When you put your book out into the world you are hoping to find its biggest champions and most devoted fans. But, of course, no one book will appeal to everyone. Especially for first-time authors, receiving critical reviews and feedback can be frustrating and disheartening. It never feels great to read a critical review of your work, but there are some important things to keep in mind to help you consider critical reviews in a constructive and level-headed way.
Look at reviews for similar titles
If you want to get a sense of what kind of feedback you can expect for your book, take a look at how NetGalley members and consumer reviewers have responded to similar books. Browse the catalog to find these and you’ll start to get a qualitative idea of the spread of opinions when looking at comparative titles to your book. Make sure that when you are looking at reviews of comp titles – either on NetGalley or elsewhere – that you are looking at books in a similar genre and from a similar author or publisher. For example, if you are a debut thriller author working with an indie publisher, try looking at thrillers from other indie publishers rather than books written by well-established authors at the biggest publishing houses. Plus, for an extra reminder that even the most beloved books still get critical reviews, check out these one star reviews of The Great Gatsby.
Remember that star ratings are relative
Star ratings are entirely subjective. For some reviewers, a 5 star review might be reserved for their absolute favorite books – the ones they’d bring to a desert island and the ones that they give as gifts to friends year after year. For others, the same star rating might that a book was an enjoyable afternoon diversion. The same general principle should be applied to lower star ratings, as well. A 3-star review might be a positive review in the eyes of the reviewer, full of thoughtful and useful observations about your work.
We know it’s hard not to get hung up on these numbers when ratings may affect algorithms for discovery on certain platforms (this is not the case on NetGalley), but keep in mind that reviews and ratings are not something you can police. Since they are subjective, each reviewer has to make this decision for themselves.
Resist the urge to respond
When you read reviews, you might be itching to reach out the reviewer and tell them why their interpretation is misguided or to defend your book. This is a perfectly natural desire, but we recommend resisting the impulse. We all know that tagging authors in critical reviews is poor internet etiquette, but it does happen. If you get tagged in a negative review on social media, the reviewer who is tagging you is more likely to be looking for some social media attention rather than providing you with meaningful feedback. Don’t feed the trolls. Plus, when authors try to defend their work on social media, it often ends up reflecting poorly on the author, rather than prompt a thoughtful consideration from the reviewer. This urge affects established authors as well as debut authors. Even Zoë Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal wrote in the New York Times that she has mentally composed replies to the critics who she feels have slighted her. But, crucially, she has never sent them.
Glean valuable data in critical reviews
Sometimes critical reviews can help you better target the right kinds of readers, or tweak your marketing copy. For example, if you have been promoting your book as YA, but critical reviews are saying that it’s too young for a teen audience, consider positioning it as a Middle Grade book instead. Or, if reviewers are expressing surprise at the content, consider revising the way you are describing your book. You want to entice readers, but you also want to find the readers who are most likely to enjoy your book as it is.
DNF reviews contain valid feedback
NetGalley Sales Associate Katie Versluis works with our community of self-published authors. She has seen first-hand how authors have responded to DNF reviews (Did Not Finish reviews). She told NetGalley Insights that while DNF reviews “may sting after the years of work you just put into this book, they can actually be quite useful to you as you position yourself in the book world.” She advises authors to think about why a reviewer decided not to finish their book. “[Your book] may simply not have been their cup of tea, but [a DNF review] may also bring an entirely new understanding to your book that you hadn’t thought of yourself. In the past, I’ve worked with an author who did a complete re-editing on their book because an early DNF review alerted them to language they didn’t realize was offensive. The review certainly wasn’t “nice” to receive, but it became a blessing in disguise.”
At NetGalley, we recognize that DNF reviews can be valuable, but that they don’t always provide the same kinds of intel as regular, full reviews. That’s why if a NetGalley member does not finish a book, they can close the feedback loop by selecting the Will Not Give Feedback option. This allows them to move a title off their Shelf and give authors and publishers the reasons why they did not finish a given book.
Give yourself time to develop a thick skin
Receiving critical reviews are always challenging, but it will get easier over time. Be patient with yourself when you find yourself dwelling on critical reviews. Talk to your editor, agent, publicist, and fellow authors to get tips on how they recommend handling critical reviews, and learn from their experiences. Remember, you are looking to build a community of readers who love your work, not convincing people that their opinions are mistaken. Try to focus on the positive reviews!
Stuart Evers, author and Assistant Director of NetGalley UK keeps in mind a quote from Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi. Martel made a distinction between good-bad reviews and bad-bad reviews. Good-bad reviews point out genuine flaws and can be useful, if uncomfortable to receive.
Evers told NetGalley Insights, ”I found this very helpful when dealing with negative reviews – and also helpful when reading any review I receive. A good bad review essentially says, I understand what the author was trying to achieve, but I don’t think they managed it. These can be difficult to read, but ultimately they can offer some insight into your work you hadn’t seen before. Use this to improve your writing; don’t sit there and mope about it. Better a good-bad review than a bad-bad review…A Bad-bad review is when a critic doesn’t get what you are trying to achieve, measures it against the wrong criteria, or fundamentally doesn’t engage with the text. You’re going to get some of these, and these are the most hurtful. However, they can be dismissed precisely because your book is not at fault. It might seem unfair, it might seem vindictive, but you just have to remind yourself: this is a bad bad review and I can dismiss it.”
Above all, professionalism is key
Remember to treat anyone you encounter during the publication process as a fellow publishing-industry professional. This includes the editors, designers, and beta readers you work with before your book is finished, as well as any reviewers or media who you encounter in the pre-pub or post-pub phases. Reagan Rothe of Black Rose Writing works with over 500 authors and shared this framework, “Try to take a professional approach and keep your choice of words constructive. Think about how you would speak to a coworker, your boss, an employee, or even a respected family member.”
Even if you are frustrated or feel that you have been treated unprofessionally, keep an even tone in any communication you have about your book. As an author, you have now joined the publishing industry as a whole, which means that everyone from your publicist to book reviewers and even booksellers are, in a sense, colleagues. Be sure that all of your communication with them reflects that understanding.
How have you learned how to handle critical reviews? Did you receive some crucial advice early in your career that has helped you? Share your strategies with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.