Sunday, 20 May 2012

Common Pitfalls Part 5: Obsessing over a bad review

Feedback - It's a marmite thing.

As authors, we both love and despise feedback. We're both the most egomaniacal people on the planet, but so insecure with it. We're arrogant enough to expect people to not only read our words, but pay for the privilege and enjoy it too. Every negative review is a huge kick in the teeth. Some authors struggle over a book for as much as a decade, and it really is like a child. You just want the best for it.

So it might seem a bit counter intuitive to say, but EVERY review adds value to your book. Even those that completely slate it. Of course, this comes with a caveat. Every review is valuable if the public don't already know about your eBook.

This isn't just me making up nonsense either - Professor Alan Sorenson of Stanford University says so too. He used three mini studies in making his assessment. He looked at 244 fiction titles printed from 2001-2003 (Yes, pre-eBook, so take it with a small dash of salt!). He measured post review sales spikes. Every single book getting a good review gained. Every single book by an obscure author gained as well.

Of course obscurity is an abstract concept. The theory behind it is that reading a bad review elicits two response:

1. Familiarity - you get some brand/ name recognition.
2. A negative response in relation to the comments

You gain if the former outweighs the latter. This involves looking at decay rates i.e. how quickly these two reactions fade. What Sorenson found was that familiarity had a longer shelf life than the negative connotations that went with it. Thus, if you aren't well known you gain more.

So, can we apply this print book study to eBooks? I think we can in a general sense. If a review gets you known then it's probably a good thing either way. The downside is that as indies we don't get reviews that get the exposure of the New York Times. An Amazon review might simply be seen by a few individuals looking for an instant eBook purchase, in which case the decay rate won't kick in within the time frame and thus the negative review might just be that. A negative review on a book blog or review site on the other hand can help increase awareness, so that when a prospective customer later sees your work for sale they think "I know that guy", and thus become more likely to buy.

The other major consideration here is Amazon metrics (as well as those for the other stores to a lesser extent). If a negative review is your only review, chances are it is much more damaging. A dozen good reviews can easily temper a bad one. I know I'll disregard the odd negative review if the general consensus is positive. We all know that some users troll, and authors sometimes resort to sabotage of competitor's books (which, if this is right ironically means they're probably helping us - Obscurity is an author's real fear!).

Amazon won't penalise you too much for a few bad reviews either. Sure, you won't be right at the top if someone sorts by high to low average review, but those perfect 5 star averages never last anyway. All we can do is make sure we produce the best book possible, and target the right market to get our books seen by those predisposed to like them.

After that the book will sink or swim on its own merits.


  1. Well, you may be the first to mention what I've long suspected: that some negative reviews, at least, are planted--either for trolling pleasure or to tank a rival's career...or perhaps even to settle an old personal score. There's no sure defense against this, of course. We need to tough it out and do our best until the tide turns in our favor.

  2. Amazon do remove reviews if you can prove they are put up in bad faith - but it's not an easy one to prove. Sometimes a bad review can appear malicious but simply be because the book wasn't for that particular author.

    There is a small minority that attempt deliberate sabotage - and the worst ones even buy the book first, post a verified review... Then claim a refund. The smartest will include a minor positive comment too - Amazon won't interfere if the review is balanced. All we can do is vote them down for usefulness, and hope readers realise that some reviews are false.

  3. I've had a bad one removed! It was from a delightful little troll who'd been trying to goad me into an argument on Twitter all day; she couldn't so, doubtless in frustration, she wrote a whole bunch of slanderous stuff in a review in the early hours of the morning, instead.

    I've got about 10% bad reviews. All except one are from people for whom it wasn't their cup of tea, only one is actually venomous - she went to the trouble of reading both my books before deciding that they were awful. A quick look down her 'wish list' was very satisfying; it included books like 'The A-Z of creative writing' and 'How to write a best seller in a month', or similar. Yes, she was smart and included a minor positive comment!

    The best books get bad reviews. I agree with what you said - I think the "I know that guy" thing works. Main point being that this book was sufficiently well known and widely read to get a load of reviews in the first place.

    I've given bad reviews in the past; I probably wouldn't, now, because I wouldn't wish that 'reading a bad review' experience on anyone. Now, if I don't think a book is much cop I just don't say anything. It's a bit like a film or telly prog; if it's not your cup of tea, just switch it off. Unless it's really bad following much hype, or you have a personal grudge, of course. Which brings me back to the beginning of this comment, I guess!

  4. Every book will get a number of negatives from 'I don't like this genre/ the way this book uses violence/ this style of dialogue etc' types. I think most readers know that. It's a shame they bring down the average rating, but I do wonder if we have ourselves to blame for marketing too widely. Freebies often accentuate this - you don't generally invest money in something you know you probably won't like... but many will 'buy' a free ebook in a genre they never read.

    I honestly don't know why you'd read multiple books from an author you don't like. If it's a style I can't get on with, I generally realise in about 5 minutes. Still, 10% isn't too bad at all.

    Well known books don't benefit from bad reviews - they already have the familiarity, so the negatives outweigh the positive. Good books do get slated when they hit top lists - they gain visibility, and become subject to trolls/ jealousy and more of the 'I don't like this genre, but bought it because it had ten million good review' types.

    I try not to do too many reviews - the good ones look like mutual back patting, and the bad ones look like sabotage. Instead I'll point out the flaws privately if I can. I personally really appreciate it if someone takes the time to tell me about a typo, or a formatting issue, or a phrase they didn't like.

    Obviously I'm not going to change my writing style for one complaint - no book pleases everyone all the time, but if there is enough commonality then I'll re-examine the stylistic stuff.

  5. Agree - I appreciate the pointing out of a typo, etc. When done privately! I usually only review books I love, because I want other people to join in my enjoyment of them. And because I have loved so much getting wonderful reviews from more or less anonymous strangers that I want to do the same for other writers - however well-known they are, it must still be really fab!

  6. It's a nice ego stroke - it definitely puts a smile on my face to read a good review. Not sure it's too good for my ego though - the constructive private stuff is much more useful for improvement purposes (but, as a complete novice who just wrote one story and then arrogantly put it up for sale, I'm more than fair game for the critiscism.).