In Praise of (One or Two) Negative Reviews

A very interesting discussion is taking place over at where Irene Watson (22 Jan 2012) posed the question: Is asking bloggers not to post negative reviews ethical? It’s an interesting question, and I didn’t realize until reading the post and subsequent discussion that many established book review services, including Kirkus, which advertises itself as the “world’s toughest book critics,” give authors and publishers the option to squash negative reviews. I’m of two minds, but the bottom line is that while it may not be unethical to ask a blogger or reviewer to withhold a negative review it’s not very smart.

If we look at book reviews from a pure marketing angle, it’s tempting to say that only positive reviews have value. Indeed, one of my goals as an author is to write such a good book that I maximize the number of good reviews. And certainly a negative review in the New York Times, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc. won’t help sales of your book (or your ego). But a negative review (or two) in many other places, particularly and barnes & noble, is not necessarily bad. In fact, it might help (as long as they are balanced with positive reviews) by adding legitimacy to the power and emotional content of your book.

On the other hand, it’s a rare book where a book review, let alone a negative one, determines its fate in the market place. Bad books rarely do well regardless of how they are reviewed by the literary intelligentsia in the major media or the more grounded new voices in the blogosphere or on They do poorly because they are bad books. Good books usually fail because of a poorly developed or executed marketing plan (including distribution). In a few cases, a book may be “before its time,” but I think that’s less the case now in the today’s publishing environment. (I’m not saying that all books can become best sellers, just that they can do well by reasonable and modest metrics: See my post here and here for more on this subject.)

Nevertheless, book reviews are crucial for crafting marketing plans and, when they are both good and from reputable sources, legitimizing your work. So, we can’t (and shouldn’t) be too dismissive.

But back the real question. As a matter of principle, and now a matter of practice, I never ask reviewers to withhold their opinions, no matter how stinging they might be (and I’ve had my books trashed by many who disagree with them over the years). I do this mainly because I believe it is essential to preserve the integrity of the review process; in other words, I want readers to know that the reviewer was honest in their opinion about the book. In fact, one book review service once published a very positive review of an earlier book, but I subsequently found out the reviewer wasn’t all that excited about it. I no longer use that service because I don’t trust them.

Honest book reviews, including (or particularly) negative reviews, serve other purposes for authors as well, including:

  • Identifying themes, plot points, and characters that resonate with readers;

  • Identifying strong and weak aspects of storytelling and analysis (for nonfiction);

  • Validating the book among potential readers (too much praise looks fishy to a prospective book buyer, particularly at reader-driven sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble);

  • Shaping the story and message of future books if you a personally or professionally vested in the subject or story.
So, in sum, a good book should generate plenty of good reviews, but a few negative reviews may actually end up helping you as an author, and even sales of your book, in the long run.

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