Monday 22 July 2013

Should Authors Post Negative Reviews?

As much as I like to review books efficiently and honestly, since becoming a published author, I've had to hold myself back from posting negative reviews.

Of course, there are books out there which I don't like, but as an author, I don't think it's in my best interest to publicly voice negative opinions about others' books.

If I don't like a book, I don't review it. Full stop.

But that's just me.

There are other authors out there who believe otherwise, and that is their choice, and I completely respect that. But if you are going to free yourself to voice negative opinions about books, I think you need to accept the consequences that come with such a bold choice.

Now, I know, first hand, how hard it is to receive a negative review. And I've heard horror stories about authors lashing out at reviewers, and seen these situations turn nasty and destroy careers. But FANS of authors can also lash out at a reviewer that has posted a negative review. This is scary. Because if they discover that you are an author, they could very well decide to seek your books out and review them negatively for revenge. And if the author's fan base is huge, this could mean the end of your career. I know that sounds a little over the top, but can you imagine 100+ fans on a rampage to destroy your reputation?

It can happen. And when it does, it's devastating. I've seen it with my very own eyes.

I know how it feels to want to write an honest review about a book that isn't so great. I have felt like doing so on many occasion. And I know how silly it seems to play these 'games'. But this is business. It's one big popularity contest, and the tiniest thing can set you back. So in light of this, I've decided to avoid posting negative reviews. Not only because of the possible consequences, but because I really don't believe in putting another author down no matter how bad I think their work is. It's just NOT NICE. And as an author, I think you should be able to put yourself in another author's shoes, and understand how horrible it feels.

If you hate a book, whinge about it to your close friends over the phone or email, not in a public place. As authors, I think we need to look out for each other.

My advice is, if you're an author, DON'T post that negative review. Play nice. And if you just MUST, create a pseudonym, so it doesn't come back to bite you in the face.

What do you think about authors posting negative reviews?

CLICK HERE to subscribe to my newsletter. Every subscriber will receive The Hum of Sin Against Skin for free, and be the first to know about new releases and special subscriber giveaways.


  1. Unfortunately censorship in any form is destructive, not constructive and it is dishonest. An opinion is an opinion and if we need a market, or a public, whether politics, painting or prose, we need to risk all opinions.

    1. I'm not censoring myself. I just don't feel comfortable posting negative reviews in the current climate of publishing today. There are too many trolls out there and I'm not going to subject myself to them, or give them reason to attack me. I have no qualms of offering my opinion, whether negative or not, privately. I just don't wish to make it public. I'm not a professional reviewer. It's not my job to do that.

  2. I think negative reviews are mean. Who needs them? What people like is subjective. Anyone who thinks they owe an author/book a negative review should look at their own reflection in the mirror, and ask: who the **blink** do I think I am?

  3. +JMJ+

    I once knew a guy who liked to say, without much elegance, "I don't s*** where I eat." He was talking about the conflict of interest in dating co-workers, but it's definitely the same thing you're saying here. If all goes well, there won't be trouble, but why even risk it?

  4. I don't post reviews, period. Positive or negative. Well, I do, but it's under a name nobody knows because I feel it's a conflict of interest (at least for me, it is) to review other author's books. Authors say, hey, but what about supporting each other? I think there are way more better and more effective ways to support my fellow authors than reviewing their books and risking unintentional hurt. I've found, even in a positive review, hurt can be inflicted if it's not absolutely glowing. And even if it IS absolutely glowing, it might come off as fake or your own readers and authors who know you might begin to mistrust your critical opinions if all they ever see out of you is positive reviews. Oy, it can get sticky, so I just stepped out of that arena altogether and help out in other ways. :)

    I did a whole post about this and received some pretty interesting feedback. I like Enbrethiliel's quote in his comment: "I don't s*** where I eat." Hah, never heard it said better.

