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When are you big enough to handle the bad review?


the pilot p-500

Last week, a personal book-review blog called BigAl’s Books and Pals posted a review of a self-published novel by Jacqueline Howett. Howett took exception to the review and posted a series of ranting comments, eventually deteriorating into obscenities—but not before the thread had gone viral, and not in a good way. Some insist that any publicity is good publicity, but the writing blogosphere unanimously agrees that Howett shot herself in the proverbial foot with her behavior.

But for writers who don’t have public meltdowns over bad reviews, is any publicity good publicity? How do bad reviews affect book sales?

David Brooks’s new book, The Social Animal, is part scientific research, part fiction: a kind of Malcolm-Gladwell-esque pop psychology theory told via allegory. Some critics have praised it, but plenty of others have been less positive, including some pretty mixed reviews from the Wall Street Journal and Brooks’s own New York Times, and this scorcher from Salon, which includes this recommendation:

I did manage to work my way through the whole book, however, by an expediency that I recommend to anyone else who must suffer through it. I simply chanted to myself, “Die, yuppie scum, die,” when I reached the end of each page, and it made the time fly by marvelously well. In addition, there is a blissful moment of catharsis when you reach the last page and one of the characters does die, although it isn’t in a tragic explosion involving a tennis racket, an overdose of organic fair-trade coffee, and an assassination squad of rogue economists at Davos, as I was hoping.

When you’re as well-known as David Brooks, do negative reviews like this hurt your sales? After, all, Dan Brown is pretty universally mocked by critics, but his books still sell like hotcakes (as Brown, a lover of cliches, might put it—while counting his millions of dollars).

So for a big-name author, is all publicity good publicity? A study to be published in the journal Marketing Science (via) takes a look at the effects of negative reviews in the New York Times on authors’ sales. But the findings are not what you might expect:

Regardless of whether the book was written by a new or established author, being positively reviewed significantly increased sales; a positive review generated between a 32% and 52% percent increase in demand [...] In contrast, estimates indicate that the effect of negative publicity depended on existing author awareness [...]. For books by established authors, a negative review led to a 15% decrease in sales (this estimate is slightly imprecise due to the relatively small sample size). For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%.

In other words, bad reviews hurt established authors, but any reviews—good or bad—helped relatively unknown writers, boosting sales by almost half. The study’s authors cite this example:

Relative to not being covered, being reviewed in the Times increased a book’s sales, even in some instances where a reviewer panned the book. The book Fierce People, for example, was written by an new author and received an unambiguously negative review (e.g., “the characters do not have personalities so much as particular niches in the stratosphere” and “He gets by on attitude, not such a great strategy if the reader can’t figure out what that attitude is”) yet sales more than quadrupled after the review.

So for new writers, making it into the New York Times will help your sales, even if Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani rip you a new one.

If bad reviews just demoralize you, however, “nice thing” book reviews might be right up your alley. GalleyCat’s Jason Boog posts one nice thing on Goodreads about every book he reads and invites you to do the same.


Join the Discussion

  • Lee Thomas

    Totally dig this post. The question of how to review a book is a large and important one. Like so many FWR readers, I appreciated what Charles Baxter had to say on “Owl Criticism.” But I also confess that I think a good review goes beyond craft to some kind of assessment. You give as accurate a portrait of the book as you – a subjective, fallible, taste-driven human being – can, and let the reader of the review decide whether to read it.

    That said, there’s a definite difference in tone between the “bad review” and what comes off as a vitriolic, personal vendetta (You know the ones – where you wonder: “Did this author insult the reviewer’s wife at a party?”). Then again, as a reader of reviews, I have to admit a certain pleasure in reading those completely over-the-top slash-and-burn jobs. They have a hysterical, absurdist tone to them that feeds my baser appetites. I just don’t make my reading decisions based on them.

  • http://julienilson.wordpress.com Julie Nilson

    I wonder how many people bought Jacqueline Howett’s book, just out of curiosity, after reading her posts?

  • http://www.janeporter.com Jane Porter

    Loved this. Perfect time to read it, too, as I’m struggling to come to terms with reviews all over again. Sometimes I’m good with them…even the horrendous ones…and other times they make me feel insane. Damn, but I need to be more Zen!

  • Celeste Ng

    Thanks, Jane! Is it possible to be Zen? Here’s hoping, anyway… Good luck!

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