Why Bad Reviews Rock

I got my first one-star review the other day. Here’s a link, if you want to read it. I can imagine my writer friends cringing: you’re linking a bad review? You shouldn’t even read that junk, let alone make it more visible in search engines and show it to more people by linking it!

Now I’ll admit I was a little taken aback at first. Intellectually, I knew some people would dislike ASHFALL. But it’s different learning that at a visceral level.

On rereading the review, I felt better about it. It’s a reasonably well-written review, and it’s very specific about what the reader didn’t like. (Only one part of it did bother me. The reviewer conflates homosexuality with rape and cannibalism near the end of her review. That’s plain wrong. Homosexuals are born that way, i.e. God created them gay. Rape and cannibalism are choices perpetrators make. Rape and cannibalism are sinful; homosexuality is not.)

Getting my first one-star review brought to mind Jay Lake, the prolific science fiction and fantasy author. I’ve been stalking admiring him from afar via his blog for a couple of years now. One of the things I appreciate about Jay is that he posts links on his blog to negative reviews. Here’s the blog post in which he explains why. Basically, Jay makes three points: 1) The stories belong to the readers to interpret as they see fit, 2) Jay sometimes learns from bad reviews, and 3) Even a bad review means someone cared about the book enough to talk about it in public.

So, with my shiny new one-star review, I figured I’d try it. I mean, I know Jay has a pair of eunuchs with wheelbarrows walking behind him 24/7 to transport his cojones, and his skin is so thick it takes a sandblaster to give him a manicure, but hey, I think of myself as pretty tough too. So, I Tweeted, Facebooked, and Google Plussed the bad review of ASHFALL. (And now I’m blogging about it.)

Within hours, I’d discovered a fourth reason to link to bad reviews. It’s something all novelists already know: conflict sells. Bad reviews are inherently more conflict-filled than good ones, and therefore more interesting (all else being equal).

Want evidence? Here’s the last 5-star review I got. I linked it in exactly the same places and ways as the one-star review. It was clicked through 22 times. The one-star review? 119 times. And I got a dozen or more comments of this general type: “Wow, now I want to read ASHFALL. The stuff that reviewer doesn’t like sounds cool to me.”

There’s even some robust empirical support for the idea that bad reviews sell. Here’s a study of New York Times book reviews reported in Marketing Science that was conducted using Nielsen Bookscan data. The upshot is that negative reviews of works by authors who had previously published fewer than two books boosted their sales by 45% on average. Negative reviews of well-known authors (i.e. those who had published 10 or more books previously) hurt their sales by 15%. So the advice about linking to your one-star reviews doesn’t apply after you’ve published your tenth book.

One word of caution. I don’t think this works if you’re not gracious about it. If a person spent many hours with your book and took the time to help you publicize it, the only appropriate response is a thank you. Especially if the review is negative. Don’t be like this author or this author.

What do you think? Do you help spread the word about negative reviews of your work? Will you in the future? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments, please.

48 thoughts on “Why Bad Reviews Rock

  1. It’s a very interesting idea to me, Mike. But I think what helps is that the reviewer was homophobic, and so obviously in the wrong (being homophobic). That’s not about your book, so much as someone’s prejudice. Or at least, that’s my take on it. I don’t know, maybe bad reviews can be useful… It’s just hard as an author to get them, and you’re using it and handling it well. Bravo for you!

  2. Now that’s thick skin and elasticity. Great post, and I hope it provokes others to take the time to acknowledge all reviews, even the ones that hurt a little.

  3. “Simply put, if you’re the type of person who takes offense at any/all of that, this book is going to have you running in the opposite direction like a bat out of Hell.” -from the 1 star review

    The type of people who would be offended by Ashfall are not cool enough to run off like bats out of Hell. 😉

    Interestingly enough, the way this review is worded, if you aren’t averse to a book with cannibalism, rape, and *gasp* homosexuality, it makes Ashfall sound really appealing.

