2018 UPDATES: Amazon has been doing “purges” of reviews and a lot of authors have seen hundreds of reviews deleted. Read this to keep Amazon from deleting your reviews. Also for a while Amazon was displaying the review with the most comments on top, instead of those voted most helpful… but that didn’t seem to stick, so the rest of this post is still useful.
Amazon is at war with authors. And that’s OK: their revenue comes from readers, and they want to make sure readers keep buying books, which means giving them books they won’t be disappointed with.
That’s why Amazon has been removing any reviews from people who have any possible connection with the author. Which kind of sucks, because it means that if you have a strong author platform, a big email list or legions of fans who can post quick reviews, those reviews might be deemed “suspect” and possibly removed.
Although Amazon is on the right track, and of course you don’t want fake or misleading book reviews (because they lead to MORE negative reviews from disappointed readers), as a professional author you also need to do what you can to counteract Amazon’s overzealous review removal policies.
Firstly, here’s some things you should know: the majority of people don’t leave book reviews, and of the people who do leave book reviews, it’s more likely they will be the ones that didn’t like your book.
Because most readers will enjoy it but not rave about it. Plus they’ll see you already have a bunch of glowing 5 star reviews so they’ll think “why bother?”
But the people who hated your book will be on a war path. And almost always, it isn’t really your book they hated: it’s some larger issue in general that they hate universally.
They hate love triangles, or too much sex in YA fiction, or heroines who don’t stand up for themselves, or instalove, or heroines who start off too badass and competent at everything. What I mean is, negative reviews are not unbiased. They almost always come from a place of extreme bias that your book was simply unfortunate enough to be included into. (In general – all book reviews are biased; they are usually left by people who have strong feelings about your books, one way or another – Amazon wants to make sure they aren’t also biased by personal feelings towards the author, which is fair).
So what do you do when you get a negative review?
The common advice given to authors is never engage. That’s mostly good advice. Some posted on Facebook recently “I got my first one star review, I guess I’m a real author now.” And I replied, “Congratulations!”
It’s normal. You will get some. And you’ll learn to ignore negative book reviews. Develop a thick skin. Don’t respond. And that’s good advice if you consider the alternative, which is getting in a big defensive internet feud that goes viral and makes you a laughing stock.
But those aren’t the only two options.
And if you believe in your writing, you cannot let the negative book reviews kill your sales and dissuade potential readers from taking a chance on your books.
And negative reviews will absolutely kill sales, but not for the reason you think.
Firstly though: if you are getting more negative reviews than positive reviews, it means your book is either attracting the wrong readers, or the RIGHT readers don’t like your book. If the right readers don’t like your book, that’s a problem you can’t fix with marketing hacks or Amazon tricks. You need to write better books. If I realize one of my books isn’t getting great reviews, I won’t market it harder… I’ll let it fade or rewrite it or come out with a second edition or just lean what I can to write better books.
A lot of indie authors are writing GOOD books that aren’t reaching readers – I want to help, even if it means sharing some dubious strategies that could get them over those hurdles. But a lot of indie authors are also publishing poorly written, poorly edited books with ugly covers. They are going to need to work twice as hard to reach readers, but the reviews are going to be twice as bad. So if you get an abundance of negative reviews, don’t just try harder! Give up on that one, and write a better one.
But don’t give up too soon…
I’ve seen books with an even split between awful reviews and positive reviews, a three star average, that still become bestsellers and sell thousands of books a day. Negative reviews don’t matter that much. If the book cover is good and it has a 3 star average and a good description, you might be fine. Maybe you just wrote a polarizing book about a controversial subject. What matters is the number of reviews, which indicates the number of sales/popularity. I think you should always push to have over one hundred reviews, because that’s when people start taking you seriously (the easiest way to do that is to permafree the book for awhile).
Also, I do not suggest paying for fake reviews – never have, although I’ve said some things that have been misinterpreted. I have said that you should find a way to make it worth readers’ whiles, by asking for reviews, giving a prize or thank you card, are paying for selective professional reviews (Kirkus, Foreword, etc). But getting lots of reviews is a different issue. This post is just how to mitigate the negative ones.
So what do you do when you get a negative review?
The thing that will kill sales is the “voted most helpful” feature on Amazon, because those are the reviews that stick to the top of the page.
I had an example but I removed it after this post got some inflammatory (but fair) comments, and I realized that this is an issue people feel strongly about.
If you think that’s totally unfair, I agree: most readers won’t review a book even if they liked it; and most readers won’t click to vote a book review as “helpful” unless it’s a negative review.
1. Almost always, those people who vote “most helpful” on negative reviews agree with the universal dislikes or issues or politics. They are voting for their own biases. So negative reviews are almost always the ones that show up on top, for nearly every book.
2. Those people who vote for “most helpful” reviews often didn’t buy the book! They are people who were dissuaded from buying the book based on the negative review they agreed with, without having read the book. Amazon doesn’t ask, “did you agree with this review?” They ask “was it helpful” to you in making a purchasing decision? Most people who click “most helpful” do so because a review kept them from buying, which means it was a negative review, which is why negative reviews are often on the top.
Which is fine – because if other readers who believe those things or have issues with those some problems aren’t going to like the book, they should know about it and be dissuaded. It’s an easy way to screen out the wrong readers. The problem is, a lot of the right readers may just skim the Amazon page and see that a negative, 3 star review has been voted “most helpful” and assume incorrectly that the book must not be any good. Or they assume that those other 168 reviews are misleading and fake and this one 3 star review is most honest because it has been voted most helpful, by about 25 people who didn’t read the book.