  5. If I can't give a book a 4 or 5 star rating, I don't rate it. It just magically vanishes from my Goodreads list. And since I suck at writing reviews, I rarely write them and they're never negative. Sure there have been times I've wanted to point out that the typos and missing words drove me insane, but I keep that to myself publicly and complain about it to my friends instead. I don't want to get into the situation you mentioned, Jessica.

  6. I say you email them privately and explain why you feel you're not the right person to review their book, but that you're sure someone else will feel differently, and stress that all opinions are subjective (which they are), and apologize. I'm sure they would appreciate your honesty.

  7. I agree. It's rare I'll give out even a three star review. It does open us up to retaliation. Of course, if I'm not enjoying a book, I stop reading it, and I don't think it's fair to review a book I didn't finish reading.

  8. I agree that indie authors in particular need to support one another in any way possible.

    On the other hand, an author trash-talk war might get EVERYBODY some attention! You could have your own little Oasis/Blur thing going.

  9. In my opinion, if you don't have the courage to be honest, then you shouldn't be reviewing. What is the point of reviewing only what you like?

    Over the past few years, there's been a fundamental shift in the purpose of reviews. What was once a tool to help guide readers to books they might appreciate, is now another another buzzy promotional contrivance used to benefit authors (thanks Amazon). More's the pity.

    Reviews should never be brutal, but there is nothing wrong (in fact, there is much right) with a thoughtful, critical review. All reviews are inherently subjective. Why can't we assume readers are intelligent enough to realize this? As much—usually more these days—can be gleaned from a well-penned negative review as a positive one.

    VR Barkowski

    1. If I were an everyday reader, I would agree with you, V.R. But as a published author, this all changes. It's unfortunate, but I would much rather stay out of a fight than post a negative review. If I wasn't an author, however, I wouldn't have a problem posting a negative review if I thought a book warranted one.

    2. Also, to me, this has nothing to do with courage. It has to do with exactly what Enbrethiliel says: I don't want to shit where I eat."

    3. I understand not wanting to shit where you eat. That's exactly why I no longer write reviews. Frankly, I wish other writers would follow suit. In any other business, publicly reviewing your colleagues would be unthinkable, but we all know cronyism is alive and well in publishing.

      Sure, there is plenty of sincere author-penned feedback out there, but there is even more dreck. These days if I see a writer's name on a review, right or wrong, I skip it.

      And I'm sorry, but I disagree—it does take courage to be honest and take the heat.

    4. So in order to be honest, I need to voice every opinion I have? I'm just choosing not to voice a particular opinion. Just like I wouldn't tell a person I think they are ugly. It's a choice I make. It doesn't mean I don't have courage. I don't think that sort of thing comes into play in this situation at all.

    5. PS: I'm seriously just discussing my thoughts here, so please don't think my tone is aggressive because it's not. You know, I think the world of you, V.R. :)

    6. Right back at you, Jess. :) And I agree, this is an interesting discussion.

      I see your point, and true, it doesn't take courage to be boorish, but let's not confuse honesty and constructive criticism with rudeness. We're not talking about saying a book sucks but rather about consciously choosing not to review a book because you either see flaws, or for whatever reason, the book simply doesn't appeal. This benefits neither the potential reader who is looking for the right read, or the author who might possibly learn something from the input.

      This discussion aside, here's my real issue: reviews are no longer written to guide readers to books and writers to better their art. Reviews are now first and foremost a promotional tool. I'm trying hard to accept this new world order, but I don't have to like it. lol

    7. I do see your point. But I guess I HAVE got used to the way reviews are used as a promotional tool and have therefore decided to "stay out of trouble" so to speak. :) It's is a sad state of affairs, but it is what it is unfortunately. In an ideal world, I probably wouldn't hold back. In fact, before I was published, I didn't hold back, either! But I guess now things have changed for me now that I've seen the other side of the fence.

    8. +JMJ+

      Hi, VR! I think you made a really interesting point, which I never considered before, but which really should have been obvious. While I personally reject the idea that reviews are "for authors" and primarily a promotional tool, I never stopped to think about what their original purpose was and what we've lost by abandoning it.

