Reading Bad Reviews

Whenever a book piques my interest, the first thing I do is go on Amazon or Goodreads and read the bad reviews.


Because, for once, I believe that by reading the bad reviews you get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t in that particular book. Also, I’ve found that those who didn’t like the book are particularly more detailed in their reviews. They aren’t just raving about how awesome and freaking amazing that book was. And then I suppose it’s simply because I’m more likely to buy a book that also has some bad reviews. All five star reviews looks pretty suspicious and I just guess that reading about a book’s flaws makes me want to buy it more.Also, reading those one star reviews that were given even to the best of novels is a fantastic tonic for my confidence. No book is perfect, and no book will ever please everyone.

I think that there are basically two kinds of reviews. Not just about books, but about any type of product and/or service. You either have good ones, from those who loved it. Because that’s a basic impulse – when you find something you love, you want to let the world know about it. And then there are the bad reviews, from those who didn’t like that product and are trying to warn people about it. That’s another basic impulse.

That’s why, as a percentage, there are few 3 star reviews on Amazon. If something’s just good enough to be functional, not to make you feel like you’ve wasted time and money, odds are that you won’t write a review about it. Unless asked for specifically, that is.

Who writes those bad reviews?

  • People who didn’t enjoy your story. We know that preferences are different, but there are other elements as well. We can safely assume that not everyone can read Faulkner, or Sartre, or David Foster Wallace. If you’ve read light fiction all your life, odds are you probably won’t understand much. And then, also, these three writers might actually make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Readers who’ve bought your book even though they’re outside your target audience. This is basically the only thing I’ve liked about John Locke’s book on how he’s the shit and how he sold a zillion books in 23 minutes and 56 seconds. He’s idea is more or less the following: that if your book sells well enough, it will eventually fall into the hands of people who weren’t meant to read it in the first place. People who won’t enjoy it, because they don’t like that genre, that style, or simply the type of story you wrote. And this happens more often than possible. Maybe some readers get the wrong impression from the blurb, or the cover, or any other misleading information, and they buy the book, and then they find out that it’s not chick lit, it’s actually Magical Realism. And it’s not an easy on the brain, lots of dialogue, type of story, it’s actually more like a paragraph long novel.

Of course, when it comes to your own books, you shouldn’t really think too much about it. I mean, it would be pretty egocentric of you to think that everyone who gives you a one star review was just too stupid to understand your story.

After reading those bad reviews, some of which are quite witty and funny, I usually search for a review in Publisher’s Weekly, New Yorker, or other prestigious publications. That’s how I get to properly weight the book, to see if it’s worth buying or not.

But the sad thing is there is no sure fire way to know if you’re going to enjoy a book or not. No matter how much you read about it, no matter how long the sample or great the blurb. Sometimes even our favorite authors somehow manage to disappoint us.


58 thoughts on “Reading Bad Reviews

  1. Hi, I just had to say what a great and balanced post you have just written.

    As a self publishing author, I crave the 5 star review in the hope that more people will buy my books if they have lots of high star reviews. However, you post has sort of turned that point of view on its head.


    • Actually I won’t go with that. I mean, personally, I think the every first chapter of the Harry Potter books are terrible – but that doesn’t mean the whole book is. In fact I’m a huge Harry fan myself.

  2. When I write reviews, I try to focus on putting the book in the hands of the people who would enjoy it. I only post negative reviews when I feel that the book or movie would be a disappointment to its target audience. Regardless, I think it’s always important to back up recommendations with reasoning, but I hear where you’re coming from. When I read reviews, it takes more than someone gushing over how much they loved a book to make me want to read it. My favorite reviewers give the good and the bad of any book.

  3. I agree with your last paragraph in particular because after all, everyone is so unique. I often pick out books I am sure my sister will love, but she doesn’t. Everyone has their own quirks when it comes to books.

  4. Indeed, you can’t please everyone with your book. It can’t be liked by every single reader that got it.
    About the reviews. Personally, I read the reviews purely to find more about the book. I like the spoilery reviews because they contain more information about the book than the summary does. The stars are irrelevant for me because they are biased opinions. Actually, I get really suspicious about one and five stars.First of all, there isn’t such a bad book to deserve 1 star. 1 star is for those books that have serious technical problems like bad grammar or the ideas were so tangled that can’t be made sense of. I have yet to encounter such a book.

    On the other hand, 5 stars should not be given because the story had a happy ending and that one character was cute. Fortunately though, there are many books out there that deserve indeed the 5 stars. But there will be always people who will give them 1 star because they simply didn’t understand them.

