Why authors shouldn’t obsess over one-star reviews

one-star reviews

Authors, prepare yourself for the inevitable one-star review. In the publishing industry, one-star reviews are practically a rite of passage.

And no one is immune. Whether you’ve got 10 best-sellers to your credit or it’s your first book, you can expect at least a single one-star review.

There are the one-star Amazon reviews that make you roll your eyes.

“If possible, I’d give this pile of garbage zero stars.”

“Not really of much use for me. Seems like just a lot of useless information to fill up a book.”

“The best part of this book is the cover photo.”

Then there are the one-star Amazon reviews that have a little more substance.

“If you know nothing at all and are not good at Googling this might be a good choice.”

“I really didn’t like this book. I don’t understand why it’s so highly rated. I found the characters to be either overly dramatic, willfully ignorant, or utterly apathetic. They were just too extreme.”

“I was expecting a great deal of sociological analysis that relate to the author’s personal experiences but instead got a 272 rambling, inconsistent, humble brag of a memoir sprinkled with a few facts and statistics for good measure.”

What’s the difference between the two?

You can’t learn anything from the bad reviews that seem nonsensical or just plain mean.

But if one-star reviewers consistently comment that they were disappointed because your book didn’t include information they expected — and each bad review refers to the same missing information — you should update the description to forewarn readers: “This book is not about ‘X.’ ” (And perhaps add that missing information to a revised edition.)

Or, if reviewers repeatedly comment that the book is poorly written, is so riddled with typos that they couldn’t finish reading it, or that the dialogue was stilted, it’s time to take note.

Sometimes the feedback is useless, sometimes it’s helpful, right? The challenge is to be objective enough to see it for what it is.

3 reasons to embrace one-star reviews

But even useless or mean-spirited one-star reviews serve a purpose. Here are three reasons to embrace the lowly one-star review:

1. Readers aren’t stupid.

When you see a one-star review that says, “I bought this as a gift but it arrived too late,” what’s your reaction?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you probably don’t think any less of the book or its author. Perhaps you think less of the reviewer for reviewing the delivery schedule, not the book’s contents.

Readers can see past silliness as easily as authors can.

2. They make the four- and five-star reviews believable.

Be honest: When you see a book with 60 reviews and they’re all five stars, does a quiet little voice in your head say, “Really? Not even one four-star comment? Or a couple of threes?”

That’s because you’re smart enough to know that this is a subjective business. You might hate what I love, and vice versa. So it seems kind of odd when everybody agrees that it’s a great book.

A 4.6, review average, especially when there are lots of reviews, is more credible than 5.0. (Because, as noted in point 1, readers aren’t stupid.)

3. They can provide feedback that helps you improve the book or its description.

As noted already, if you get the same negative feedback from several people, pay attention. Consider taking action on it.

For example, if you’re charging $14.99 for a 90-page paperback and you’ve got a slew of one-star reviews saying the book isn’t worth $14.99, it’s time to evaluate price versus perceived value.

Look for patterns in those negative reviews to see what you can learn from them. Sometimes, it’s nothing. But sometimes it’s something — even a big something. You can use that feedback to your advantage.

Responding to negative reviews

This brings up another point: Should you respond to negative reviews?

For the most part, no, but there are a few exceptions. Learn more about that in, “Should you respond to negative reviews?

How do you feel about one-star reviews? Useful? Useless? Painful? Share your thoughts in a comment. 

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Sandra Beckwith is an award-winning former publicist who now teaches authors how to market their books. Three groups have recognized her BuildBookBuzz.com site as an outstanding resource for authors, so you know her advice is author-tested.

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33 Responses to Why authors shouldn’t obsess over one-star reviews
  1. Kathy Steinemann
    April 12, 2017 | 8:42 am

    Excellent information, Sandra.

    “The challenge is to be objective enough to see it for what it is.”

    Years ago I didn’t pay attention to other people’s opinions before buying a book. Now I do. And I read the one- and two-star reviews, followed by a “Look inside.”

    I always feel nervous about posting a low-star review, but I try to include information that will help the author improve.

    Authors and readers alike can benefit by reading and heeding reviews.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 10:11 am

      Thanks for such helpful feedback, Kathy. I know what you mean about writing those low-rating reviews — it can be challenging to write something that someone else might find useful.

      I look at the one- and two-star reviews for nonfiction books to see if there’s information that might help me figure out if the book is what I’m looking for. Recently, for instance, I was thinking about buying a book on a topic I wanted to learn more about and learned from a one-star review that the book was only 50 pages long (short?), which made me realize that it definitely wouldn’t have the in-depth info I was looking for. (And it reminded me to check the page count in the book details going forward!)

      I don’t use reader reviews for fiction simply because my taste might not be the same as random reader A’s. For fiction, I follow recommendations from people I know who have liked the same books I’ve liked — and disliked the same books, too.


