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.
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.