Ask Bethany House: Do You Hate One-Star Reviews?

This month’s Ask Bethany House question takes a look at a somewhat-controversial subject: “As a publicist who works with reviewers, do you ever get mad when you see one-star reviews of your authors’ books?”

So, let me first note that while I love my Bethany House authors, I have a good deal more objectivity when it comes to reading negative reviews than the authors themselves. After all, I didn’t spend months (or even years) of my life lovingly crafting a fictional world and putting imaginary people through trauma to get to a happy ending.

To give you a glimpse behind their side of the desk, I’ve heard of authors who…

  • Don’t ever read reviews to avoid obsessing over them.
  • Find one-star reviews normal and sometimes even hilarious.
  • Feel completely crushed and stressed out when they first read a scathing review.
  • Ask a friend to read bad reviews and pass on any reoccurring themes that might be helpful as they write the next book.
  • Love to read five-star and one-star reviews of their books and others’ because it gives the whole spectrum of who the book’s audience is (and isn’t).

Back to the actual question. I admit, I’ve gone through pretty much all of those stages when it comes to our authors’ books. Where I’ve landed is this: not every book is for every person. That’s just the way it’s going to be, and one-star reviews are evidence of that.

Sure, there are times when reviewers will make a completely unsubstantiated claim or reveal that they were biased against the book from the start…but clearly, they weren’t the intended audience for the book in the first place, and if they want to disclose that to the Internet as a whole, fine by me. It’s only in an environment where people feel able to say anything about a book that you can trust the praise of glowing, five-star reviews.

(Although one clarification: I always recommend that book reviewers keep it classy and refrain from making harsh generalizations or personal attacks on the author. There’s a difference between critical and mean.)

To prove my point—one-star reviews are necessary and even a little bit fun—below are excerpts from one-star Amazon reviews of award-winning Christian fiction…along with some commentary by me. (To be taken in good fun. Sometimes authors need to laugh at these so they don’t cry!) I’m leaving the titles off for all the authors out there who might still be a bit sensitive to these words. But trust me, these authors are all highly regarded and for each book included, there were hundreds of four- and five-star reviews.

“The chapters were a combination of jarring, illogical ‘bad’ events interrupting a dry litany of ‘Old West’ chores and Christian ‘values.’”
Hmm…how to respond? At least the “bad” events kept things interesting?

“Formulaic. Too easy to predict. Less of a historical piece and more of just a disguised romance novel.”
[Another one-star for the same book] “This was classified as a romance novel and it just doesn’t seem like one to me. Nice story, wrong genre.”
This just goes to show that it’s impossible to pick a genre categorization that everyone will find perfectly describes a book.

“I struggled with the whole book (since i paid $10 for it i had to try to get through it) and at the last few chapters I just didn’t care how it all ended so finally stopped reading. I’m mad that there are so many good reviews & that I spent so much on it.”
The number of times people commented on why they were the only negative review among hundreds of positive ones made me laugh.

“There seems to be a new trend of ‘christian’ novels hiding amongst the regular secular novels. I think it would be helpful if these books were properly identified so that those who do not want to read this propaganda can avoid it in future.”
Amazon category: Christian Books->Fiction. Back cover copy mentions character’s faith, interior reviews describe author as an inspirational fiction writer. Quote before the first chapter is an actual Bible verse. If we’re “hiding” our Christian novels, we really need to take remedial stealth courses.

[The entire one-star review] “I received this book but did Not order it….why?”
Hmm…giving the author a low rating to complain about getting an unexpected free book. Why? (Things like this and complaints about Amazon-related issues like delivery always perplex me as reviews.)

[For a book labeled as a historical drama] “More of a drama than a romance. I thought it was to depressing.”
Again, the read-the-genre-tags issue.

“I don’t like her style, I don’t like the book. Some characters don’t have any relevancy in the story. Easy she can eliminate three chapters.”
At this point, the editor is probably wondering which three.

“The writing could use some help. I had to go back and reread some sentences to try and make sense of them. For example, the author would talk about female characters for 2 sentences, and then start the third with ‘he.’ Who’s he?! Then I’d go back in text to see you the heck ‘he’ might be. That, to me, is too much work for leisure reading.”
Okay, I see how this might be a minor quibble…but would that really ruin an entire book?

“This book isn’t worth the ink and paper it was printed on.”
Do you actually know how much the ink and paper is worth? Not actually that much, surprisingly. Most of the cost of the book goes toward the editorial, marketing, production, printing, and distribution expenses associated with publishing. In fact, this is why the price of ebooks typically starts the same as their print counterparts despite the fact that the physical copy has… Oh wait…you weren’t asking for more information to make a cost-benefit assessment of the book? Sorry about that. This is awkward.

“The 363 pages don’t contain enough substance for a decent 3 page short story.”
Is that three page story double- or single-spaced? Because I feel like that would make a difference.