      A few years ago, I found a writing manual for children that suggested a simple formula for writing reviews: say what the book is about, say what you thought of it, and say what the author's main/greater idea is. Individual reviewers can pad that out as they please, of course, but as a skeleton, it makes sense. I'm reminded of it whenever I come across a review which satisfies the first two points, then misses the last one by a mile. Since learning what the author wants to say is the main reason to read a book, it's quite off-putting to think that a lot of reviewers don't think it's worth writing about . . . if they even know what it is.

      But what came first: reviews as a promotional tool or readers who will buy books only if they are guided by the language of hype and sensationalism?

  10. Jessica, I agree that it changes when you become an author. What comes around goes around. At the same time, an author shouldn't dole out five star reviews to everyone, because then it looks like they are begging for others to return the favor.

    There are enough readers out there to give our books bad reviews without authors dissing our work, too.

    1. That's very true, Diane. I don't give rave reviews easily, either. I do actually have to like the book to do that.

  11. I don't do totally negative reviews either. I do occasionally give out 3 stars, but on Goodreads, that means I liked it, but there were some things that didn't sit well with me. To me that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most of my reviews are 4 stars. 5 stars means the book was really something special, a story whose characters I will be remembered for a long, long time. 5 stars is reserved for books I will want to reread, or want to keep on my book shelf. I'm stingy with the 5 stars.

  12. I don't think authors should post negative reviews, primarily because it's all subjective, and if you're actually being read by the public at large, you're going to receive negative reviews anyway. To rephrase, if you knew with absolute certainty that you have to be the whistle blower, then I'd do it. But trust me, there's more than enough people out there willing to trash a novel that an author doesn't need to go out of their way to add to the mess.

  13. It's a hard line, isn't it? On Amazon where people vote on how helpful ratings are, they really are harsh on 5-star reviewers--they assume you are just scratching the author's back or something.

    I will give a negative review, but only for a book where the author is making millions and I think they've been over-hyped. (think Stephenie Meyer). With less established authors, I am honest, but only actually post down to 3 stars and I always try to include something I DID like as well as what I didn't.

  14. Totally agree with you with the rare exception of when one really must reply to correct flagrant hideousness, for example, a book that concerns oneself and mentions information with is defamatory or horribly incorrect. Sadly criticism has taken on a whole new meaning to what it actually does mean in academic terms. I rarely get asked to review these days and only believe in writing positive ones or hold my silence, only once have written a scathing review of a book which concerned me personally and contained erroneous information.

  15. Well, i don't post negative reviews of books by authors i know. So if i read their book, and i don't like it, i just keep my mouth shut.
    But i have written my share of negative reviews on other books. But i always make sure it's unbiased as much as possible and list specific reasons why i didn't like the book.

  16. Brave post, Jessica. I'm applauding loudly!!! As for those who hide behind pseudonyms they should remember "writer voice", which is as good as a fingerprint! I recently broached this very subject of negative reviewing to do with malicious reviews only not ordinary reviews. Quite a few of the members within a specific FB review group took on a strange and defensive manner, which kind of smacked of underhanded tactics, It was made abundantly clear that shaming authors "not in their gang" with in-depth critique was par for the course. After a few snide comments directed at moi I thought give 'em enough rope and a few clever words they'll hang themselves. Needless to say they did and accused me of calling them stupid. In retaliation they kicked me out of the group as though it was a great loss to moi. ;) Like you, I will not post a negative review. If I don't like a book I won't review it, I never have not even when reviewing books for a famous magazine. It was always a case of "one down" and plenty more where that came from. Why does anyone set out to write a rambling ranting review "treatise" on a book they disliked, Why not just read a another book and say "bugger" must be more careful to thoroughly read the sample text (chapter or more) at Amazon et al. If stupid is the hat, then wear it.

