Should Authors Write Negative Book Reviews?

As anyone who visits this blog or follows me on Goodreads can see, I’ve been pretty invested in book reviewing lately. It’s something I started way back when I blogged for Let The Words Flow and continued through my still-ongoing stint contributing for Paper Droids. I enjoy it, but lately, I’m questioning the practice.

I most recently reviewed Eleanor Herman’s Voice of Gods and Legacy of Kings. I was thorough and honest in my reviews, and even mentioned in my review for LoK that I want to be more straightforward with my reviews and ratings; I used to be the kind who would mostly rate books 4 and 5 stars for pure enjoyment factor and never really look deeper. Now that I’m a more “serious” writer, I want to take a more analytical eye to the works I read.

But while writing these, I felt an old, nagging worry resurface from the days of my very first negative reviews: what if the author reads this? Am I building up poor writer karma for myself? And what if, one day, I meet that author?

Do authors and aspiring authors have any place in book reviewing?

I reached out to Sara Letourneau on this topic since she also writes reviews in addition to her own work, and she had this great insight:





I both agreed and didn’t. I want to play it safe, but I also want to explore different ways of writing and reading. I want to keep my blog active and create a brand. But what kind of brand am I really forming by writing these reviews? It dawned on me that it might not be as positive as I thought–especially now that my Goodreads profile is that of Author instead of Reader.

I wanted to write about this because I was genuinely torn on my answer and writing is the only way I come to conclusions on difficult topics. I read a few articles and forum threads, reached out to Twitter, and eventually came to a conclusion. But before I go into my ultimate decision, I want to discuss the pros and cons I came up with:

The pros – or, why I write book reviews in the first place

  • Writing about what you’ve read helps you form stronger bonds with the material, improving your memory of its characters and plot. My memory often seems unaware that it belongs to someone only in her twenties, and so I enjoy reviewing because I too often forget the details of even some of my favorite books.
  • Knowing you have to write a review makes you read more analytically. At least, that’s the case for me. We all begin our writing careers as readers, and it can be difficult to separate “reading like a reader” from “reading like a writer.” I like to think I fall somewhere in-between—I read both for enjoyment and to improve my writing—but sometimes I could use the extra prod to dig deeper.
  • The book reviewing community is a wonderful place. There are a few rotten eggs including trolls, flamers, and plagiarizers, but it’s also an incredibly fun community filled with brilliant minds who engage with and look out for one another. I love talking about books, and since not a lot of people I know read what I read, this community gives me a place to do that.
  • You get advanced copies of unreleased books! This is the wrong reason to start reviewing in the first place (and it certainly wasn’t mine), but it’s definitely a perk. I’ve always craved the ability to get ARCs and read the latest and greatest before anyone else, so I thought reviewing more regularly would give me the credibility I needed to receive early copies and build rapport on NetGalley.

The cons – or, is it worth the risk?

  • You never know who you’ll meet. Say you write a negative book review—albeit a thoughtful and analytical one*—and a few months later you meet that author at an event. Conferences are a great place to pitch your work, but if that author finds out you’re that reviewer, you may have a hard time making many connections there. This doesn’t even have to be out of any malice on the author’s part, either—people talk, and even though it’s a creative field, publishing is still an industry and all industries have politics. Someone who hears about your negative review may simply decide that you’re not professional enough to work with them.
    *Note: for the sake of this post, I’m talking strictly about constructive reviews; I don’t think aggressive, snarky reviews have any place under an author’s pen.
  • Writing reviews takes time away from your actual writing. I’m going to quote Redditor ThomasEdmund84 on this one: when discussing the cons of book reviewing, he said, “I got addicted to reviewing and oftentimes ended up focused on getting reviews out and getting fake internet points than writing my own stuff.” This is so true. In my case, at least, I already feel pressured to read certain ARCs and new books so I can get a review up ASAP. I’m not sure why—I’m not a book blogger. I used to write recommendations for books I enjoyed because I was bubbling over with excitement for them and had to talk to someone about them, STAT, whether they were new releases or old favorites. So why am I now focusing on reviewing instead of spending that time on my own writing?  Why am I making reading a job, instead of letting it be the relaxing learning experience I’ve always enjoyed?

