AUTHORS: Prepare For Negative Feedback From Your Non-Target Audience

Don't let a bad review get you down! None of us can please everyone.... no matter how well we write.

Don’t let a bad review get you down! None of us can please everyone…. no matter how well we write.

At some point in our ongoing discussion about style and fiction, I knew I needed a post about reader response to style, because it’s such a tricky subject and so difficult to plan for.

The most important points from today’s post aren’t novel ideas. In fact, I’d be shocked if this is the first place you’ve heard them. Still, every now and then it’s important to remind ourselves of the obvious, lest we find ourselves slipping into the trap of perfectionism or trying to be a “pleaser.”

The major things to remember concerning your readers and your style, whatever that style may be, are these:

  • No matter how you write, or how well you construct your novel, you will never, ever please everyone.
  • I repeat, no matter how good your book is, some people who pick it up won’t belong to your target audience or won’t like on principle the way you go about things. Basically, they won’t like your book.
  • All of this is okay, so just take a deep breath, take a bubble bath if you want to or eat some ice cream, maybe, and DON’T RESPOND TO REVIEWS.
  • As long as you don’t respond to reviews, you are doing things right.

To demonstrate these points, I want to give two examples: my relationship to vampire literature, and some things people have said about my work when it just wasn’t for them.

THE VAMPIRE PLAGUE

I have mentioned before–in fact, I dedicated to post the fact– that marketing fantasy literature is odd when you’re not writing about vampires.

Well, I don’t write about vampires. Sword and sorcery is my thing. I like spells, magic, saving-the-world epic fantasy.

Simply put, and without any intention of coming off as superior, I’m not interested in vampires. If you are, all’s good there. I don’t mean to insult what other people write or read…. I am sure there are many well-crafted and well-plotted books about vampires that are not mere vampire porn.

The thing is, “Twilight” destroyed vampires for me before I could ever give them a shot. If the vampire novel isn’t titled “Dracula,” doesn’t obey established vampire canon, and has a plot that is romance-driven, I’m sorry, I won’t read that book.

That author’s not writing for me. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Chances are, I’m not writing for that author either. Fans of romance, and especially paranormal romance, are routinely disappointed by the way I throw romantic relationships to the background and stay out of the bedroom in my trilogy.

We all know that readers favor a book for lots of different reason, and a lot of that has to deal with themes, genres, and motifs. If I don’t write about the themes, genres, and motifs you like, my book could be fantastic, but you’re still not going to enjoy it.

That’s human nature. It’s the reader’s right not to like a book, for whatever reason he or she might not like it. Maybe it’s poorly written. Maybe it wasn’t edited well. Maybe it just doesn’t speak to you or you know technical information, thanks to your education, that the book gets wrong. Maybe a story is too far out of your comfort zone.

I could go on for ages.

WHY MY NON-TARGET AUDIENCE DOESN’T LIKE MY BOOKS

I have gotten mostly positive reviews on “The Crimson League,” but a few bad ones too. Every author does.

Some people did not connect with the book, or it wasn’t what they wanted it to be or expected.

Without giving away spoilers, I can tell you that the ending is much closer to bittersweet than to “happily ever after.” That did not sit will with some readers.

One reviewer, in fact, said she thought the book was well written and the premise was good, but she gave it three stars because she didn’t like the ending. And that’s her prerogative.

One reader who enjoys books with lots of romance, to be euphamistic, gave the book a poor review because it didn’t deliver enough romance (or so I gathered based on the books this reader reviewed positively.) Not surprising: my trilogy isn’t a romance series, and for sure you aren’t going to like it if you pick it up wanting, more than anything else, a love story.

Now, I’m not bashing those reviewers. I don’t have any problem with them; if anything, I’m grateful to them for giving my book a chance. I’m purposely not saying where those reviews are found because I don’t mean to draw attention to the people who wrote them. I want to draw attention to this point, using myself as an example:

If you publish a book, there will be people who don’t like the kind of book you wrote.

