March 28th, 2011 / 5:21 pm
Behind the Scenes

Negative Reviews

It is always, always in bad form to respond to a negative review because your writing is personal and the reviewer, generally, is simply doing their job. Over at the website Big Al’s Books and Pals, the novel The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett, was reviewed, rather negatively. The writer proceeded to have a complete meltdown in the comments. Every writer should carry a Post-It note at all times that reads, DO NOT RESPOND TO A NEGATIVE REVEW. In the past few months, I’ve seen writers who should know better responding to reviews trying to “clarify” their intentions or taking issue with some aspect of the review and it only ends up making the writer look bad. When you receive a bad review it is natural to respond emotionally. That’s what your friends are for. They’ll tell you the reviewer was wrong and explain, in detail, how and why. They will let you ramble incoherently. They will buy you drinks. They will keep you from responding and making a fool of yourself. The moral of the story is this: if you are a writer, it is good to have friends because friends don’t let friends respond to bad reviews.


  1. Sara Habein

      Even seemingly neutral responses to a bad review from authors is a bit weird. “Thanks for giving it a read,” etc. You can feel the unsaid “you bastard” coming through at the end, ha.

  2. Matthew Simmons

      What if one responds positively to a negative review?

      And I mean that, too. I’m not simply asking the easy contrarian question. What if you have written something and published it, and a reviewer mentions something about it that feels right to you, and you respond by respectfully disagreeing with most of the review, but cop to the thing that you have been convinced might actually be a weakness in the published piece of work?

  3. Matthew Simmons

      What if one responds positively to a negative review?

      And I mean that, too. I’m not simply asking the easy contrarian question. What if you have written something and published it, and a reviewer mentions something about it that feels right to you, and you respond by respectfully disagreeing with most of the review, but cop to the thing that you have been convinced might actually be a weakness in the published piece of work?

  4. Sean

      This be sweet, and author and reviewer deserve each other.

      How cool is it to NOT FEED THE TROLLS.

      (T-shirt anyone?)

      I’ve been thinking on this, with blog posts, reviews, all kinds of forums. Just spend a year not feeding. Might work or not, but try?

      Problem with any response to any review (even this ‘review’) is the crazy leaks out…

  5. Roxane

      That’s a really good question, Matthew. I’m not sure. I tend to believe that any kind of response isn’t going to come off well even if you do think, hey this reviewer made an interesting point. My gut reaction right now is to suggest that you contact the reviewer privately to engage in a discussion. I’m going to think further about this.

  6. Sean

      Wait, I keep scrolling down the comment thread and now I am in Big Al’s camp, fuck the review. This is big fun. To quote a commenter:

      “Wow…there really isn’t anything else to say. Wow.”

      There is a reason I get bothered when indie is confused with indie.

  7. Nick Antosca

      Once sent a thank you letter to a reviewer who gave me a generally negative review. It was a thoughtful and fair review, and not mean.

  8. Brendan Connell

      It’s not “good form” – but why not respond to a negative review?

      Sure it makes the author look bad – but looking bad is also sort of cool.

  9. Lincoln Michel

      I don’t think this is the good kind of looking bad.

  10. Samuel Sargent

      It’s also worth keeping in mind that a bad review can still garner new readers. There are a lot of things that I enjoy that would cause other people to review a work badly. If it’s a good quality bad review, in which the reviewer explains what he doesn’t like, then people who do like that sort of thing may go give it a look. I discovered one of my absolute favourite musicians through a bad review. The reviewers complained that her lyrics were too sing-alongy.

  11. Brendan Connell

      Actually, I think the people saying “Avoid this author at all cost” look bad – much more so than the author.

      The funny thing is how much people respect crazy guys like Corso. I swear, if he were young and alive he would have done something like this.

  12. Brendan Connell

      Actually, I think the people saying “Avoid this author at all cost” look bad – much more so than the author.

      The funny thing is how much people respect crazy guys like Corso. I swear, if he were young and alive he would have done something like this.

  13. Brendan Connell

      The title of her book though is roll over funny. Anyone who will write a book about Seamen is worthy of respect.

  14. Lincoln Michel

      Did you read the author’s comments in that thread? That’s a world class meltdown. Personally I think Roxane’s advice is sound and certainly doesn’t’ make her “look bad.”

