Chip MacGregor

April 27, 2012

Who do you do with a bad review?


Colleen wrote me and said, “I just got a terrible review on Amazon. I hate even going there to look at it. Tell me, what do you do with a bad review?”

It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever.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, and 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. 

Writing is a scary thing.

I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and articles, 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 stupid or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally respected. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice, or to say nothing at all. 

So if you’re asked to review a book that’s awful, 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. It’s those sorts of jobs that can get you into trouble.

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 simply 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. 

A while back I did an interview with an online magazine. It was just a Q-and-A thing, and it was fun. I was maybe a little acerbic at times, but the whole tenor of the thing was to give good info to people in an entertaining way. As a response, one writer who didn’t like my answers decided to create her own “Chip MacGregor Is A Heretic” website. (I’m not making this up. She was particularly concerned because I poked fun at “conservative Christian home-school moms in blue denim jumpers and their hair in a bun.” Which, you’ve got to admit, is a fairly decent description. I had to laugh at the two women who wrote in to defend blue denim jumpers.) Anyway, she got a bit personal, and when one person wrote in to say to her, “you know, you sound a little upset about all this,” the creator of the site went to great lengths to explain that she’s not mad, she’s standing up for truth, justice, the American way, blah blah blah. 


What she failed to mention was that I’d toasted her a couple times on an ezine for saying really stupid things. So this was her way of getting back. Except it doesn’t work that way. You rarely win anything by attacking someone. 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 it, pick a different career. NOBODY is universally beloved in this business. (There were people who hated Mark Twain. There are people who buy the silly horror-porn written by Jon Konrath and think it’s enjoyable. Different strokes for different folks.) 

Look, when someone attacked me, 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. I don’t really know what she was thinking — maybe I really AM a heretic. 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, forget the bad one, and move on to something else.  

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  • Cosmorchestra says:

    I thank you so much fort your wonderful invitation and encouragement of my gloriuos art.And they’s lots more where that came from!!! Cheers, John  Dark Bumbling Badgers Dark Bumbling Badgers
    perambulate along the walls
    of the darkened library.
    They seek the truth.
    They have heard the
    diatribes of the Troglodytes. 
    Have they heard the truth?
    Dark Bumbling Badgers
    Perambulate along the walls
    of the darkened library.
    Kitty Kitty You

    Kitty kitty you
    Kitty Kitty me
    Kitty kitty thou
    Kitty Kitty thee
    Kitty Kitty them
    Kitty Kitty they
    Kitty Kitty in the pot
    Hey Hey Muktananda Hey hey Muktananda
    How you like it in the banda
    Just like Henry Fonda
    Playing in Aida!

  • Ann Nichols says:

    Absolutely correct. After all, the only review we really want to ace is the one we get when we stand before the judgement seat of God! Where reader reviews are concerned, well, its nice to hope that our readers like what we write – after all, we need to sell our books! – but if not, move on. It’s been my experience that for every one person who doesn’t like something I’ve written, hundreds do like it! Not bad odds. But where professional reviews are concerned, they are normally very worth listening to. A learning experience that helps the writer. (Maybe not on the first emotional read through… but afterwards!)
    By the by, great blog!

  • Maybe it’s because I have some age on me (61 and counting), but I’ve learned to be not so concerned about what other people think. As long as I set my heart to love God and to love people, I have the freedom to be me. I personally wouldn’t write negative reviews about the work of other people because I don’t want to offend anyone and because I realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has different tastes and different ideas–that is the beauty of the freedom we have as Christians.Those conservative women in blue denim jumpers (which I came close to in my younger years) have just as much right to their own ideals as I do to mine. In God’s kingdom, there is enough room for everyone.

    • Well said! I realized after I left my other comment that I didn’t get to the real issue, which is exactly what you said–not worrying about what other people think. “My heart trusts in the Lord; I shall not fear. What can man do to me?” Ps 56:11
      And aren’t we so blessed to be in a country where the worst that can happen is a bad review, not jail or death? As writers, let us bravely and honestly write the truth God puts on our hearts, and let us trust Him to handle the fallout.

  • Colleen, if you haven’t read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I’d recommend it. She writes so honestly about this terrifying life as a writer, how her first book got a bunch of horrible reviews at the beginning, how she always wondered if what she had to write was any good. I found that comforting. One speaker on a ACFW recording I heard said she was getting a bunch of bad reviews on Amazon because people didn’t know her books were Christian, and she just told herself, “That’s not my target market.” I was sad about my worst review until I realized it was from a woman who not only wasn’t a homeschooling mom (ahem) but not a mother at all, so she really wasn’t my target market! It was okay that she didn’t love the book; I wasn’t writing it for her. Anyway, Bird by Bird.

  • Cynthiahickey says:

    If I don’t like a book, I simply don’t review it. I’m not normally a publically correct person anyway, so reviewing a book I don’t love will only get me in trouble! 🙂

  • Karen says:

    I’ve seen a couple of published authors publicly bash a reviewer, once on a blog and once on Amazon. And in the second case, a large contigent of other writers came to the author’s defense and really stirred the pot into a smelly mess. Both times, it was painful to watch and I filed it away as a reminder of “what not to do.” Is there ever an appropriate time to respond to a bad review?

    • Chip says:

      Pretty rare for that to happen, in my view, Karen. Maybe, if the person got the facts wrong (I know people who have named the wrong book, or thought the author was someone else). But for the most part, don’t respond. Or, if you must, respond with grace. 

    • Nancy Ellen Hird says:

       What do you do, Chip, if the reviewer does have the wrong book. The book that is being reviewed has a similar title, but it is a different book which a casual reader to the web may not notice. Help!

    • Chip says:

      I’ve heard of that happening. In that case, I suppose I might try to contact the reviewer. But make sure it’s really the wrong book, Nancy. 

  • Ramona says:

    I’m going to save this to send to other authors. We all get bad reviews; my first book got a 2 from RT because the reviewer hated my heroine. Can’t do much about that one but learn from it. If you write Christian fiction, you’re going to get bad reviews because some reader didn’t realize it was a Christian book. If you write about mountains, someone’s going to hate on you because you didn’t write about the plains. One of my favorite Harlan Ellison quotations is “Any writer who can be discouraged, should be.” In other words, put down the review and go write something else. Oh, and I used to like blue denim jumpers until someone took a picture of me in one. After that, they all went to Goodwill. I was afraid someone would try to tether me to an aerial.

    • Ninie Hammon says:

      I was a journalist for 25 years and there’s no getting around bad “reviews” there. Put some guy’s name in the paper for Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants and you usually have an enemy for life. But most of the shots people like that take are aimed at “the editor,” and I was often not certain if they even knew my names. Other folks knew my name, though, and wrote some amazingly nasty things to me–which  I was under a moral obligation to PRINT in my own newspaper. Sheeesh. I didn’t want to grow a hide as tough as a rhino–it’s so unattractive, you know–so I made it a policy to read every negative letter ONE TIME. Thoroughly. After that, I never allowed myself to look at it again. (I had friends who could quote to you the entire text of every negative letter to the editor they ever got!) It is a mental discipline that has served me well in other endeavors in life. I’ve never gotten a scathing review of any of my novels, but if (when) I do, I hope I won’t lose sleep over it.

    • Chip says:

      Excellent advice, Ninie! Thanks very much. 

    • Chip says:

      Yeah — just go write something else. Good advice, Ramona. (As for blue denim jumpers… let’s leave them to homeschool moms and Amish wannabes.)

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