  • They might prefer a different kind of point of view to the one you use. First over third. Third over first.
  • They might be used to literary fiction and you’ve written genre fiction they just can’t get into because it feels childish to them.
  • They might be used to a humorous, light tone and your tone is heavier, more literary.
  • They might not like the kind of story you’re writing. Their preferred reading might be more cerebral, or lean heavier on action, or have more heaving busoms.

In some ways, publishing is a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” kind of scenario. You’re east of the rock and west of the hard place (or any other cliche you want to throw in there.)

The fact is this:

  • For every reader who doesn’t like, say, how you “rush” a certain subplot’s development, you’ll have readers who’ll say they feel bored if you slow it down.
  • If some readers tell you they need to you explain something better, other readers might feel like you’re babying them if you do.

Now we get to the bulk of the post, given this obvious state of affairs:

What’s a writer to do in response???

Listen to your beta readers, and use multiple beta readers who have different strengths. If they all, or the bulk of them, are telling you one thing, then it’s time to pay attention.

Write for YOU, and write the story you want to write. Don’t waste energy, time, or creativity writing something for other people who aren’t going to like it.

There is just no way you can write a book that 100% of the human population will be interested in or will enjoy. So write for those who WILL enjoy it. That number includes you, right?

I say write for you, all the time, because when you write for you, you write a true and heartfelt story that people who share your interests and your tastes will enjoy because it will ring true to them.

So, what do you think about this topic? If you’ve published, have you received a bad review from a reader you didn’t write for? If you haven’t published you, are you worried about that? Do you have a coping mechanism in place?

Please feel free to comment! If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. You can also check out these related posts:

  1. On the writer doubt epidemic
  2. How I try to respond (internally!) to a bad review
  3. Why authors love your good reviews
  4. What authors look for in a good review
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51 responses to “AUTHORS: Prepare For Negative Feedback From Your Non-Target Audience

  1. This is a great post. I’ve had a few bad reviews but only one that really insulted me. The main character in my book suffers from a mental illness. I suffer from the same mental illness myself and the reviewer made a sweeping generalization about people with mental illness. I wasn’t insulted so much as a writer, but as someone who has suffered from the same affliction. I addressed it in a blog post, but only in the mindset of creating perhaps some awareness. I’ve discovered that when you don’t portray people with mental illness in a certain way people will say it’s, ‘unrealistic’. As for the standard bad reviews what I do when I receive one of those is to go to Amazon or Goodreads and look at the one star reviews of, “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.” You wouldn’t think people could be nasty about a little girl’s musings in her own private diary, but yeah, they are. Once you get through a few of those you realize that if that book can get nasty reviews there’s no hope for yours not getting them. It’s all good. I like my books and really, if you’ve told the story you want to tell in the way you wanted to tell it, that’s really all that matters.

    • Oh my gosh, what an awful thing for a reviewer to do! I have some experience as well with mental illness, and I would have taken offense at that too! That kind of thing crosses a line, and it’s so sad!

      And WOW about Anne Frank. So horrible people who attack someone young like that, who wasn’t even writing for anyone else and who suffered the things she did!!! I could not agree with your last sentence more 🙂

  2. You’re right; there’s no way to please everyone. It’s important to focus on the positive things and not fixate on negative reviews (although it’s definitely human nature to want to fix things, so this is a hard rule to follow).

  3. I just tried to publish the one or other story and mostly get a good review then, but when i publish a story on my blog and ask for opinions, they’re quite mixed. That’s ok with me, but i also start to apologise to those that didn’t like it that much, part of because i know i could have done better if i’d have spent more time with the story, and partly because i want people to like it even tho i know i wouldn’t change a thing as this blog stories are for my practice. But i hope to also become better with such shorties and can use the experience (as well as the comments) for the longer pieces.

    • Short stories are SOOO great for experience and for experimentation! 🙂 I totally agree, and I think it’s really cool that you get that 🙂

      Personally, I think using a blog to get feedback on a story’s draft is a great idea!!! You can always preface a story you don’t feel is as strong as it could be yet with “this is a work in progress.”