I’ve come up with twice as many pros as cons, but the cons are probably three times as daunting. The second con is something I’ve felt immediately: earlier this year, I purposely cut back on the amount of unpaid blogging and writing I did on the side to make more room for my creative work, and yet I’m falling into the same traps of spreading my time too thin again. Being a regular book reviewer is a full-time job in and of itself, so not only is it taking whatever little creative writing time I have away from me, it’s also making reading a chore. Not good.

The first con is a much slower, creeping terror, one that causes a great deal of anxiety for me (and has in the past). Example: I used to know a writer who’s now successful. After we lost touch and (s)he got published, I read some of his/her work and wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t understand the hype. But instead of keeping that to myself, I went ahead and gave some low star ratings on Goodreads and a very short, but negative, review. I don’t know if (s)he ever saw my reviews, but I never heard from him/her again—even when I tried reaching out some time after.

This was dumb. This wasn’t just a person I could bump into in the future; it was someone I already knew, albeit not well. But we were never particularly close and hadn’t spoken in some time, so I figured “what’s the harm in being honest?”

Turns out, plenty. I was convinced that I screwed up royally and I still think I did. There’s no way to tell, without being completely tactless, if this author saw what I wrote. Sometime after I started to feel guilty about this, I wrote a post on my old blog both congratulating him/her on the success and apologizing for my review. There’s no way to know if that post was read, either, and I eventually decided to remove it because it felt too desperate and called attention to something I wanted forgotten.

I’ve yet to run into this author, but if I do, I have no doubt that it’ll be tense. Even if he or she never read my words, I know I’d feel incredibly paranoid—and that itself would make the meeting awkward. This is a situation I never want to encounter again. At best, I’m risking complete paranoia over something that may or may not have been read; at worst (and I say this knowing full well that I don’t have many blog readers, but it’s STILL a possibility), I’m insulting a future peer and potentially tarnishing my name with them, their literary agent, their publisher, and all the other people who put work into that book. Why put myself in that position when book blogging isn’t a major part of the career I’m working toward?

Since then, I’ve struggled with this royally. There have been a few works I’ve read by authors in my network that I didn’t enjoy, and since I hate being anything but 100% honest, I struggled when rating them on Goodreads and deciding whether or not to review or even rate them at all. Ultimately, I opted to avoid reviewing the books of anyone I know that I didn’t enjoy, because it just wasn’t worth the risks—not to mention hurting someone’s feelings.

So I think it’s obvious what conclusion I’ve come to. The internet is a public place and what you write can and will be found. Ultimately, I have to agree with author Kristen Lamb who, in her blog Three NEVERS of Social Media for Writers, put it pretty simply: “Our BRAND is AUTHOR, not ‘book reviewer’ Book reviewers have to be forthright to be taken seriously. This means some books will get shredded. This can undermine how our fellow writers feel about working with us as authors.”

Of course, this isn’t definitive and I’m sure some people can find a balance between the two. There are exceptions to this rule—after all, I’ve definitely seen Stephen King really rip apart a few books. But until we reach King Status, it’s probably wise to stick with the old “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” route. And, of course, this does not apply when you’re personally asked for an honest review or constructive criticism.

So, if you see my more negative reviews come down from Goodreads and my blog, you know why. I just don’t think it’s my place to continue sharing these—after all, as much as I fancy myself an analytical reader, I’ve yet to publish a novel of my own. So who am I to judge?

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’m really curious to know what you think about this. If you’re an author of any kind—published, self-published, not published at all—how do you handle reviews? Are negative reviews off-limits, no matter how constructive and kind they are? Let me know!

