Negative Reviews Aren’t “Mean;” They’re Integral to Selling Books

Introduction

Anyone who has been in the online book community for more than a year probably thought we settled this discussion years ago, multiple times, but it’s rearing its head again: authors and even other bookish influencers (bloggers, booktubers, bookstagrammers, etc.) are arguing that writing negative reviews of books is “mean” because 1) authors work hard on their books and 2) they stop people from buying the books, thus apparently ruining authors’ careers irrevocably.

For years, reviewers have pushed back on this, pointing out there’s a difference between a critical review and a truly snarky or mean one and noting that because reading is subjective, negative reviews can help people find books they like. If I say a book has too slow pacing, for instance, someone who likes slower pacing and tangents and savoring a story might think it’s the perfect book for them. (But even if a negative review does put someone off reading a book, that’s fine, too. Not every book is for everyone, and people have finite time to read. Allowing readers to choose books they think they will truly like is important!)

Today, however, I don’t want to talk about the importance of individual negative reviews; I want to talk about the importance of negative reviews existing at all, their importance as a group, regardless of what each review actually says. The idea that “no one” should write a negative review because it’s “mean” is absurd; positive reviews only have context when contrasted with negative reviews. Only having positive reviews renders all those reviews meaningless.

Why Negative Reviews Are Important Now

In today’s world, where negative reviews do exist and are routinely published across multiple platforms, including individual blogs, social media, and retailer sites, any book without negative reviews tends to immediately become suspect to readers. Readers know that there is no single book in the world that everyone likes. So if they see a book that has 15 five star reviews and nothing else, they have doubts. Did the author pay all their friends to write the reviews? Are they sock puppet accounts? Did they somehow get negative reviews erased from the site? Many readers would look into this further and try to find out what’s going on, or try to find a negative review, before fully committing to reading the book. In this scenario, having a couple negative reviews, no matter what they say, actually helps readers believe there is merit to the book and they should read it.

But What if NO ONE Wrote Negative Reviews?

However, let’s do a thought experiment and imagine a world that some influencers and authors are proposing: no one publishes a negative review ever. All reviews on Goodreads and Amazon and other platforms are positive, four or five stars. Sure, maybe they point out a flaw or two of the book, hidden in the praise, but overall it’s just glowing recommendations. For.every.single.book. My theory of the results? No one would read reviews, and most people would stop bothering to write them.

If everyone is just saying how wonderful a book is, there is no real point to reading reviews. Sure, theoretically the reviews are different: one might point out fast pacing while another praises the prose, but overall the recommendations are the same — the book is fabulous, so other people should read it. This would become really uninteresting, really fast.

This type of unmitigated praise already exists, though — as publisher marketing. If I want, I can go to a publisher’s or an author’s web site and read: a positive description of the book written by the publisher, a neutral summary of the plot, positive blurbs from other published authors, and snippets of positive reviews from outside publications. I literally never do. I never read these things, and I certainly don’t bother to seek them out. I have a suspicion very few people do, and that’s because a list of nothing put praise doesn’t actually help me decide whether or not to read the book. It’s great for the author; it does little for me as a reader or as someone deciding where to spend my money purchasing books.

Conclusion

I’m sure seeing negative reviews of one’s own book doesn’t feel great as a author, but the community’s mantra that “reviews are for readers, not writers” holds true. And the fact is that having negative reviews, even if they are truly mean or snarky, actually helps books; it helps the books find the right audience, and it helps readers trust that a wide variety of real people have actually read the book, not just the author’s family and friends. A world without any negative might sound pleasant, but it wouldn’t be helpful at all.