So while it’s a fair system that is intended to protect readers, it can easily by something that’s hurting your sales and keeping away your ideal readers, who may have loved the book, but they passed because of a three star reviews which may be all about the reviewer’s pet peeves and not actually about your book at all.
Because there’s no way to know if they would have even had a problem with those issues if they’d actually loved the book. Maybe they’d have liked it and those issues didn’t bother them. But you’ll never know because they are avoiding your book based on the “most helpful” comment that shows up on top.
What to do about it?
Firstly, you probably have 25 Facebook friends or fans or readers who you can get to go vote “most helpful” on another book review. If you have an email list or a fangroup, of people who did like your book, and maybe they’ve already left a positive review, ask them to go and vote on a positive review and boost it up to the top. I don’t believe this is dishonest or sketchy: if the majority of your book reviews are positive and you have a four star rating, that means the majority of people liked your book. But a minority of people (25, about of 150 in this case) clicked the “most helpful” button, leading to a negative review on top, which is giving new readers a false impression of the other reader’s reactions.
I think, as the author, it’s your responsibility to control how your book appears on Amazon. If people liked your book and left positive reviews, there’s nothing wrong with also asking them to click that other positive reviews were helpful when they decided to buy the book (and they probably were helpful – but people who actually buy and read the books don’t click on that “most helpful” button, they just write their own reviews!).
So again: is fair to let people who haven’t read the book’s opinions influence new readers more than people who have actually read the books? Another comment asked where the data is on this: no I don’t have hard proof of exactly who is clicking on the buttons; in part because people can click those buttons when they haven’t read the books – no ‘verified purchase’ icon. And negative reviews are usually more descriptive and helpful, than positive reviews like “I loved this book.” Critical, 3 star reviews usually have more information, and talk about more details, so yes, they are more helpful – but that means they may be overly powerful, in keeping away readers who sincerely would have enjoyed the books.
Anyway, I understand that doing anything at all with reviews on Amazon is a point of bitter controversy, so if you prefer to do nothing and leave negative reviews on the top of your Amazon page to deter possible sales, that’s your choice. I’m just pointing out that it is relatively easy, to ask proven fans and supporters of your books, to cast a vote and counteract the actions of other people who have probably not read the book at all.
And this is important to do if you want more readers to read and enjoy your books.
Warning: but like I said earlier, if most people don’t like your books, having a raving 5-star review on top won’t make a difference. Everybody still jumps down and reads the negative reviews first anyway. The difference will be that you’ve removed the unfair impression that having a negative review on top generates, that the majority of readers did not like the book, even when the evidence (a four star average) clearly indicates that they did. What’s really happening is that a small minority of critical readers didn’t like the book – they are the readers who weren’t right for your book anyway. And it’s good to let them know the book isn’t for them.
But you also wanting to be telling all the readers who will enjoy your book (the majority), that the book is for them and that they will enjoy it; and to do that you need to pick one positive (but fair, and detailed) book review and ask fans to click “Yes” on “was this review helpful to you, so that it shows up on top, if nothing else to counterbalance the other, negative review that was voted most helpful.
They will both still show up on the top of the page, but now you’re letting readers appreciate the evidence and decide for themselves, which review they personally agree with more, rather than simply assuming the one with the most votes has to be categorically true (which can never be the case, obviously, because different readers will have different reactions).
Removing negative reviews from Amazon
The other thing you can do, if you get a very nasty, personal review, is to reach out to the reviewer. This won’t always work, but you can generally track down their website or email and write them a short note, saying
“Thanks for the review you posted for my book, I really appreciate the critical feedback because I want to become a better writer, and the thoughtful reviews like yours help me improve my craft and fix my writing. I’ll definitely keep your thoughts in mind on future books so I don’t make the same mistakes.”
Thanking people for nasty negative reviews will generally mollify them. They probably wrote the review because they were angry at other things in general or were in a bad mood, and they’ll probably feel bad about it if you leave them a nice comment (if you can’t track them down, you could just post a reply like that straight on Amazon – it will make you look awesome even to other readers who read the nasty review and then your kind, polite response).
Take the time to care about the negative reviewer and see things from their perspective. DON’T get defensive. Understand that there are more people in the world who probably think the same way. Try to understand their and see how you can improve your writing in the future.
Bonus points if you can find their personal website and try to make a connection with them, something you have in common, compliment them on something they are doing, agree with them on something they are passionate about. People who left a scathing, one star review will generally change it to a three star and soften it if you make an effort to mollify them.
I originally posted this article in haste, and have removed several stupid ideas I was excited about at the time, and I appreciate the comments that pointed out what an idiot I was. Since I’ve totally revised this article and tried to clarify my position, I’ve removed those comments. I also almost deleted the post, but have decided to keep it up, for this reason:
Far too many authors are relying 100% on luck alone. They are doing their best and publishing but not selling any books. They try everything. They spend a lot of money on book marketing and promotion. They become sad and frustrated and give up, thinking that nobody likes their books, which may not be true!
It’s more likely nobody is seeing their books at all.
It’s no secret that I think creative people should do smart things to reach fans, and build a supportive platform so they can earn money. Some of those things, like any powerful tool, can be used for both good and evil.
I don’t think refusing to use tools because some people with shitty books can use them to game the system is a good idea, because it means the only winners will be the shitty books, and all the good books will never reach readers.
You need to be cautious and careful, that in your enthusiasm you don’t keep pushing your book when it’s obvious readers don’t like it. But if real readers do like your books, then you have an obligation to keep getting your book in front of more readers who will like it, and possibly mitigating negative reviews that aren’t relevant to your ideal readers as much as possible.
If, however, you are getting negative reviews from the majority of your ideal readers, there is no magic fix for that.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.