Why do so many writers go ballistic when they get a bad review?
Why do we RAGE at the single one-star review on Amazon and ignore the fifty good ones? Why do best sellers perceive a good, but unstarred review on Publishers Weekly as a wrenching rejection?
Are we all weak-willed namby-pambies in need of a spine transplant, or is there something else going on?
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson thinks it’s because our brains are wired to have a disproportionate reaction to bad news. In his book , he explains it this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
We simply pay more attention to and react more emotionally to negative outcomes.
Our Stone Age brain reacts to social rejection as a threat to survival. We’ve always lived in tribes. If you got cast out, you’d lose access to food, water, protection and care for your kids.
So the brain became hyper sensitive to the slightest change of our status in the tribe, lest it cast us to the dingos.
How does this apply to writers?
Our brains subconsciously perceive every bad review as a threat to our status in the tribe that we’re in or trying to get into. If it’s a literary critic who panned your book, your brain sees him as part of the Elite Publishing Tribe that can help you survive by selling more books, getting better access to resources and improving your standing in the tribe.
If it’s an ordinary reader who trashed your book on Amazon, your brain sees her as part of the “My Readers” tribe that can also help you thrive through more sales and higher status.
Our Stone Age brains don’t care about the totality of our reviews—only the negative ones. Yes, positive reviews are good and your brain will celebrate and rejoice—for about a minute. And then it reverts to its wiring, which is to scan for threats. In other words, you regard positive reviews in stride because you’re safe.
That twig-breaking sound really was a branch creaking in the wind. But the negative review? That’s a saber tooth tiger coming at you. Run!
How to overcome your brain’s interpretation of bad reviews
The single most powerful action you can take to neutralize your brain’s wiring is to prove it wrong.
Your brain fears being cast out of the tribe, so calm it by connecting to your personal tribes—family, friends, other writers. See brain? I’m not being thrown to the dingos—I have love, money and resources to carry on.
Once the brain calms you can use reason and logic to center yourself.
1. Know you’re not alone
“Writers,” said Isaac Asimov, “Fall into two groups: Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.”
In other words, welcome to the club.
Everyone gets bad reviews.
Some of Stephen King’s latest novels received up to 500 one-star/two star reviews on Amazon.
Real writers get bad reviews.
2. Bad reviews are not a death sentence for your book
Book stores are packed with best sellers that have a lot of bad reviews.
Prove it to yourself. Do this: Go to, the “Rotten Tomatoes” of the book world.
They aggregate book reviews from important critics like the New York Times and rank best selling books according to the percentage of good reviews they received.
Notice anything? Almost all the best selling books have a significant number of bad reviews.
How much could bad reviews affect sales if they’re all best sellers?
I’m not trying to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn—bad reviews are undesirable. I’m not saying they don’t matter. I’m saying they’re not necessarily the deal-breakers you think they are.
3. Bad reviews can actually help sell books
Let me explain.
What do you think of a book that has nothing but five-star reviews? I don’t know about you but I’d be suspicious.
People have wildly divergent opinions on everything. Some people don’t like chocolate. CHOCOLATE! So how is it possible for a book, any book, no matter how good it is, to have uniform reviews across the board?
If I see nothing but 5 stars I’m thinking the author got all his friends, family and associates to write a lot of butt-kissing reviews.
In a twisted way, bad reviews give a book legitimacy because their very presence indicate that the good reviews must be genuine.
There are other ways to manage the “rejection” of bad reviews, but let me end with my personal favorite: Getting perspective.
We are writers who entertain and inform. We are not setting the stage for another Rwandan genocide or Syrian civil war. Kurt Vonnegut, recognizing that fact, once said, “Any reviewer who expresses 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.”
You need to assuage both your brain (“PANIC, PANIC, I’m being cast out of the tribe!”) and your mind (“It’s just a bad review among many good ones”). Start by connecting to your tribes and when you’ve shut the alarm, absorb the insights of those who’ve come before you. And don’t forget to laugh. A few years ago an Amazon reviewer said this of one of my books: “I’ve stepped in deeper puddles.” Ouch! Fortunately, my sense of humor is stronger than my ego, so I laughed and to this day I find it so funny that I tell people about it. What’s the worst/funniest thing anybody’s ever written about your books and how did you handle it?
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