    Kudos to you for finding a way to make it work for you. And good luck carrying those cojones around by yourself. 😉

  4. Interesting outlook, Mike. I’m game for giving it a try when SINS comes out…even though I don’t have any actual cojones of my own to carry around… 😉

  5. Every book is not for every person, no writer can please everyone. It’s part of the job description. At least this person read the book, rather than giving a rating for the hell of it without reading, which happens.

    I don’t understand people who pick up books that are in a genre they dislike. It doesn’t make sense, life is too short.I would never dream of wasting hours of my life immersed in a story I dislike intensely.

    Based on what I’ve read so far of AshFall, I am still looking forward to reading the rest.

  6. I don’t like reading books about homosexuality. Or really any sexuality. It’s a personal preference for me. I don’t think that makes me homophobic. I don’t mind gay people, I just don’t enjoy reading about it. Much like I don’t like reading about vampires.

    I wish the reviewer had been a little more detailed in what they liked and didn’t like.

    But, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they are homophobic. They were equally critical of the “teenage relations.”

  7. You’re a better man than I. Well, if I was a man. One star trashing reviews hurt my soul, and as I’m in the middle of writing a sequel, it’s debilitating to creativity. Writer friends have banned me from Goodreads, which isn’t a bad thing. That said, I DO appreciate that a reader picked my book to read, considering there are so many out there to choose from. I’m just sad it didn’t work for them.

    And this is all happening two months before release date. I’m shopping for iron underwear to gird my loins for the end of September.

  8. I always write what I did like and what I didn’t like on my reviews. I find it important for authors to understand and for readers to be able to see it.
    Because, like you said, some people might actually like the things I disliked or dislike the book because of the things I liked it, which is why I think it is vital to be honest and point out reasons, not just feelings 🙂

  9. I think this is a very interesting way of dealing with negative reviews and I completely agree that critical reviews can help you learn and grow as a writer. Reading one star, two star and three star reviews on Goodreads taught me about the weaknesses that many readers felt existed in my first two books. If ten readers all say the same thing, you damn well better pay attention (unless they’re homophobes, sexist, racist or something similar).

    The one thing that holds me back from linking to bad reviews is that I have a group of core fans who faithfully read my blog and who are on average about twelve or thirteen years old. Those guys are young enough that they will take any criticism of something they like to heart as a personal insult. If I were to link to a negative review, no matter how positive a spin I put on it, not only would those readers be upset, I’m pretty sure some of them would be unable to resist dog-piling the author of the negative review. Not a great result for anyone. Hopefully with the way you’ve handled that here, it won’t happen to you, Mike 🙂

  10. I have to disagree with you, Mike. I don’t think the review was reasonably well-written at all. A review should encompass thoughts on all major literary elements such as, theme, plot, setting, and characters. I don’t think she touched on anything besides the plot – which she didn’t care for. What about everything else? Tone, writing style, etc? I think a well-written review should incorporate elements that were liked and disliked then an overall opinion of the book. #endrant.

    I think the reviewer was simply listing items that may be issues for some readers. I don’t think she was putting cannibalism in the same category as homosexuality. I sure hope not…

    Kudos to you for posting! I like your take on the situation and I agree that bad publicity is still publicity. Your positive outlook should be applauded.

    ~Jen

  11. This was interesting to read. You’re the 2nd author I’ve heard say that even bad reviews are important. I’ve always felt guilty about posting a review and saying anything negative, but then that’s just me partly, I feel guilty about lots of things I shouldn’t. When I post negative reviews, I really try to say why I didn’t like the book, and also list any things I DID like about the book.

  12. @Cheryl — Yes, you’re absolutely right. This was an easy review to take in stride. The universe is breaking me in gently for once.

    @AT — Thanks!

    @Tere — Yes, the general reaction has been that this particular negative review makes people want to read ASHFALL. I’ll be interesting to try this on other negative reviews. And I can’t get cojones the size of Jay Lake’s. I’m married.

