Columns > Published on April 11th, 2023

How To Read Bad Reviews of Your Book Without Ruining Your Life

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Yeah, I know, you’re not supposed to read reviews of your own book.

You know what else you're not supposed to do? Eat pizza until you fall asleep on the floor because the pepperoni bloat makes the trip to the bed impossible.

You're not supposed to ride motorcycles in flip-flops.

Turns out, you're not really supposed to drink booze. Like, at all!

There’s a huge list of stuff you're not supposed to do that you're going to do anyway, so instead of telling you not to read reviews, let’s assume you’re going to do it, and let's talk about how you can make it slightly less horrible.

We All Do It

It’s totally natural, totally normal, and people who claim they don’t do it, whatever, they’re weirdos and liars.

Reading reviews, I mean. I guess the above also applies to jerking off. Spiritually, onanism and reading your own reviews share certain qualities…

Everyone does it, it’s really nobody else’s business, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. So stop beating yourself up over reading reviews. Trust me, the reviewers will give you a beating that’s plenty good.

Just Don’t Look

I’m sure some folks who haven’t written a book don’t understand why it’s hard to ignore reviews.

Here, let me create an analogy for you:

Let’s say you discovered that every person you’ve ever dated contributed to a blog. In varying levels of detail, your romantic relationships were all chronicled from the point of view of the other person.

How would you NOT look at it?

Okay, maybe some of you have great self-control, but dig this: What if the homepage on your browser was set to this blog, so you had no choice but to brush by it every so often?

Because that’s kind of what happens when you write a book. You HAVE to get on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever periodically to update stuff, or you have to hit social media to do promo, and that forces you to march right past previous reviews.

Let’s stop talking about this like it’s about an author’s lack of self-control.

Don’t Read Old Reviews

There’s no point in re-reading the same review you’ve read every quarter starting 4 years ago. It hasn’t changed.

Sort your reviews by date, and only read new ones.

We All Remember the Bad, Not the Good

People who say, “Whatever, just ignore it,” don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

You can read 25 glowing reviews in a row, and it’s that one asshole who savages your book that you’ll remember. It’s just the way of things.

There’s evolutionary theory about this: back in the cave days, people who paid close attention to the negative were more likely to survive. This quirk of human behavior was very useful in making sure you learned from mistakes like, say, trying to pet anything that looked like a kitty but walked around on four murder mittens.

If a close call taught you a strong lesson, you’d live another day, have another shot at making babies, and as a result, most of us living today are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of people who obsessed over their mistakes.

Unfortunately, this passed-down trait means that, today, when someone doesn’t like the book you wrote, there’s a part of your brain that reads this as, “Holy shit, I nearly did something that ended my life, now I must never forget a single word of this utterly brutal critique!”

I can’t stop you from focusing on the negative, nobody can, but what I CAN do is reassure you that every person on Earth feels this way, it’s very normal, and being unable to focus on the positive is just further proof that you’re human.

And I can tell you that people who say, “Whatever, just ignore it,” don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

The Rubber Band Trick

This is a trick I learned from an actual therapist. I think. I don’t know, I saw him as a therapist, and then his office mysteriously vanished, I’m not even kidding. I went back there one time, and it was just gone.

This possibly-a-hallucination therapist told me that I seem to be really good at beating myself up. Accurate. I did appreciate him recognizing my skills. I’m like the Muhammad Ali of beating myself up. The greatest. People familiar with this aspect of my personality casually refer to me as “Champ.”

This therapist’s suggestion was to wear a rubber band around my wrist, and when I found myself cycling through the same bad thoughts over and over, to go ahead and pull that rubber band back and snap it on my wrist. Not hard, the idea isn’t to cause pain. The idea is to give yourself a very definitive, precise point to say, “I’ve thought about this enough, and from this moment forward, I can be done thinking about it.”

Give yourself that moment, that time when you put an end to the same cycling thoughts that aren't doing you any good.

Dig Deeper

Most people will tell you not to click on a reviewer and see other things they’ve reviewed, their other opinions, their latest Tweets, and so on.

I say the opposite: click.

Most times, it makes me feel better. Someone gives me a bad review, and the other books they’ve reviewed poorly put me in good company. Or, their favorite books are bullshit, so we were not destined to get along.

Once in a while, it backfires. Once in a while, Ellen Datlow says something mean about a LitReactor column you wrote:

Ouch, Ellen. Dat? Dat low!

But you know what…?

Put it in Context

If, on December 27th, 2020, you’d told me, “Tomorrow, Ellen Datlow is going to call you stupid,” I would’ve Googled Ellen Datlow to figure out how much I should care.

The fact that I’d have to Google the critic to know whether I should have hurt feelings tells you that, no, I shouldn't.

That’s not a slam on Ellen Datlow, by the way. Me being unfamiliar with her has nothing to do with her level of fame or prestige or ability, and it has everything to do with me being dopey.

This is a slam on Ellen Datlow: I'm impressed that you punched down on me yourself instead of putting out a call for an anthology of punch-down-on-Pete tweets.

I'm sorry, "Stupid" I would've accepted, but "really stupid?" If you think that's "really stupid," I have such sights to show you (and I'll make you an offer of 10% off any of my titles, you're welcome). 

If someone’s opinion isn’t one you cared about yesterday, if they, as a person, weren’t someone you were seeking to impress yesterday, then it’s not a problem if you let them down today.  

Don’t Read Reviews By Accident

Your book doesn't need to do everything. Stop torturing yourself when your book isn't all things to all people.

When it’s time to read reviews, jump on the platform, read the reviews, get in, get out.

Don’t just casually wander over and scroll through.

Do it with purpose, give yourself a time limit, and then be done with it.

Decide What You Want Your Books To Do Before You Read Reviews

If you built a submarine and sold it to the public, some moron would talk about how it was disappointing that the sub didn't have much functionality outside of an aquatic environment.

Before you go to check out your reviews, ask yourself: "What are the top 3 things I wanted my book to do?"

If "showing character development" wasn't on the list, then when someone says your book lacks character development, that's probably true, and that's fine.

If "uplifting people" wasn't on your list, and a critic says your book left them feeling depressed, that tracks.

Your book doesn't need to do everything. Stop torturing yourself when your book isn't all things to all people.

Make Sport of Bad Reviews

We’ve all heard about that time Sandra Bullock won the Oscar and the Razzie the same year, but did you hear about how Bullock accepted the Razzie, in detail?

Bullock appeared from backstage accompanied by three people wearing black “Team Bullock” t-shirts and pulling a bright red wagon full of All About Steve DVDs. She’d brought one for everyone in the audience who, she guessed, hadn’t really even watched Steve. "This is the deal we are going to make,” she said. “You promise to watch the movie and really consider whether it was really and truly the worst performance. If you are willing to watch it, I will come back next year and give back the Razzie.” 

Legend.

Don’t reply to reviews on the same platform, but if you wanted to screenshot a bad review and make it into a promotional “Read” sticker…

If you wanted to start a newsletter where you wrote critiques of your reviewers’ reviews, I think that’d be pretty fun.

If someone really hated your book and wrote a devastating review, and you offered them one of your other books 10% off as consolation, I think that’d be pretty funny.

Some uppity dipsticks will get all touchy about authors even acknowledging reviews, and that’s fine. They’re uppity dipsticks, this is what they do.

First Thing, Last Thing

Mornings are for coffee and cute cat videos.

Evenings are for booze and cute cat videos.

Do not look at reviews first thing in the morning or last thing before you go to bed. That'll just fuck up your life.


Get The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Fourteen edited by Ellen Datlow at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert at Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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