Briana

22 thoughts on “Negative Reviews Aren’t “Mean;” They’re Integral to Selling Books

  1. Carol says:

    Writing negative reviews is sooooo difficult! I want to give my honest thoughts but I want to do it kindly so it takes me an excruciatingly long time to write them…edit…rephrase! I think I’m getting better at it than I was at first. In fact, I’ve gone back and reworded some of my negative reviews. There truly is an art to writing a negative review. …and I think I would be suspicious of a reviewer who never wrote a negative review. In a negative review I always make a point of indicating who would like the book to emphasize that my review is simply personal taste and only one opinion. Sometimes I admit to taking the easy way out and shelving it as DNF and writing no review…especially if I can’t think of at least one positive thing to say. Thanks for addressing this topic!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I see a lot of reviewers admitting when something isn’t to their taste, but they will often point out that different audiences may enjoy the book, anyway. I know I often don’t enjoy children’s books for various reasons, but I also recognize that I am not the target audience, and what I find stale or simply not funny may be new or hilarious to a different reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    Oh boy, the book community likes circling back don’t they! 😂 I like a vigorous debate though so I don’t mind! Once again, I’m in agreement with your viewpoint. Reviews are such a subjective POV anyway so why would we only allow positive reviews? We’re then saying that only those who hold positive views on a book are correct in their thinking & that can’t be right. To be honest, I’ve seen some negative reviews that are considerably well thought and argued, more so than some positive ones. I must also confess, I even enjoy reading a snark review for the entertainment factor alone! I give my honest opinion on books but for people to say negative reviews will always harm sales isn’t entirely accurate. I couldn’t stand Caraval or A Court of Frost & Starlight for example and am vocal about it but I’m pretty sure those books have done alright without my viewpoint. 🤦‍♀️ I do think it comes down to some authors needing to set their own boundaries. They shouldn’t read reviews of their work if they know it will hurt, then we negate this whole ‘criticism is mean to them’ debate anyway. But I like the discourse so maybe they still should 🤷‍♀️ I’ll have a think 😜

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think the idea that negative reviews will ultimately impact sales or hurt the author in an meaningful way is overblown. Maybe that would happen if the book had an overall two-star rating on Goodreads from hundreds of people. (In which case, I would say that the reviews are doing readers a real service in telling them to save their time and money if that many people agree the book is not worth it!) But my writing a negative review on my blog isn’t going to the reason a book fails. My audience, frankly, isn’t that large enough and, of all the people who actually read my review, only a small handful were probably interested in reading the book anyway, and only a small percentage of those people will actually take my advice and not read the book. Because the reality is that reviews are subjective, and we as readers know that. I read negative reviews all the time and still read the book because maybe what bothered the reviewer wouldn’t bother me, or it was the only negative review I’d seen out of five reviews, or it just seems like the reviewer and I have different tastes. I just can’t pretend that my influence is so great that I could single-handedly change the fate of a book’s sales. I’m honestly not that special! 😉

      I also think reviews are ultimately for readers. They are not meant to boost the author’s confidence or their sales. That’s what marketing is for. Reviews are supposed to be honest assessments of the quality of a work, to help readers decide how to invest their limited time and resources. I really believe authors shouldn’t be reading reviews of their work if they are that sensitive to criticism. The review wasn’t meant for them, and they weren’t supposed to take it as a personal insult, so why get all flustered about it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

        Exactly! Reviews are for readers and I think a lot of people forget that still. If an author wants to hunt down reviews that are negative I think they do need to consider the impact that will have on their mental health but need to put those boundaries in place for themselves and ask themselves why were they seeking out that information? I don’t think the solution is to stop all negative or constructive reviews completely. I see comments sometimes from readers about how negative reviews shouldn’t be posted and I think it comes from a kindness in their heart to not want to upset an author but readers and bloggers shouldn’t be charge of that IMO.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. femaleinferno says:

    If I’m on the fence about a purchasing a book, or whether or not a novel will interest me, I read positive and negative reviews to get a balance critique. The negative (critical) reviews usually shed light on issues readers had a bad experience with (like you mentioned in your post) but maybe it is over some subject matter, use of superlatives, a plot driven story, or even multiple perspectives. Some of these I may be fine with and go ahead to purchase the book anyway. But other times it might be something that I don’t like in my reading experience and I can skip purchasing the book, but if still interested I might borrow it from the library instead. Oh, and if a book only has four or five star reviews, yes, I become suspicious and hold off until I see more balanced reviews.

