Friday, July 22, 2011

Why Bad Reviews Rock

I got my first one-star review the other day. Here’s a link, if you want to read it. I can imagine my writer friends cringing: you’re linking a bad review? You shouldn’t even read that junk, let alone make it more visible in search engines and show it to more people by linking it!

Now I’ll admit I was a little taken aback at first. Intellectually, I knew some people would dislike ASHFALL. But it’s different learning that at a visceral level.

On rereading the review, I felt better about it. It’s a reasonably well-written review, and it’s very specific about what the reader didn’t like. (Only one part of it did bother me. The reviewer conflates homosexuality with rape and cannibalism near the end of her review. That’s plain wrong. Homosexuals are born that way, i.e. God created them gay. Rape and cannibalism are choices perpetrators make. Rape and cannibalism are sinful; homosexuality is not.)

Getting my first one-star review brought to mind Jay Lake, the prolific science fiction and fantasy author. I’ve been stalking admiring him from afar via his blog for a couple of years now. One of the things I appreciate about Jay is that he posts links on his blog to negative reviews. Here’s the blog post in which he explains why. Basically, Jay makes three points: 1) The stories belong to the readers to interpret as they see fit, 2) Jay sometimes learns from bad reviews, and 3) Even a bad review means someone cared about the book enough to talk about it in public.

So, with my shiny new one-star review, I figured I’d try it. I mean, I know Jay has a pair of eunuchs with wheelbarrows walking behind him 24/7 to transport his cojones, and his skin is so thick it takes a sandblaster to give him a manicure, but hey, I think of myself as pretty tough too. So, I Tweeted, Facebooked, and Google Plussed the bad review of ASHFALL. (And now I’m blogging about it.)

Within hours, I’d discovered a fourth reason to link to bad reviews. It’s something all novelists already know: conflict sells. Bad reviews are inherently more conflict-filled than good ones, and therefore more interesting (all else being equal).

Want evidence? Here’s the last 5-star review I got. I linked it in exactly the same places and ways as the one-star review. It was clicked through 22 times. The one-star review? 119 times. And I got a dozen or more comments of this general type: “Wow, now I want to read ASHFALL. The stuff that reviewer doesn’t like sounds cool to me.”

There’s even some robust empirical support for the idea that bad reviews sell. Here’s a study of New York Times book reviews reported in Marketing Science that was conducted using Nielsen Bookscan data. The upshot is that negative reviews of works by authors who had previously published fewer than two books boosted their sales by 45% on average. Negative reviews of well-known authors (i.e. those who had published 10 or more books previously) hurt their sales by 15%. So the advice about linking to your one-star reviews doesn’t apply after you’ve published your tenth book.

One word of caution. I don’t think this works if you’re not gracious about it. If a person spent many hours with your book and took the time to help you publicize it, the only appropriate response is a thank you. Especially if the review is negative. Don’t be like this author or this author.

What do you think? Do you help spread the word about negative reviews of your work? Will you in the future? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments, please.