A lot of authors, including myself, fret over bad reviews. The usual advice for such things is to try to learn what you can from them and otherwise grow a thicker skin, but to that I can add something new: sometimes your bad reviews are the sign of a good thing, if they are Amazon reader reviews that is.
Even Excellent Books Are Read By Morons
Take a look at the reader reviews for a book that inspired my own in some ways, Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. The book was a bestseller, and in my opinion the trilogy of which it is a part are the best alternate history novels of the last quarter century, and they are among the best Civil War novels for the same period. Yet the overall star rating is only 4.1, less than that of my own novel.
Gettysburg has a merely four-star rating precisely because it is a bestselling novel. The simple fact that it reached a large audience guaranteed that it would get bad reader reviews, because reaching a large audience means reaching idiots who can read.
I know that sounds harsh, but look at the bad reviews for Gettysburg. A big chunk of them came from people who complain that they didn’t know the book was an alternate history, and were expecting straight historical fiction. In other words, they were from readers who were too stupid to read and understand the plot synopsis posted front and center on the Amazon page and printed on the back of the book!
Look up any great book you would care to name on Amazon, and it will have reviews written by trolls, cretinous wannabe critics and dimwits. The simple truth is that having a healthy number of stupid reader reviews is part and parcel of reaching a larger audience. It is a sign of success.
Sales, Fakes And Hitting The Target
One of the things I have done since Stonewall Goes West came out a year and a half ago is keep a casual eye on authors who publish books in my genre. Based on that, I have a fair idea of how well those books have sold, and one thing I have gleaned from that is more evidence that stupid reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience, because most of them didn’t sell well and don’t have several stupid reviews.
This is not to say that a book without a decent helping of stupid reviews hasn’t sold well. I can think of one good example where that is not the case, that being a sign of an author who really managed to hit the nail on the head and satisfy everyone, the discriminating and the lame-brained alike. I believe that because my observation suggests the book sold better than my own, and yet it doesn’t have that many dumb reviews.
On the other hand, I know of a dozen books that sold much, much worse than my own, yet have 4 1/2 star ratings with dozens of reader reviews, almost all of them positive. My guess is that most of those reviews are fakes written by family, friends, and members of the author’s writers club. In fact, in once instance I’ve had the author of one of those books contact me and then boast about doing that very thing. I have previously discussed this problem of fake reviews here.
But What About Bad Books?
The obvious problem with this theory is using it as a tool to evaluate books you want to buy, as opposed to drawing comfort from it as an author. Tons of bad reviews aren’t a paradox that points to a good book, or even a book with good sales.
That points to a caveat in the theory: bad reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience only up to a certain point, and the reviews in question need to be stupid to count. Don’t discount all criticism by saying “it’s just a sign that I reached dumb asses too.”
In my own reader reviews, the one consistent criticism that rings true is that my books don’t have maps in them. That was due to budget constraints, and frankly there is nothing I could or can do about that for this trilogy. Still, it’s a valid complaint and one I understood from the very beginning, which is why I attempted to bridge the gap with maps I made myself and published on the internet.
So the maps complaint is basically sound, because it’s true and for some readers it hampers or even spoils their enjoyment of the book. Sometimes I think the complaint is taken to an unfair degree, but that makes it harsh rather than stupid. I would be a fool not to listen to it and try to incorporate maps into my next project, and you would be a fool to assess all bad criticism as stupid merely because it’s bad.