    @Linda — Ovaries are way better. Having them inside your body = superior design choice.

    @Willow — Thanks!

    @Carol — I hope you enjoy ASHFALL! I keep meaning to ask if you’d be interested in critiquing a bit of the sequel that includes a character with ASD.

    @Emily — There’s no homosexual behavior whatsoever in ASHFALL. One of Alex’s neighbors is a married gay couple. If you’re interested in more info about that, check out my guest post on GayYA — it’s linked in the sidebar here.

    @Trinity — if you can’t afford eunuchs with wheelbarrows, iron underwear is a great second choice.

    @May — I appreciate that in a reviewer. Ultimately, your responsibility is to readers, not authors, and your approach honors that responsibility.

    @Zoe — Yeah, sicking a troll pack on anyone would not be cool. I hope I have that problem someday :)!

    @Richard — Thanks!

    @Jen — You make great points, but my place isn’t to critique the review. I’m actually grateful that the reviewer spent time with ASHFALL and gave me such a great idea for a blog post.

  13. @Lisa — I think you, as a reviewer, should ask yourself this question: Am I serving the readers’ needs? If you’re serving the readers’ needs with an honest, thoughtful review and balanced perspective that helps them choose books, then there’s no reason to feel guilty no matter how negative it may be.

  14. I hope that when the day comes that I get my first 1 star review, my skin is as thick as yours. I’m also hoping for 2 eunuchs with wheelbarrows walking behind me 24/7 to transport my cojones too. Wish me luck.

  15. Outstanding. I recently blogged about this very thing at my own site. I look forward to bad reviews as much as good ones. Every opportunity for a learning experience is a good opportunity. Love the way you think about this, too!

  16. I already knew you were a smart guy loaded with common sense and a balanced approach to the writing life. This proves it further. Great post, Mike. Thank you!

  17. oh, what an awesome way to respond to something that could reduce an author to an ugly defensive tantrum. I admit, I’m worried a bit about seeing reviews of my book, once the ARCs come out, but I like your approach a lot!

  18. Fascinating post. It just makes sense and a while back on twitter I asked if anyone would head up an anti-fan club for me. I had no takers yet, but I still dream…

    @Linda – That’s ok. Mur Lafferty would say to swagger proudly with your ovaries (or something to that effect).

  19. @Elissa I was worried about reviews, too. I still am. And my first reaction was a (private) ugly defensive tantrum. Unless you’re a far better person than me, bad reviews are painful. My goal is to get over that pain quickly and celebrate the fact that someone cared about ASHFALL enough to help me publicize it.

    @Clifton Yes, an anti-fan club would rock! If ASHFALL does well, I’m certain it will be banned in some school systems. I’m thinking about providing model press releases and copies of the book with the naughty bits highlighted to help those offended by it publicize their outrage.

  20. Excellent advice, and I do hope I grow into it. It takes poise to view “the work” as different from “the author.” However, I do believe if we can’t do that, we won’t last long.

    Thank you for this post.

  21. I’m not familiar with Jay Lake but I think I may become a fan lol
    His post was funny and I really liked his take on it all
    ::note to self:: must check out Mr Lake’s books

  22. @this blog — I still have that visceral emotional reaction to bad reviews. I have to take a deep breath, step back and remind myself that it’s the readers’ book now.

    @Bella Yes, Jay Lake is well worth following and reading. Enjoy!

  23. @emily “I don’t like reading books about homosexuality. Or really any sexuality.”

    The book isn’t about homosexuality. There is a gay couple in it, but gay people exist. There are numerous more straight couples in the book. So, yes, I would be tempted to say that a person who hates a book because there is a gay couple in the beginning is a tad homophobic.