 

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23 comments

  1. I’m basically going to copy most of what I’ve said to you via email, Cristina – but this really is an awesome article. You look at both sides of the debate, consider them equally, and use great arguments to back up your points. Bravo. 🙂

    My “policy” with book reviews is that I always try to be honest yet fair, never snarky or disrespectful. I always try to point out what I like as well as anything I might not have liked. Sometimes that results in a negative review, depending on my overall feelings about the book when I’m done with it. But writing those kinds of reviews is OK with me. It’s probably because I spent 5+ years as a freelance music reviewer, so maybe I still have the mentality that I might not like everything I read or listen to equally but I should be respectfully objective when I talk about it publicly (i.e., online reviews).

    All that said, you bring up excellent points about an aspiring author maintaining their reputation by being careful with negative reviews. Like I mentioned in the Tweets you showed here, most authors I follow will write reviews when they give a book a positive rating, but tend not to talk about books they didn’t like as much. I agree with this approach and would take it myself if/when I become a published author… But I wonder if I might want to adopt that mentality now instead of later. It’s worth considering – and that way, I’m still being a honest reviewer, but I’m not inviting trouble, either. (Although I’ve never experienced any issues with any negative reviews I’ve posted to date, but those ratings are few and far between.)

    1. Thank you, Sara! “Honest yet fair” is what I try to go for, too, but I think you’re right that the line should be drawn below 3 stars. For a book like Legacy of Kings, which I had more criticisms than compliments for, it may be best for me to just avoid writing them–at least in the extensive, critiquing detail that I wrote that one. Actual book reviewers and non-authors should definitely review those reads, because I think analytical book reviews are endlessly useful, but as someone who may someday need connections in this industry, maybe that shouldn’t be me!

      And I agree, your reviews are great. Succinct and straightforward. My problem is that I don’t know how to be brief about anything. 😉

      1. I’m planning to pose the “draw-the-line” question once I have a chance to reblog your article. (Might be tomorrow or Monday; I’ve got a tea review going up today and another post on Saturday.) If I’m aiming for authorship as well, maybe it’s best to not review books I don’t enjoy. Plus, skipping those reviews will leave time for other writerly things. 😉

        Brevity is not easy to learn, I totally agree. My reviews used to be 5 or 6 paragraphs long, and I loved going into such depth with them. Then I realize how much time I was spending on those beasts… In some ways, my shorter reviews don’t cover all of my thoughts on a book. It’s a matter of picking out what’s most important for readers to know, and leaving out other bits. It’s still hard, but if people still find the reviews helpful, then I guess I’m hitting the mark.

  2. I think it’s a hard call to make, but you did a nice job of looking at the issue from both sides.

    I have a lot of respect anyone writing honest book reviews. We need more people doing it. And I enjoy reading a thoughtful review even when I don’t agree with the viewpoint. The thing I don’t like is disrespectful reviewers. Or reviewers that attack the author on a personal level. Some reviewers can go too far.

    As Sara pointed out, talking about what you like in the book also helps. And you must have liked something or you wouldn’t have starting reading the book in the first place. Or manage to keep your head down long enough to finish the book. Including what you like makes the review balanced and more friendly. At least I think so. : )

    1. Thanks so much, Robin!

      I agree that book reviewers have an admirable, important job. And I think there’s a lot to be said for tackling an analytical review from a writer’s perspective.

      I think it can be hard to draw distinction between being analytical and downright mean sometimes, even when we don’t intend to be the latter. But I think the reason people can wander into the second territory, giving off a “WTF” air, is that they had high hopes for the book. Like you said, there is usually something that draws us to a certain book, and it can be frustrating when a book is nothing like you expected. I think I got nervous writing my LoK review because I didn’t want to come off as mean or frustrated, when frustrated is exactly how I felt.

