Between the self-published authors on the KDP forum, complaining that the negative reviews their books have received constitute defamation of character, and the supposedly impotent traditional book critics, it seems everyone is worried about the effects of turning every consumer into a reviewer. Aside from me: I love consumer reviews of books, especially negative reviews, and especially when they're completely bizarre. As a friend of mine put it, 'they're the only thing you read to discover if something's worth buying. They're all anyone reads, surely?'
Serious research backs up my informal inquiries: we all read the negative reviews first, and they have a disproportionate effect on how likely a book is to be bought. In their study, The Effect of Word of Mouth on Sales: Online Book Reviews, Chevalier and Mayzlin found that, 'relatively rare one-star reviews carry a lot of weight with consumers'. They attribute this both to the rarity of negative reviews, (most people who bother to review books are fans who want to express their enthusiasm), and our cynicism; we suspect that positive reviews may have been solicited by the author.
That cynicism is not misplaced; the self publishing community is essentially made up of writers feigning enthusiasm for each others' books in the hope those people will feign enthusiasm for their book. But I believe there's another reason we head straight for the 1* reviews - positive reviews are almost always incredibly boring. Shopping on the internet isn't just a matter of making sensible decisions, it's a form of entertainment too, and all the human entertainment lies in the illogical, typo-packed tirades.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chevalier and Mayzlin found that 1* reviews caused a book's sales to fall. But is it really that simple? Surely we've all read negative reviews that have persuaded us to buy the book and form our own opinions? We may believe that negative reviews are most likely to be their author's honest opinion, but that doesn't mean we absorb them passively. A negative review tells me a story about the preferences and prejudices of the person who wrote it, and as I read it, I position myself either behind them or against them - even though I've yet to read a single page of the book in question.
It's unlikely anyone will ever conduct a qualitative study of negative reviews and their effects - it would be much too complicated. In the meantime, I thought I'd describe some of the types of negative review that send my cursor towards the 'buy' button. (I've left out 'spelling and grammar errors' and 'bigotry' for being too obvious).
Disliking characters' attributes as a reason for disliking a book.
Books allow you to get close to characters with unpleasant traits, and learn something about them, without actually physically getting close to them. Characters can be obnoxious, thoughtless and annoying - that's fine, no one's asking you to go to the pub with them and buy them a pint. Yet apparently this is news to some readers...
"If Mr Haines intended to portray himself as a small minded, mean spirited, faux-intellectual tosser then I've got to hand it to him: he succeeded"
The above is an Amazon review of Bad Vibes by Luke Haines, an account of his years of fronting under-appreciated, (in his biased opinion), indie band The Auteurs. The best thing about the book is the way Haines presents situations as they seemed to him at the time, without much retrospective analysis. Yes, it does make him seem like a mean spirited, faux-intellectual tosser in places, but I personally found that refreshing.
As a rule of thumb, I find that if characters are able to inspire revulsion in some readers, they're probably well written, and the book is almost certainly worth reading. (Bad Vibes is an autobiography, but since autobiography involves creating yourself as a character, I believe the same applies).
Excuse me, where is my happy ending?
"After trolling through 660 pages I am no nearer finding the culprit"
"doesn't really reveal the killer"
The above are quotes from reviews of Douglas Preston's 'The Monster Of Florence'; not a detective story, but an investigation into how the Italian justice system failed to find the serial killer who murdered at least eight couples in the countryside surrounding Florence. Preston does give his assessment of the evidence available, but this isn't as important as his account of how the people responsible for finding the killer head wildly off course. There isn't a neat ending, because real life doesn't provide one, as is its wont. I enjoy books with messy endings, so when a reviewer criticises a book for not ending neatly, I often feel tempted to buy it.
When a novel is not a novel
"If it were a different sort of product I would have asked for my money back as it really didn't feel that the goods fit the description - I couldn't see how this added up to a novel."
The above reviewer of Tea Obreht's 'The Tiger's Wife' took issue with the book's interwoven plot strands, (which I personally loved). They could have explained why they felt Obreht hadn't managed the device well, or why they personally found such a narrative structure off-putting. But instead, they claimed that the use of a by now fairly well established method of structuring a story invalidated the book's claim to being a novel. I suppose there's something a little bit vain in being persuaded to buy a book by such a review; we all want to show we're more open minded, that we enjoy unconventional books. So, I considered that, and then I bought it.
"EXTREAMLY PAINFUL TO WATCH AWFUL ... JUST. AWFUL ... TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT TUT"
A friend of mine bought a film called Sharp Teeth based on the above endorsement; apparently it was terrible. But maybe he wanted it to be terrible; sometimes you just want to watch a really schlock-y film, sometimes you want to read a trashy book. My point is, you can't predict how people will react to negative reviews, especially since the internet has made it so easy to shop drunk.