Let’s be honest: Negative Reviews

writing-1024x692Negative reviews are a bit of a hot-button topic for book reviewers. The topic tends to be polarizing in the community, and can be a bit complex if you haven’t been faced with the decision to leave a negative review before. Though every reviewer is different, and there’s no real wrong answer when it comes to leaving reviews (after all, reviews are only opinions when you get right down to it), I’d like to take a minute to shine a light on the matter.

For the most part, there seem to be two sides of the issue (though again, things are a bit more complex than that). There are those reviewers who leave negative reviews, and those that don’t. Though there can be any number of reasons for a reviewer to avoid posting negative reviews, the most common seems to come down to this: As reviewers, we feel bad leaving negative reviews.

It’s not necessarily that we feel bad complaining about a terrible book—because believe me, we all know how to complain quite loudly about our pet peeves when it comes to terrible literature. No, it’s that we feel bad for the author. As book reviewers, many of us are authors too—and even if we aren’t, we know a lot of them. We spend a lot of time getting to know various authors and helping them get the word about their books out there and into the public eye. So, when we are faced with the decision of writing a negative review, sometimes we chicken out.

We know how hard it is to write a book. We know the dedication it took, the time and planning that went into every chapter, and we know how much it hurts to have someone tell you that all that time and effort you just spent putting together a story you love like a child, was wasted. Many reviewers won’t leave a review if it’s less than 3, even 4 stars—because we know that leaving anything under 4 stars is basically handing an indie book a toe tag. Asking someone to read a book is the same as asking them to hand over hours of their lives, and readers don’t want to do that if a book isn’t good.

That’s not the only factor weighing down our decisions though. Negative reviews—even exceptionally polite, well-written reviews—are often down voted on sites like Amazon by customers who don’t share the same opinion. It’s a sad truth that customers don’t use the voting process correctly. Reviews are downvoted by agreement or lack thereof, rather than by whether the review was helpful and honest, or not. We reviewers often depend on our “helpfulness” rating on Amazon and other sites to make sure that publishing houses and authors are tempted to send us books for review, and if our “helpfulness” rating is low… well, as you can imagine, we don’t get many review requests. Tempting the angry hordes of readers by posting a negative review is an intimidating prospect for some.

… So why do I personally leave negative reviews? Because it is my personal opinion that reviewers who cave to these fears, who refuse to post negative reviews for the reasons listed above, are doing themselves a disservice.

To me, reviewing isn’t about selling books. That’s not my job—that’s what marketers and publicists are for. My job is to read a book, and then share my opinion with potential readers so they can make informed decisions about whether a book is something they want to read or not. The author doesn’t factor into it—and if they did, I’d never have the courage to leave a review.

It isn’t my fault if an author chose to publish a book before it was ready (and believe me, many do. Please, please, invest in a professional editor.) All I can do as a reviewer is do my best to give an honest opinion—even if sometimes that isn’t easy, or triggers negative consequences.

In my opinion, reviewers who refuse to post negative reviews are perhaps hurting themselves more than they realize, as well as reviewing as a whole. If the only type of review you ever post is positive, then your opinion loses its sense  of unbiased honesty. How can a reader trust a reviewer who only ever leaves positive reviews? Though it may not be true, it makes it seem as if the reviewer was paid off for their opinion—and in this business, if your opinion can’t be trusted, fewer and fewer authors will ask you to review their work, and the ones that do, are probably dishonest.

I want to make it clear: every reviewer has the right to decide upon the type of reviews they want to leave. We aren’t paid to review (and if we are, we truly are dishonest). We share our opinions because we love literature, and we want to share that love with other readers. I’ve never once met a reviewer who didn’t love what we do… but if you’re a reviewer who is in the midst of deciding if you’re okay leaving negative reviews or not, I’d like to leave you with a little bit of food for thought:

If we reviewed any other product rather than books, would we feel bad about leaving negative reviews? Probably not. We see other products for what they are: products, and those that distribute them as companies trying to market those products. Literature shouldn’t be any different. Do you think the people working for the other companies don’t care about their product? Do you think they spent any less time developing, marketing, and distributing their product? No. The reason we feel bad about it is because we know for certain that the author will see our reviews, and it’s hard to say something negative to someone’s face, particularly when you know the negative impact your review could have on the sales of that product.

Reviewing books takes a lot of courage. Being  honest?—it takes even more.

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13 thoughts on “Let’s be honest: Negative Reviews

  1. Fantastic post. I used to leave a lot of reviews on Amazon, and I did leave negative one, including a few 1 star. In a couple occasions I did think, should I do it? Because I knew everyone would downvoted the review, no matter how polite, how thoughtful, how argumented it was. I left the reviews and i was downvoted. And I think that quite depressing, because, as you said, people don’t seem to consider low-rate review, they just downvote you to make a point… so it seems, soemtimes.

    One of the negative reviews I left was of a dieselpunk short story. I didn’t know the author, but I was very surprised when she contacted me and thanked me for the review I left, because, though negative, it pointed out things that she found useful. Now we are writing buddies 🙂
    It also happened that authors asked me to read and review their work. If it was less than 4 stars, I’ve always contatcted the author and let them read the review first, saying I woulnd’t post it if they so prefer. Never happened that an author told me not to post it.

