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Friday, July 17, 2015

Bad Reviews Sell Books

I'm subscribed to a lot of bargain book emails. Mainly because I frequently use them to advertise and like to track what sort of books are featured on each list, but also because I sometimes purchase books from those lists . . . I also like to see the pretty covers.
The other day one of the emails had a free book with an intriguing title and cover, so I clicked through to check it out. The book sounded interesting, but it only had ten reviews, a couple of which rated it lowly. So I skimmed down to the first low rated review. It said the book was "Not a thrill ride. A little slow paced."

So I immediately downloaded it.

Why? Because I dislike the frenetic pace of "thrill ride" books. I prefer a more leisurely read that lets me poke around and explore the world without having to worry because the characters are in mortal danger ALL THE TIME (See my list of top reasons why I stop reading a book here).

So I immediately brought this amusing anecdote before one of my writer's Facebook group and a lot of them just simply didn't get the point. I find the attitude frequently found in writers' circles is that negative reviews are "bad" or "unfair." This is unfortunate. Sometimes bad reviews can be frustrating (see my post here on what writers find annoying about reviews), but the "people shouldn't leave reviews like that. I wish Amazon would remove them. Please vote them unhelpful!" doesn't help the writers in the long run.

Here's why: the point to my story about the low-rated-review was not that the review was wrong to rate the book that way, it was that the review provided me information that caused me to actually download a book I was on the fence about. The low-rated-review got the writer a sale! (well, a free download, but I might've purchased if it weren't free, depending on my current budget ... I need to check that.)

I've seen writers actually state that a low rated review is preventing them from getting sales. One low star review is rarely enough to turn away readers, especially when you have the powerhouse of your Amazon sample right there. I've seen a general assumption that any low star rated review is from a "troll" or someone who willfully or stupidly misread the book.

It turns every low star review into an instant pity party where a bunch of other authors will pat you on the back and tell you how awful the reviewer is.

But as in the case of my story, sometimes that negative review is actually what you want, a review from someone who isn't in your target audience that might draw in someone from your intended audience ... Here are a couple instances where "negative" reviews might work towards you.

  • Issue Reviewers: these reviewers don't care what your story was like. All that matters to them is the representation of a particular issue. These sorts of writers come from both sides of political/social/religious lines. "I didn't like it because the main character was a man-hating feminazi." "I didn't like it because it didn't pass the Bechdel Test. Not enough strong female characters." "I don't like how the author portrayed Christians/Atheists/Hindus/Social-Workers/Stay-At-Home-Mothers/Working-Moms/Dragonflies."  You can't please everyone in this day and age. However, the majority of readers will not care about this particular issue, and if they represent the opposite side of the coin, they may be drawn in. Very occasionally, these reviewers actually have a point, too. 
  • I didn't like this particular element/aspect. This is the example that started this thread. I don't care for fast paced books. The person who reviewed didn't care for slow paced books. If something is a matter of taste, then you're actually helped by a reviewer who points it out because what they didn't like might be what someone else was looking for.
  • Writerly-writing stuff. Writers tend to be picky readers. Also, anyone who has taken advanced literature or English classes might fall into this category. Key phrases to look for to identify a reader who is trying to be an armchair critic/professor, "Exposition. Purple prose. Point of view/Head Hopping. Filtering. Telegraphing. Passive voice. . ." anything that basically if you weren't a writer or someone who analyzes writing, you probably wouldn't know what it means. I was not taught about "Point of View" until college level creative writing courses (which tend to be electives). It's just not something that comes up for non-writers. And yes, there are reasons for all of these issues to be addressed during the editing/re-writing process, but once the book is done, most readers aren't going to be carefully analyzing it for these issues. If a reader knocks you down a couple stars for this sort of thing, don't sweat it. The average reader is going to glance at the review, think the reviewer is being nitpicky, and ignore them. (Similarly to first item on this list, occasionally they may be right. It's never bad to take into consideration that you still have something to learn that could make your writing better.).
  • I expected this but got this . . . this actually made the list of "annoying things in reviews" that I linked above. Because it is annoying. I wanted a romance, this was a tragedy. I wanted to laugh. This book wasn't funny. I didn't know this book was Christian fiction! If you labeled the book well and the marketing isn't deceptive, yes, it can feel unwarranted, but these sorts of reviews don't hurt sales. The person got the wrong sort of book for them, but this will help future readers to avoid making the same mistake, and if they like the sort of book the reviewer didn't, it can actually lead them to buy. While it is annoying, don't berate the reviewer. They may have bought the book off a "people who bought this also bought. . ." link without bothering to check the category. They may have been recommended the book by a friend. They may have picked it up impulsively on a free or bargain day and forgotten what it was by the time they actually read. Whatever the reason, their review does not harm you. Give them a break. 
  • I dint lyk et. Okay, in my last one I said to give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt and not call them stupid, but the typo-filled negative review . . . yeah, people don't take those seriously. I wouldn't actively mock the reviewer, but it is okay to roll your eyes a bit. Still, they don't hurt you.