      Granted, I do enjoy smart writers giving witty blowbacks to bad critics, but that’s a pretty far cry from screaming at an author for pointing out you have typos. Like, this guy actually gives her story a fairly positive review, but points out it is full of typos and grammar errors. That’s not something to meltdown about.

  15. Ben Segal

      It seems like if you want to respond thoughtfully or engage the critic in an actual discussion, you shouldn’t do so in the comments section of the negative review. I imagine that privately emailing the reviewer could lead to something productive for both parties, but publicly trying to engage them is likely to make everyone look bad and to make everyone more defensive and thus less likely to get anything positive from the exchange.

  16. Johannesgoransson

      I like to respond to reviewers whether they are bad or good; I see the reviews as the opening of a potential discussion that may or may not turn into something interesting. Reviewers take a long time to bother reading a book, we can all bother to take the time to read their review.


  17. Brendan Connell

      The thing is, this is all over the internet. A self published author has a meltdown. Her feelings were hurt. No big deal. Why do people always have to be so cool? This is the real world. Trees fall down and crush people.

      If I ever were interested in reading about Greek Seamen, or seamen in general, I don’t think her posts would make me not want to read it.

      I mean, melting down is better than being a racist or supporter of Nazis for example – but we all read Celine just the same.

  18. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I like her smiling avatar!

  19. Roxane

      It’s all over the Internet for a reason. Writers have these kinds of meltdowns all the time but general common sense dictates you don’t do it in such a spectacularly misguided fashion. I don’t know who is saying “avoid all this author.” I don’t care if anyone reads the book or not. I am quite certain, much like Rebecca Black, that this writer will profit quite handsomely and good for her. I’m interested in how writers respond to reviews.

  20. Lincoln Michel

      Well if you are saying that having an internet meltdown and looking like a fool may end up helping your career, I agree. I mean, Rebecca Black is making bank because everyone thinks her video was awful. Probably more people have heard of this Howett writer now than did before.

  21. Brendan Connell

      Well, yeah. Generally speaking it is best to keep one’s mouth shut. But that sort of goes for almost all situations.

      But it still falls into the category, “the dos and donts of a writing career”. Which all seem sort of false since writing is a little like pounding railroad tracks with a sledgehammer. The point is to get it in. Not much need for finesse.

  22. Roxane

      I reckon it depends what you want from a writing career. There are no hard and fast rules but there are better and lesser ways of interacting with your audience, at least in my opinion. i don’t make the rules. I just try to figure out which ones I want to live by.

  23. Sean

      I don’t think the Rebecca Black thing is an apt comparison. Black’s medium is sold on appearance, auto-tune, teens who buy things. It’s really not the same as books, mostly sold on words. Yes, she might get a brief burst, but the words have to hold up. Now, saying this, I haven’t read the words. They might hold up. But has any commenter here sought her book out? I wonder.

  24. Rion Amilcar Scott

      Once, when Mat Johnson had a blog he did a very classy response to a negative review. The review was unfair, he linked to it and briefly pointed out that the reviewer reviewed it as a nonfiction piece when it was a novel. If I remember correctly, he used the word “unprofessional.” What was classy about it was that he didn’t dwell on it. Didn’t do multiple posts. It was a short post. There was no venom in it. He made his point and moved on.

      I think it’s fair to respond when the reviewer has misunderstood the book in some crucial way. For instance, reviewing a novel as a non-fiction book. Egregious misquoting. If the NYT has assigned your review to an enemy, knowingly or unknowingly. A careful response to that sort of unfairness, I think, is cool. The key is to not respond spitefully.

  25. Lincoln Michel

      They aren’t the same situation for several reasons, but in general “no publicity is bad publicity” as they say. There was actually a study that came out a few weeks ago about negative book reviews that said that for unknown authors, negative book reviews still raise their profiles and encourage more people to buy the book (for big name authors negative reviews hurt sales though.)

  26. Anonymous
  27. Sean

      The piling on on that thread is a bit much. I think they shut comments down, which seems right.

  28. c2k

      Big Al’s Books and Pals

      I love it.

  29. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      You think that’s good, check out the author’s website.

  30. Sean

      It is d-bag. How many times can you read:

      “All…on sight are copyright and cannot be used without permission.”

      without a spleen laugh?

      Again, this sells books?

  31. Sean

      It is d-bag. How many times can you read:

      “All…on sight are copyright and cannot be used without permission.”

      without a spleen laugh?