  17. This post raises several issues.
    1. Reviews are a valuable marketing tool. All reviews. When I use reviews to help with a purchasing decision, I mostly discount 5 stars. I read a few, but a product/book with only 5 stars looks like the reviewers were purchased. Likewise, all 1 star reviews look like someone's got an ax to grind and has figured out how to harness different review profiles. But in the 2,3,&4-star reviews I often find helpful information.
    2. Literary criticism has been around a lot longer than any of us have. Real reviewers take their job seriously. They aren't just readers. They aren't just writers. They are schooled in evaluation of a work. They don't eviscerate a piece. They point out what is good and what didn't work so well. This, for a serious author, can be a treasured learning experience. (Yeah, of course it hurts. Artists don't live in a vacuum. A little pain is expected.)Reviewers who slash & burn don't deserve an audience__or the title of reviewer.
    3. I write. I read. I sometimes review. If I really didn't like a piece but can't figure out why, I keep my trap shut. If I really didn't like a piece because it is a genre I don't appreciate...well, I rarely read those, but if I do get conned into reading one and am expected to review it, I will preface my comments with my inexperience about the subject matter. I will try to find something I like. The pacing? The book design? The really fine editing? Something must measure up. But I can't give 5 stars to something I could barely get through. It just isn't going to happen, nor should it.
    4. Anyone who is afraid to be honest should not be reviewing. It is serious business. Anyone who doesn't know how to review w/o being one dimensional should not be reviewing. Any reviewer who hands out only 5 star reviews is an amateur and does no one, reader or author, any good.

  18. There's a post expressing the exact opposite opinion at this link if anyone is interested in it:

  19. A review should mean something. It should be honest. What use is a husband who refuses to tell his wife her bum looks big in whatever she’s proposing to go out in? It’ll be his fault his wife gets fingers pointed by her: Look at the bum on her! But there are ways to tell people things. I was an IT trainer for years and there were a couple of time the students approached me and asked me to talk to one of their number. One fellow smelled. So I had the BO talk with him. Had to be done.

    If, when you send me a copy of your next book, I tell you that book is wonderful, the best thing I’ve ever read will you believe me? Of course you will and I hope I do. I doubt it will be the best thing I’ve ever read but whatever I put in my review you’ll know I’m being honest. I have, I think, established a reputation and it’s important to me to live up to it. I review everyone on the same footing whether self-published or traditionally published. There are only good books and bad ones.

    But what if I really hated a book—and there have been a couple—what would I do then? Probably not review it at all. I gave up on The Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson. Hated it. Read three stories and hated every one of them. So I dropped my contact at Canongate a wee note and said I wouldn’t be reviewing it; sorry and all that. I could’ve reviewed it but why put myself through it? It’s impossible to be objective when reviewing especially if you’re looking at something that’s not your personal taste and the fact is there will be people who will love the book. Very few books get to lie under a blanket of five-star reviews. Not even the so-called greats.

    Look at your last poetry book and the number of five-star reviews it got. You’re not daft. You even commented on the fact. Reviews need to be helpful and not all are even if those awarding them the five stars have the best of intentions. I don’t give stars on my blog but I do on Goodreads eventually. I gave Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer five stars a couple of days ago because it blew me away. I gave my own short stories four stars. They deserve a good solid four. They’re good stories. Four stars is nothing to be sniffed at. When, I wonder, will people stars giving books five stars and an extra star on two in the body of the review?

  20. There's no right or wrong position in this debate - a salutary fact.

    I don't understand the position that it is "dishonest" to avoid writing a bad review. Whether or not I even read a particular novel (or tried to) is nobody's business but mine. I've made no commitment to anyone to do anything. So my decision whether to review or not has nothing to do with "honesty."

    It would be dishonest to promise someone a review and not deliver it, or to write a review that did not express your true opinion because the novel was written by a friend or family member. It would be dishonest to ask someone only to post the review if it's more than 3 stars. There are plenty of dishonest practices going on in the reviewing field, but choosing to remain silent is not among them, IMO.

