Negative Reviews: Are They Actually Negative?

I am the administrator of the Suspense/Thriller Writers group on Facebook. Our discussion this week was about negative reviews, and Marshall Karp left a comment that I wanted to pass along because I thought you’d find it as helpful as I did.

Marshall Karp, the author of Flipping Out, is an award winning former advertising executive, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a novelist. He has also written, produced, and executive produced TV shows for all the major networks. Karp says:

Picture this: I walk into a room and 99 people applaud wildly. One guy is just mumbling "here comes that asshole." Guess who I pay the most attention to? What is it about the negative reviews that seem to always get a writer's attention?

For years I wrote TV commercials just because they were never reviewed. When I finally wrote a play and then moved on to TV sitcoms, I thought of my negative reviews as Public Shame. As for my great reviews — I just figured I fooled another critic.

I've come a long way. These days, I only take a few negative reviews seriously. They come from people I respect, and I try to learn from them. But most of my really negative reviews are downright laughable, so I refuse to take them seriously.

In fact I can now get a lot of mileage — and a lot of laughs — out of my negative reviews. I read them to my audience at book signings. One guy on Amazon gave me one star for my new book FLIPPING OUT. Reason: foul language and sexual references. I write murder mysteries -- what are the cops supposed to say -- oh fudge? So I check his profile. He got my latest book free from the Amazon Vine program. Normally he reads Christian Romance and Church Insight. When I tell the story my audience is laughing and I'm quietly blessing this guy for being such a judgmental ass.

Another guy gives me 2 stars for THE RABBIT FACTORY. He too claims not to be much of a mystery reader. I check his other reviews. He gave 5 stars to a Scooby Doo Chia Pet planter, and 4 stars for a Shrek Chia Pet planter. I tell my audience I don't understand how Scooby can get 5 stars and Shrek only gets 4, but even so, this dude still thinks the Shrek planter is twice as good as my book. All this gets a lot of laughs and a lot of empathy from my audience. And it doesn't hurt that the reviewer called himself (or herself) Church of the Flaming Sword.

Audiences appreciate a writer who doesn't take himself too seriously. So reading your negative reviews out loud can go a long way to making people feel good about you. One more thing — I always tell my audience that if they really like my book, don't just tell me. Tell everyone else. Post a glowing review on, amazon, goodreads or any one of a hundred other book sites. I tell them it helps offset the reviews I get from all those Flaming Swords and other Flaming Assholes.

Bottom line — I have learned to make the most of my negative reviews — I even work them to my advantage. It's those damn raves that always wind up throwing me for a loop.

Thanks for a great topic. See you on Facebook.

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Comment by Dana King on May 8, 2009 at 5:24am
I write 12-15 reviews a year, and I try to be as even-handed as I can. Understanding I cannot remove my tastes and prejudices from my review, I try to provide examples, not only to support my opinion, but to allow the reader to make up his own mind about whether this would bother him, or not. I also stay away from snark when I can, though I am more likely to get snarky the more well-known the writer is, figuring his success insulates him from an occasional zinger.

With that in mind, I sincerely plan never to read reviews if I am ever published. I appreciate their value in the sales and promotional cycle, so my editor can read them and make suggestions, but the reviewer may not be part of my intended audience, so I may not care what he thinks. As was mentined above, I can't enjoy the good reviews if I'm not prepared to to be bothered by the bad. I hope to be able to avoid both.

BTW, I also reviewed The Rabbit Factory, though I am not the Amazon reviewer. I didn't care for it, either. He may have said nasties about me, too, but, since i don't read reviews, I'm not going to worry about what is essentially his review of a review.
Comment by Charles A. King on May 8, 2009 at 1:59am
Negative reviews are sexy. With the right silver tongue devil they can even be entertaining to read—but moreover to write. They also are assets for a reviewer, or critic building a reputation and audience—as well as (in some cases) satisfying their own need to cut other people down, or prove how witty they are. A Critic, or review columnist have readerships who want entertainment as well as information from a voice they trust on some level. Their websites want hits and clicks, their magazine’s or newspapers want sales. They are part of the business, and the price any artist pays for putting their work out there.

I’m remembering a motivational speaker/ PBS guru I heard some time ago. He was explaining the process of how someone becomes a saint. For a period of time anyone who supports the idea gets to make their case before a council. Then anyone who thinks it’s a horrible idea gets the same about of time (if memory serves it’s three weeks) to convince the council the person shouldn’t be a saint. Considering they did this for Mother Teresa—for three weeks—the notion my work will completely escape a negative review is pretty laughable.

Comment by I. J. Parker on May 8, 2009 at 12:31am
Trust John D. to check this out. :) I think none of us take criticism very well. We may be able to explain away a negative reaction from a reader, but it will rankle nevertheless. I'm usually really depressed for about 24 hours. Then I recover somewhat. But Karp is quite right when he says that one semi-literate negative comment can outweigh any number of glowing print reviews. He's also right to tell his readers to post reviews if they enjoyed the book. If a reader wants another book by this author then he or she can do that much to help promote the author.
Comment by John Dishon on May 7, 2009 at 6:27pm
That bad review for The Rabbit Factory is a decent review: the reviewer gives his reasons for not liking it, rather specific reasons. What a book review has to do with a chia pet planter is beyond me, but it sounds like Karp is just insecure and doesn't know how to take criticism, so he resorts to ad hominem attacks on the reviewers.
Comment by Jack Getze on May 7, 2009 at 3:46pm
Thanks for sharing, Pat. Mr. Karp is a funny guy.

BR, I say let all critics drink Drano.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on May 7, 2009 at 3:19pm
This is the part that, as a writer, you grow a thick-skin and learn how to not let negative reviews press you into doing things you never wanted to do in the first place.

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