Negative Book Reviews Are Necessary

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.

27 thoughts on “Negative Book Reviews Are Necessary

  1. Great post! I agree with pretty much all of it. I honestly never really gave negative reviews much thought because I’d seen so many of them on Goodreads. So, I was sharing mine from the first month of my blog. Lol. Although, I totally get only wanting to focus on the books that you finish or bring you joy. I’m just a super critical person in general. So, it’s weird to me to be positive all the time. ?

    1. Thanks for reading! That’s a good point, there do seem to be more written negative reviews on Goodreads. At the start of my blogging I wasn’t really looking through GR all that much, but now I take time to do that when I feel like my reading experience was a minority one in the blogosphere.

      Like you, I’m also naturally critical, so I agree that it’s weird (for me) to be positive all the time. As you might expect, I think the belief that one must be positive all the time is toxic. Balance is super important.

  2. Oh, you’re totally right, negative reviews are necessary and I don’t trust people who only post positive reviews. I called someone out on it once for posting a five star review about an utterly terrible book but she called it “prophetic” – then messaged me to say she hated it but wanted to stay in the publishers good graces. I had one starred it. Totally screen shotted the conversation and showed it to the publicist with my review, who replied “wow I wish everyone would be honest, that’s what we are looking for”. True facts. Need a balance for both

    1. I personally haven’t had any experiences where I felt like a reviewer’s consistent positive reviews lead me to mistrust them. But, like I said, I’m a realist, so I’m not surprised the experience you just described exists. (I’ve heard whispers about this type of thing from others.) I’m sorry you had that experience and it definitely would be frustrating to know you’re being honest, but another reviewer might not be in order to stay in “good graces” with the publisher (yikes). Definitely agree that we need a balance!

  3. i was actually kind of ridiculously nervous before posting my first ever negative review too because it kind of felt like cruelness insulting something that another human being had poured so much of their soul into and worked so so hard on and loved so much. also, like you mentioned, there aren’t many people who post negative reviews, so that might have been a reason too. also this sentence: “You are reviewing the book, not the author.” I LOVE IT OKAY. and also completely agree with literally every single word in this post and am so glad you decided to share all of it, because it’s kind of really validating like that.

    1. Thanks for reading my long-ish discussion post! 🙂 I’m glad you find it relatable and validating. I totally get that you were nervous before posting your first negative review.
      As another commenter above said, it seems like there are way more negative reviews on Goodreads. I wonder if that has to do with the accessibility of Goodreads vs. maintaining a blog. But either way I have found a core group of bloggers that I know post negative reviews, so it’s not as rare as I first thought! Keep up the negative & positive reviewing! 🙂

  4. Yes to all of this! I’ve always posted negative reviews, but make it a priority to keep them as respectful as possible and keep my critique focused on the book and not the author. I’ve gotten so much validation when I am not enjoying a hyped book and find others who didn’t connect with it either, while other times a negative review might make me want to read a book more. Ultimately, not every book is for every reader, so that’s what I’ve always kept in mind when writing my reviews. Great topic and great post, Celeste!

    1. Thanks so much, Leah! I have noticed that you post reviews with a wide range of opinions, so thank you for that. I do appreciate when I find bloggers who feel comfortable sharing a negative review. The validation aspect of it is super important, though it can feel nervewracking to post a negative review for a book that has a lot of hype (I’ve been there haha…). Thanks for reading!

  5. Indeed! Reviews ARE for readers, not authors. And negative reviews are helpful and do not always turn a potential new reader away from a book. I’ve added several books to my tbr, and even bought and read a few, because a negative review of them got me interested. Sometimes it’s out of curiosity (will I dislike it too?), other times I like what the reviewer dislikes. And still sometimes the negative review is written so well that it makes you interested in the book, even though the reviewer hated it.
    I dislike it when authors say/urge not posting negative reviews. I see that as a bit selfish because the worry there is that negative reviews will hurt sales. It totally disregards that readers would like to interact with others on these social media sites too, and that includes sharing both the good and the bad things we’ve read.

    1. You’ve touched on a topic that I can’t believe I forgot to include in my post! Negative book reviews absolutely can be good for sales. There have been countless “dramas” over books that have been deemed problematic for whatever reason, and I 100% bet that that generated more sales for said books. The Ones We Burn comes to mind as does Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir. Plus more recently Lightlark by Alex Aster (especially this one).

      I don’t know if I’ve ever bought a book because of a negative review. I think the closest one that comes to mind is The Atlas Six, which I wasn’t going to read right away because of the middling reviews. But when I read it I completely disagreed with those initial reviews I’d seen and really loved it.

