Some people on the internet refuse to write or publish “negative” book reviews. They claim the writing world is a community, that every book took a lot of effort and tears from its author, and to “support” each other, we shouldn’t air our concerns or disappointments with another’s work.
The problem with that is that this community is about more than patting each other on the back, or smiling politely at something we think is sub-par. And we’re more than just writers – the readers who consume our work have a right to receive the best possible product we as writers can supply!
How do “bad book reviews” serve that purpose? Let’s break it down by who is benefitted by critical reviews: the reader, and the author.
Self-publishing has exploded the number of available books for readers of all genres. Tragic vampire romance, portal fantasy, historical time-travel, sci-fi detective, you name it! (Well, I haven’t seen many sci-fi detectives yet.)
We’re drowning in books. There are over 471,000 on Smashwords alone, which doesn’t include all the “Kindle Unlimited” books published exclusively on Amazon! How is a reader going to find the worthwhile reads among all that content?
One word. Reviews.
Here Be (Friendly) Dragons
Positive reviews are the lifeblood of books. Those four- and five-star reviews signal to other readers, “Hey, this book is worth your 99¢/three bucks/five bucks, and –” more importantly “–this book is WORTH YOUR TIME TO READ!”
Readers are busy people, too! Their lives are worth more than wading through a glut of bad writing. When someone finds a winning book, and takes the two minutes to let the rest of the world know Yes! I found a keeper! we all benefit 😊
Here Be Wyrms
But what about the duds? What about the books that you drop after Chapter 3? The ones you wish you’d never wasted time on, or you forgot that you even read (there’s a bookmark in here, but did I really make it that far?!), the ones that really don’t make the cut.
Some books are quicksand. Some are riptides. And some are just…well…really bland. All these things need little warning signs (or sometimes great big warning signs) to protect others from going down that same path. And who doesn’t want to warn your fellow readers?
Hey! I totally wasn’t expecting that much language!
I realize this is a spy novel, but the death scenes weren’t my cup of tea.
Coy girl on the cover = romance. RUN!!!
Notice that none of these comments are:
The author is stupid.
The book is stupid.
The characters are stupid; after watching her evil uncle knife the chancellor, she really should have figured out he was the bad guy.
Except…that last one, we’re giving the reason that we concluded the character was stupid, based on their actions in the book. Everyone has different tastes, and I’m not talking about ripping apart authors and their work for the sake of being a jerk.
What did I like? What didn’t work for me? Could I keep believing in the story all the way through? WHY? Would I recommend this to other people?
Answering these questions with candor and openness helps the reviewer organize their own thoughts and informs other book-fans about what books they might enjoy – or which books they wouldn’t enjoy, because of their own personal tastes.
Often, the reviews I enjoy reading the most are the three-star ones, where the reviewer admits which parts of the book they enjoyed, but feels free to explain where they were disappointed, where they were taken out of the story, or where they disagreed with where the narrative went.
If reviewers don’t feel free to express that honesty (because they’re “letting the team down” somehow, etc.) we all lose something.
Yes, even authors.
While it might seem nice to enjoy unadulterated praise, with nothing but positive reviews on all our books, the truth is that none of us is perfect. We all need to grow.
Plants Don’t Thrive Unless Watered
We’re here to write good stories, right? Making money from our writing, and being loved and admired for our work, are both nice – but I think making either of those things the focus will diminish both our enjoyment and the essential quality of our work.
We’re here to give our audiences fantastic experiences, entertain, enlighten, and engage, and leave them with something that will go with them the rest of their lives.
But, as I said before, none of us comes out of the womb spouting Shakespeare. We have to learn, practice, grow, practice, develop, practice, study under smarter teachers, and practice. While a good editing team and reliable beta readers are indispensable (fancy word for Don’t Skip This Step), reviews can be just as valuable for pointing out what we’re doing right, what people are pulling out of our work, and what still needs improvement.
Case In Point
Let me illustrate.
Once upon a time, I read a middle-grade portal fantasy, and wrote a…well, a scathing review. Somehow (I don’t know how, since it was only published on my blog), the author found that review and contacted me for more information.
Because of that, I was able to further refine and define my opinions, she issued a new edition of her book, and I even had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Book 7 in the same series.
Had I never put my opinion out there, she would never have had the feedback that I could uniquely express – and had she not been gracious enough to ignore my bluntness, humble enough to admit she was immature, and eager enough to work hard at refining her craft, she would never have progressed in the way that she did.
Of course, she had other “teachers”. When I read her seventh book, it was already more engaging, smooth, nuanced, and emotional than the first book. Her editors, family, and other readers all played a role in helping her become a better and better writer.
If I had kept my big trap shut (and stuck to publishing “positive” reviews) we would never have formed this relationship, she would have missed out on my insights (which she claims are very illuminating!), I would never have been forced to spell out (in specific language) why I had a negative emotional experience with her book, and both our writing careers would have suffered.
Writers/Authors must always be learning. We must always be studying. Don’t get caught in your feedback loop of people who love your book and dare not say anything “hurtful” about it!
If we’re too proud to admit that crank on Goodreads found a flaw in our plot, or that troll on Twitter noticed that our characters all sound exactly the same, we’ll never progress in our craft, and we’ll keep churning out…well, quicksand.
And the rest of the world will thank the reviewers who warn them away from us.
Mockery Can Be Fun!
Can it be depressing? Sure. Some people suggest that when this depression hits you, to go read the negative reviews of greats such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (I’ve never done this, but it will prove even Tolkien can’t please everybody.) If you like your vitriol tempered with sarcasm, you can also watch Honest Trailers – which isn’t books, but still shows you some people will pick apart perfectly enjoyable stories (parental guidance suggested!).
I’m not saying, “Go smear all the authors you’re most jealous of!” Obviously not. We’re all smart enough to understand that.
I also realize that it can be hard, in the heat of disgust, to separate which emotion comes from the story, which from the format, which from your incredulity that the author could make money from this dreck, etc. etc. But to offer a true service to readers and writers alike, we must keep away from:
I can’t believe this knucklehead author can tie her shoes in the morning; the protagonist sure can’t!
and focus on:
I didn’t enjoy ____, because ______.
_____ felt unrealistic to me, because _____.
That’s the kind of logical, calm, constructive criticism that everyone needs – in every part of life.
Level Heads Needed
Writers, of all people, understand how stories are put together, understand how characters are created, understand all the work that goes into writing a book – and thus are best suited for offering the kind of review that will help other authors learn, grow, develop, and become better writers.
I, for one, am not jumping on the “we’re a team” bandwagon. My team is bigger than the authors slapping each other on the back because we’re too polite to confront your sappy prose or stupid world-building. I’m about “getting real” – with other authors, with readers, with myself. Sometimes the things I complain about in other books are mistakes I’ve made in my own work. I need this, too.
So don’t let the Sweetness and Light Police convince you to keep those valuable insights to yourself. We need that feedback, even if it stings for a moment. In the end, it’ll make us stronger, and make our books better.
Those who know her best think she’s sweet and quiet, until one of the rare times when she voices her opinion.
She currently lives somewhere in the American Midwest, bracing for the collapse of society by writing novels, knitting hats, baking cookies…and other excuses for not gardening.