Chip MacGregor

April 26, 2016

Ask the Agent: What do I do when I get a bad review on Amazon?


We’re doing “Ask the Agent,” when you can ask anything you want of a literary agent. Someone wrote to ask, “What do I do when I get a negative review on Amazon? I just got a terrible review on my most recent book, and it’s not fair.”

It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology. I know… I’ve been there. 

Writing is a scary thing.

I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and events in publishing, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was weak or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally practiced. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice. Or to say something awful. 

So if you’re asked to review a book that’s bad, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love. 

Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive set of reviews, but  I don’t have to deal with any fall-out. Maybe that’s why so many of us tend to discount what we read on Amazon — we’ve seen too many reviews from mothers and friends to accept the glowing evaluations as honest. On the other hand, if a magazine or website hires me to do a review, I have to be as honest as possible, even if that means sounding critical. 

When you get a book published by Amazon, you allow yourself to be criticized. That just comes with the territory. And if you’re going to be out there allowing reviews, you’ve got to be willing to listen to someone say they don’t like you or your work. And, when it happens, you need to sit back and take it. 

You rarely win anything by defending yourself. And you NEVER win anything by attacking back. A couple of times I’ve worked with authors who wanted to write in a defense or a clarification after experiencing a bad review. But offering an explanation for a bad review never works. My advice? Forget it. Put the bad review in a box, set it behind you, and move on. We all get bad reviews, we all get some personal attacks, we’re all going to face readers or reviewers who sometimes JUST DON’T LIKE US. That’s life. 

That’s especially true with books, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You might write something you think is deep and thoughtful — but a reader might find it silly and turgid. Guess what? That’s the life of the writer. If you can’t live with criticism, pick a different career. NOBODY is universally beloved in this business. There were people who hated Mark Twain. There are people who buy horror-porn and think it’s enjoyable. Different strokes for different folks. 

Look, when someone attacked me recently for my political views, I should have brushed it off. When I responded negatively to her, SHE should have brushed it off. The fact is, none of us can read the minds of others. Maybe she really doesn’t like me (hard to believe, since I’m so flipping wonderful, but it’s happened to me before). Or maybe, just maybe, hers was an honest response, and I should just shut up about it. There’s something to be said for keeping your mouth shut and not whining. 

Kurt Vonnegut once talked about the unfairness of personal attacks in bad reviews, claiming rage and loathing for a novel is “preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” When you get a bad review, recognize the attack for what it is (small-mindedness, misunderstanding, a chance for the attacker to make herself feel better… or, perhaps most commonly, an honest response to something not suited to the reviewer’s tastes). Then forget about it. Go read a positive review to make up for it, ignore the bad one, and move on to something else.

By the way, if you’re enjoying “Ask the Agent,” check out the book Holly Lorincz and I wrote that answers a bunch of questions writers have of agents…Questions Book Cover


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  • J.R. Duren says:


    Great article. Myself and fellow authors under the same publishing company have been debating this issue for a couple of weeks on and off. Some are in the camp of scrambling to cover up bad reviews with good ones, citing the need to have a lion-like approach to our book,s success as opposed a sheep-like approach (I agree…we need more lions).

    As I’ve noted in these discussions, I take the same position you do. If you get a bad review, let it ride and move on. I’m not a big fan of pushing free copies on friends and family so they’ll suffocate the one-star review with a mountain of five-star reviews that are more favors than they are objective observations.

    But that’s just me. I take an athlete’s approach, I suppose. You can’t ask ESPN to bury your bad highlight under a bunch of good ones. A bad review is a bad review. A good book will overcome a bad review.

    However, there is something to be said about the effect of bad reviews on book sales. Do you have any suggestions for industry organizations who document these effects and produce hard data about, let’s say, sales declines after 1-star reviews? This would be a great help.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a great question, J.R., because there’s a lot of talk about the impact of one-star reviews. However, the data I’ve seen so far has been far more anecdotal than hard (i.e., authors claiming the one-star review hurt their sales, rather than someone taking a more thorough review of sales trends after a bad review). I can tell you that the books I’ve represented that have had the most one-star reviews tend to be books that are doing really well and therefore getting a wide audience… which probably signifies nothing, unfortunately. Love the question; not sure I have a good answer yet.

    • J.R. Duren says:

      Chip, thanks for the response. I think you’re in the same boat as many industry professionals. So if we don’t have specific metrics, are we just voodooing our way around strategies to combat bad reviews?

  • Angela K Couch says:

    That’s the great thing about taking the traditional publishing route. You should be used to that sort of rejection before your book hits Amazon. 😉

  • lynn says:

    And to your point, Chip, exclusively positive reviews make the reader suspicious that you’re lining up all your friends and relatives to say glowing things. At least the occasional negative review might give potential readers more reason to trust that the reviews are real. Sometimes I have to remind myself that SOMEBODY out there loves 50 Shades of Grey, and they are probably the same people who write complaining reviews about Christian books. Thanks, as always, for your insights.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      ***** (five stars) – I found this comment to helpful and insightful. You’ll enjoy it. -Melvin P. Hickenlooper

  • Well said, Chip. The kindest person in the world is not going to be liked by everyone. But you know what? It’s not like I like everyone I’ve ever met, either.

    The same is true for books. It is like you said, “in the eye of the beholder.”

    I have learned something from critical reviews, especially when more than three people give essentially the same criticism.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent point, Saloma — sometimes several people will point out something that’s correct, and we haven’t seen (or we haven’t wanted to face) because we were too close to it.

  • Peggotty says:

    I received feedback from my first internet troll a few weeks ago. At first I was devastated. It was personal. He called me names and accused me of wasting ink and news space, forgetting to add air. Since it was a post on a local news link, I answered him graciously by inviting him to tell me what he really thought and to offer suggestions for future topics. It’s hilarious now, but I spent time I could have used writing, trying to verify myself, bolster my self esteem, and seek out famous writers who had been reviled and lived to tell the tale, which would include all. It’s human to feel the sting. Just don’t scratch.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Great advice, Peggotty! Thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate that. I think it’s helpful for writers to hear from others how they handle a situation.

  • Allen says:

    I wrote an article once for an Lebanese English newspaper. One of the many things I said. “Terrorism is not about religion, it is about culture”. I got hate mail, a couple of death threatening messages and few bad reviews. On the other side of the scale was hundreds 5 Stars. I did not answer any of the bad reviews, there was nothing to gain but fuel the controversy. I know nothing sells better than a good heated controversy, but I was not selling the paper. In my humble opinion, any review is better than none.

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