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.