  4. I had a few readers who were disappointed by the way things turned out in my book. In the end I can’t change it, it was never meant to be the way they wanted it to be.

    • That was exactly how I felt when that reviewer said she hated the ending of my book. I totally understand why she wanted another ending and didn’t blame her at all for that, but the ending that’s there is the one that makes sense to me given the world of the story and the characters. That feedback, though perfectly honest and valid, didn’t make me rethink how I’d written my novel. My book just wasn’t meant to have a happily ever after, as much as I would have loved it to end that way!

  5. I guess writing for yourself is one of the best pieces of advice ever. I had and I’m still having many second-thoughts about my WIP novel. In the first draft, I used to cut out a lot of things because I thought it was too boring, even though I would have loved to elaborate on certain features. When I talked to my Beta readers, they all said I should elaborate on those very things. Censoring yourself because you think that’s what other people might like is useless. No matter what other people think – in the end you yourself need to be satisfied with what you’ve created. If other people like it – hooray. If they don’t… well, there will always be someone who dislikes it. But you shouldn’t be one of those people.

    • Oh my gosh, this is brilliant!!! I love how you phrase the end, and especially the last two sentences. It’s so true…. we can’t be of the number who don’t like, who don’t connect with, our own work.

  6. An excellent state of mind to have about bad reviews. We’re often the told that if your work is rejected by a publisher it’s not necessarily that the work is bad it could just not be for them. Same rules apply with readers.

    • Fantastic point there!!! I hadn’t thought to bring agents and publishers into the picture because I self-publish, but you’re absolutely right. The same rules apply…. I’ve heard that said about agents, that you can’t get upset when one rejects you because it could be for any one of a huge number of reasons. It doesn’t have to follow that you work is bad.

  7. Great post, very insightful. And it was perfectly phrased that “Twilight” ruined the vampire genre for you, because I feel the same. I always loved the genre, and I feel that “Twilight” is probably the worse thing to ever happen to it, in the sense that it isolated true vampire fans and turned them off completely. I can’t think of another vampire media that did that. Usually there is some kind of cult appreciation, in the very least. (This is an uneducated criticism btw since I’ve never read the Twilight books nor seen the films, just based on hearsay and the movie trailers lol). In comparison, “Walking Dead” gets the adrenalin of zombie fans going. And even if people are getting sick of zombies, they can’t deny how awesome that show is. Anyway, off on a tangent. I just enjoyed this post because I had that experience a few times on line with critiques from fellow writers. I’m very open to critiques, but a couple times, the critiques made no sense to me, and I realized that they just don’t understand, or this isn’t their genre, so it made it easier to take.

    • That’s some great points you make! I didn’t read Twilight either, but the way you talk about how Walking Dead unites in contrast to how Twilight divides people… very interesting!

      It’s so important to have the right beta readers and to learn to evaluate critiques and not just take them at face value…. When you have a beta reader who knows your genre and reads a lot, upwards of 90% of his or her feedback will be worth making changes for. But sometimes, especially in a classroom or critique group situation, you’re so right, not everyone will know or understand your genre.

      I know I couldn’t be a good critiquer of certain genres. I just don’t have the experience with them.

      • Thanks!
        And yes I learned the hard way the importance of that. I had one person just tell me he couldn’t read any more of my book because it wasn’t his “thing” which was kind of an insulting way of saying not his genre or he didn’t know how to approach it.

  8. Great advice and oh so true. My favorite is getting the reviews and messages telling me that I should write like another author. For me that really brings home the fact that some people have their own preferences even within the same genre. For example, it seems fantasy is divided into people that love all fantasy, people that love quest fantasy, and people that love political fantasy (Thank you, George ‘Bodycount’ Martin.). My books get high marks from the first two groups and panned by the third. That’s just in the same genre, so going outside of that target audience seems to be a Russian Roulette for reviews. Only thing we can do is keeping writing, improving, and publishing.

