Ask BHP: Should Readers Leave Negative Reviews or Contact the Author?

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?

24 thoughts on “Ask BHP: Should Readers Leave Negative Reviews or Contact the Author?

  1. I have always looked at reviews on Amazon before deciding to purchase a book. It usually has a good balance of comments and reviews. But this morning I was looking at Stay With Me because I have recently read the book and offered a review. There was one reviewer that basically sliced Becky’s book to shreds. Which I thought was unfair. The book and story was good. Very good. Yet this person found almost everything lacking. And the thing is, she was the only very negative voice. As a reader I read for enjoyment. I love to get lost in a good book and be entertained. I’m not there to dissect the writers ability. Yes there have been books that I wasn’t completely thrilled with, but I always try to find some bit of interest if I must leave a review. I think it is unfair for someone to leave such harsh comments. If that person feels they are a professional reviewer (gets paid to review) they should take their review to a place where that criticism would do the most good. Not where regular readers search to learn about the book and author.

    • Hi Jocelyn,

      You’re describing something I think we’ve all seen: a good book that one reader really didn’t like, for reasons we can’t always understand. It’s not fun. That said…it says quite a bit to readers looking at reviews when there are only a few critical voices in the reviews. Obviously, it’s still good to be gracious when reviewing, but when some readers aren’t, others looking at the review can usually see that they’re the exception. Love your heart for authors!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  2. I completely agree with you on this! As a huge book reviewer, I have a lot of people ask why I’ll post negative reviews (with kindness and tact ALWAYS) and why not just contact the author since I was already in touch with them to begin with. You covered a lot of my opinions on the topic, plus, I gave my word to write an honest review, not a promise to only write a review if I liked the book. A lot of my followers know what I’m reading, when I’m reading it (that’s part of being a “bookstagrammer” and “book blogger”), and they will want to know my thoughts, especially if I dropped a book for any reason. I just think that is part of the risk for authors in the book blogging and reviewing community. Now, there have been times that I’ve contacted authors and told them that I would no longer be writing a review for them because it would not be received well from my audience, and sometimes they invite me to explain why, other times they just say “okay” and leave it at that. So I agree with you that there needs to be discernment in when to write a negative review and when to just avoid writing a review altogether. When it comes to books that I pick up at a store or in my free time, if I don’t like the book, I’ll typically just not review it (probably because I didn’t finish it), unless, like you said, I really want to warn other readers to stay away from it for any reason. Thank you for this post!

    • It sounds like you have a very thoughtful way of looking at things, Rayleigh. It’s a good balance to have, and unless you’ve specifically signed up to promote a book for an author you love, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect you to only have positive things to say. Reviews are useful because we trust that they’re honest. Wishing you many more great books in the future!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  3. I read a ton of books for publishers and authors. I’m on various street teams and I participate in publicity teams as well. What if a publisher sends me a book (without asking, they just ship books to me) and I don’t like it? Am I still obligated to review it? Is there someone at publishing houses whose job it is to send readers books? Because lately I’m getting books with no paperwork so I don’t even know who to contact to find out what they want me to do with a book I don’t like. I guess my real question is how obligated am I to read a book for a publisher I didn’t ask for? Thank you!

    • Great question! At Bethany House, we don’t usually send out books that reviewers didn’t request…although we have had people who didn’t remember they’d requested a book from a program or won it through a giveaway, and some who were on so many launch teams that they didn’t remember they were on that author’s team too, so it always pays to have some kind of organizational system just in case. I’d say try to find out why the book was sent to you, probably by messaging the author or publisher if you have no other point of contact. That way, if you need to ask to be taken off particular teams, publicity lists, etc. you can, so you won’t be getting free books you don’t plan to review. But if you try that without an answer and really didn’t request a book or join a program or team (again, it’s easy to forget, so double-check), you don’t have an obligation to read and review from my point of view. Hope that helps!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  4. I appreciate the tip about not messaging authors directly for the purpose of offering unsolicited criticism. It can really put authors on the spot in a way that reviews don’t. (Yikes!)

    However, I’m wary of advising readers about which particular star ratings to choose and which to avoid when they write reviews. It can hurt the integrity of the reviewing system as a whole if readers (those who’ve read a book and those who are book shopping) feel like publishers or authors have been trying to point, prompt, or sway people toward or away from selecting one rating or another. It can make the ratings a little harder for book hunters/shoppers to trust. I believe readers should feel free to pick whichever star rating most accurately reflects their personal, honest opinion of what they’ve read, and they can explain accordingly in their review.

