It’s a cycle in the online book community: some authors decry the existence of negative reviews and say they’re mean and unfair; worse, they ruin authors’ livelihoods by making readers not buy or read the book that was so cruelly maligned. In response, readers explain the benefits of negative reviews (I did so myself in this post!) and insist that negative reviews don’t really deter them from reading a book; in fact, they might pick up a book after reading a negative review, if the review mentions an aspect that the original reviewer didn’t like but they themselves might. I’ve made these arguments myself, that authors have nothing to fear because no book will be pleasing to everyone, and a single negative review isn’t going to persuade me not to read something. However, upon further reflection, I’ve realized this is slightly dishonest because there are circumstances where I might not read a book because I saw negative reviews.
Generally, I might be persuaded to pass on a book if I see a large number of negative reviews. A few people here and there disliking a book is to be expected. If tons of people are saying a book wasn’t very good, and backing up their opinions with explanations and evidence from the book, I might start paying attention. This is particularly true for me when it comes to young adult novels. Most of the time, I feel as if I am the harsh critic of YA books. I will read a book and think it’s poorly written and makes no sense…then watch as glowing 5-star reviews roll in from other readers and the book gets nominated for various awards. So when I see multiple reviewers give a book a low rating, I sit up and pay attention. This happened for me most recently when I saw a certain title on at least a dozen “Worst Books I Read in 2020” lists– and didn’t see that book on a single “Best of 2020” list. (Sorry, authors who flipped out about “Worst of” lists.)
However, this is quantity over quality. One person saying a book is the worst thing they ever read won’t phase me; a dozen reviewers saying that might. After all, publishing is subjective, and while there are multiple people involved in the process of bringing a book to market, ultimately the fact that a book was published means roughly three people liked something about it: a literary agent, the acquiring editor, and the publisher if they have to approve the editor’s acquisition. The fact that a book was published, even by a major publishing house, does not guarantee the book is fabulous, just that roughly three people in the right place liked it. And that’s the value of reviews; they help tell readers how many other readers like a book.
Can a single review convince me not to read a book, though? Possibly, under the right circumstances. If I really, really am looking forward to and committed to reading a book, one negative review or even multiple aren’t going to sway me. The uncertainty comes if I am only sort of looking forward to a book, or if I am on the fence about it. In that case, a single review might influence me, but it’s rare: the review would have to mention aspects of the book that would make me very certain I would not enjoy the book, and the review probably has to come from a reviewer I know and trust. A random review on Amazon probably won’t stop me from picking up a book. A assertion from my co-blogger that the book is awful has much more weight.
Authors still shouldn’t worry about negative reviews. Not everyone will like every book, and the very point of reviews is to help the right readers pick up a book, the ones most likely to enjoy it. I just realized that in all the discourse around negative reviews, I (among authors) seemed to be claiming that a negative review would never influence our reading selections– and, of course, that isn’t true. However, some negative reviews are nothing to panic over; a book isn’t going to lose all its potential readers and destroy the career of its author because a small percentage of people who read it didn’t like it.