      Again, this sells books?

  32. Matthew Simmons
  33. c2k

      What I don’t get is that Big Al was sorta taken by the Greek Seaman, really, wasn’t he?

      Perhaps I didn’t phrase that well.

      Let’s try again: Big Al liked the book more or less. He objected to the spelling/grammatical errors.

      The lesson for the author is: take better care or hire yourself a copy editor.

  34. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      There is a whole marketing opportunity for aging baby boomers who don’t know how to use the Internet to its optimal level.

  35. Jimmy Chen

      damn re: seamen; seems like ‘money shot’ and ‘shot at money’ was never so close

  36. Sean

      After reading the author website, I think–no matter the validity of the overall point; it was very valid–bringing her here is chum. I feel like I was one one of the dumb sharks.

      This author should just write her books and post them wherever and not read reviews and move on. I don’t think she wants grammar feedback. I mean her website has the same issues as the prose. And that’s fine.


      Moving on on a over-commenting night (aka red wine).

  37. Anonymous

      I’m sure this whole thing is leading to more sales/exposure for the book. Funny to see all the comments about the author’s “career suicide.” Ummm…. she is a no-name self-published author with what looks like a pretty ridiculous book. This whole thing will probably turn out to be the best career move she ever made.

      Like saying Rebecca Black committed “career suicide” when she recorded that stupid weekend song…

  38. Whatisinevidence

      Nassim Taleb encourages the public mocking and critique of people who write bad reviews of his work. It’s hilarious. He gathers up his Facebook following and sends them to battle.

  39. deadgod

      That’s a great way to deal with, well, a lack of professionalism, whether it’s missing through incompetence or malice. What’s just right about Johnson’s linking to the review, in addition to the time it must’ve taken him to prepare his response (serve revenge cold), is the fact that he put his reaction on his court, where he could control himself and the context wouldn’t spiral into a shooting gallery.

      A situation – a hit piece – that calls for a response, one both more professional than a tantrum and more effective than silence — just what Johnson felt (or perceived) was missing from the, was it?, hit piece. – in your word: classy.

  40. Christopher Higgs

      When my Publishing Genius chapbook came out, Brad Green wrote a negative review of it, to which I responded very positively — thanking him for his thoughtful engagement. It was awesome that he took the time out of his life to write about how much he disliked my book. In my opinion, all reviews should be responded to with a sincere thank you!

      I mean it.

      A negative review should be considered a good thing — why? Because it’s a review!!! Press is press. The absolute worst thing in the world is silence: no reviews at all.

  41. deadgod

      That’s also excellent. – not so much the setting-the-minions-loose thing, but putting the spotlight on malicious/inaccurate/incompetent attacks. A Facebook page just for dodgy reviews/analysis: My Bestest Friends.

  42. Anonymous

      OK, sure, the author looks ridic in the comments, but why was this reviewed in the first place? Look at her website.

      It’s absolutely absurd to review this book and complain about this person’s grammar.

      The Greek Seaman novel is now available as an eBook on Amazon – Kindle USA and UK and from Smashwords in various formats. Good for Sony ereaders and PC’s with the free Apps. $4.99. Follow links in the left side bar. Thanks Jacqueline. This novel os based on a true story. Enjoy. If you enjoyed this book please feel free to leave a review on Amazon or Smashwords. Thanks. Jacqueline.

      Product Description to The Greek Seaman novel

      The thunder clapped and the mysterious voice of the sea made itself known about them, and as the ship made its sudden precipitous descent once more it rendered them powerless to move.

      The captain shook his head. “This is not a hurricane, this is something else. I have never seen a hurricane like this before, have you?”

      The Greek Seaman novel.

      What is an eighteen year old newly wed doing travelling on a massive merchant ship anyways? Hadn’t she gone to Greece on tour in a ballet as a dancer? These are questions, Katy asks herself while travelling the high seas with Don her chief officer husband. However, little do they know a smuggling ring is also on board for this ride, on a blue diamond exchange and when explosions and threats to sink the ship also happen, they must try to save themselves.