  24. @Mike You have a great attitude towards negative reviews. Truth is some people won’t like your work, and that’s okay! The best thing is to take it with a grain of salt and move on. Anyways, I noticed the things the reviewer takes issue with really don’t have anything to do with the quality of your work, but the subject matter being too much for their “sensibilities.” The worst thing you could do is try to argue with a negative review, that can backfire (I’ve seen it!). Anyways, I loved ASHFALL and you are going to have way more people liking it than disliking it. 🙂

  25. Thanks, Lari! I’m going to promote and link any interesting negative reviews, just like I do for some positive reviews, because I really do appreciate the bloggers who take the time to read ASHFALL and talk about it. And yes, way more people like than dislike it–including Kirkus! I just about died when I learned ASHFALL got a starred review there.

  26. @Mike VERY TRUE. As a librarian, I’ve read quite a few Kirkus reviews, I know how snarky they can be! That is quite an achievement in and of itself. 🙂

  27. I know I’m commenting late but just came upon your post and want to say how much I agree with you about the appropriate response to a bad review, both as author and reviewer. The classic example is Alain de Botton’s famous dummy spit “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will…” If it didn’t make for such fascinating and useable characterisation (writers are such cannibals), it might put me right off de Botton. I haven’t had a really negative review yet, but one will surely come in the future and after a very private cry, I will certainly make the most of it.

  28. LOVE the wheelbarrow & eunuch comment. 😀

    I agree that a bad review, particularly a well written one can be beneficial. If it happens to contain a controversial comment like this one did, well, that ist makes it more interest. Bad news catches people’s attention more than good news.

  29. When I’m checking out the reviews on Amazon I usually head for the worst ones because the way the review is presented and the substance of the review content often tell more about the critical response than a nicey-nicey rave review which may not be presented with the greatest sincerity. I will typically see something utterly ridiculous about the negative review or something valid that is worth consideration and more exploration to see if it seems true. It’s often difficult to dispute unctuous flattery.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  30. Yes, sometimes you can learn a lot from a well-written negative review. I appreciate them when they’re very specific about what the reviewer didn’t like, so that I can make my own judgement.

  31. My most popular book review post is a 1 star rating review. And most of the visits came from the author’s blog where he linked to the review, with very gracious comments. He even said that based on the books I gave high ratings to, he is glad for the low rating because he was aiming for a completely different target reader, and obvious scored on that mark.

    Hearing that authors accept negative reviews is always a relief for anyone who might write them. It makes it easier to give honest comments and reactions.

    • Yep, repeat after me, “The story belongs to the reader.” That’s the mantra that will get your through bad reviews as an author–or at least it helps me sometimes. Well, that and chocolate.

  32. I don’t necessarily LINK to the bad reviews, but since i’ve been getting a few of them lately, i’ve been talking about them. Specifically,

    http://writing.jennster.com/2012/01/and-bad-reviews-have-started.html

    And I reacted the same way as you did- at first it’s like you’re taken aback and filled with hurt feelings. But then, after rereading, you can see the good in the comment. You have an understanding as to what the reader didn’t like about your book- I value that. I love knowing WHY the reader didn’t like it, as opposed to just a 1 star rating, with no review. It’s helpful to me to know the why’s. I hope to be a better writer for it.
    We’ll never please everyone. And that’s okay.

    • That’s an awesome attitude. I think we strengthen the reading community as a whole when we listen respectfully to negative reviews instead of unleashing our writerly angst.

  33. Well, I’m getting close to that 10th book, so I keep quiet on those bad reviews. I do, however, have several less than lovely reviews for some of my erotic shorts, which have actually helped in sales. So I’d say, it does work to some extent.

  34. That’s been my experience, too, that negative reviews get read more and result in more sales, though I don’t have any empirical data of my own to support that. My biggest problem is that I’m relatively unknown, not an occasional negative review.

  35. What’s kinda spooky is that I was thinking about the web-resonance of negative reviews and the inherent irresisti-clickability of conflict about an hour before I noticed your post on this. Cosmic! (OK, fine, coincidence). Excellent take on it all and thanks for confirming my shiny new conviction that one-star responses turn out to be worth their weight in… well… stars.

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