    • Exactly!!! As well-meaning as some readers might be when they suggest we write more like another author–I suppose that for them that means “better”–that’s definitely advice we shouldn’t take!

      I like how you break down the fantasy genre there. It’s so, so true!!! I would add paranormal romance as a subgenre…. Personally, I like quest/epic fantasy but don’t like paranormal romance (which I would define as fantasy mainly about a romantic relationship or relationships. I guess there could be some discussion about what fits into paranormal romance and what doesn’t.)

      • I haven’t run into the paranormal romance crew yet, so I’m not sure how they operate. I’m about to step into the horror genre tonight or tomorrow, so that’s going to be an interesting group to meet.

        I do like romance in fantasy if it’s done well and not overshadowing the main story. If it is the main story then I’m probably not reading it in the first place.

  9. I haven’t had bad reviews, the lowest is a three and I have two of those on Goodreads and one on Amazon. What I am most grateful for, is that even with the fives, I have reviews that gave constructive criticism. They let me know what may have been improved upon. I was able to glean from those reviews some things that I needed to correct before going paperback with my publication. That said, I know that when my book gets more readers, the greater the numbers, the greater the chances that some people are going to be dissatisfied, and that’s okay. That is actually a good thing.

    • I agree: i have a number of 4 and 5 star reviews that also contain constructive criticism. Can’t wait to use that advice to make my future writing better 🙂

    • Like you say, as well, the beauty of self-publishing is that you can make adjustments and improve things as you go along. People can download the uploaded version, if they have an older one, for free (at least from Amazon)

  10. I especially like what you said about having bittersweet endings. I love the term, and have often used that sort of ending in my books, though I haven’t called it that. Now I have a name for it! The thing is, that sort of ending may disappoint many readers, but it comes because that’s the direction in which the plot leads. In most of my endings I did not originally intend that sort of ending, but it resulted from the direction in which the characters led me. It was the natural culmination of their actions, their needs, their desires. And although it may not have been the ending a reader hoped for, it was not a tragic ending. It was … yes, bittersweet.

    • I totally agree!!! Things worked out the same for me. I wasn’t sure how my book would end when I was writing it, but the story naturally led itself to a an end that, like you said, wasn’t happily ever after but wasn’t tragic either. There’s closure, but not everything’s perfect 🙂

  11. Excellent points. 🙂 You can really see this effect in the freebies, where hundreds of people outside the target audience may try a book (without even checking it out first).

  12. I am coming out with my new book, The Priestess and the Ravenknight, and I have gone through several changes to improve my book cover design. After reading this post, I can see I need to apply those suggestions to book cover designing. Though I saw nothing wrong with my original cover, I kept getting about 50% feedback and have since changed many things. I need to remember that not everyone is going to like it, as you just explained, and try to design for those that like the same genre I am designing for. They will “get it” unlike those that prefer another kind of genre. Thanks for post, Victoria!

  13. Thank you for this thought-provoking article, Victoria. I thought I was writing a comment but it turned out to be a blog post. So this is me thanking you twice.

  14. I know my WIP is not going to satisfy a lot of readers. It has two major strikes against it: an anti-hero protagonist many readers won’t be able to sympathize with and an ending that is good for some characters but tragic for others. It also does not sit squarely in a fantasy genre; it’s not high fantasy, epic fantasy, political fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy or paranormal romance — yet it has elements of all those subgenres. It also has erotic elements that will turn some people off to even trying it. So I’m expecting negative reviews. I’m still taking your advice, Victoria, and writing the story I want to tell. I *will* listen to my beta readers and am already getting some good critiques from them. But I have to like my story more than anyone else. Otherwise, it’s not really my story.

  15. All very good and very true points. I’ve even been told by my beta readers that they prefer some of my stories over others for these very reasons. Thank you for this post. You are always so insightful.

    • glad you enjoyed the post!!! I like you point about variation even within an author’s work. It definitely happens and people like some things some authors write more than others. It’s really funny!