“Equal parts pedestrian and irritating. Glad I checked it out of the library instead of buying it.”
I have to ask: what makes you so irritated that you leave an Amazon review for a book that cost you absolutely nothing instead of just returning it unfinished?

[On a straight-up historical novel] “If you love history then by all means rad this book. If you’re looking for a love story, forget it.”
I’m glad you addressed the actual intended audience for this book. That should help the right readers find it.

“Almost every paragraph someone would be shrugging, particularly the heroine. Very annoying.”
Well, not everyone’s going to care for this book, I guess. *Shrugs*

“didn’t like the story gave up after a few pages medioka what more is there to say don’t recommend it”
MEDIOKA! This is my new favorite non-word that I want to start applying to everything.

Let’s start a discussion: do you ever leave negative reviews of books you didn’t like? (Or books that were just “medioka”?) If so, how do you handle them? If not, why not?

46 thoughts on “Ask Bethany House: Do You Hate One-Star Reviews?

  1. My favorite one-star review was given because Amazon sent an e-mail asking the buyer if she wanted to leave a review and that e-mail annoyed her so much she did. One star with a note about how annoying Amazon is.

    I honestly don’t mind one-star reviews. They let folks know someone other than my mother and close friends actually read the book! If I ever get to feeling bad, I just go read Francine Rivers’ one-star reviews 😉

  2. I have left a negative review on NetGalley for a book 2 that was very “medioka” after a stellar book 1. I try to always be kind when I review a book I don’t like. I try to find a quote or character that I like. Sometimes, I say what I think others might like in the book.
    I think Amazon is part of the problem of bad reviews. They send emails asking “what did you think of …? or Review these items.” I’ve read many 1 star reviews that say, “I haven’t read this book yet”

    • Seems like a good strategy to me, Andrea! And you’re right…I love what Amazon is trying to do by encouraging reviews, but you’d think people would know those emails only apply when you’ve read the book!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  3. I try really hard to not leave a poor review. But I also do this amazing thing of reading books in genres and by authors I like. Hmmm, that seems to keep this reader happy. And if I do step outside of my happy place, I research the book first to see if I will like it. These cracked me today! Thanks for sharing and loved your commentary on the reviews.

    • I highly recommend avoiding books you already know you won’t like. 🙂 And the Internet makes that kind of research nice and easy. Good thoughts, Bree!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  4. Wow, I’m a little surprised by the mocking tone of this post.

    I get what you’re saying but then you began to mock some of these reviews. “You the heck,” is clearly a typo.

    While no identifiers are given, I still find the the sarcasm in poor taste.

    Mock away with a trusted friend. No need to bring it to the internet.

    I’m sad to say that I lost a little respect with the tone of this article.

    • Hi Kristin,

      This was meant to be read in a “if-you-don’t-laugh-you’d-cry” sort of tone…apologies if it offended you! I’ve found the best way to keep authors from being upset by negative/mean reviews is to make light of the whole thing and put it in perspective, but I also understand that humor is very subjective and doesn’t always come across in the tone we intend.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

      • I understand but I personally have received multiple inboxes from friends this morning letting me know that this is why they won’t leave reviews. Even a few, “Very mean-spirited for a Christian publisher.”

        I have always been a supporter of Bethany House Publishing. It hurts me to know friends are upset by this or even considering beingg “done,” with reviews because of things of this nature.

        I totally get reading reviews and wondering what the person was thinking. But I also understand how disappointing to feel as if your review may someday be mocked.

        • That’s a helpful perspective, Kristin, and I appreciate you sharing it with me. (I tried to tone down some of the sarcasm in the article accordingly and will not quote from reviews in that way in future blog posts.) Authors who treat one-star reviews as “the end of the world” might need to laugh at them (and that was what I was trying to encourage), but I certainly don’t want to give the impression that readers should be afraid to post negative reviews for books they didn’t enjoy. Again, thank you for your helpful criticism.

  5. My thoughts are actually similar to Sarah Sundin’s when I am considering the purchase of a book written by an unfamiliar author. I like to get perspective. I struggle more, as a reviewer, with the discrepancy of the “star descriptions” between review sites. So hopefully between their stars and my words, a reader can make an educated decision. Great post!!!! (** on a side note, some of the five star reviews are pretty humorous as well, with their hyperbolic “gushing”. )

    • I never thought about the relative value of stars between sites…so interesting! And I like the idea of including some gushing reviews from five-stars in the future. Thanks, Rebecca!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. Interesting observations. I think this post makes a good point that, based on what you read in some negative reviews, those readers could save themselves both time and disappointment if they were more attentive to things like genre listings. In some cases, you begin a book with hopeful expectations, having been drawn to it for a variety of reasons, only to discover it simply isn’t for you. When this has been my experience, I typically don’t leave a review because either I didn’t complete the book or I consider a review of “this story simply wasn’t for me” not terribly helpful. But I understand how negative reviews can be helpful, perhaps leading authors to discover things about their writing they may wish to improve in some way. As a reader, I do appreciate reviews, both the positive and negative, that can state in somewhat objective terms reasons why the book thrilled or disappointed. The negative reviews that both amuse and baffle me are those where a reader has such an opposite reaction as my own, to the extent I find myself wondering “did we read the same book?”. I know personal taste plays a big part in reader preference and enjoyment, but sometimes it surprises me how two readers can experience a story so differently.