    On another matter, I don't understand the position that one must finish a book in order to be qualified to review it. That makes no sense to me, whether one is writing a 5 star review or a 1 star review.

    If a story is going so badly that I decide to abandon it, that is a reader's legitimate response, and I think he's free to transmit his experience to other readers.

    Likewise - and I have actually done this - if you are so enthralled with a novel that you absolutely cannot wait to tell people about it, why must you wait until you're finished? Do you have some duty to make sure the story didn't disintegrate? That the ending was satisfying? Heck no, not in my book.

  21. As a reader who hopes to be published soon, my reading time is precious. Not only do I not publish 'bad' reviews, I don't finish books that I would normally negatively review.

  22. I actually hate writing reviews, because it takes me so long to think about what I want to say. If I feel it's appropriate, I'll lengthen the review. Sometimes it's just a few lines. But as an author, I am conscious that I can't hide behind the anonymity of simply being a reader. If I find something I don't like about a book, I'll try to balance that with things I did like. I'm conscious that my opinion is subjective and what I don't like, others may well love. My review is always designed to inform not rip apart.
    I've approached several high level reviewers to review my own book whose policy is to only review above 3 stars. They say that negative reviews will not help me as an author and it also allows them the freedom to walk away from a book they may hate. No harm done, no bad feelings. I respect that approach, as neither of us is under pressure to write or read something we're not comfortable with.
    Having said all that, readers should be free to express their opinion about a book as long as they are constructively critical of the work and not using the review to take personal shots at the author. That's childish and disrespectful.

  23. Personally speaking, I think it's largely unprofessional to review other books in a similar genre to your own full stop, UNLESS you were a known and respected reviewer before you became a writer, and even then, it's dodgy. With megative reviews, at best you look mean, at worst it comes across as professional jealousy and spite, an attempt to crush another writer. And if the review is positive, people will assume you're friends and your opinion will count for less because of it, and could make the original author look like she's solicited your opinion.

    Reviewing other types of books is okay though. And despite the above, I have sometimes given a thumbs-up to a friend's book, because it can be very hard to avoid unless you're a total island. And of course many writers within a genre know each other and are friendly, so saying no to a request for a review can feel harsh. So sometimes it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

    I've had a few negative reviews from fellow authors. And my thoughts at the time are always unrepeatable. If you're going to review a book like that, I'd suggest doing it under another name not associated with your writing. That way you get your say, but without making the author feel bad or yourself look petty. Just make sure you're genuinely not doing it to be petty!!

  24. I think the answer to your question depends very much on how comfortable you are with expressing an opinion publicly and openly. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an author providing an honest review of another author’s work as long as it is professionally delivered and is not malicious. It is certainly not an unprofessional practice. After all who provides reviews in newspapers, literary journals, radio programmes? Predominately authors. For good reason: they generally read a lot and are well placed to judge the relative merits of a story or account. Their view holds value and validity.

    I am comfortable with reviewing openly, in part because my profession – university professor – explicitly involves expressing value judgements about other peoples’ ideas and work, and engaging in public debate and dialogue. I also work as a commissioning editor and have accepted or rejected well over a thousand pieces of work, liaising with other authors throughout the process. And occasionally I do media work, mostly radio and newspaper, including book reviews. The main thing is to provide constructive critique, highlighting the positives as well as negatives, not to deliver a destructive demolition or to make the review personal (which does not help either readers or authors).

    There may well be a very small number of authors who will react to a lukewarm review by disputing the review or providing a negative review in return. However, the vast majority of authors in my experience understand that their work will receive a range of critical appraisal and that there is a difference between the personal and professional. Moreover, they appreciate that they can learn from reviews and that a book is judged by the overall arc of reviews, not simply a single one. Most books published by mainstream presses end up with more than 10 reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and blogs and quickly find their ‘ratings level’. A single review makes relatively little difference to this overall level. As long as the review is honest and constructive, authors in my experience are happy to have another author review their work, even if their review is lukewarm. I've written over 400 reviews and I have never had an author suggest that I should not have reviewed their work because I was an author myself. In fact, the comments I have had welcome the perspective of another author.