  2. Karen Gowen
    April 12, 2017 | 10:14 am

    The one star reviews truly give your book legitimacy! If in doubt, just take a look at the bad reviews on bestsellers like Harry Potter, or on timeless classics like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

    But as you say, Sandra, if there are many of them that run along the same theme, then it’s time to re-examine your writing. Maybe too late to make changes on the present work but definitely on the next one.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 11:16 am

      Thank you for the wise observations, Karen. I love your thought about “legitimacy” — so true!

      It’s hard to imagine a one-star review for Jane Eyre, but it’s all subjective, right?


  3. Daniela Mansfield
    April 12, 2017 | 10:36 am

    Thanks for this informative and encouraging article, Sandra.
    Although 1 star reviews can hurt, they can also teach us something.
    And I completely agree with you, readers are definitely not stupid, they see a review for what it is. Although it sometimes makes me wonder, why 1 star reviews like “I didn’t like the description so I didn’t read the book” don’t get deleted by e.g. Amazon…

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 11:24 am

      Daniela, you’ve just reminded us that while readers aren’t stupid, perhaps some reviewers ARE. Why would anyone leave a review like that? And yes, it should be removed. Thank you!


  4. Madison Michael
    April 12, 2017 | 10:37 am

    My first (and thankfully only) one star review turned me into a better writer. You are so right when you say that ‘readers aren’t stupid’. Romance readers have hundreds – even thousands – of books to choose from and they are discerning. I listened to the complaints of my reviewer and made changes in my next books. That led to reviews that said “each book gets better”. I agree with your post here, listen to those reviews, learn and never respond.

    Thanks for sharing another great post.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 11:22 am

      What a wonderful story, Madison. I’m so impressed that you could move past your disappointment and turn that review into a positive experience. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Nancy
    April 12, 2017 | 11:05 am

    Great article, Sandra!

    Sometimes I look at one-star reviews to get a clear sense of what the book isn’t, and that often makes me more likely to buy the book! I do find author’s and other fans’ responses to negative reviews helpful, too. I find that two- and three-star reviews are more helpful in terms of positioning the book for me. And I can read through people’s subjectivity. For example, some of my favorite wellness book authors always get people grousing about how there is no body of scientific research to match their claims. Duh! It takes years to do research, and often research is biased and hard to get funded unless it’s on something that someone will profit off of. That the author offers any research on, say, positive thinking always impresses me.

    But the one-star reviews? I typically skim them quickly and respond with a comment like “Please take this down–you’re reviewing the postman and it’s hurting the author’s ratings!” That’s even if I don’t buy the book!

    Yes, “bad” reviews can make me want the book even more!


    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 11:21 am

      Such helpful feedback, Nancy. Thank you! I try to keep all of this in mind when I write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and I’ll bet you do, too. If I can only give it two stars, why is that? And will sharing that help another reader? (And I always try to be kind, because I’m an author, too, and I know how flippant feedback can sting.)


  6. C.L. Charlesworth
    April 12, 2017 | 12:24 pm

    We live in a world where being #1 means you’re the best. I think as a writer, when you pour your heart into a piece, there’s a sensitivity looming inside. Getting a review of any kind means, to me, someone took the time to read what was written. We should strive to make better stories worth reading.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 1:25 pm

      Well said, C.L. Thank you for sharing that.


  7. Margaret Welwood
    April 12, 2017 | 3:35 pm

    I received two one-star reviews from the same person (one on one book and one on another). Because the first review was an attack on my personality and my faith (as perceived by the reviewer ), I found nothing to correct. I have, however, learned from three- and four-star reviews.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 7:43 pm

      I’m sorry you had that experience, Margaret. It sounds personal.


  8. Michael Carney
    April 12, 2017 | 9:39 pm

    I definitely agree in principle with your argument about one-star reviews, Sandra. Hopefully, audiences will indeed see past the foolishness of the so-far solitary one-star I received on my first novel, which read:

    “I received a copy from Netgalley [i.e. free]. I tried to read this book several times and just couldn’t get into it. I never did finish it.”

    Unfortunately, because I’ve only had a handful of reviews on GoodReads, that one-star has unfairly dragged down my collective average score on the title. Not helpful.

    I’m not sure what motivates people (especially those who receive free copies) to write such negative comments. Perhaps next time you could write an article about the [appalling lack of] wisdom of the crowd?

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 12, 2017 | 9:49 pm

      Michael, I hope you can generate a few more positive reviews so you bring the average up.


    • Alan Porter
      April 13, 2017 | 6:29 am

      Michael, don’t worry about that one! As a buyer, I would pay no attention to any review where the reviewer admitted they didn’t even read the book – by definition you can’t ‘review’ something you haven’t experienced. All that says is your book doesn’t appeal to morons… which is probably a very good thing. True, it’s a shame it pulls your average rating down, but I doubt it will seriously damage your book’s credibility!

      • Sandra Beckwith
        April 13, 2017 | 8:53 am

        I agree, Alan. It goes back to point 1 — readers aren’t stupid.


