THE BLOG
03/05/2014 09:47 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

Can Book Reviews Hurt Book Sales?

Have you ever gotten a string of bad reviews for a book and wondered if suddenly the world had turned a cold shoulder to your writing career?

A few weeks ago, we were pitched by an author who had in excess of 50 negative reviews on his Amazon book page, all of them 1-star and all of them pretty horrid. When I wrote him, I told him that it would be tough to market this book, given all of the bad feedback he'd gotten from readers. He wrote back, pretty angry, insisting that readers were "out to get him." I read a portion of the book and, sadly, the 1-star reviews were pretty accurate. So, the "readers are out to get me" angle probably isn't too accurate here, and I find that most of the time readers don't have a vendetta against the author, they just don't like the book or perhaps don't understand what they bought. After this happened, I was sent this article by a friend (http://hellogiggles.com/do-online-reviews-take-the-chance-out-of-book-buying) on how reviews may actually hurt books, instead of helping them. That piece, along with my direct experience with authors and the reviews they get, led me to ask the question: Can reviews actually hurt book sales?

The general consumer public is pretty driven by reviews, whether it's reviews of movies, books, or restaurants on sites like Yelp. But history has shown us that reviews aren't always accurate. For example, a few weeks ago I was pitched by a site that guarantees 5-star reviews for anything we send them. Wait. Really? That kind of thing scares me. Look, I get the lure of wanting a ton of love for a book, but I'd like genuine love that's earned as opposed to bought. At some point when does book promotion start looking like prostitution?

Can a few bad reviews really spoil the others? Well, yes and no. Generally from what I've seen on Amazon the more 1 and 2-star reviews you have, the more your ranking will start to sink. The ratio is really hard to determine but from what I've seen if you have twenty reviews and five of them are 1 or 2-star, it will start to sink your overall score from 5-star, to 4 1/2. If the negative reviews continue to mount up, then the overall ranking sinks even further, from 4 1/2 to 3.

Let's look at a real-time example. There is author I know who has ninety-five reviews. Pretty good, no? Of that, she has thirty one 5-star, twenty-seven 4-star, twenty 3-star and the rest are 2 and 1 stars. Her overall score? Four and a half stars. With that many reviews, there's a bit of a balance between the good and the bad, but as you can see, her bad reviews on Amazon have a bigger impact than you might think.

We live in a world where anyone can say anything about anything, whether they are an expert or not, it doesn't matter. There is no hard and fast solution to this problem, but I think it merits a better understanding of how this is happening and perhaps, in so doing, we can formulate some action items to avoid falling into the 1-star review bucket.

The problem, as I see it, comes from a few areas. One of them is: free. While free eBooks are great, they are often snapped up by freebie lovers, which presents a unique problem: they often misinterpret what they are getting. Granted, most of us are pretty clear on what our book is about but it could be that the books are being viewed on smaller screens and readers grab them thinking they are something different. Some freebie lovers grab everything free, regardless of what it is, and what we've found is that they often post low reviews. Keep in mind that just because you do a free giveaway does not mean that you'll get a ton of 1-star reviews. But it does mean that the risk is higher. Still, it's a bit of a crap-shoot. We had another book that did 37,000 in the giveaway but still holds its 5-star ranking on Amazon. The book got lots of reviews post-giveaway and all of the readers were pretty clear on what they were getting.

More prompts for reviews: There are more reminder tools than ever that ask you to review what you just bought. I know on the Kindle device, the minute you're done with a book it pops up a review screen. I also get review reminders from Amazon for particular titles (and it also shows up from Amazon Prime). While this is great, it can, in some cases, work against you.

Anonymous Internet: It's easy to blast someone you don't know. Let's face it. The same is sort of true with anything, right? Some people are passive-aggressive around emails. They have no trouble sending a heat-seeking email but when you pick up the phone to confront them, you'll end up going to voicemail. I think that, to some degree, marketing is like that. If you aren't connected to the reader, the reader has no connection to you. I believe that the first way to avoid this is to put yourself out there more and make your work more accessible. Also, if you put yourself out there readers who may not have picked up your book because of the reviews may actually decide to do so because you connected with them.

