Last month there was an uptick in commentary on book Twitter about negative book reviews. I believe it pertained to an author’s opinion that people shouldn’t leave negative reviews, or something of the sort. I don’t have the time to track down the incident that spurred another bout of commentary. Nor do I particularly care enough to do so because it’s a topic that will forever be ubiquitous in the community.
However, this is a topic I’ve been thinking about ever since I started my blog in 2021. I remember debating with myself whether to post negative book reviews. At the time I hadn’t seen any other blogger post anything other than a positive (3+ stars) review. And so it seemed like the norm and something maybe I should do because why contribute to negativity? After all, there’s certainly enough of that in the world.
But the more I thought about it the more strongly I felt about several things. First, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I only elected to share positive reviews. Second, sharing only my positive reviews wouldn’t be fair to potential future readers of a particular book. And third, reviews are predominately for readers, not authors.
Let me elaborate so that I know you know what I mean.
Staying True to Yourself
As Polonius said in Hamlet:
“to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Within the all-encompassing book reviewer sphere of blogging and Instagram (and, I imagine, YouTube and TikTok), there are many who prefer to publicly share only their positive reviews. There are a few main reasons for this that I can think of. One could be because the reader decided to not finish a book that they weren’t enjoying. And so they elected not to review a book they didn’t read in its entirety. Another reason might be that the reader prefers to focus on sharing only positive reviews. They might do so because posting their enjoyment of a book brings them personal joy whereas posting negative reviews does not. I want to emphasize that just because a reviewer doesn’t post any negative reviews doesn’t mean they’re dishonest. Please don’t automatically assume that.
There’s also potentially the more ominous reason that no one really likes to talk about. And that is the possibility that some reviewers might elevate their ratings a bit to continue to receive promotional materials (books) from publishers. Personally, I have never witnessed anything like this. I have always found the reviewers with whom I’ve interacted to be an honest and kind-hearted bunch who want to shout their love of books to the world. But please understand that I’m not accusing anyone of doing this. I am only proposing that this scenario could exist because human nature can be a fickle thing and I am a realist.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t be true to my own self if I only posted positive reviews on my blog. I have a high regard for honesty and once that bar breaks I am forever wary. So I wanted the reviews I shared publicly to reflect what I uphold for myself and how I prefer to be treated. I won’t lie–finding the courage to post my first negative review was nerve-wracking. Why? Because, as I stated earlier, I didn’t regularly see negative reviews and I thought sharing one would mark me a troll. But I decided to rip that bandaid off and go for it. And I’m so glad I did.
I haven’t needed to post many negative reviews. But, once more people in the book Twitter community became aware of my existence, I received positive feedback about how negative reviews are just as valuable as positive ones. No one hated me (that I know of). And I plan to continue to post negative reviews if I feel my subjective experience of a book warrants it.
Curious about my negative book reviews? Then visit my reviews for A LIGHT IN THE SKY; GRANTED; IMMORTAL SOULS; A TASTE OF GOLD AND IRON; THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA; and, to a lesser degree, WILD AND WICKED THINGS.
Negative Book Reviews Help Readers
I think the existence of negative reviews is a marker of a healthy book community discourse. To me it means that reviewers don’t feel intimidated by other reviews or authors (or authors’ friends, sadly, in some cases). It also means that readers, through their negative reviews, seek the same thing as those who post positive reviews. That is, they want to find a part of the community that feels similarly to them in order to strike up a dialogue about it. And they also want other readers to know what they felt didn’t work for them; again, more dialogue.
That singular aspect of finding validation from others regarding unpopular opinions about a book is another reason I choose to post negative reviews. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in feeling a particular way about a book. This is especially true if the majority of opinions are overwhelmingly positive and your voice feels like a whisper subsumed by a gale. So, when you find the courage to tactfully share your negative review about a book, you are helping past and potential readers.
You help past readers validate their own opinions about a book if they also felt similarly. You also help future readers who may be unsure about whether to read a particular book. For an undecided reader, seeing both positive and negative reviews helps them assemble a broader range of what to expect that an official book synopsis might not impart. Your negative review might cause that undecided reader to pass. Conversely, it might unexpectedly draw in a reader who prefers aspects of that particular book that didn’t work for you. What fell flat for you might fulfill someone else.
Reviews are for Readers, Not Authors
To some it may seem like an inflammatory statement to say that reviews are for readers, not for authors. But don’t leave just yet. I have what I think is an objective reason for this statement. And that is that an author’s work typically goes through several rounds of editing and internal reviews in the form of alpha and beta reads. I’ve seen authors in self-publishing spaces talk about this. And in traditional publishing I would expect authors have access to similar or more resources. The final copy of the book is presumably in a state that the author is happy with after incorporating various edits and internal feedback. Then, the author lets it out into the world.
An author should already know by the time of publication that every reader is different and everyone has a different opinion. The internal pre-publication process, I assume, is an example of this. Therefore, an author can’t expect every single person who reads their book to love it. (Frankly, that’s hubristic and sets them up for disappointment.) Everyone has a right to their opinion about a book, whether it’s positive or negative. And it is reprehensible for an author to bully a reviewer for leaving a negative review. I implore authors who are sensitive to negative reviews to stay away from them.
Once the book is officially out into the world, reviews are for readers. Why? Go back and read the last section. To sum up, reviews help connect past and potential readers of a book. Reviews build a community around a book and provide an avenue for discourse.
But what about Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs)? Are those reviews used in the editing process? In my limited experience, publishers provide access to ARCs usually two to four months ahead of the publication date. At this point I would hope the book is as close to the final proof as possible because there are production chains to consider. My understanding is that the main purpose of ARCs is to promote the release of the book, not for further significant critiques or edits prior to publication.
Be Honest, But Tactful
Broadly, I don’t believe that you should write your negative reviews with the author’s feelings in mind. However, this doesn’t mean you should be callous. Yes, we have the freedom of speech in many countries. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Moreover, I believe most of us would prefer to read tactful honesty rather than a caustic commentary.
It is perfectly acceptable to discuss what you liked or disliked in a review. However, I find it unacceptable when a reviewer decides to make their critiques personal against the author. You are reviewing the book, not the author.
Additionally, I firmly believe that you should not tag an author in a negative book review. It’s unnecessary for many reasons. Again, reviews are for readers. Especially negative reviews. A positive review is a nice mood boost for an author. But I always err on the side of caution. I only tag them if I have no critiques, or if I have an established, casual dialogue with them. Also, think about how you would feel if someone tagged you in a negative review of a project on which you worked so tirelessly and diligently. A book is a piece of an author’s heart and it would behoove you, as a reviewer, to treat it and the author with respect.
If you made it to the end of this post, then thank you for reading! Clearly I had a lot to say. Check out additional thoughts about negative reviews from Shazzie at reader@work. And for discourse on the audience for book reviews, visit Nicole’s post at Thoughts Stained With Ink. What are your opinions about negative book reviews?
This post was originally published on February 11, 2023.