    I guess the key here is the negative reviews being constructive and discussing the mechanics of storytelling and not just bagging the author or the book without justification – that’s just bullying and trolling. I don’t think anyone ever pays attention to those anyway. I know I don’t.

    I have seen cases where an author got poor sales and found constructive negative reviews helpful in identifying areas that they were able to improve for later releases. Yes reading is subjective, but reviews are a great source of market feedback for a writer.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, negative reviews have real value in helping people choose books! And maybe that’s what some authors are afraid of. Because, yes, sometimes negative reviews will convince certain readers to *gasp* NOT buy their book. But that’s something they have to accept. Not everyone will love your book. Readers have limited time and are free to choose books they think will suit their tastes best. So, sure, maybe they lose a couple sales from negative reviews — but they probably also MAKE sales from people who read them and decide the book would be to their taste after all. Certainly no one’s career is “being destroyed.”

      I’m sure they exist, but personally I think snarky reviews were really in around 2012, and I haven’t seen nearly as many in recent years. People have really gotten so much more “neutral!”

      That’s always a tricky thing. Reading is subjective, but to act as if there is no one to be a “better” writer is also absurd. Of course you can study things like structure and pacing and characterization, and I can see how it would be helpful if 200 people pointed out the same flaw in your writing that you can then go work on.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. DoingDewey says:

    I have very little patience for people claiming we shouldn’t write negative reviews. As a reader, I’m unlikely to bother following a blogger who posts only positive reviews, because it makes it hard to trust that they’re giving their honest opinion. It also makes for bland, predictable reading. I think your distinction between snarky and negative reviews is critical. Although I think even a slightly snarky or sarcastic review can be ok too, as long as it isn’t personally attacking the author, just criticizing the book. I write reviews to assist and entertain other readers, not for authors, and authors enter at their own risk.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s an interesting point about a blog that has only positive reviews being bland. Personally, I couldn’t even tell you if some blogs I follow never post negative reviews or not. But I know that a lot of people already look at star ratings as a shorthand to find out how a blogger felt about a book and then only vaguely skim the review. If they knew that a blog only had positive reviews and that therefore every book on it was recommended, would they just…not really read the reviews at all? Just glace at the title and think “Ok she liked Uprooted” and move on without reading?

      I do like the idea of reviews having some entertainment value, as well. There is something to being able to just say, “Wow, this book was really terrible, and here’s all the weird stuff that happens in it to tell you why!”

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    • Krysta says:

      I can appreciate snarky reviews even of books I loved. They can still be funny, either because even books I love have flaws that we can laugh over together (not in a mean-spirited way) or because I can’t imagine how someone could have an opinion so opposite to mine! Readers’ experiences are all going to be different. Not everyone is going to love every single book. And that’s okay.

      I do think it’s interesting, though, how these types of discussions tend to revolve around books, but not other products we purchase. Because we see books as art, people seem to think authors deserve some special consideration that we don’t necessarily show to others. For example, I don’t regularly see people arguing that I shouldn’t leave a negative online review of a new blender I bought or a negative review of a restaurant I went to. People usually understand these types of reviews to be a service to the consumer, but they see reviews of books as meant to be a service to the creator.