    I also don’t think it helps the integrity of reviewing to dissuade readers from posting their thoughts about a book just because they decided not to finish it or it wasn’t their thing. They can honestly explain *why* they didn’t care for a book enough to finish it, or explain how they realized it wasn’t the book for them. Something is missing from reviews overall if everyone who tries a book and doesn’t finish it or doesn’t care for it for some reason keeps silent about it, especially if there are multiple readers who are finding it hard to get through a book. That kind of information is just as valuable to other potential readers as the rest of the opinions people offer.

    Also, for those who post book reviews on their blogs, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and social media, they’re not required to select/use star ratings all the time. Some reviewers don’t use stars or a rating system at all for any of the books they review. They simply state their opinions and leave it at that.

    Because, hey, book reviewing is subjective anyway. If a reader thinks a book isn’t all that great, that’s just an opinion. If a reader thinks a book is excellent and the author hit it out of the ballpark, that’s also just an opinion. And an open, free flow of different opinions is what keeps integrity in the system of rating and reviewing.

    Besides, different ratings and reviews help different readers in different ways. 😀 Some readers like to see as many 4- and 5-star reviews as possible, and other readers head straight to check out the 3-star and below reviews. (I myself am more often sold on trying books after checking out or skimming a few critical reviews, if there are any. I skip reading most reviews, especially ones with high ratings, until after I’ve read a book for myself. And I’m not at all the only reader like that.)

    It’s true that even critical reviews can be written with grace and tact, and there’ve been plenty of times when the very reason one reader picked a low star rating for a book turned out to be a reason I liked or loved that same book. 🙂

    • Hey Nadine,

      First of all, thanks for your awesome and thoughtful response! Anyone reading this post who wants an example of how to be super gracious and informative when they disagree with something can head straight to your comment for a lesson.

      I thought about what you said, and decided that you’re right that advocating or warning away from specific star ratings probably isn’t helpful for the integrity of the review system. I’ve edited the post accordingly, and thanks for pointing out some things I hadn’t thought about in that regard.

      I decided to leave in the part about considering not leaving a review, although I also see what you’re saying on that point. My intention was for reviewers to feel free to drop reading a book and not stress over an obligation to review it if it wasn’t what they expected and they don’t feel like they read enough to evaluate it well. If they consider doing that and then decide to review anyway, that’s also a perfectly fine option.

      Again, I appreciate your advocacy for honest reviews and general literary citizenship. Super helpful!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  5. Reading is so subjective. I personally think a three star review is mediocre, while a fellow book blogging friend think it’s a good reviewer. I was asked once years ago by an author unknown to me to influence for her. I agreed, but came upon a very vulgar phrase. I contacted her and explained that I could not in honesty leave a good review and she understood. I felt that was being kinder to her. Later she changed the phrase and reissued her book. I always try to leave very positive reviews, while being totally honest. If I find someone the book that I didn’t particularly like, I include that in a constructive way.
    I will say this about something I have seen on a few occasions. An author will post on her Facebook page snippets of a bad review she has gotten and make fun of the reviewer and all her friends comment in like manner. I find that very unkind and disturbing.
    I love to read and an so grateful to all the amazing books out there.

    • Good thoughts, Susan! I do think it’s a bit different when authors are reaching out to readers to be on a launch team…this advice may not apply, as you mention. And I think the balance between honest and kind, while sometimes hard to find, makes for a great review, like you say. As for authors sharing one-star reviews…the intent is probably to find humor in the subjectiveness of reviews, not mocking anyone, but at the same time…humor can be easily misinterpreted, so it’s probably good for authors to hear that practice makes some people uncomfortable. Wishing you many more great books to review!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. As an avid reader and reviewer, I have always tried to concentrate on spotlighting the positives and casually alluding to the negatives, or perhaps I would rather call them weaknesses. Interestingly, I have had authors contact me about my ratings (rather than vice versa) because I am a very analytical reader, and thankfully stay prepared to substantiate the way I have “graded” each book. Every story represents a lot of hard work on someone’s part, and the story they hear in their head, may not be exactly what comes out on paper, and I want to respect their efforts.

    • Hi Rebecca, Thanks for sharing your process with us! I’m sure other readers appreciate your analysis, and I know authors appreciate your respect for your work (while still being honest).