      Getting to know the smugglers, the Arabic and Pakistani deck hands and Don, the Greek Seaman is an exciting sea adventure with enough suspense and romance that will make you laugh and cry. It will take you on a voyage to experience the magnificent soothing wonders and beautiful scenery at sea, and take you through storms and hurricanes where Katy finds herself navigating through it with a seasick crew. From Piraeus, Greece, your visit the ports of Lebanon and Libya and enjoy the exotic magic of the bazaar. The love between Don and Katy, in their ordeal at sea makes this a memorable story.

  43. deadgod

      okay – put me down for two

  44. Carlys

      This is called “the Tao Lin.”

  45. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      You should always ask the price before purchasing marketing opportunities that only exist in the wake of a grammatical error.

  46. Brendan Connell

      It is possible that English is not her mother tongue. Personally, if anyone wants to complain, they should do so to Corporate Amazon. Because they have set the stage for this kind of thing by encouraging everyone to upload “ebooks”.

      I don’t have an e-reader, but Arabic, Pakistani and Grecian Seaman actually does strike me as probably being rather entertaining (can seamen swim?).

      The weirdest thing is this morning I was on my way to a foundry to do what people do at foundries and I kept thinking about writing a book about seamen. In the afternoon I get back and find this plastered all over the internet…sort of profound.

  47. Lincoln Michel

      I don’t think so, someone on another website posted her youtube video. Definitely a native British speaker.

  48. Nick Mamatas

      Yeah, but Celine is also good.

      You can get away with a lot more when you’re good. Even being bad.

  49. Bradley Sands

      I commented on a negative review of one of my books fairly recently:

      “Thanks for the review, REVIEWER. For anyone interested in reading a complete story from the book, here’s one from issue NUMBER WHATEVER of THIS LITERARY JOURNAL.”

      Was I wrong? I don’t know.

      But the site also lists the story on their awards page.

      And the moderator never approved the comment, so it never appeared publicly. And that’s as far as it went.

      Anyway, the comments of the author in question are crazy. It’s like she’s a toddler.

  50. Patebooks

      This has been an interesting discussion. As a reviewer and an author, I see both sides. As a reviewer, I always appreciated it if someone let me know if I had made a factual error. And it happens. I once put an author in Utah instead of Idaho. I also appreciated the thanks for reading, and I tried to remember that when it was my turn for constructive criticism.
      I never liked giving negative reviews. As my friend Oline Cogdill once said, there’s no pleasure in telling someone she has an ugly baby. Mean can be funny, but I’d rather be fair.
      As an author, I only fired back once when someone with a professional grudge went to great lengths to tear apart the book and attack me personally. I had refused to review her self-published book as a matter of policy, and in a private message suggested she needed an editor or copyeditor. We all do.

  51. kb

      The continuous mindless blithering about “professionalism”, “the trade”, and “rudeness” ends up being twice as aggravating as anything she said. As if there’s no room in fucking LITERATURE for CRAZY ASSHOLES.

  52. Porochista Khakpour

      I’m not looking up that lady’s comments, because it actually sounds too depressing for 8 am this morning, but I will chime in on my own experience (which I just hastily scrawled on Laura Van Den Berg’s status update re this):

      One day, this advice is going to look like outdated old-timey etiquette. I am against this for obvs reasons—I had a public response to a crazy review Carolyn See wrote of my book in WaPo in 2007. I responded very rudely. And I don’t regret it for a minute. And it was a move pretty applauded in the blogosphere. Carolyn See’s review (googlable!) was insane–it was full of errors and even some xenophobic insinuations. It was also in the format of an open letter to me–an unknown debut novelist. WHY?! Reviewers are not gods and should not be treated as such; they are just as fallible as us. To treat them like they are allowed free rein to make and break while we have to sit in silence (esp in a book industry in total crisis) is some old bad advice that I’m glad is at least getting questioned. I mean, I’m not saying respond every time someone doesn’t like your work like a freaking crybaby, but if someone has some shit really really wrong, act like you would in real life: DO SOMETHING about it. This is isn’t the moment to suddenly ask writers to be all Buddha-like. It’s time to hold the lit world to the same standards that exist in all different industries, and you could bet someone would hear some hard shit from me if they started spewing some racist, angry, ugly words about me and my work without knowing me and it, apparently.

