Negative Book Reviews: The Pressure to Be Nice

I love books. I love to share books. I love discussing books with my friends. So I decided to become a a book reviewer and combine my love of reading with my desire to discuss books with lots and lots of people. How hard could it be? Harder than I thought!

I spend a lot of time trying to write a review that is interesting and informative. I want to give the reader enough information about the book so they can decide to purchase it or not. I never want to just repeat the book summary using different words. I have run into a small problem though – negative books reviews and the pressure to be nice.

You see, I am from the south. A get together with friends can turn into an episode of Designing Women. I’m the kind of gal who will ask you “Honey, what do you think you are doing with your hair today?” or tell you “Oh no, we gotta’ go fix that outfit before we go out.” I am honest, passionate and say what I mean – all in love – tinged with sarcasm. While this generally works for me in life, it doesn’t go over quite so well in my book reviews.

If I don’t like a book, I have no problem sharing with the world why I don’t like it. I am not mean, just brutally honest. I have found that some readers and authors don’t like this approach. I have had many of my most critical reviews marked as “not helpful” at Amazon. I have read on Amazon forum boards, that some book reviewers won’t even publish a negative review, only positive ones.

How are we supposed to inform others and share in meaningful dialog, if people don’t really want to hear anything bad about a book? Now, I understand that authors have waited years to see their book in print and feel like they have birthed a baby so any criticism is probably hard to take but, as a book reviewer, my first job is to inform my audience, isn’t it?

When I read a review, I truly want to know what someone thinks of the book, good or bad. I don’t want to read the same, sweet reviews over and over again that don’t tell me much. I don’t have time or money to waste on something that isn’t a good fit for me. Yet, I am feeling the pressure of my Southern roots and can hear my daddy saying “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

So how do you handle it? As a book reviewer, how do you feel about writing negative book reviews? Do you feel any pressure to “be nice” or do you just say what you want, come what may? As a book reader, how honest do you want book reviews to be? Do you feel negative reviews aren’t helpful? Let me know what you think. Believe me, I really do want to know!

Book Reviews Are a Doubled-Edged Sword

Authors seek reviews of their novel with the intention of:

assisting readers to make informed choices about their reading selections
increasing their visibility in the book market
increasing their book sales record
establishing their reputation as an accomplished writer
improving their writing skills

Book reviews are a double-edged sword. On one side of this marketing sword, the strong positive reviews may help catapult their novel to top of the book sale charts. However, on the other side of that sword is a sharp blade that can cut deep into the author’s reputation and morale, sending their novel to the basement in Amazon ratings.

Type of Reviewers:

I’ve found there are two basic types of reviews. One type is primarily objective. It’s based on the construction of the story, assessment of the writer’s talent in developing characters and plot, theme, flow, dialogue, accuracy of details, completeness of the editing. It is an objective critique of how well the story was written. These reviewers will provide more information related to cause and effect. For example: “The point of view shifted quickly between three characters making it difficult to follow the action.” This type of review is generally provided by a professional who is trained and experienced in writing.

I’ve received dozens of reviews, most of which are very positive. Any worthy negative comments are from professional reviewers I respected. Their feedback provided insights on how I can improve my writing. As a result, I benefit from their expertise.

The second type of review is primarily subjective. The reviewer provides an assessment on how they reacted to the story, how much they liked or didn’t like the characters, plot, climax, and sometimes the ending. Their report is based primarily on their feelings, rather than on the construction of the story. These reviewers may be someone who regularly reviews books for authors, or a customer who read the book and has no reviewer reporting experience.

Both review types serve a purpose. The objective review will point toward the author’s writing talent; the subjective will focus on the reader’s enjoyment of the story. A story can be well written but may appeal to only certain type of reader, or may be loved by a wide range of people. However, a novel that is poorly constructed will likely fail to impress any reader, regardless of the genre.

Let’s look at the world of reviewers. An author will have to do research to find the kind of reviewer that will suit his/her novel. Research will include looking for reviewers who specialize in a particular genre. It is important to read the reviewer’s previous reviews to determine if their focus is on an author’s writing knowledge and skill, or if they focus on how exciting the characters and plot are. Many receive more requests for reviews than they are able to accept.

There is no standard on how a review should be written. Reviewers are not paid for their assessment and posted reviews. This reduces the chance of a person being paid to fabricate a positive review.