  9. Marianne Sciucco
    April 13, 2017 | 7:14 am

    Ouch! They sting, especially when it appears the reviewer did not read the book, or they write that their review is based on the sample pages on Amazon. It’s hard not to bite back. But we don’t want to get into arguments with readers. Someone once said, “When they go low, we go high.” There could be a kernel of truth to what they say. In which case, we need to be objective, and consider whether or not they may be right. That stinger may help us deliver a better book. Nice post Sandra. I’ll share with my students.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 13, 2017 | 8:51 am

      Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Marianne. I appreciate the share, too. I hope it will help more authors.


  10. Penny May
    April 13, 2017 | 12:58 pm

    I agree not to obsess but a one star can hurt more than your feelings especially if you’re a new author with only a few reviews. A one star can drag your realistic average down from a respectable 4 to a 3 star. At that point many people wont even want to click on your book so you are forced to manually correct the issue rather than let the reviews grow organically. If you have have a fair number of reviews you can afford to take note or ignore. For some reason I seem to attract trolls and nasties… The type that write things like….
    sooooo boring…..
    Poor attempt at a book….
    terrible grammar…
    Comments which are hardly helpful and give completely false impressions. I work with quality and rather ruthless editors who would tell me truthfully if anything was lacking in that respect. I used to get upset and have been sorely tempted to respond but have learned to deal. Only once did I respond to a review…. One which claimed I clearly knew nothing of UK which is hilarious as I’m a Brit and if they’d taken a second or two to read my back matter or my website they’d have seen facts to the contrary. Anyways… Enough of my ranting. When you’re in the public eye you have to take the flak… And to coin a popular phrase…

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 13, 2017 | 1:37 pm

      Penny, how do you manually correct the issue?


      • Penny May
        April 13, 2017 | 4:03 pm

        I have a bunch of people, some of them readers, and some fellow authors, whom I chat with on FB, and when I’ve needed them, they’ve happily pitched in and helped me float my sinking boat. I’ve done the same for others too. And I always read the book first so I know the lie of the land. I really don’t like asking for favours, as I want to know what my real audience of readers thinks… by that I mean thoughtful, intelligent ones, whose opinions I value, even if they only give me 2 or 3 stars. What I hate is spiteful thoughtless people on some kind of evil lone star power trip. Personally, I never give reviews lower than 3 stars. I understand the need for a reasonable rating to drive some sales, to get a good mixture of real reviews. I try to explain my feelings rather than rating low and dimming those precious yellow stars. Hopefully a writer will think about what I write, take heed of constructive criticism and act upon it, even if its in a small way. I’d never give a one star which would haunt them for ever. And as a reader I would happily engage with an author who replied to my reviews… but as author we don’t tend to that, do we?

        • Sandra Beckwith
          April 15, 2017 | 8:47 am

          Thanks, Penny.


  11. Patti Ryan
    April 15, 2017 | 1:55 am

    I consider that a few negative reviews just “prove the rule”. Helps validate that my reviews are by real people. In the non-fiction arena, one book can’t be everything to everyone, so take any valuable comments, and rack up the rest to experience.

    FYI – If you get an inappropriate review online: I had a review on my Amazon book page removed as it was vicious and not related to the topic. (It upset me, but I felt better when I saw I could flag it for removal. Easily handled.)

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 15, 2017 | 8:47 am

      Patti, I’m glad removing the review was an easy process for you. It’s hard to understand why people do these kinds of things.


  12. Jordan Radford McDowell
    April 18, 2017 | 6:58 pm

    This post is a big relief–I’m not published yet, but I know that when I do get my novel out there, I will be freaking out over reviews, and it’s nice to see that I don’t have to.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 18, 2017 | 7:07 pm

      It’s hard not to obsess about the reviews, Jordan, but it helps to remember that they’re so subjective. When it comes to deciding what novels to read, I rely more on feedback from people who I know like the same fiction I like than I do on input from strangers. I hope you’re enjoying the writing process!


  13. Kenneth Atchity
    April 20, 2017 | 8:55 am

    This is a very helpful and insightful article. As an author, I appreciate the advice!

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 20, 2017 | 10:38 am

      Thanks, Ken. That means a lot coming from you!


  14. Laurie Buchanan
    April 20, 2017 | 4:00 pm

    I received a one-star review four months BEFORE my book came out (this was on Goodreads). It wouldn’t have stung nearly so much if the person had actually read the book, which was impossible at the time she gave it one-star.

    All of my other reviews have been four and five stars – with associated verbiage substantiating why they liked it.

    The initial one-star came without any supporting verbiage (because it would have been impossible).

  15. Gail Kittleson
    April 24, 2017 | 9:42 am

    Thanks for this, Sandy. I received my first negative review a couple of weeks ago, so reading all of these positives helped a lot! Thanks to everyone else who commented, too.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      April 24, 2017 | 9:50 am

      It’s pretty much a rite of passage, Gail. Welcome to the club! You’re in good company. Eat cookies and move on. : )


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