An Open Love Note to Debut Authors About Hurtful, Anonymous Online Reviews

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Originally published in 2009, this is one of the highest-traffic posts of all time at Cynsations. 

I’m sharing it again today because it’s a new year and we have new debut authors.

Hey there,

I’m so sorry you’re feeling blue.

Please know that:

(1) it’s not exclusive to you. Our most critically acclaimed writers have fielded rather clueless, self-indulgent, overly personal, and unprofessional attacks on their fine work.

Take into account that the “feedback” lacks any meaningful literary and/or content analysis. It’s merely someone being hateful for the sake of it. Too often they’re clearly motivated by bias against the identity elements of the characters and/or authors.

Really, we’re not talking about reviews at all. They’re consumer comments. It’s minimizing of thoughtful reviewers to lump them into the same category.

(2) not all of the “noise” matters. Besides, not every voice is of equal/any influence.

In particular, anyone calling themselves “anonymous” is way at the bottom of the movers-and-shakers list. Really.

(3) you don’t have to follow everything said about your work. Turn off your Google Alerts. A lot of successful people do. Exhibit: the very successful (by anyone’s measure) Sara Zarr.

(4) maybe rethink comparing responses to your book with those to other books. It’s impossible to get a global bead within the first year anyway, and you’re too close to it to see the big picture.

(5) a lot of interesting, quality work that advances the body of literature generates the most extreme (positive and negative) responses. It’s probably less stressful to shoot for bland writing that doesn’t challenge, but is that really what you want to do?

(6) move on to your next project, and put your focus, energy, and emotion into it instead.

(7) if it’s hard to have faith in yourself, remember it’s not all about you. Don’t forget your home team—your early readers, your agent, your editor, your publisher. Believe in their judgment, their contributions, their faith in you. (And, hey, didn’t you get some positive reviews too?)

(8) you are player, a contributor to the conversation of books, an exciting newcomer to a circle of storytellers that stretches back before the first fireside gatherings. Draw strength from that tradition.


(9) if tomorrow or the day after that, you’re still feeling blue, please feel free to email me or another writer pal for a pep talk. It’s not a matter of skin, thin or thick. You survived all the rejection that comes before getting published. You’re tougher than you realize, and you’ll get through this, too.

(10) focus on becoming your own best cheerleader.

Take care of you!

Cynsational Notes

This post was adapted from my comment on a stellar debut author’s locked post and shared with permission.

Certainly, more seasoned writers also might feel stung by overly personal and malicious online reviews, but it’s mostly the new voices that I’m hearing from. Mostly.

Photo by Vera Kratochvil at

16 thoughts on “An Open Love Note to Debut Authors About Hurtful, Anonymous Online Reviews

  1. As someone who has a debut novel coming out next year, I tell myself that negative reviews will be easier to take than no reviews/notice. But we'll see how I feel when those mean-spirited reviews actually pour in. D: How generous of you to offer your email/shoulder. *raises chin* Hope I won't have to take you up on that. 🙂

  2. I'm a book reviewer and I *hate* it when people post mean spirited reviews. I think it's important to be honest, but be nice about it people! If I see a mean review I pretty much discount anything they have to say about any book.
    I hate giving negative reviews, but I try to point out the good things and I always point out that we can't all love the same books. Sometimes it may be my mood affecting my feel of the book, or something.
    Definitely don't take it personally!

  3. Very timely post and thank you for reminding us we are not alone. And I know how you feel Alina. I think as new authors we should realize we're probably going to get bad reviews. Do I hope everyone will love my book and give it a five star, glowing review? Of course I do. Do I think realistically that's going to happen? No. Everyone's tastes are different and for everyone who loves the book, there will be someone who doesn't. But I think being prepared for the bad will help me accept it.

  4. Standing offer, Alina! And keep in mind that, though we use the word "reviews," in the cases I'm talking about, it's really just noise–personal reactions rather than thoughtful literary criticism.

    Candace, it's great that you make an effort to balance your reviews, and yes, definitely, a reviewer's mood (or other idiosyncratic influences) can have a big effect on a his/her response to a book.

    I often set aside books that aren't right for me at the moment to reconsider later.

    Sondrae, I agree that it's helpful for new authors to understand that not everyone will love what they're doing–especially if they're doing something at all brave or interesting.

    Moreover, the best books I've read tend to get wildly divergent amateur reviews.

    It's also true–especially with books for young readers–that we may occasionally write over the heads of those who're reading up and/or perhaps more intellectually than emotionally mature.

    I had a mother insist her daughter was ready for Tantalize because of her vocabulary, but that really wasn't what I was talking about. There was the sophistication required to process an unreliable narrator and also simply the matter of where she is in life versus the seventeen year old protagonist.

  5. A timely message. I just came out with my second book, and I've made a policy that I don't go out looking at reviews of my books. It is too much of a roller coaster, and like you said, a lot of it is just noise. Instead, I focus my energy on my next project instead of obsessing over the impossible task of trying to please everyone.

  6. First, apologies if I appear twice in this list of comments, I had some problems with the sign-in thing.

    In any case, thank you, Cynthia, for a well-needed and timely (for me, I've just been on the receiving end of some web-'tude from a book snob) post. It always hurts, even we we say it won't, when someone seems to revel in knocking you down some. The good thing is, there are many more helpful people out there than rude ones.

  7. Thanks for the great post. I'm part of the Apocalypsies and I know we'll all be dealing with the good, the bad, and the outright ugly soon enough. Much appreciation for the calming and encouraging advice.

  8. Hi Leigh,

    So lovely to hear from one of the Apocalypsies! I look forward to getting to know y'all and your books in the year to come. Please feel free to holler if you have any out-of-the-box questions or need a sympathetic ear.

    Best, Cynthia

  9. Cynthia, I am so grateful for these insights! I was starting to feel like what should be an exciting time was become pure stress. Turning off my Google Alerts was one of the most liberating things I've ever done! Love your work and your commentary.

    All best,

  10. As someone who has benefited from your wisdom and generosity as a first-time author, I just wanted to offer an open love note to you:

    Thank you, Cynthia!

  11. There's something I recently figured out about mean-spirited reviewers. Their intent is to personally attack the author, so their review really has nothing to do with the content of the book. As a reader, I don't pay attention to the negative reviews that are clearly mean-spirited.

  12. My debut releases next month, and I really needed to be reminded of this, especially #7. I keep reminding myself that my book isn't written for adults, so of course they aren't all going to like it.
    Thanks for posting this again and being such a friend to debut authors!

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