Anyone can to claim to be an authority on how a novel should be constructed. Some reviewers have built a reputation for being the ‘go to’ people for honest, unbiased, and professional reviews. Others are new to the industry, but show great enthusiasm of becoming the authority on what books you should consider buying.

One of the challenges in being an author is that many times, if not most of the time, you do not get to choose who posts a subjective review of your book. Anyone who reads it can post a review, which is wonderful. The problem is that a subjective review can be misleading, and sometimes malicious.

Writing a review is challenging. The reviewer wants to report their findings/issues/feelings without disclosing key elements of the story. Unfortunately, there are occasions when subjective reviewers post details about the story’s plot, all the twists, and even reveal the ending. This is unprofessional and disrespectful to the author.

If you’re hunting for reviewers, select ones who:

exhibit knowledge of writing standards
able to articulate their observations clearly in their written reviews
have high standard of professional ethics
offers constructive criticism which is respectful of the author
identifies strengths, what was enjoyable, unique

I believe a subjective review is secondary to the assessment of the (a) writer’s talent in development of characters, (b) brilliant construction and execution of the plot to its conclusion; (c) depth of scenes and dialogue, and (d) if the editing was thorough.

Subjective reviews are very personal. Every author loves to hear from a reader, especially if the reader loved their book. For the readers who are less enthusiastic, authors welcome those comments as well – so long as the communication is respectful. If an unsatisfied reader comments, it is beneficial to explain why their feedback is negative (not their kind of book, didn’t like the characters, too little action, etc.).

How much emphasis should there be on reviews and ratings? From what I’m learning, readers more often select their reading material from a variety of sources. Reviews, it appears, is a relatively minor source compared to the book’s synopsis. Some readers have reported they don’t trust the reviews and ratings, especially the ones reporting a 5/5. They suspect friends and family might have been the source of those ratings.

If the synopsis appeals to them, they often read a few randomly selected pages. In short, readers will wisely do their own review.

The book publishing industry is being challenged by new technology. Now anyone who has written a manuscript can self-publish with greater ease than before. It may be a masterpiece, or the author may have poor writing skills and skipped the editing. Note: many self-published authors write first class books. Whether a book is published through traditional or other avenues, the book industry and authors need be conscious of risks to writing standards. Reviewers play an important role to maintain (or improve) the quality of books available.

Book Marketing – How to Get More Online Book Reviews

Ten and twenty years ago, book marketing meant authors participated in live book tours. They gave speeches and signed books in bookstores. They traveled many miles to reach many possible readers. Their books were reviewed in books and magazines. Some authors also were interviewed for radio and television.

Reviewers in those print media would receive complimentary review copies, often in pre-publication form as Advance Reading Copies (ARCs).

Today publishers do not send authors on book tours as readily as before. Travel has become more expensive and publishers are getting squeezed on profit margins. Additionally, many authors have turned to self-publishing, which can be very profitable if they are willing to take on the marketing challenge.

Online book reviews have taken on a more important role in this new book publishing climate. Authors now query reviewers directly to obtain reviews on Amazon and other online venues.

Here are some common questions authors ask:

Q. Should I try to get reviews from experienced reviewers rather than my friends and family?
A. If you have a good book, you will get more mileage by targeting experienced reviewers. Make sure your reviewer has a history of reading and reviewing books in your genre. Get a sense of what kinds of books appeal to a particular reviewer.

However, be aware that experienced reviewers tend to be fussier. Top reviewers get several books a month to review so the promise of a free book won’t be a motivator.

Q. Do I need to invest in review copies to get reviews?
Yes. Reviewers will want to see a complete book – a hard copy though not necessarily a hard cover. A paperback or even galleys will usually be accepted. However, many reviewers will not accept pdf files. Even fewer reviewers will accept requests to itnerview based on just a chapter or two.

Q. Will reviewers return a book?
Rarely. Most reviewers are too busy to wrap up a book and you can’t expect them to pay postage. If you’re concerned about losing your investment in the review copy, choose your reviewers with extra care.

Q. Can you ask for a positive review?
A. Some reviewers will say, “If I really hate the book, I won’t write a review,” especially if you are from

Q. What if you can’t get anyone to review your book?
A. You may be approaching the wrong reviewers. Your book may not fit a clear genre. Or your query may be discouraging reviewers; for instance, some authors write about their own frustrations (“This is my first book”) rather than “sell” the reviewer on the value of reading his or her book.