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. All of the discussion on this topic has been about the story/characters — totally subjective issues. What about issues where there are numerous proofreading errors in a book? I’ve had this happen quite a few times when I’ve preordered an ebook on Amazon. I always try to find a way to directly contact the author when this happens. One author explained that sometimes the placeholder (not final) file is mistakenly sent out on release day to readers who preordered the book. They’ve always been more than gracious, and they get the issue figured out with Amazon and a new version is sent via Kindle.

    • That is a great question! I remember one of our editors telling me that editors, doctors, and astronauts are among a few careers where there’s a 0% tolerance for errors…not that he was complaining at all, but acknowledging what their job is supposed to do. When it comes to whether you should mention proofreading errors to the author, I’d say if something seems unusual for an author so that you’re pretty sure it’s an error, it would be helpful for them to know. If they regularly produce books riddled with errors, that’s something I would mention in a review in case it bothers other readers rather than directly contacting the author.

      That’s never been the case with Bethany House books because we have a dedicated team of editors, but anyone can miss a few things, and I’ve occasionally had readers mention a proofreading error to me, which I pass along to editorial to correct if the book is reprinted later, so that’s also fine to do.

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  8. As a reader, I rely on reviews to give me a feel for an author or book, especially if it’s a new author to me. I think it’s helpful reading both positive and negative comments. Then I can decide if it’s a book I want to spend time and money on. I find this especially helpful if I’m looking at a secular book. The low star reviews often show if it’s going to have a lot of swearing or sex scenes, for example. I ignore reviews that are mean-spirited. There’s a way to say most anything graciously if you try.

    As a reviewer, I’m usually reviewing books I want to read so rarely do I feel a need to share negative comments. I find that something that bothers me is often a preference issue and I try to make that clear as it may not bother others.

    • That’s a really good point, Doreen! I’ve also benefited from reviews that specifically mentioned what they didn’t like about the book so I know what to avoid. I’ve also been helped by reviews that mention what they didn’t like about a book and it happens to be something I actually love. So there are lots of benefits to reviews focused on giving other readers enough information to decide what to do.

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  9. I rarely leave a negative review except in instances where there is TMI re sexual scenes or there are obscenities. Because I am a moderator at Christian Fiction Devourers, I feel I have to be honest about these two issues because almost all of our members are looking for books that are clean or Christian fiction.

    • I think it’s great to be clear and honest about anything that might be problematic for your readers. You have good instincts on that, Loraine!

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  10. Great post. I’d go on to say that while indie authors DO appreciate tactful suggestions via email for proofreading-type errors, please don’t assume that indies haven’t already paid for or undergone multiple rounds of edits just as thorough as a traditionally published author. And contacting traditionally published authors to point out errors is a nearly worthless endeavor, because that book has already gone through multiple edits with the publishing house and the likelihood of that author being able to change ONE thing when it goes to print is very minuscule, if not impossible. All it will succeed in doing is stressing that author out over an error that everyone overlooked all the way through the print process.

    While there are times to contact authors about errors, they are during the advanced reader copy stage, not the finalized copy stage–unless it’s an indie book absolutely riddled with errors, in which case your edits aren’t going to change much in the long run.

    Another tip along the lines of tactfulness is that when people do a cover reveal (not a “which cover do you like best” side-by-side comparison of an UNFINALIZED cover), please do NOT offer unsolicited changes you’d make or point out things that don’t appeal to you. It is the height of rudeness and I’ve seen this done (and it’s been done to me) and it always makes me cringe for the author. If they’re indie, they’ve paid a lot for that cover, and they’ve doubtless gone back and forth with the cover designer many times before presenting that finalized version. If they’re traditionally published, those authors will not be able to change one iota of that cover once it’s been finalized. Please let your remarks for FINALIZED covers either be a) positive or b) say nothing at all. It’s a different story if the author is presenting multiple cover choices and asking which readers prefer…that’s the stage to pipe up!

    Thanks for letting me go on a bit–these are just tactless things I’ve seen done (or experienced) and I’m just hoping to save my fellow authors a bit of unnecessary pain by pointing these things out.

    And this was a great post! Shared on twitter.

    • I hadn’t thought about the cover-design aspect. Good thoughts, Heather! Giving negative feedback on things that can’t be changed isn’t usually helpful. Totally fine for readers to dislike a cover and talk about it with their book club, but most of the time, sharing those thoughts with the author won’t generate anything positive.

      Amy Lokkesmoe
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  11. Hi Amy, Beverly Lewis told me to contact you about not receiving the free book when I preordered The Stone Wall. My name is Tanya Hall and my order number was 115401251.

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