      If my ultimate goal were to be a book reviewer, I’d hold nothing back, but my sights are set on “Author.” I’d like to keep things as honest as possible without insulting anyone while I traverse that road. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog and commented:
    Recently, Cristina Guarino and I were talking via Twitter and email about whether authors (both published and as-yet unpublished) should refrain from writing negative book reviews. As a writer who hopes to be published one day, Cristina was concerned whether her reviews – even if they were constructive and offered strengths as well as weaknesses – could damage her reputation in the long run. This reblogged post is the result of her musings, and I found it fascinating and well-argued. In fact, it made me think about my own book reviewing “policy.”

    When I was a freelance music journalist, I was obligated to be fair yet honest about the music I listened to. I’d talk about what I liked as well as what I thought could use improvement, but never veered into snarky or disrespectful territory. That’s been my approach for book reviews, too. And though I love or like most everything I read, there have been a few negative outliers…

    The mentality I’ve had is that over time, if I were to become a published author, I’d keep reviewing books I enjoyed but refrain from reviewing anything less than than a “3 out of 5.” After reading Cristina’s piece, though, I wonder if I should adopt that change now. What do you think? Do you mind occasional negative (yet constructive, not blasting) reviews from “writers in progress” who are also working on their own novels? Or should they be more mindful of how those reviews might reflect upon them? Please don’t hesitate to answer honestly. I’d like to know if there’s something I should do differently, or stop doing altogether, if my current reviewing method might prove harmful later on.

  4. This hits home as someday I hope to be a published author. I recently started reviewing books on my blogs. I hate writing negative reviews and try to point out that an author’s fan may feel different and it might just be me. I will seriously think about just doing stars on books I don’t like though I’ve already had a couple negative reviews. I hope this doesn’t hurt my chances.

    1. Thanks for reading! 🙂 I’m sure you’ll be fine as long as you’ve been respectful in your reviews. I’m not trying to say that writing any negative reviews ever is a career ender, but that it’s just a bit risky. It’s something I personally would rather not get too far into, but I could completely understand other authors or authors-to-be wanting to continue reviewing! It’s a fun and rewarding practice.

  5. I feel like the key is how respectful it is. Personally. I find negative reviews really interesting–seeing what someone is annoyed by, what someone dissects, what someone thinks could be improved. I generally go with the honest but fair thing I keep seeing, and it makes me hesitate to only write positive reviews; it feels less honest to me somehow. I feel like these are incredibly good points to make–I had never considered the way it might affect a working relationship, and it’s interesting to think about. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to make others think… I’d say that’s any writer’s purpose, really. 😉

      I agree with the honest but fair approach. I guess I just have so little time to write as is, and I’m so overly-paranoid, that it’s not rewarding enough for me to continue. Ha!

  6. Hi Cristina,

    I thought I’d weigh in as I’ve been writing reviews on my blog for a number of years as a writer and passionate reader. This was something I had to sort out in my own head a while ago, because although I’ve taken my own sweet time about letting lose my own books onto an unsuspecting world, I’m also an author. I also teach Creative Writing at the local college, so I really enjoy analysing books.

    I don’t bother to finish books I dislike, so that sorts out the business of writing negative reviews – which is also why I generally won’t and don’t promise to review anyone’s book. But that doesn’t stop me from pointing out issues in a book that I feel could do with improving. And I don’t have a problem if someone disagrees with me and dislikes/loathes a books I’ve praised to the rafters – it happens quite regularly.

    I’m all too aware there is a dark underbelly in the reviewing world, but I’ve mostly encountered a delightful group of people who enjoy communicating their love of reading and all things book-related.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful, well-written article – thank you for sharing it. I found myself re-examining my own stance, just to make sure that I was still happy with what I was doing. While I’m up to my eyebrows in the last stages of getting my manuscript ready, I’m letting my blog slide a bit because as my teaching commitments are currently quite heavy, something has to give – and it can’t be the novel. But there was a time at the end of last month when I was panicking because I wasn’t writing enough reviews – which is just bonkers…

    All the best with the book, by the way…

    1. Thank you, and thank you for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed.

      I know some people review books they haven’t finished, but I just don’t have time for that at this point. Also, I don’t think I have the time to read books I don’t enjoy… so it’s time for me to cut it out with the force-reading!

