Urban Legend: Bad Book Ratings Are Good For Authors

Someone started a rumor that bad book ratings are good for authors, and whoever started it, went to a lot of trouble to spread the message far and wide. You can’t read a writer’s forum these days without finding this sage bit of advice given to every author who complains about getting a bad review. The trouble is that this urban legend has become so prevalent, that virtually EVERYONE is sharing the wisdom, including the writers who’ve been hurt by whomever set the rumor loose.

Here’s how it’s being peddled… by having a bad review, book readers know that your good ratings aren’t rigged. Or they see the bad reviews, along with good reviews, and this translates into some unfathomable magic formula that earns a reader’s trust.

As a study in logic, this formula is pure hogwash. Bad ratings and bad reviews don’t prove that the good ones are worthy, any more than good reviews prove that bad reviews are bogus. Both types of reviews get manipulated — bad book reviews get manipulated by rival authors or people with a personal axe to grind, and good book reviews may come from biased friends and family. In addition, positive book reviews and negative book reviews are bought and sold, because your competitors know that a book doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming successful without good reviews.

But back to this urban legend that claims that bad reviews are good for authors, the facts just don’t support the myth. Online consumer reviews are the second most trusted form of advertising, and the trend is growing, up 15% in four years. If the future stays on the same course, then by April 2016 a full 85% of consumers will trust those book ratings and reviews, which are posted prominently alongside your book at the online retailers.

Reviews are so critical to the success or failure of a book (or business), that companies such as ReviewTrackers have sprung up to help corporations keep tabs on their reviews, by compiling the public ratings and reviews into reports. ReviewTrackers offers some interesting insights into the power of positive reviews. A half-star improvement in ratings can boost a restaurant’s chances of being fully booked during peak hours by as much as 49%. Wow. That’s one hell of a boost in sales over a measly half a star. Do you really believe it’s any different for book sales?

Here’s another little factoid shared by ReviewTrackers: 80% of consumers have changed their mind about buying something based on the negative information that’s been posted online. How is a bad review helpful, when readers ignore the good reviews and focus solely on the negative reviews?

Here’s something else that the urban legend fails to mention. Book websites that are geared toward readers, also allow you to advertise your book. There are websites whose ad space for books is so popular, that ads are sold out months in advance, and you can’t just shell out money to buy an ad. Your book has to meet certain editorial guidelines, which includes good ratings. Competition for these ad slots is fierce, and the advertising executives have to turn away a lot of really good books. They’re going to look at how many ratings your book has, what the ratings average out to, and the advertising executive may even read some of the negative ratings before blessing your book with an ad slot.

So tell me again… how is that low-star rating or scathing review going to benefit an author? Peddle a little more of that snake oil to grease up those bad reviews, so that an author can swallow it like bad medicine.

If authors could trust that all bad reviews were simply the product of regular readers voicing an opinion, the urban legend wouldn’t even be necessary. Unfortunately, bad reviews are one of the most powerful weapons that others have against a writer, and there is no lack of unethical people who’ll use them against you. So you can’t help but wonder, who started the urban legend in the first place?

If readers cannot trust good and bad reviews because of manipulation, then neither can authors. That poses another dilemma. How does an author know that their book genuinely needs to be revised, if they can’t trust that negative reviews weren’t just torpedoes to sink the competition? I wish there was a good answer for this. I don’t want to see the market flooded with poorly written books any more than the next guy, but until we can trust that a bad review really is about the book, then this problem needs to get just as much air time as the flip side, which are the bogus good reviews.

In the meantime, if you’re a writer, do everything in your power to ensure that your book is up to par. You cannot rely on your word processor to be your editor for spelling, grammar, and good plot. Hire an editor, proofreader, and cover designer. Join a critique group. Don’t let your eyeballs be the only ones that see the book before you hit the publish button. Make sure that whoever helps you, knows what they are doing. (Granny probably doesn’t qualify unless she was in the business.)

And for those who’ve personally engaged in bad behavior, it’s not too late to undo whatever you’ve done and start making better choices. Everything we do in this world, every word we speak, every action, SHAPES the world. Every human on the planet contributes to what kind of world we live in. Your words have power, people, serious power. Not only do your words affect the person they are aimed at, every action has a ripple effect that travels far beyond that person. I wish more people understood this, because we’d be a whole lot stingier with our nasty sides. I know what kind of a world I want to live in, so that’s what I try to put back into the world. Ugliness begets ugliness, let’s not go there, folks.

Previous article in this series: The Problem With Editorial Book Reviews
Next article in this series: Duking It Out Over Who Owns the English Language

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