    I’d prefer to provide the oxygen of a review than not review in fear of a reaction from an author who thinks that it is acceptable to act maliciously in response to honest, constructive critical appraisal.

    1. Thank you, sir, for being the voice of professional reason!

  25. I understand all points of view on here but the perspective of "I won't write a negative review simply because I don't want the revenge that may come to ruin my rep" is... unfortunately, very realistic, but it shouldn't be that way. We should be free to write honest reviews without repercussions. I can also see the POV of, "If I don't have anything nice to say I won't say anything at all because, as an indie writer myself, I know how much those negative reviews can hurt, even though you're doing your best." Okay, I see that too and maybe leaving no review is also an honest choice. Some writers, however, I wouldn't feel bad giving an honestly bad review because they had no qualms about artificially inflating their page with BS 5-star reviews that, after reading the material, you know simply cannot be honest.

    Let me relay a couple examples about my own experience.

    I also read an indie author's stuff that was at best 3-star work but was hesitant to leave a review for the very reason you mention: retaliation. It was quite obvious he had a host of friends come on and rave about how wonderful his books are (several 5-star praises that all came out the same day the book was published). Those same friends were also obviously called upon to refute and bully anyone who gave his work less than 4 stars. EVERY review that was 1-3 stars was commented on by various people (or aliases, as the case may be) who insulted that reviewer’s opinions and intelligence and badgered them for daring to think it was anything short of Pulitzer material. (How unprofessional and insecure can a writer be??)

    This made me want to review the book even more, of course, but since I also don’t have a puppet identity and I have books of my own on there, I was sure I’d have been launched against by his fleet of friends with several 1-stars on my own stuff. So I have yet to post my already written and saved review. Which, by the way, I was going to “round down to 2 stars” for exactly the reason above – because he felt the need to attack honest reviews of his work.

    I have also participated in a review swap with another author, in which I felt the need to say nicer things than I may have liked in order to prevent retaliation there too. I also noticed that while his book was much longer than mine and took more time for me to read, while mine was very short, my review went up first; no doubt him waiting to see how nice I was before writing a review of my work. We both gave the other 4 stars, though whether that was honest coincidence or careful politics is up for debate.

    The last aspect of this I'd like to mention is the writers' arms race. Some folks seem to have a fleet of friends and/or aliases that instantly bulk up their work with 5-star reviews, thus giving them an edge on sales and attracting readers. At least until enough people read it to publicly disagree, which we have just said we don't want to do for fear of retaliation, thus forcing us to either bulk up with fake and/or paid for reviews too or be left behind. Having few or no reviews makes your work look ignored by readers and "If no one else is reading their stuff there must be a reason." My books, for example, have virtually no reviews because I don't solicit them (and they haven't been up very long, or at least I hope that's why). As a result, I seem largely ignored, and maybe I therefore am ignored by some potential readers. So I face the same dilemma we all do: join the arms race, buy some nukes, or hope I can survive without them. I choose to survive without them and just hope that my tiny, honest island republic still gets invited to the UN someday.

    (wow, I wrote a lot...)


“I'm using my art to comment on what I see. You don't have to agree with it.” ~John Mellencamp

“Allowing an unimportant mistake to pass without comment is a wonderful social grace” ~Judith S. Marin

“I don't ever try to make a serious social comment.” ~Paul McCartney

“I'd make a comment at a meeting and nobody would even acknowledge me. Then some man would say the same thing and they'd all nod.” ~Charlotte Bunch

“Probably what my comment meant was that I don't care about the circumstances if I can tell the truth.” ~Sally Kirkland

“We're not going to pay attention to the silliness and the petty comments. And quite frankly, women have joined me in this effort, and so it's not about appearances. It's about effectiveness.” ~Katherine Harris