Today, I’m going to talk about a very controversial topic among authors: Whether or not it’s okay to write negative book reviews.
I say yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Many people consider this bad manners, because “as authors, we understand all that goes into writing a book, and it’s just not fair to tear apart all that hard work.” Others may feel compelled to write bad reviews but feel as if their hands are tied, either for fear of backlash against their own works or because they worry they may lose a friend by being too honest.
Well, I say, “It’s time to stop living in fear!”
Do I write negative reviews to be mean? Of course, not. Do I like writing negative reviews? No, not really–but I’m also not afraid to do so when warranted.
But before you start to think of me as an Internet-age villain, allow me to explain myself…
First, I enter each reading experience with excitement and open-mindedness. I love reading, and I want to enjoy my reading selections. I don’t even leave negative reviews all that often. I know, because I’ve been logging my reviews on GoodReads for years and now have quite a bit of data on my hands.
In fact, I’ve marked a total of 402 books as “read” on GoodReads. 107 of these may or may not have reviews, but they have no ratings–these are either my own books, those of my close personal friends, those of my clients, or those I read too long ago to really remember. This leaves us with a sample size of 295 rated books.
Of that 295, I’ve assigned 13 1-star ratings, 18 2-star ratings, and 57 5-star ratings, which means 3- and 4-star ratings account for the remaining 207 titles. Put another way, 19% of my books are rated as “amazing, among my favorite books ever” and only 10.5% of my books are ones I either slogged through or just couldn’t bring myself to finish. Oh, and my average rating is 3.59 across all reviews–totally respectable.
See, I think we should read as readers, write as writers, and review as reviewers. That’s why I actually use all 5 points on the review scale, and here’s how I interpret each place on that scale:
1 – Couldn’t finish
2 – Finished, but with great difficulty
3 – Liked, but had some issues along the way
4 – Really liked and will readily recommend to friends
5 – Near flawless, among my favorite reads
Sure, it can be hard to completely separate the writer from the reader or reviewer–that’s why I will comment on things like editing, characterization, and pacing in my reviews from time-to-time. And maybe my experience is different from others, because I started out as a reviewer–by writing a column for the local newspaper–more than two years before I became an author. By then, my reviewing style was well ingrained.
Okay, enough about me. Here are some reasons why writing negative reviews (when warranted) can actually be a good thing…
Reviews help readers
Let’s not forget the main point of reviews. They aren’t to stroke the author’s ego; they’re to help potential readers decide whether a certain book may or may not be for them. Without reviews, all we have to go by is the cover, the synopsis, and the sample chapters (if that’s a step we’re willing to take). When I’m looking into purchasing a new book, I want to believe that my dollars won’t be wasted. I want to commit my time to a book with the hopes that the time will be worth it, that I’ll find what I’m looking for, be it an entertaining romp or a thought-provoking journey. Sure, I’m not compatible with 100% of books (even those I think I might like), but when I find a reviewer whose tastes match mine, it makes the whole process that much easier.
Reviews help authors
You may think leaving a bad review does nothing more than break an author’s spirit, that you’re telling them, “Give up, because you suck at this.” But that’s just not true. As an author, negative reviews can hurt, but I always appreciate them (the real, textual reviews, I mean, not those left by trolls that often have nothing to do with a book–but that’s a topic for another day and probably for another blog). Although my first novel, FARSIGHTED, launched to overwhelming praise, I paid the most attention to what those who didn’t enjoy the book had to say. And you know what? They had some really great points: the ending came on too quickly, Alex’s mom’s actions weren’t 100% believable, and the resolution needed more time to play out. Rather than mope, I decided to take action–and with the help of a new editor, I improved upon these issues and released a new edition. My book was so much better for it!
Using the full review scale makes others trust your judgement
How do you feel about reviewers who offer all 4- and 5-star reviews, without fail, regardless of genre? Would you go to that person for a book recommendation? I wouldn’t. I like to take my recommendations from people who use the full scale, who focus on reading just a few genres and know those genres well. If I want a humor book, I know I can trust my husband for a good recommendation. For literary fiction, I might ask my editor. For science fiction, my friend Pavarti sure knows what she’s talking about. None of these folks are afraid to discuss why they didn’t like a book, and they’re all able to do so in a way that makes sense and may even leave me wanting to read a book they don’t like. And that’s because, they know, just as well as I know, that…
Reviews are opinions, not be-all end-all statements on a book’s worthiness
Just because I don’t like a particular book does not mean: No one else could possibly enjoy it; It doesn’t deserve to be published; the author should be stoned to death. Yes, some reviewers take something as simple and straightforward as sharing an opinion to this dark and cruel place. Those people are called trolls. I recently gave 2-stars to the YA novel, Uglies, but I know many fans of lower YA will like it–I didn’t, because I was looking for something a bit deeper. I somewhat infamously rated the cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, as a 1-star read, but I’ve told my husband I think he’ll like it. I absolutely detested 50 Shades of Grey on so many levels, but I understand and appreciate that legions of readers love it. My opinions aren’t any more worthy or even any more accurate than anybody else’s. They’re just that–my opinions. Yours may or may not match up, and that is A-OK.
Using the full review scale speaks to your integrity as a reviewer–and as an author
I like to think that my voice matters, that there are some people out there who actually care whether or not I enjoyed my latest read. To that end, my opinions, voice, endorsements CANNOT BE BOUGHT. Will I give 5-stars to a book, because the author is a 5-star friend? No. Will I give a 5-star rating, because the author gave one of my books a 5-star rating? No, and I make that clear upfront if a friend chooses to read something I’ve written. After all, if your endorsement can be bought, what does it mean anymore? What’s the point of reviewing at all? And if you’re in the business of trading reviews with friends, how can readers trust any of the reviews on your books? This is probably going to make some of my indie author friends angry, but they can’t. They can’t trust you. I know it’s hard when a friend excitedly asks you to review her latest title, and you hate it. I’ve gotten myself into that very situation before, and it’s awkward as all get out. That’s why I no longer let friends know if I’ve decided to read their books. This gives me the opportunity to quit reading and bow out gracefully without hurting the feelings of someone I care about. Sometimes, if I have a good enough relationship with someone to avoid pettiness, I will contact her in private to discuss some of the issues I found with her book and how she might go about fixing them. I don’t often review friends’ books anymore, but on the rare occasion I do, that friend will know any positive review has been earned by giving me an enjoyable reading experience, not by being a super cool person.
Reviews aren’t and shouldn’t be personal
In the end, reviews are about books–not authors, not anything else–books. Just like bad reviews shouldn’t call for a lynching of the author, good reviews also shouldn’t be based on anything but the books they’re about. Like other authors, I hate this new prevalence of trolls and sock puppets. So what’s the best way to defeat them? By showing them how it’s really done, by being true to your feelings, and sharing your honest recommendations.
So, hey, what’s your opinion worth?
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