    So, sometimes I feel like authors do understand and accept negative reviews. Other readers, on the other hand, seem to be less tolerant.

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  2. No. 1, this is an outstanding, very thoughtful and well written column as most of your columns are. I subscribe to your blog and enjoy reading it when it comes in my email. If I reviewed blogs, I’d give yours 5 stars. That’s an honest review, by the way 🙂 No. 2, as a book reviewer, I don’t post negative reviews. I read the book, and if I don’t like it, I just don’t post a review. And if I start reading it and it is full of typos and errors, I stop immediately and move on to the next one. I’m not reviewing books to help the author, and I don’t need any free books because I have more than enough on my reading list to last me a good century or two. I’m just doing it to shine a small light on an entertaining read that I think others might enjoy. It’s like when a friend tells me about a great new music CD by an independent artist that I would’ve normally never heard about. I just look at book reviewing as being that friend for a reader. It’s been my experience that the really bad books are going to get their fair share of negative reviews anyway. Me piling on is not going to make a difference. And to be honest, I check the Amazon and Goodreads reviews out before I read a book to see if it’s even worth my time. So like the good hypocrite I am, I actually rely on you reviewers bold enough to leave negative reviews. Thank you. About your theory that if you only post positive reviews, it hurts your credibility as a reviewer … I think you’re right if the substance of the review is shallow like “great book” or “loved it” or “it had several twists and turns.” But if your positive reviews are consistently well written and provide thoughtful evidence backing up your claim why this book is worth 5 stars, I think you’ll be just fine and you’ll be able to maintain your credibility. At least I hope so 🙂 Keep up the great work on your blog.

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  3. Definitely agree with you here. I think something that many reviewers miss out on when avoiding posting negative reviews is how helpful they can be for the author. Pointing out what you thought was bad, what could’ve been better, what was missing, etc., can help them improve themselves as a writer. It may be harsh, but it can be a great in helping the author grow.

    Aside from that, not everyone is going to like every book and it’s silly to think that. Authors should know that and accept that when they go to write their book(s). They don’t have to agree with the negative reviews, but I think it’s important that they exist, for all of the reasons you mentioned and more 🙂

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  4. As an author who has received his share of positive and negative reviews, the only ones that bother me is when the reviewer inserts his/her own biases based on their beliefs. Example: I once authored a book titled “On the Line” about the rise of MCI and how they beat AT&T at their own game. I got negative reviews from those who believed that AT&T (the old Bell System) was godlike and bemoaned their loss of monopoly. And they said so in their negative reviews. Hey, I didn’t break AT&T’s monopoly hold on telephone service. I just told the story.

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    • Reviews are only opinions, and should be read as such, and bias can never truly be avoided in them. I myself have read books where I had to give a negative review because I strongly disagreed with the author–not over a company’s motives, but because the author had expressed some racist language that I couldn’t abide by and that didn’t match with the character’s viewpoints. Hopefully, readers of the negative review were able to separate personal bias from any real criticism of the book–sometimes that’s all we can hope for. I always hope that people are able to inherently tell the difference–but I also realize I’m a bit of an optimist.

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  5. Thanks for this interesting perspective on reviewing. As an author I do, on occasions review books. All of my reviews, accept for one, are 4 star which reflects my genuine opinion regarding the works in question. The other review was 1 star, the rating flowing from the fact that the author had used online reference sources without doing any real work of their own (I.E. the work was well over 90 percent culled from the internet). As regarding Amazon voting buttons, I do click “no” when I believe a review doesn’t help a potential reader. For example one reviewer simply described a book as “boring” without explaining how they had come to that conclusion. I felt this constituted a poor review and clicked the “no” button. Kevin

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    • You’re very welcome! I think when it comes to author reviews, it’s a little different than book reviewers, because you -have- to take into account how leaving a negative review may hurt your image as an author. For reviewers, this is what we do. We should be trusted to do it, and we should be able to without fear of repercussions from authors. Thank you for being one of the people who downvotes reviews for the right reason 🙂

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  6. Reblogged this on Suffolk Scribblings and commented:
    This is a great post, written from a reviewer’s perspective, on why more reviewers should leave negative as well as positive reviews. It’s a great companion piece to my blog thanking all reviewers, and I couldn’t agree with it more.

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  7. What a great post and I whole-heartedly agree with you. If you are a reviewer, you have to give an honest assessment of what you’ve read. If you haven’t enjoyed it, and you clearly state why, then this is incredibly helpful, not just to any potential readers but to the authors themselves.
    As an author, I know how hurtful it is to receive a negative review for all the reasons you’ve stated above, but I would always respect the reviewer’s opinion. I personally don’t leave negative reviews because I’m not a reviewer. If I haven’t enjoyed a book, I’ll not leave a review. I will, however, contact the author directly if I believe there are serious issues with a book. Most are grateful for the feedback. Some less so.
    Please keep giving honest reviews, positive or negative. As authors, we may or may not agree with what you write, but it doesn’t make your views any less valid (and anyway, we tend to be very biased when it comes to our own work). 🙂

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