    As a writer, you shouldn’t worry too much about the bad reviews. Some people will like your book, but there will always be people who will not like it. Even the greatest books have bad reviews. That’s life.

  5. I totally do the same thing with reading *all* the bad reviews of any book I’m thinking about reading. And I do also read a few five star ones, just so I don’t get unduly dissuaded.

    Also, thanks for illuminating what I guess we can call a Faulkner-effect. This might sound like a terribly inflated thing to say, but I’ll say it: being too good of a reader can be an obstacle to being a good writer. It’s like, because I’ve worked so damn hard at understanding Faulkner, I have this skewed view of what good writing is and of what I think readers are looking for. As if we read for some kind of imaginary intellectual gold stars. And forgetting that reading is supposed to be fun.

  6. To read Goodreads or not to read Goodreads, that is my question. I used to read goodreads a lot to help me choose which book to read next and even though most of the books I read got high ratings mixed with some low ratings, I found myself reading the low ratings. Then, when I would read the actual book, I found that the reviews colored my own reading of the book. I would have a hard time divorcing the reviews from the text and found reading less enjoyable. For me goodreads, while an excellent source, is something I am ambiguous about.

  7. I posted something like this yesterday because I’d gotten a bad review, earlier today I went on the persons profile on goodreads and found that they don’t read M/M fiction – I got my answer!

  8. Well said! Great article, my thoughts exactly. Personally, I think many of the 1 and 2 star reader reviews on Amazon (including from some of the dedicated Amazon Vine reviewers) are usually more credible and objective and far more level-headed than those churned out by the likes of Publishers Weekly and the New Yorker whose reviewers sometimes end up sounding to self-absorbed and over analytical.

  9. I think its hard to give reviews any credibility because you don’t know the context of the person who is writing them. At least with a newspaper review, there’s a sense of editorial sensibility. Like you, I seek them out for an amusing angle, rather than taking the criticism seriously.

  10. You know a book will not be liked by all there will always be critics I mean the bible which is written regarding a prophet is HIGHLY criticized it’s human nature to criticize or despise whether it’s due to lack of interest or lack of having the nerve to actually write one (sort of out of jealousy). So there is no perfect way to write a book if u believe and love what you have written about rest assure other will to NOT all readers of the reading community but people will like/love it

  11. Enjoyed this posting. I do that too, but I think the too low the star the more useless the review- tends to be someone’s limitations on show. I guess the middle to lower range are most helpful. You can tell whether you are in tune with what they say, or not. In the latter case you can feel quite at ease to go ahead and enjoy

    I was chatting to a well-published poet some year’s back – he was a little appalled I.depended on reviews of a work rather than the work itself. It’s a lot more expensive to buy the work and then find you don’t like etc -: reviews are the only way.

  12. I read the bad reviews on everything! Some reviews though, I think people just don’t know what they are talking about and give a bad review because they lack the understanding for it. Mostly though you can tell those reviews apart. Good to know I’m not alone. Awesome post.

  13. I’ve never thought about this before! I don’t tend to read the reviews at all. I like to form my own opinions, rather than have them coloured by those of others.

  14. Ahh….reviews. I barely read one. I tend to stick with what appeals to me – the title (almost always), the cover, and lastly, the blurb. And I love random finds, just as I do my all-time favorite authors (Anne Rice, Stephen King).

  15. My policy is: ignore the first five of the five-star reviews — they are from friends and family when the book is first released. Then, ignore the one and two star reviews – they are the ones bitching about the typos and grammar mistakes. Then I read the five and four-star reviews because they tend to give more plot info. Three star reviews reveal the weaknesses of the book.

  16. I always look at the number of good vs bad reviews to see if the majority of readers liked it, then I read the bad reviews too. I usually do this after I’ve read the book, however, so I can see if my opinions of the problems match other readers. It’s a great learning tool.

  17. As a rule I don’t read my reviews, but once in a while a review will come to my attention, and I find that some of the one star reviews are absolutely hilarious. I always want to write to the reviewer and congratulate them on their witty prose. I know not everyone will like my books, but that’s okay. As long as there are more positive reviews than negative, I’m happy.

  18. Like the guidebook to a long-distance walking route which very definitely said RIGHT when it meant LEFT, or “some rock-hopping may be necessary” when I had to wade over rocks in a fast current with water almost up to my knees during a dry summer! These things stick with you if you write a review.

  19. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book because it skews my enjoyment. But oh, boy, after I finish, I go looking at the reviews to see what others thought. I usually decide what to read by the author, genre, blurb, whether one of my friends talked about the book, or if it looks catchy. Reviews are noise to me because they usually give something away that I didn’t want to know about, even if it was the reaction from the reader. I want to experience each book fresh. That said, I write a lot of reviews because others may enjoy reading reviews before deciding and I always like to get what I think is the last word on any book I read.