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  5. Michael J. Miller says:

    I can’t fathom how this is even an issue. Why is this a conversation we would ever need to have? OF COURSE WRITING NEGATIVE REVIEWS IS IMPORTANT AND THE IDEA OF GETTING RID OF THEM IS RIDICULOUS. I mean, you put it far more eloquently above but…c’mon. I see versions of this problem in all sorts of fan communities online, too. The idea that anything outside of soul-offering adulation for every moment of every narrative is somehow seen as having no place in the “real” discourse of the text, whatever it may be. It’s disconcerting. So thank you for this. And AMEN.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      It’s baffling to me every time I see the argument. Sure, I can imagine that if I were an author and people wrote negative reviews about my book I would be sad…but I also understand conceptually that there is no way for every single person to like a book! And people are completely allowed to SAY they didn’t like a book, even *gasp* in public! (I also think it’s a bit funny because if I DID publish a book, I think I’d be proud of it but also self-aware enough to realize that I’m not exactly Shakespeare, and I wouldn’t really be shocked if some people didn’t love the book. Maybe that’s just me.)

      The idea that people who read and like books shouldn’t have a space to talk about books honestly with other readers is truly ridiculous. I started a blog to talk about books, and there are some books I just didn’t like!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Not to discuss that honestly cheapens literature as a whole. It also does a huge disservice to you, your opinions, your feelings/preferences, all the books you do like, why you like them…the list goes on.

        And yeah, if I was to publish a book I can’t imagine it being a NYT bestseller XD. I’m sure it would have plenty of fair critics and criticisms, just as I’m sure a lot of the copies I moved would be purchased by a) Mom, b) me to give to friends and family, and c) Mom.

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  6. themagicviolinist says:

    There are ways to write tasteful negative reviews that are honest and helpful without being downright unfair. Negative reviews are so important when they talk about flat characters, boring plot, stilted dialogue, harmful representation, etc. But since reviews are for readers and not the author, I don’t ever tag an author unless it’s a rave five-star review. They don’t need to know that I specifically, some random college student, didn’t enjoy their book. I also appreciate when a negative review (even if it’s a one or two star rating) will point out maybe one gem or one aspect that could appeal to other people. I totally agree with your points; it’s crazy to think that one negative review could dismantle an entire author’s career. I’ve never heard of that happening before LOL.

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  7. Dark Heart Books says:

    I 100% agree with you. If a creator puts something out in the world, they need to be ready for negative responses. This is the same in any art form – music, films, books. The lot. People are allowed to have their opinions. When I leave negative reviews I try not to be mean for the sake of being mean, I try to be constructive and explain my reasons for not liking it. And I don’t tag authors either. That’s not cool. I also usually say “hey, we all like different things and that’s ok”.

    And then there’s the whole ‘not nice for the author, they put time into it’ argument. Sure, if you put something you’re proud of into the world, and people don’t like it, sure that sucks. But people also invested their own time (and often money) into reading a book (seeing a film, listening to music etc) and are entitled to their opinion too.

    Ultimately, I think negative reviews are important for balancing and for other readers to get a balanced view on the book.

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  8. Iza says:

    Writing negative reviews is important, to show you have opinions of your own, first, then to give an idea of what you didn’t like that may be of use to other readers and even to the writers themselves. I’m always surprised on GR when I see reviews with 3 stars, for example, rated by people who says they didn’t like the book. Why on Earth give it 3 stars, then ?
    I can understand the “not hurting the author” part, especially if you met the author on line before reviewing his or her books. However, as long as you’re writing a polite review making your points, not just bashing the book for fun, it’s honest and avoids a further collaboration with the author sending more books and you having to review them !

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  9. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Brilliant post! Yes this topic does seem to rear its head every few years. I agree that positive reviews have no irrelevance if there aren’t negative reviews- otherwise that’s just marketing. Also when a book is too highly rated I’m personally nervous to pick it up- cos it’s unlikely it will live upto that level of hype! Plus, the only thing to irrevocably damage an author’s reputation is a bad reaction to a negative review.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      It drives me nuts because no one saying, “No one should write negative reviews” can actually be thinking through the implications of that statement. It makes no sense! I also agree about being worried books are over-hyped! It’s nice when someone has a more measured sense of enjoyment of the book.

      Like

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