hate spending money on a bad book. I'm thinking mostly non-fiction in this case.

  18. The one negative review I got was from a person who didn't understand the substory and hence couldn't understand the characters. I wrote a blog post about it, explaining the substory -- didn't really accomplish much, but I got it out of my head an on my blog where it belongs.

    Recently I got a very favorable review, but the review gave away the ending. She was kind, though, and removed the sentence when I asked her to. It's not always possible to do that, though, so mostly I try to ignore such faux pas and hope it doesn't affect people who want to buy the book.

  19. Carol -- Thanks for the informative comment -- especially the story from John Locke.

    And I always wonder why reviewers give away "twists" or the "ending." A good reviewer should know better than that.

  20. I think negative reviews can get a reader to read the book. Personally as a reader I have read books with negative reviews because I wanted to see for myself if it was true. It just depends on how the review is written.
    Good post Phyllis. It made me think about reviews and how I'd like to write them :)

  21. As an Amazon reviewer, I agree completely. If you ask someone for a review, you have to take your lumps.

    I wouldn't take criticism too seriously. Reviewers are not trying to be objective or helpful. Hire your own editor and writing coach or join a writing group.

    Reviewers will drive you crazy. They give away endings (sometimes it's hard to recognize a spoiler), get facts wrong and more. I'd let it go. If you have a good book, you will get good reviews.

  22. Great post! I found many things to ponder.

    I am reminded of a negative review I received early on about my second book...and in retrospect, it wasn't really "negative." It was a four star review, but the reviewer commented on my use of explicit sex in some scenes, which she found distasteful.

    In light of your post, I can see that these views had more to do with her than the book. She had some strong feelings against explicit sex.

    The interesting thing that came about, though, was that the further comments indicated interest from some who might not have even noticed the book. So in some ways, the "negative" sparked curiosity.

  23. @Pat, it's lucky you were able to catch it before it was too late. Although, I should admit that I've often read novels where I knew the ending. It was the joy of reading their prose that urged me on.

    @Freya, that's not the first time I've heard that. I feel the same way. If somebody tells me I won't like something, my back automatically goes up.

    @Cathy, good points. As writers we need to be thick skinned. Especially if we want readers to be attracted to our books. Reviews have their place.

    @Laurel, sounds like she did you a favour. Aren't human beings fascinating creatures.

  24. Freya, Cathy and Pat -- Thanks for adding comments.

    And I think Cathy will be okay with my sharing this story:

    I approached her 3 1/2 years ago (I didn't know her then) to review my novel MRS. LIEUTENANT for Amazon as she is a top Amazon reviewer.

    Cathy replied that she didn't like to review first novels because they usually weren't good, but the decision was up to me. I said I would take my chances. And, lucky for me, she ended up liking the novel.

    In truth, though, this wasn't the biggest risk it might seem. I had worked with an editorial consultant to deal with some issues that needed resolving, and I then rewrote the novel AGAIN!

    I had also taught copyediting courses at Temple University Center City, so I was reasonably confident that I had a minimum of errors in the book.

    Then I entered the manuscript in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition and the novel was selected as a semifinalist.

    The major risk factor: I think Cathy might be close to my own age. And that means the Vietnam War would have been personal for her. Depending on her own reactions to that war, the review could have been impacted by those reactions.

  25. THanks for sharing your story, Phyllis. It resonants with me on many levels. My 3rd chronological novel is titled Kiss of the Assassin. It's a thriller romance novel about two people who survived the war. I wrote it in the 90's, then started querying agents. For 4 years every single one of them told me nobody was interested in the Vietnam war. Considering myself a mini-expert on the subject, I was shocked, so I quit querying. To this day I still think it's the best novel I've written. Hearing about your success is very encouraging.

  26. Joylene -

    If KISS OF THE ASSASSIN has never been published, consider publishing it now just as an ebook and see what happens.

    And, yes, I've heard agents, etc. say no one is interested in the Vietnam War, which only means they are not interested in the Vietnam War. It does not mean the reading public isn't interested.

  27. Thanks, Phyllis. As soon as I finish with my next book, I'll start querying again. If that doesn't work, I'll try my ebook publisher. Certainly wouldn't hurt to try.

  28. Negative reviews are never nice, whether you're reading them or writing them. As a writer I try to ignore negative reviews or learn from them, because not everyone is going to like your book (even if you secretly hope they will).
    As a reviewer I write my reviews from the point of view as a reader, to inform other readers. I always try to make my reviews balanced, although once or twice that has been difficult. It's hard sometimes not to criticize obvious writing mistakes or to gush when you read a book you love.

  29. So true, Anita. The sooner every writer learns to grow thick skin, the better. I have to confess that I'm a wuss when it comes to negative-anything. But I'm learning to hide it and carry on.

    Thanks for stopping by, Anita. Merry Christmas.

  30. I cannot fairly answer as I've only had 100% stellar you catch my nose growing there? LOL..

    At first, anything---anything at all---negative about my book stung. I've learned to take it all in stride, find the feedback interesting and sometimes very helpful.

    I've bitten my tongue to keep from protesting some,though, where they mis-read something or just completely did not get it.

    One review, in French, even said my book was a tasty but ugly souffle. I am STILL trying to determine the meaning of that.

    Interesting post and I enjoyed the comments, too!


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