    • Yes, Michelle, that phenomenon of reading a review that felt the opposite way than you did on every point is so fascinating! It goes to show that authors will never be able to please everyone.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. As a voracious reader, I do look at the star ratings before I read a new author. But I often find that the one-stars are often petty, and they rarely dissuade me. If I don’t have something positive to say about a book, then I say nothing – (only once have I made an exception, and even then I gave the book 3 stars – it was long but riveting, until the last fifth of the book when the main character went completely, nonsensically off the cliff – it’s like I had suddenly started readng a new book, and there were many other readers who were expressing the same sentiments). A lot of those one-star ratings are definitely humorous, though, and many need to be taken with a grain of salt.

  8. It cracks me up when the vast majority of one-star reviews are complaints that the book is “Christian.” If that’s the worst thing people can complain about, then I have to assume that they’re spectacular books.

    I have left 2 single-star reviews on goodreads (I try to be discerning in my choices of reading material to avoid using such ratings). But one-star or two-star, I have agonized over making sure the reviews are respectful, even if I really disliked the book. I don’t attack the author, just make clear what turned me off.

    • Sounds like a good policy, Rachael! As to people annoyed at Christian content, I love the reviews that say they enjoyed the story despite not being a person of faith. And so I guess you can’t have one without the other!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  9. One of my favorite 1 star reviews….[written about a book set in 1912 England] “This is the worst Regency book I have ever read. Nothing like Jane Austen.” Ya….well….that’s because it’s Edwardian. The cars and cameras didn’t give that away? Haha! As a reader, I tend to steer clear of reviews on retail sites. It BAFFLES me how Christian readers, reading Christian books, written by Christian authors….can tear down and degrade an author. It is heartbreaking and appalling. But there are some funny ones….i admit. If a book wasn’t to my liking. I am as honest as I can be while still trying to be nice. And, I always point out the things I DID like.

    • Haha, love it! The things people don’t pick up on sometimes. I think maybe it’s a good idea to avoid reading those sorts of reviews, especially for authors. Although I did like the idea of having a “second reader” pick through them for anything useful!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  10. My rule as a reviewer is to contact the author first if I can’t leave a 3, 4, or 5 star review. I do understand that some 1 star reviews are beneficial, which is why I privately explain what I feel to the author in a personal email. I don’t like the meanness out there, and I refuse to add to it. That’s just my personal way of reviewing.

  11. This is a rather mean and sarcastic post. I doubt Amazon, who holds copyright to reviews made on its website, would approve of their content being used to put down their users.

    • Hi Amanda,

      As I told another reader, I’m sorry if it came across that way! My intention was to give authors (and readers) a way to “lighten up” about negative reviews and not take them as serious crushing blows.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  12. I have yet to leave a one start review. I was taught to always say something nice. Nothing is 100% awful. I was also taught the difference between pointing out what you dislike and slamming the author through a nightmare. When I do leave a three star review, I like to point out that while it may not have been my cuppa, it will probably appeal to other people. Be respectful, that’s my rule. And seriously, if the book is horrid enough to deserve a one star review, why on earth did you waste your time finishing it?

  13. I find this post troubling. Mocking people is distasteful in any light, but looks worse coming from a Christian organization. It also makes it hard to post honest reviews if people are going to be hypercritical of them whether five or one star. There are so many worthwhile things that Bethany House could post on, this isn’t one of them.

    • Hi Amy,

      We’ve taken these comments into consideration and tried to remove some of the sarcasm. It wasn’t intended to be mockery, just a coping mechanism for authors who take these reviews too seriously and let them devastate them. Sorry that it came across the way it did!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

    • I feel the same way, Amy. I feel like this just adds to the growing fear that I’ve seen some reviewers share that if they leave a less than 4 star review, they will be attacked. I’ve seen reviewers be attacked on Amazon and on blogging groups for leaving 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews. No one should be attacked for leaving a review, least of all respectful people who are leaving an honest opinion.

      • Thanks, Jami. I think that’s good to keep in mind. I certainly don’t want to attack reviewers…but I realize there’s a fine line between that and finding humor in the fact that you can’t please everyone. The latter was what I was aiming for, but I do understand why especially reviewers might object to that.