Reviews that can hurt sales . . .hmm. . . if a reviewer actually lies/misrepresents the content of the book, this can be an issue, and if your stats start to skew more negative than positive, it can also hurt you in the long run, but it can be a sign that you need to target your marketing a little better. Or maybe improve the book? Sometimes that actually is necessary. Take it down, edit it, fix the truncated ending, add in a strong female character . . .if enough reviewers are mad about it, think about changing it. 

Still, remember: the average reader isn't rating the value of the book when they review. That's completely subjective. They are rating based on the experience they had when reading the book. This is where the writer gives up some control, but that's okay. You can't control life/readers/reviewers. So try not to fuss about them. If you really need to, stop reading them!


  1. Some great points here. The thing I realized a while back is that it's totally unrealistic to expect everyone to like your book. This really hit home when I had read a couple of books that I thought were untouchably excellent (and therefore everyone else must think that, too, right??? LOL). Then I looked at the reviews for those books and each of them had more than 10% one-star reviews! I was floored. I read through those reviews, and honestly, it bothered me more that someone would say such ^&**)(U%RR things about such awesome books that I didn't write and had no personal investment in, than it ever bothered me what someone said about my book! Happily for me, this lesson came before I started getting more exposure and more negative reviews, and thus I was braced for the experience. The fact is, if you're going to be an author, you have to have thick skin, because not everyone is going to like your work, some people will totally not get it, and some people will be cruel. Take some deep breaths and focus on the people who *do* get it, who love it, and whose lives are a little bit different because of your words. :)

  2. Great article! I've changed books based on reviews I've gotten. It's amazing to get such a broad spectrum of readers so that you can really gauge whether or not it's a reader's personal opinion or seriously, you need to fix that. The only thing about bad reviews is ratings. My most irritating review was, 'this was not what I was expecting,' one star. Reviews are so funny. You get those, "This is the best book I've ever read it was so amazing!" 3 star reviews. And then the, "It was okay." 5 star reviews. I don't really know what any of the stars mean, I just really love reviewers who are willing to read and give feedback. They're amazing even when they give low stars if they explain why in a helpful way.

    1. Yeah the stars aren't really well defined on most websites and can be different from website to website. I have a post on Goodreads where I break down how a 3 star review on Goodreads has the same value as a 4 star on Amazon (they both mean "I liked it" according to the sites) which is why Goodreads ratings tend to run lower than Amazon ratings (one of the reasons) . . .
      First time reviewers I think just assume that stars are sort of like restaurant ratings, a one star restaurant is a "very good restaurant in its category" according to the Michelin guide, just to pull out a random examples. A lot of restaurants would be proud to be One Star Michelin rated. . . so if you have that as a reference point, sure, give a great book a 1 star review!. . . other times they are missclicks.

    2. http://www.hlburkeblog.com/2015/04/what-about-goodreads.html

  3. Good post!

    I'd say that my least favorite review is the spoiler one. That one can hurt sales. All the rest? No problem. :-)

    1. Unfortunately spoilers come in both negative and positive reviews. Ideally people use the "spoiler warning" tag. Goodreads actually has a system that allows writers to hide them and readers have to click through to read them.
      Sometimes it is hard to explain why a book failed without giving away too much. Like "Beatrice and Virgil" was a four star book up until the twist at the end and the twist kind of ruined it for me. I didn't like the twist and it seemed contrived. That was a hard review to write without telling what exactly the "twist" was, but my review did still say there was a twist. In some author's minds, that might be a spoiler.

  4. So true! I picked one up because of a bad review too. The commenter say they didn't like the main character and I thought oh sad. Maybe someone else will love her (I did) it was a great book. I like how you turned your own real experience into a blog post here. Have a great day

    1. I think it's actually pretty common. Most readers don't like to be told what to think, and bad reviews make them want to see for themselves.

  5. Thank you for this explanation Heidi. It is so helpful to me as a writer of reviews. I am not an author but I do want to share my thoughts on the books I read, both so I remember for the future and to hopefully help other readers select the books they wish to read. I am learning the things to ignore in reviews (in general typos/grammar don't happen to bother me although I see many reviewers complain about them) when I am trying to determine whether to add a book to my to-read list or not and I hope that other review readers will ignore the parts of my reviews that don't apply to them.

    1. I tend to trust readers to think for themselves. If something does bother them (like cliffhanger endings or sex scenes) it's good for them to be warned ... if it doesn't bother them, it won't affect the sale, so I really think readers should just rate honestly and try to be explicit about what exactly bothered them.
      It's much more useful to me if a review says, 'I didn't like the swearing in this book' than if a review says, "I didn't like this book.'