  16. My first negative review was from a reader who said she expected my book to be romance with a paranormal spin rather than focused on paranormal with very little romance. I was floored simply because I’ve never indicated romance as even a sub-genre for the book.
    On other points, I’ve been told by some readers that they want more details, or were disappointed that I didn’t provide in depth descriptions of the main characters, while other reviewers said they loved the book because I didn’t draw out unnecessary details. It’s amazing the things that can split reviewers and inspire different responses.

    • It really is crazy how that works!!! And I will never understand how readers pick up a book expecting certain things there are really no indications of…. but it happens 🙂 I’m sure it’s happened to me. I just don’t write reviews generally for anything

  17. Sigh. So true! With one book you can get eight different opinions. I’ve had varying reviews (love it; hate it). Same with beta readers. Over the years I’ve learned to whittle down my betas to a select group who know me and know my writing. They might not agree on everything, but when something is fundamentally wrong, they ALL agree. I’ve learned to trust their feedback. Out of this group, only a few are into fantasy. Well, that’s my genre of choice. So when they say they like what I’ve written, that I’ve somehow helped them to be interested in fantasy, I know I’m on the right track.

    • That’s so awesome!!! Wow, it sounds like you have a wonderful group of betas who do exactly what betas are supposed 🙂 Every writer should strive for that. Thanks for breaking down for everyone why your betas help you the way they do.

  18. Reblogged this on gettingsomethenovel and commented:
    Really inspirational blog-post, and right on time!

  19. Fantastic points, V. Seriously. I don’t have anything to add. I haven’t published yet, but every time I see a harsh review on a book and the author hasn’t responded, I think, good for you!

    • I do too! It’s the only professional response. Even if there are factual errors in the review, an author just comes across as defensive, touchy, and egotistical at best responding to a negative review. It’s not fair, perhaps, but it’s true. I’ve heard so many stories of even respectful responses contesting factual errors in a review that led to people jumping all over an author. Far better not to take chances!

  20. I can learn something even from a bad review if the reviewer takes the time to explain the reason for the bad review. It may just be a case of a bad match between reader and novel, but it also may be something that I need to know and fix in future writing. However a review that just blasts the novel with no explanation is not only not helpful but it’s rude. This is a review one of my books received on Goodreads, and I quote in its entirety: “What is this shit?” Pardon the language. It was the reviewer’s, and I found it offensive. Obviously the reviewer objected to something very strongly, but since I don’t have any idea what it was, I just attributed the review to extremely bad manners and let it go at that.

    • That is no way to write a review, for so many reasons!!!!! SHEESH! You’re right…. they could most certainly have been respectful, have explained why they didn’t like the book, what they did like about it…. Goodreads is known for stuff like that, though. It’s so sad!

  21. A Mage’s Power has received reviews from people expecting a medieval fantasy instead of a modern fantasy. They reacted poorly to that. On the other hand, there are reviews that enjoy the setting. Like you said, it’s about finding the right reader.

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  25. Thanks for this. It’s hitting me at the right moment since I’ve heard from someone on goodreads who is not my target reader. He is preparing a review and wanted to tell me that he found mistakes. Okay, but when he elaborated, his idea of mistakes included how can the character be pregnant when I never read the sex scene. Well, I don’t right in that fashion, and felt the implications of what took place with clear clues of early romance on a given night were enough. Oh well, I write what I call Cozy fantasy. I never promised a sex scene.
    I am good enough, I am good enough, and my target readers seem to love my trilogy.

    • I’m like you: I have characters who are married, and who have children, but I don’t go into the bedroom. It’s always frustrating when readers come into our books with their own preconceptions (or perhaps wishes) of what they will find.

      All I can say is, I’m glad the post helped!!! And I totally agree: good writers can imply sex without writing a detailed or explicit sex scene! I’m sorry your reader was disappointed 😦 I would try not to take it too hard…. That criticism doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of weight behind it! If your target audience–and all writers, we know who they are–if they’re enjoying your book then you know you’re doing things right 🙂

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