Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Value of the Negative Review

There's been a lot of discussion recently on internet reviews, specifically, what value those reviews have when they are, increasingly, bought and paid for - sometimes directly, as discussed in a recent New York Times article; other times indirectly, as when a reviewer is offered a discount for providing a positive review on a website.

I became interested in the subject recently when a conflagration erupted in the blogosphere following this post on the blog of chick-lit author Michele Gorman. A quick synopsis: The author approached a fairly well-known chick-lit review blog* inquiring about a review from their site. She was informed that they charge $95 for a review, which they would only write if they felt her book would receive a positive rating, "in order to maintain the quality of our site."

In short: the author is asked to pay to receive a positive review on the site. The letter goes on to talk about how hard the service will work to help the author create "a favorable and likeable online presence."

Now, I could talk about how deceptive this is. In spite of review website's (rather awkward and not altogether obvious) disclosure of its fees - it is in effect a PR service masquerading as an unbiased book review blog.

I could point out the numerous errors in the letter and on the blog site itself that render the site's owners somewhat less-than-credible, such as: the section of the site devoted to "non-ficition"; the reference in the letter to posting the review on "Diggs"; and all of the miscellaneous typos ("goodeads," really?).

I could mention how nasty, ludicrous, and unprofessional was the review site's response when the author posted their $95 request for money letter on her blog.

Those things are interesting, to be sure, but not the point I want to make.

What I find so troubling about this incident is the idea that the only presence worth having online - and the only reviews worth getting - are positive ones. Ms. Gorman, and certainly some others, declined to pay for the review, and chose to try their luck elsewhere. But numerous others were willing to pay the price - there are quite a few "reviews" on the site.

Negative reviews have value.

The reader faces a vast number of choices in selecting books, and we are all bombarded online with endless requests for our attention. Studies have been done about how this actually exhausts us: all these decisions, all this information to process.

If someone is reading a review on a site, it is because they want to know: Will my time and money be well spent on this book? It doesn't actually matter if a review is positive or negative. What matters is that the reviewer has taken the time to explain and analyze their reaction to the book. Everyone is capable of reading the synopsis and cover blurbs all by themselves. What a review reader wants to know is not only how someone else reacted to something, but more important, why. They then take that information and decide if it is relevant to them in their personal decision-making process.

We've all not bought things because of negative reviews. But many times we read negative reviews and buy items or books anyway. Why? Because the things that were a problem for the reviewer were simply not a problem for us. One great example of this: A LOT of people gave 1-star reviews on Amazon to one of Michael Lewis' recent books. The reason? It wasn't available in Kindle format. It just wasn't relevant to me: content is relevant to me.

Most examples are a bit more subtle than that, of course (and actually relate to the content). Maybe a better example would be the raging success of 50 Shades of Grey: the vast amount of vitriol that has been expended over the series has done nothing to slow its sales. Some might argue that it the controversy has actually helped sales. I'm going to suggest here that the publisher doesn't mind a bit of controversy.

The author: I had an interesting email exchange conversation with Ms. Gorman, and was pleased to learn that she agreed. She felt it was better that a prospective reader not read a book of hers that they might not enjoy, because some time down the road, she might write something else that they actually would like - and they wouldn't read it after their first bad experience with her. In her view, a negative review would help a reader avoid such a situation - losing a sale now to hopefully sell more books in the future.

So, if the negative review has value to the reader, to the publisher, and to the author, what about to the blogger who writes it?

Book bloggers often receive requests for reviews, generally accompanied by a free books. I've personally been contacted through this blog, twitter, and goodreads for just that reason. It's nice, but it leads to a conflict: It's hard to say less than positive things about people you've talked to, who are often very nice and frequently have given you something for free.

I've read a number of book blogs for extended periods, and I think quite a few bloggers do succumb to the pressure. Several bloggers commented that if they didn't care for a book they were asked to review, they simply didn't post the review, rather than post a negative one. Here's the problem with that: the blog writing becomes unbalanced. Nobody likes everything. And now, the blogger has lost the reader's trust: Is that blog a paid promotional service? A reviewer who will not say what they actually think is not one that can be trusted. There aren't even any lines to read between.

This is one of the values I see in a service like netgalley (which provides advance digital copies to book bloggers): not only does it provide me with a wider range of titles than I might otherwise have access to, and allow me to self-select what I want to read and review - it serves as a neutral intermediary. If I don't like the book, I don't have to directly disappoint someone. It's nothing personal.

I prefer to be honest, which often means getting books from netgalley. Other times, though, I have a trick to let myself off the hook. I simply tell authors: I will be honest, for better or worse. Nobody has complained yet.

I know, of course, it's only a matter of time before someone does complain when I speak my mind. That's their right, too. When the discourse is honest and open, everyone benefits: Blogger, author, publisher, and reader. It should all be welcome.

*I'm not providing the name of the blog here but you won't have much trouble finding it if you read the author's page.


  1. There is another point to bloggers writing honest reviews; to develop a following who like the same types of books/writing styles as you enjoy.
    That will eventually elevate your recommendations to a more trusted level.

    If every blogger only writes about the books they like, it whitewashes the whole experience to the point that anyone could have written the review. Book sellers/authors might like the whitewash, but I believe buyers prefer honest reviews for all the reasons your points made.

    1. I agree. Everyone should ask themselves, "Who is my customer?" and then try to offer the best experience possible to that customer.

      Everything else falls into place after that.

  2. I always enjoy a good, bitchy review and it doesn't stop me from reading the book if I'm interested to begin with. My main concern with reviews is spoilers. I hate spoilers.

    1. I couldn't agree more. I've actually bought books if a bad review made me laugh enough. I keep thinking I should read 50 Shades just because ... I mean can it really be *that* bad?

    2. Yes it can. But for a reader like yourself you can polish one off in an evening. What it taught me is that women really, really love the sick, twisted fantasy that a man who says he will never change will actually do so, willingly, just for you. Bonkers.


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