  53. Porochista Khakpour

      Also (and I’ll stop, I promise) when I read a critical stoning of a writer who like 99% does not respond, I don’t think, Oh wow, that writer is so graceful, that writer is so the bigger person. Or wow, that writer must have great friends. I just think, oh wow, how sad, that writer is posting Facebook photos of his cat when he just got humiliated in a crazy, inappropriate way. I proceed to imagine the writer under their covers in bed all day weeping–which I know is part of the hardknock writer life as we tough cookies like to think of it. But way to come out looking not looking like ” a fool?!”
      They should have Onion article about how every time a writer dares say a word back to a negative review it become headline news. I wish every time a kindergartner pushed a fellow kindergartner back it also was noteworthy. Or I wish politicians were held to these standards–even the best (Obama!) get to backtrack, defend, clarify, and act like real people when they get pushed around.

      Last I checked we were human–even writers, as weird as that sounds.

  54. Sean

      Well, your response to the reviewer seems appropriate and nuanced and worthy–especially if it was a personal attack. In this case, though, the author should have ignored the reviewer. I do like some of the ideas you posit here. I think it’s OK to respond, if you come across as sane.

  55. Sean

      I agree. On that comment thread the “I’ll never read your book” people were starting the resemble the author.

  56. Sean


  57. Porochista Khakpour

      Agreed. I guess I was just speaking to the general issue. I finally uncovered my eyes and looked at her responses on that site, and it’s not the responding-to-negative-reviews issue that rubs me the wrong way. . . it’s just her. She’s just a bad example of this because I think she might just be batshit crazy + really, really bad writer.

  58. karl taro

      my first book got slammed in the NY Times, really vicious, the kind of review they don’t even publish anymore these days unless the writer is a big target. I did respond in the letters just to point out where the reviewer had gotten facts wrong, that was it. it didn’t make me feel any better. and that review still hurts.

  59. Roxane

      There is definitely always an exception of some kind. I don’t think reviewers should be put on a pedestal nor do I think writers should walk around abjectly bearing the brunt of negative reviews stoically. There’s a difference between a negative review and a review that is incorrect about the text in question, downright crazy as you note in the case of your review, and/or clearly reflecting some kind of personal agenda on the reviewer’s part. I would definitely be inclined to respond under any of those circumstances. I recently read really bizarre negative review of a forthcoming title and having read that book, the review just got it wrong, plain and simple and was weirdly offensive. I have marveled that the writer has not responded. I would have. I would have ripped that shit apart. The instances I am talking about here though, are negative reviews that aren’t malicious. Sometimes our writing doesn’t reach a reviewer. That’s fair. We can’t please everyone. The writer in the above link, was angry even though the reviewer was pointing out some very accurate things about her book. I read the first two chapters. They were riddled with mechanical issues and based on those two chapters, the review was… generous. We’re all going to do what we’re going to do regardless. We are all human and bad reviews hurt. They do. I have no idea how I’m going to respond to negative reviews in the future but I hope, if the review is fair, that I stay silent publicly and react privately.

  60. Anonymous

      seems staged to me. maybe I’m naive.

  61. Porochista Khakpour

      Thanks, Roxane, I hear you. I guess I was just wondering if it’s Howett who’s the exception actually. Usually, I’ve found writers kinda sane about this stuff. I’m actually amazed by how many writers keep quiet–out of fear, of course, of “career suicide” I’m sure–when like you pointed out, there are so many stupid, infuriating reviews out there. People are always complaining about bad books, but I wish they’d complain just as much about bad reviews.

  62. c2k

      Born and educated in London, England, author Jacqueline Howett now lives in the US. She is also a painter (some of her work can be viewed on her blog) and previously published a short story, The Secret Passion of Twins, and a book of poetry, Amorphous Angelic, both are available for your Kindle.

      BigAl is on the case.

  63. c2k

      Wanted to correct my own spelling error.


      One word.

  64. c2k

      BigAl, that is.

  65. Guest

      She should have just deleted all commas and the occasional ending punctuation, just to make the prose more ambiguous than egregious (see: Cormac McCarthy).

  66. deckfight

      this is one of my favorite posts. ‘big al’s books & pals’ may now be one of my favorite sites for so, so many reasons.

  67. Author Meltdowns Are Very Entertaining | One Stop News Stand

      […] is a self-published author. There’s a more sensible discussion of this whole mess over at HTMLGiant. Also to note in the BigAl thread: When did self-published authors start referring to themselves as […]

  68. kb

      Does The Greek Seaman taste more like olive oil or say feta cheese.

  69. Anonymous