On Negative Book Reviews

What is the place of critical reviews in an online, monetized world?

On Negative Book Reviews

This sarcastic take-down of BuzzFeed’s decision not to post negative reviews (another reaction from The New Yorker here) got me thinking about the uses and abuses of negative book reviews.

Readers will know that we do not shy away from posting negative reviews. The editors do not stymie criticism; however, they attempt to ensure that criticism is fair and meets the book on its own terms. I’d label our approach to reviewing “reader-centric” (as opposed to author-centric, publishing industry-centric, reviewer-centric, or other “centrics” you might imagine … except for occasionally—I cannot resist—eccentric). Reviews should be informative and entertaining in their own right, but negative reviews help readers choose books and contribute to the conversation about literature and culture.

In this day and age, when a site like Goodreads blurs the line between reviewing and sales, and when a site like BuzzFeed can ban negative reviews and still get gobs of web traffic (the biggest travesty of all, I say!), readers may be confused or skeptical about the integrity of book reviews. For those readers, I suggest considering the following three questions:

1) Who is the author of the book, and how much buzz it is getting?

Book reviews are part of a cultural conversation, but also expose readers to new books and authors. These require somewhat different treatment. Trashing the author of a debut novel most readers would otherwise never hear about may be irresponsibly harsh (though, keep in mind, a negative review beats no review from the economic perspective of many new authors). But some books are “big books.” It would be madness not to review the new James Franco, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Malcolm Gladwell just because reviewers are critical. You may recall our earlier dialogue about Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, which began and ended by heralding the importance of the book, while spending the remainder criticizing it.

2) Who is the reviewer?

A subtext in many discussions about negative reviews is the reluctance of writers to criticize other writers. It’s difficult for me, as an unpublished writer, to make light of the issue. But scientists have found institutional ways around this, and no doubt writers can, too. Moreover, one need not be a published author to write a good book review; historically, criticism has been separate. These days the endeavor has been democratized (a discussion for another time) but the three most important aspects of a reviewer are: 1) they know something about the author or subject (while disclosing potential conflicts of interest); 2) they are themselves avid readers, ideally ones whose tastes the review readers have come to trust; and 3) they are capable of thorough analysis and can articulate the results in a clear, engaging manner.

3) Who benefits most? or: Follow the money!

This, I am sorry to say, is the big one, especially online, where every click counts. Of course reviewers should have some expectation of benefit, but a review that is an exercise in self-aggrandizement probably isn’t a worthy review (even if it is deliciously snarky). 

The issue for websites, as the original NYT piece points out, is the incentives associated with e-commerce. People are less likely to click through and buy the book if the review is negative. (Many of us can probably remember instances where a negative review sold us a book, but it’s undeniably uncommon.) We make a small amount when people click through to Amazon and buy a book we’ve reviewed. But we make the same small amount no matter what people buy, as long as they click through from our site. Most of our Amazon revenue does not come from purchases of books we’ve reviewed … and the amount would need to increase by several orders of magnitude before it would even occur to any of us to factor that into decision-making (don’t let this stop you if you want to buy a $70,000 industrial washer or a $26,000 telephoto lens on Amazon).

As tempted as I am to label this cynical, I now know enough about the brutal economics of the online world not to. Yet it raises a question of motives and objectives for a site that would quash negative reviews because they sell less books (even Goodreads and Amazon itself don’t do this).

And it certainly doesn’t make things any easier for readers.


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