This week’s question is pretty detailed, and since I’ve seen these conversations going on as well, it intrigued me. The reader said, “In online reader groups, there is an ongoing debate about whether or not it’s okay to leave negative reviews. Those who believe it’s not okay often advocate emailing or messaging authors directly with criticisms of their work, so they can improve future writing. How do authors view such a practice?”
Amy Lokkesmoe (formerly Green) here, fiction publicist at Bethany House, trying to give a good answer to this tough one. I’m not sure what approach I would have taken when I was “just a reader” and hadn’t yet started working in publishing. There are good intentions on both sides, and I can completely understand where people are coming from.
You should also know that just like no book will please every reader, no answer to this question will be right for every situation. I can, though, share from my experience and from what I’ve heard authors say.
The Author Perspective
While authors may not like negative reviews (who would?), most understand that reviews are there from readers for other readers. The pros know that someone leaving a criticism of their book isn’t the same as someone insulting them, their character, or their mom (unless it is, more on that later). Readers are trying to help other readers know when to spend or save their money based on their experience with a book.
Some authors, knowing this, avoid reviews altogether. Others have a writing buddy sift through them to pull out any repeated comments so they can improve their writing without having to directly read the (sometimes blunt) reactions to something they put their heart and soul into. They know themselves, and they wisely decide what they can and can’t handle.
Here’s the thing: if a reader directly messages an author, that takes away the author’s ability to make that decision. They can’t have someone else screen it first to find what they think would be helpful rather than hurtful. They can’t choose to look at it on a day when they’re feeling good and have distance from their work. They can’t disagree with the person writing the message, because anything they might say, even politely, will sound defensive.
It’s just there, in their inbox on Facebook or email, waiting for a response. And it’s pretty difficult to think of a good response to someone who, even graciously, told you they didn’t like your book and that you could do better next time when you didn’t request that feedback.
For these reasons, many authors would prefer that readers not send them critical messages directly, especially if that’s the main/only purpose behind writing to them. Same thing with tagging an author in a negative review or posting it to their social media page.
Again, this isn’t true for everyone. A few authors welcome that kind of critique…but there’s no way to know which author will take your note and say, “That fits with other things I’ve heard, better work on that,” and which ones will have no idea how to respond to you and also cry because they’re so invested in the book you just criticized.
So…What Should Readers Do?
- Don’t be mean. This is probably why some people don’t like leaving public negative reviews—they’ve seen ones that felt personal and harsh. There are many ways to mention something you didn’t like about a book without being unkind. And there’s no cause whatsoever to get personal in your negative review and call names.
- Consider not leaving a review. This especially applies if you didn’t finish a book because you realized that it wasn’t your thing (too much war and you like feel-good reads, the narrator’s first-person voice grated on you, you didn’t realize it was going to have a particular kind of content). Or if you’ve disliked the author’s other books and hoped this one was different, and it wasn’t. If you know you’re not the target audience for the book, your review might not help readers who searched for the book because they actually are.
- View one-star reviews as a way to warn people away from buying a book. I’ve personally never bought a book that fits this category, but I’m sure others have. This one is my personal opinion; your mileage may vary.
- Leave a tactful critical review. If you want to help out fellow book-buyers and just didn’t enjoy a book or thought it had flaws that made it uninteresting, I’d suggest an explanation of why it wasn’t for you. You can mention any positives, but at least be polite about the negatives. This will be helpful to other readers.
- Generally, don’t message authors directly with criticisms of their book, even if your goal is to help them improve. For all the reasons I just mentioned, it’s rarely as helpful as you want it to be. Instead, I’d suggest you…
- Find ways to help authors improve their books through other means. If you’re a reader who finds you have a lot of advice to give on how to improve books, I’d suggest taking that passion (which is awesome, by the way) and seeing if you can be a beta reader for authors. There are Facebook groups where authors look for early readers to point out plot problems at a stage where they can actually fix them, and if this is your drive, that might be a good fit for you.
That’s my two cents, readers. Do you have thoughts or follow-up questions about this?