  14. Love this post and your comments! Thank you for a great blog as always! I try and write my negative reviews as if the author is in front of me, I still offer the truth as I perceive it but have changed many a harsh word because it!

  15. I’m going to start a heavy metal band and name it MEDIOKA. Our first hit will be the smash “this TAPIOKA is MEDIOKA”. We’re going to be geared to toddlers and people who can actually get tapioca past their lips.
    No, I could NOT leave that alone.
    Yes, I was too in a band named Green Slime. For real.
    I never leave nasty or even remotely negative reviews. I’ve had enough truly mean comments come my way (yes, I’m a writer) that I will not engage in anything that hurts another writer. Do I want to snark back at the people who leave mean reviews? For sure! But do I? No, because it’s like pouring oil on a fire. Unless the comments get personal and cross the line, then I might be persuaded to let a little of my red-headed fire light the page in defense of the writer.

  16. I’ve been told by several different authors and “experts” that all reviews, even the negative ones, help authors and readers. I have been leaving reviews for every book I read, whether I liked it or not, whether I bought it or borrowed it from the library. I always try to end on a good note. Your question seems to infer that we shouldn’t write reviews unless they’re favorable. What ever happened to honesty? Now, no, no one should rip up the author to shreds or name-call or personally attack them or their work. But aren’t we free to honestly share our opinions, even if we don’t agree–as long as it’s done graciously and with the motive of trying to help the author get better at writing and marketing?

    • I’ve known authors say that very thing–that good and bad reviews can be helpful. With the FTC cracking down on reviews, reviewers, and companies who work with reviewers, I feel that reviewers need to be allowed to say their opinion without commentary from others. There’s a fine line there, and no one wants to be penalized.

    • Hi Lila! (And Jami) Great points. I think a lot of the bloggers commenting are reflecting their personal preference against writing negative reviews. When I asked “How do you handle them?” I was assuming that there is a good way to write a negative review, and I think you covered the bases pretty well: stating your critique without attacking the author personally. Obviously, other readers can and will disagree with negative reviews of their favorites, but not every book is for every reader!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  17. You know this really is discouraging to reviewers out there who try to give honest reviews. If we can’t leave a review without wondering whether a publishing company’s publicists are going to mock it is sad. Especially in Christian fiction, and yet you keep excusing your post saying you posted it to encourage authors. Well here’s a thought maybe sending those authors who received a one star review this post privately instead of jeopardizing your review program.Seriously someone over this publicist should make the call to ax this post. Very sad, and yet Christians stand around wondering why the world mocks us. It is because our own tears us down.

    • Hi Cindy,

      Other people at Bethany House read this post after I asked them to review it, given the negative comments. They said that while they wouldn’t have realized it was offensive, it clearly came across in a different tone than it was intended, and so they asked that I remove the passages that people most objected to, and I’ve done so. Again, it was never my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings, and I apologize that it has done so for you.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  18. But the posts are still here. I can still easily google search these quotes. The heart of it is still there. This is shaming negative reviews, period. The fact that Bethany House can’t just apologize and admit that this should have gone to the authors privately is very frustrating and disappointing.

    Admit you goofed. We all do.

  19. My favorite 1-star review is the one someone gave my youth fantasy book that said, “Too much juicy sex.”

    WHAT???? Snort. Yeah. I’m the gal who wrote a much anticipated first kiss with such discretion that many readers MISSED it. But man, I put some juicy sex (do I even want to know what that is?) in a children’s book. I’ve got issues?

  20. I would think the one star reviews, if written with actual facts about the book, would be helpful to the authors, especially if the author finds their negative reviews are on the increase. Some reviews are ridiculous, yes, but others that are critical might be the reviewer’s way of saying they are hoping for more Christianity, more history, more depth to a story. It’s disappointing when we hope for some enjoyment and fulfillment from an expected good read, only to be let down. Just my opinion.
    Romans 10:8-13; John 3:16-21

  21. I don’t think I’ve ever left a one-star review. It’s simple to find at least something worth complimenting. One-star reviews aren’t what I go by when choosing a book to read, though. It would be nice if Goodreads and Amazon had similar star ratings, though! On Goodreads 2 stars means “It was ok” (have used this one) but on Amazon, 2 stars means “I don’t like it.” I will say, though, that if I don’t know who “he” is, and I have to go figure it out several times, that would affect my enjoyment of the story.

    Your post did not come across as offensive at all to me. It’s clearly lighthearted and meant as funny banter between people in the book world.

  22. Situations like two women talking and then an unidentified “he” appearing, if more than once or at the very most twice, very likely could ruin a book for me. Repetitive phrases (such as too much shrugging) would bother me, too. Neither type seems like a well-written book. I remember one book where the main main character kept “centering” herself. Use of such a term more than once in a book is weird, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.