Earning That Dreaded First 1-Star Review for Your Book and Why You’ll Survive It

So you’ve given birth to your first book. Just like a newborn baby you adore that innocent and gorgeous little bugger. It has become the center of your life, and you want only the best for it. You check up on it around the clock, see how it’s doing in the Amazon charts, glow with happiness when someone praises it. Waking up to a brand-spanking-new 5-star review on Amazon is akin to your baby calling you “Mama” the first time, taking his first steps, or winning the spelling bee at school.

But just like with children, the day will come that your book will cause you grief. Remember that note coming home from preschool that your child has bitten someone? The time they hit the baseball into the neighbor’s window and then lied about it? The shock when you realized the scent on your teenager’s clothes was weed?

Receiving your first 1-star Amazon review gives you exactly that same feeling: Your palms become sweaty, your heart starts thumping, and your adrenaline rises until you quiver with a combination of shame and indignation. How could they? How DARE they attack my baby? But – gulp! – might they have hit on a little bit of truth? Perhaps it really IS bad? Where have I gone wrong? I totally f*&#ed this up, didn’t I!


I’m here to tell you to take a deep breath. Calm down. You’ll survive it and be just fine. As it is prone to do with all catastrophes, time will heal everything. But not only that. Every other author who’s been there will tell you that receiving your first 1-star review is not merely something to be endured but a genuinely good thing: it makes you the member of a club. The club of those authors who have “arrived.”

To prove my point, do me a favor. Open up an Amazon tab on your browser and enter your favorite book in the search box. I always like to do this with Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which has the added benefit of being closely related to my own book in terms of genre.

No doubt Cheryl is living quite nicely off the royalties of Wild. It’s a wildly – ha!  – popular book, it snagged a coveted Oprah book club recommendation, it was made into a much-viewed movie with Reese Witherspoon. What else is there to achieve in life?

As you can see, Wild has an average 4.3 out of 5 star rating. At 12,157 total reviews, the math (or a quick narrowing of search criteria, like I preferred to do) dictates that her book has a whopping 494 1-star reviews. Just think about this mind-boggling number of terrible reviews! Almost 500 people absolutely HATED her book!

And it’s not just the star rating. If Cheryl actually went and read just a handful of these reviews, she might be excused for becoming suicidal. They are not just your “this was boring” lamentations by lazy teenagers the book was forced on for summer reading. These are quite articulate, and just a glimpse at the headlines will make you say “ouch!” on Cheryl’s behalf: “One of the worst books I’ve ever read,” “Simply awful,” I couldn’t have disliked this any more,” the witty ” Wild-ly irresponsible, Wild-ly self-absorbed, Wild-ly destructive,” and my favorite “I would rather walk from Mexico to Canada barefoot on the PCT as read one more page in this book.” (Just a disclaimer: I think I gave her 4 starts in the review I left for her book). One reviewer felt compelled to leave an over 1,000-word detailed critique of why he thought this book was so bad. If, as a prospective reader of Wild, you filtered out all the 1-star reviews and just read those, you’d be sure after just 2 minutes that you’d never want to buy this book in your entire lifetime.

Why do I go on and on about poor Cheryl Strayed, you’ll ask?

Well, I think it’s obvious. Despite of all the mud being hurled onto Cheryl’s Amazon listing, I’m sure that her royalties from Wild trickle in quite nicely. Do you think for a minute that she sits there and agonizes over yet another 1-star review? I’m sure she has stopped reading them a long time ago.

The thing with reviews is that more than anything else, you’ll want a lot of them. The more reviews, the more credible your product, as anyone who’s ever shopped at Amazon knows. It’s really really hard to press “add to shopping cart” for an item that doesn’t have a single review. You almost can’t bring yourself to do it, even though Amazon has an excellent return policy. But for an item with, say, 67 reviews (entirely randomly, I picked the book Kilimanjaro Diaries which just happens to have that number of reviews on Amazon.com), you’ll likely sample a few, some good ones and some not-so-good ones, and then decide who you’re going to believe the most, depending on how articulate and genuine they seem, and how well the writers’ tastes seem to overlap with yours. Chances are, you’ll never make it to the two 1-star ones* or if you do, you probably won’t put your stock in 2 out of 67 and ignore the other 65.

Of course you’ll want to write an excellent and well-edited book. I’m not for a minute advocating that you cut any corners. Your book has to be absolutely perfect or as near-perfect you can get it to be while publishing it in this lifetime and not the next. If my book had a majority of poor reviews, I’d take that as a hint and do some serious reflecting. But the point is, you’re not going to make everyone 100% happy. It’s just not possible. Even the most successful authors attract their share of haters. I haven’t even tried to look up Harry Potter.

I’ll say it again: “Earning” your first 1-star review means that you have arrived. You are now a bona-fide author with enough of a public profile that people will treat you like any other public figure and feel free to say nasty things about you. They put you in the same hat with everyone else who’s made a name for themselves, and they assume – or most likely they don’t even give it a second thought – that you have a thick skin.

It’s time that you grow one.

Cheer up, and welcome to the club!

*Yes, I am the proud owner of 2 coveted 1-star reviews. If you want to take a look and be gleeful, go check them out here (you’ll have to scroll down and then filter the reviews by marking the appropriate selection), I won’t hold it against you. I remember the trauma of getting the first one, and I never even knew I had gotten a second one. That’s how it goes.

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