      Thanks for your response… it definitely got me thinking (and gave me a little bit more permission to drop books I don’t enjoy, haha)!

  7. My issue with this has always been that I kind of have a thing for bad fiction. Bad movies, bad comics, bad television, bad movies, I will finish all of them and love very minute of it, but I cannot ever say that it’s good. Normally, this would mean I’d have a lot of glowing 1 and 2 star reviews of things where I go on about how much I loved it despite how bad it was to my name.

    I reviewed comics for a while and that was fine. Since I’m publishing now, I no longer leave reviews for things at all on sites like Goodreads. If it’s good, I might write a review on my own site, but otherwise I have a firm policy of just not leaving reviews. It’s entirely for the reasons mentioned in the article and the comments. You just never know how one negative review that you write is going to come back to bite you. Even if you talk about how much you loved how terrible it was.

    1. Haha, we all have our guilty pleasure. 😉 But that makes sense! I think I’ll still post good reviews to Goodreads, but I need to only review books that are SO good they’re just begging me to gush about them. Like you said, something has to give, and it can’t be your creative work! My fiction has suffered too long at the time-constraints caused by other projects and it’s time to dedicate real chunks of my time to it.

  8. As an aspiring author, I appreciate constructive and kind reviews. I would feel bad about getting anything less than 3-stars, and even as a reader I don’t bother giving books stars/reviews if it’s less than a 3. So I agree it’s best to leave things be and not say anything if the book was that bad.
    Also as an author, I wonder about the star-rating system, if it’s a bad idea marketing wise. With stars I feel like it becomes less about a review/constructive critisism, and more about how many people liked it versus didn’t like it. The more stars a book gets, the better chance it has of popping up on Goodreads or Amazon sidebars for readers to see versus books with lower stars. A book might be very well written, but if the wrong audience reads it there could be a lot of resulting low stars. Or people who disagree with the book could give it low stars for just that reason alone.
    You’ve done an excellent job writing this post, btw. I agree with the conclusion you came to. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! I agree, I think star ratings are a bit restrictive and sites like Goodreads and Amazon aren’t the most reliable as a result. There have been plenty of times I saw a book pop up EVERYWHERE with glowing reviews, only to read it and think, “how is this 4.2 average rating on Goodreads even possible?”

      Likewise, I think Brandon Sanderson’s advice to authors who get a bad review is: “Go look at all the 1-star reviews for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” In other words, star ratings and reviews can be pretty misleading and everyone’s opinion differs, so just write on and shrug it off. 🙂

  9. I too have struggling with something similar. I reviewed a book and I expressed my dislike for the prose. I still liked the book, but his prose frustrated me. Later on I ended up meeting the author and I actually really liked him as a person so I feel slightly bad about the review. But I try to balance or surpass any negative with positive in my reviews. I think a good balance is what is important, because a good review has honesty without bashing if that makes sense.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    1. Isn’t it an awful feeling? As a reviewer, you want to be honest and straightforward–it’s not exactly becoming to spew a bunch of BS just to get on someone’s good side–but when you meet someone and you really like them, it’s like, “man, I just insulted their life’s work.”

      I guess that’s why I personally believe there’s a fine line, but a solid one nonetheless, between authors and reviewers. Until we hit a certain level of success (or really just don’t give a crap like Stephen King, haha) it’s just best to stick on one side of the border.

      1. It was uncomfortable. But I didn’t hate on his book so I didn’t very terribly bad.

        I suppose so. I don’t think it’s right for Stephen King to do that though either.

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