  20. When I look at reviews, I look at the distribution of stars first. If most people gave it 3-5, then I read the bad reviews. If it’s all over the place, I’m more likely to look at the 2 & 4 star reviews. If it’s weighted low, then I’ll probably pass.

  21. Nice way to understand the world of writing and to be able to focus on improving. One can easily understand whats appreciated and what is not appreciated .. Great idea of reading bad reviews. You are right about one thing for sure, that those reviews are much longer than good reviews.. Thanks for sharing and making me more wise..:)

  22. Maybe just put a warning ‘if you don’t love The Sound And The Fury’ you probably wont care too much for my novel either. But then would you be slapped for having dared to liken your ramblings to Faulkner? It’s a hard call, if I don’t enjoy a novel I wont waste my time dissecting it for a bad review. Just move on.

  23. I typically seek out the three star reviews because I assume they’re the most balanced, so it’s a shame if in fact most people don’t take the time to write them.

  24. A fascinating analysis, Cristian. I enjoyed it. I would like to toss in one aspect of reviewing for Amazon not factored into your thoughtful piece – why trouble to post reviews at all without compensation? Amazon is designed to be a forum for feedback from everyone, regardless of expertise in either writing or the subject under discussion. All such reviews must therefore be swallowed with grains of salt. I write reviews for Amazon book, movie, and television titles. Personally, I don’t read reviews and I never base my purchase decisions on the opinions of others. So why do I write them? To call attention to myself. Amazon rates reviewers according to the number they post and the number of “thumbs up” ratings they receive. I hoped to be a rising star with a solid rating from Amazon in order to attract readers to my other work. Then I made the mistake of reviewing an execrable book that left a dark brown taste in my mouth. I gave it a one-star treatment. The author happened to be a very spiteful lad with a following. He mobilized his posse and lynched my review. My previously good rating went down the drain overnight. Lesson learned: I now only review things I like; I don’t waste my time on things I don’t.

  25. I thought it was just my cynical nature to read the bad reviews of things (not just books) before I bought/read them. I’m not alone! Sometimes those are the most honest, but then there are those people who who are confused about the rating process – 1 star because it took three weeks to arrive.

    I’m also embarrassed to admit that if I’m not enjoying a book, I will check the reviews to see if I’m totally missing something obvious, especially books that have really high ratings.

  26. I left a 1 star review on amazon uk recently for a self-published shockingly bad ebook. I had read the reviews before I purchased – all gushing 5 star reviews. The author wrote to me at my address asking that I remove the review. I did as I was scared. I now don’t trust reviews at all. Has this happened to anyone else? On further research I found that the majority of the 5 star reviewers had only ever reviewed one product…this book. Can anyone say sock-puppets? So disappointed that nothing can be trusted anymore.

  27. Wonderful! So true! Bravo!
    People who aren’t happy about something are usually more interesting to listen to or read than people who are happy. Happy is very often generic — awesome and freaking amazing, as you say — whereas “unhappy” needs to be specific, often brutally so, in order for the person to share his or her misery effectively. :)

  28. I always reading negative reviews for books I love – less to see what people dislike about them, and more to see how the books are misinterpreted. I also find I can figure out if I will like a book based on the negative reviews more than the positive. I tend to go after books with the main criticism: there is no plot.

  29. That’s really insightful, I never thought about that. I normally like to go into books completely blind. I’ll read the blurb on the book jacket and just start reading. If I’m invested after 10 pages then I’m in. I like knowing as little as possible about a book in the beginning, b/c I like the process of discovering the story.

  30. This is true. I think it really depends on the genre and also the background of the author. I tried to read Emma by Jane Austen and never clicked with it , even though it’s a classic and one of the best books of all time. I don’t relate to it because I’ve never had any experience of upper class life. Also Harry Potter I’ve never really enjoyed because I don’t really like fantasy. And I don’t think JK Rowling really did the book justice as an female author. As all of her main characters are male. Harry , Voldemort , Dumbledore , it’s almost like she was afraid that making a central female character would decrease her sales which I think is a shame , and her target audience was boys even though she is a female author.

  31. I’ve done this a time or two, read the bad reviews just to see what they say about the book. I look for a few things in bad reviews though, I look to see how long the story is; if its a short novel most people will complain about it. If they say that the character development is bad or needs work they sometimes will go into more detail. I look for little things like that to help me decide if a new book or author is worth reading. 🙂

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