The more books that are published, the more this will become necessary. And when it comes to making your work more accessible, let's take a look at some ideas that may support the aspect of getting in front of your reader:

Connecting with readers through sites like Goodreads and Wattpad: There are a number of ways to dialog directly with your readers, and both Goodreads and Wattpad offer a many accessible options to do that. As I mentioned above, if you remain anonymous readers will have no real connection to you.

Asking for Reviews: Many authors will open the review window only during the first month or ninety days of the book. I think this is a mistake. If you end up with the problem of having a lot of low-end reviews for a book, the way to combat that and raise your overall ranking is to keep pushing reviews. Of course it goes without saying that your book is good and that it merits a higher score. If your book is not good but you're putting it out there anyway, well, that's a different problem.

Video & Audio samples: Video trailers and audio snippets of the book can also help introduce readers to you and your content. It could also help them have a greater understanding of what your book is about.

Letter to the readers: I'm still a huge fan of this. Include a letter to the reader in the back of the book. Typically they'll get to this before they get to the Amazon prompt for a review (if they're reading the book on Kindle) and it's a great way to encourage them to write an authentic review. It's also a way to thank them for reading your book and for their effort. This letter can really help make the difference between a reviewer who is engaged in you and your book, and one who is not.

Sample chapters: This is another big one. You want to offer sample chapters and sample content both on your site, on Goodreads and also on sites like Wattpad, which get huge traffic. This is not only a great way to market your book, but another element of getting content to your reader.

Giveaways: Giving away eBooks used to be "the thing" to do, now it's the thing everyone does, and while there's no issue with that, I recommend being careful where you advertise your giveaway. Reputable sites like Freebooksy and Bookbub have a dedicated readership and isolate their books by reader preferences which will greatly help you dial into the right audience, as opposed to the audience who just wants "free."

Commenting on their review: Don't respond to reviews - ever. It's tempting to respond to a review, especially a bad one, but I would strongly suggest that you don't. The only time I would respond is if your response helps enhance the conversation, rather than exacerbate it. And by that I mean, thank the reviewer for their review (yes, even if it's 1-star) and tell them their insight is helpful and that you appreciate it. I had a really bad review on a book I wrote and it was clear to me from the review that the author was actually confused about what book he was reading. I responded to his review and suggested that perhaps he wanted a copy of a different book, which does address the items he'd hoped were in the book he was reviewing. He thought he was getting Red Hot Internet Publicity, but he'd actually picked up one of my Amazon books and wondered why there was no internet stuff in it. Yes, that does happen. When it does, step up and offer the corrected version to the reviewer. I know, I know - first they blast your book and then you offer them a free one to perhaps further antagonize them? When I've tried this I've had some great responses and, in some cases, no response, but hey, at least I tried. When it comes to book reviews, don't fight fire with fire.

Book cover and copy: Now this part is on you and is certainly something you can control. Of all of the authors I've spoken to around the review piece, many of them have said that the buyer thought the book was something other than what they were getting. Sure there are times when buyers just don't pay attention, but more often than not, this is an issue that started with the author. Be clear on what your book is - and what it isn't - and make sure that's clearly stated on the cover and in the copy. Giving readers a false idea of what your book is really about helps no one, least of all you.

The point really is that reviews are great, and personally I'm not swayed by a bad review (or two) but lots and lots of bad reviews can really start to hurt a book, especially if they aren't warranted. There isn't some group of readers out there plotting your demise and trust me when I say the world really isn't against you. If you have nothing but 1-star reviews on Amazon maybe you need to look at the book, instead of lamenting its readership. But for most of us, the surge of review prompts, free books and books in general, presents a different and unique problem. Add to that the surge of mobile mania and more and more books being bought on eReaders and mobile devises and, generally, on the go. Readers may not have the time to review the book the way they would if they were sitting at a desktop, so monitoring your overall ranking and understanding how a few negative reviews can hurt you is good for your writing career. Nobody will ever get all 5-star reviews and if they do, they're probably using the company I mentioned earlier in this piece. Having a mix of good and bad is not bad, it's normal. But when your book starts to drift heavily to the bad, that's when you need to be proactive to correct it. I wish there was an easy fix for this, sadly, there isn't. But I think the solution, overall, is to remain aware of what's happening both "out there" in publishing and with your books directly.

Education is half the battle, and you can avoid letting your book fall prey to some bad reviews by staying ahead of the curve.

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