  6. I love this post and I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for sharing this and for saying it all so thoughtfully and eloquantly :). I think it’s a message that needs to be said and it needs to be said again and again. Personally, I’m always surprised by the negative reactions to negative reviews. Because that’s the point…right? To be honest? We all have things we like and things we dislike. That’s what makes us different people! That’s what makes life fun and interesting and exciting! So we should freely voice our love as well as our frustrations and disappointments.

    I’ve often wondered if the proliferation of social media over the last twenty years has made our dialoguing with authors, fandoms, movies, etc. more performative. Admittedly, I have no idea real way to compare the personal bookish community of the say ’80s or ’90s with the public experience of the bookish community online across blogs and social media, but I get the sense – with books as well as with fandoms I follow like Doctor Who, Marvel, DC, Star Wars (oh my goodness…ESPECIALLY Star Wars) – certain types of people tend to only present wild positivity about everything. And I think (especially in regard to Star Wars, from my anecdotal experience of what I’ve witnessed online), people are often trying to be “noticed” by the larger fandom, be it publishers or authors or “official” accounts. Again, as you say above, there’s no one answer but I think sometimes people will craft their reviews or online discourse just like some people tend to post their best pictures online making it seem like their lives are mostly fun vacations, glorious meals, and breathtaking selfies instead of sitting on the couch watching TV and reading. There’s a sort of pressure to make everything seem “fun” or “perfect.” But that’s not real! It’s just the “shiny” side of things. Life is too exciting and too varied to not look at it all as far as I’m concerned :).

    I don’t know. I may be rambling a bit XD. But I think about this a lot myself!

    From the author side of things, I’m in the final stages of editing for my first book. I’ve written a volume for Claremont Press’ Religion and Comics Series. It’s so exciting! I spent a year of my life pouring everything I had into this. I can’t wait to share it with the world. But I know not everyone will love it. Some will take issue with the comics I analyzed, the way I conducted my research, the theology I did, the conclusions I drew, my writing style in general, etc. and so on. And they should! I did my best but I’m certainly not perfect. Like you said, not everything is for everyone anyway. I have no way of knowing what negative reviews will feel like. But I do know whatever feelings I have are mine to deal with. It’s not the responsibility of anyone but me and I’d never want anyone to lie to me anyway.

    Anyway, I appreciate your post so much because it’s (obviously, as my comment just kept going XD) something I think about often and am very passionate about. And I think it’s something we need to continually talk about! If we’re all here to talk about books because we love to read, then we should talk about what we love as well as what we didn’t. That’s what I’d do if I was having dinner with a friend talking about what we’d recently read or seen and that’s what I’m looking for in the blogs I follow, too.

  7. I remember that there was a similar quarrel going on within the German book blogger Twitter bubble. An author did not like that some blogger(s) published negative reviews.

    Sorry, but if you can’t live with critics of your work you might want to stay away from publishing anything. That’s my take on it. I always wonder how those people act to negative critics at the day-to-day workplace.

    I appreciate negative reviews, not only for books, but also for other things I think about buying. Why should I buy a microwave with many negative reviews, when there are so many other microwaves to choose from.
    That’s the same with books. According to UNESCO over 1.7 million books get published every year worldwide, so if I don’t like the majority of reviews on a certain book there are enough to choose from.

    I think an author who receives one or more negative reviews about their book instead of going ballistic towards the reviewer they should take the critics and work on their writing for the next book. I do have to develop in my job as well.

    The only thing I can and will never tolerate in negative reviews of any sort is foul language. At this point I can’t take the review and the reviewer serious if they can’t keep it civilized. Unfortunately, I came across some of those reviews.

  8. Great discussion post. You make multiple valid points. As a mood reader and often a mood reviewer (heh), I find myself more selective about what I read and review. I completely agree that reviews are for readers and negative reviews can be helpful. I use them in the ways you stated. They have helped validate my thoughts on a book. Additionally, they help me stay away from disappointment especially when it’s a blogger or bookstagrammer I trust and have similar taste with providing the review.

    1. Thanks for reading! I agree that seeing a negative review from a fellow book blogger or bookstagrammar with similar tastes can help decide whether to request an ARC or buy or borrow a book. There are times, however, where I feel like I read a different book than the majority of other book bloggers, so seeing varying reviews is helpful.

  9. What a well thought out argument for negative reviews. I don’t give negative reviews based on the idea that people who read my reviews read to find books to add to their TBR list.Presumably my audience and I have similar tastes. However I do think any book reviewer has a right to give an honest opinion and if they honestly didn’t like the book it’s fair to say it. As a writer of a book published by a small independently press I am highly mindful of the fact that my negative review could cost an author sales which would directly impact their income. It’s a difficult subject with many ins and outs and frankly no right answer, but I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in approaching this hard subject.

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