Recently, I was talking with some associates on Facebook about when to give a bad review. I'd given a lower-than-expected score to a book and they were surprised. They asked me what my criteria were for scoring and whether or not I'd ever given a bad review. I answered, yes, I'd given bad reviews in the past and would continue to do so in the future.
They asked me if I was ever worried about authors trashing my work in public or getting mad. I answered, "Well, if I was intimidated by hard feelings, I wouldn't be a very good reviewer, now would I?"
It occurred to me, however, there's not much on the internet about the right way to give a bad review. There's plenty of Caustic Critics (thank you, TV tropes) who love to put down things because they suck and it's funny to hear stuff get heckled. These reviews are wildly popular and with good reason.
People appreciate the honesty of having the flaws of a work pointed out to them. However, I've seen a lot of reviews which are just teeth-gnashingly nasty with no real content. It's okay to hate on a work but I've never really gotten much feedback from, "It sucks! Don't buy it!"
What is the purpose of a bad review?
For me, the it's to hold up a sign and warn away people away like a lighthouse does with ships near rocky shores. I'm a great believer there's so such thing as bad publicity so I have to always ask myself, "Is a bad review better than not reviewing something at all?"
There have been several books I have refused to review on the United Federation of Charles because, bluntly, they weren't very good. The authors were friends of mine but I couldn't, in all honesty, review their work without tearing it down.
One free ebook I got from an author hadn't been formatted properly so it didn't have paragraphs. I told her that she should correct that but that it being for sale, now, was a mistake. I would have mentioned this on her Amazon.com page but there were already reviews which pointed this out.
So, when should I post a bad review? Here's my thoughts:
1. When you feel the need to be a dissenting opinion: This is something that often motivates me and that's when I find myself reviewing something very-very popular which I don't like. My review of (here) reflects the fact I found Cole Phelps to be a sanctimonious jerk who made ahistorical claims about World War 2.
I also found the game's open-world to be unnecessary. The game was often called the best game of all time and I felt it was most certainly not. Still, I gave it a two-star rating because a one-star rating wouldn't acknowledge the fun I did have. I gave a similar review to Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money (here), which I found to be boring and poorly designed.
2. When I feel the author can do better: I find it amusing that, hands down, the single most popular review on my website is my review of Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue (here). To date, it is my only one-star review on this website. I hesitated to post it anywhere but my blog because I love Charles Stross' writings and respect him as an author. He's a guy who writes Cthulhu-themed spy fiction, more or less catnip to my Delta Green-loving brain.
However, The Jennifer Morgue was one long shallow parody of James Bond which turned up its nose at the series every chance it could get while cribbing its plot from Thunderball (the most overused of all Bond films/novels to rip off). It was painful to get through and unworthy of the author's efforts. I hope to meet Charles Stross someday but if we ever do, he needs to know I don't think much of that work.
3. When there are problematic elements: As mentioned above, I'm a fan of both the literary as well as the film version of James Bond. If I were to ever review Ian Fleming's works today, however, I would find myself unable to give them ten out of ten scores on the basis they were often racist and sexist.
I don't mean "kinda" racist or sexist either. I mean stuff like that in From Russia With Love, Kerim Bey talks about how he used to keep his future wife prisoner in his basement. H.P. Lovecraft is the greatest horror author of all time, in my mind, but if I glossed over some of the vile crap he said about other races then I'd be doing a disservice to my readers.
The thing is, I still love H.P. Lovecraft but he has quite a few stories I'd give 1 star or below to like Medusa's Coil. That's the story where the "horrible revelation" the protagonist discovers about herself is she's got black ancestry. Not exactly sanity-blasting, IMHO. I weigh in how these elements effect my readership and point them out so readers can judge for themselves whether they think they'd enjoy a book.
While most modern authors avoid the excesses of the past, I can't tell you the number of times I've knocked off a point or two because the villains are a bunch of rapists because the author has decided that's the best way to show they're evil. That particular bit of storytelling really burns me.
4. When I think the flaws are not immediately apparent: This is where I will make my own confession time: my first Tabletop RPG, Winterweir, sucked. This is a somewhat overly harsh opinion, I've been told since I have a fairly rabid fanbase. I still took it off the market, though, because it had a lot of typos and grammatical mistakes I might have found if I'd been more cautious. It doesn't look amateur-ish, though.
Mostly, because of the kickass cover art by Storn Cook.
Reviewers were not fooled by the cover, though, and their opinions were brutal. In this day and age, anyone can buy awesome cover art or even excellent editing (which they don't do often enough) but you can't buy good writing.
That only comes with practice.
Finally, the 5 and most important rule.
5. When you *do* post a bad review, be specific and honest: A review where you praise everything and don't mention what you dislike doesn't help an author (unless you really liked everything). A review where you criticize everything but don't mention what you liked is equally valueless (unless it was that awful).
I use the 1-10 scale for a reason because it is the rare book I think is technically perfect as well as awesome to read. Stuff like Heir to the Empire or Time of Death: Induction are the rare books I think are genre classics in the making. Most books, by contrast, get lower scores even when I really like them.
If I'm unhappy I've read a book, then I'm happy to assign a 2-5 score for a work. However, if I've liked it in even the mildest way I tend to give a 6 or above. 8 is what happens for book I really-really liked but don't think did anything exceptional. I only give 9 or 10 scores to books that I think not only tell a good story but do something which really sticks with me or makes me think. Don't dilute the 10 out of 10's power or the 1 out of 10's venom by throwing them around causally.
I hope this has helped future reviewers out there. I also hope readers and potential reviewers will understand that writing out reviews for authors is something they live for (both good and bad). Take the time to review the books you like (and dislike) and share those opinions. Staying silent is something I reserve for only the worst of the worst.
The books I'd rather see forgotten.
Some friends have e-mailed me privately about this article and mentioned they feel intimidated by potential audience retaliation. Part of what Amazon.com has made the mistake of doing was including a "helpful" or "unhelpful" response system. Likewise, other authors have attempted to go after authors they find to be problematic.
My response to this? Barring tracking you down to your house (where you should call the police), don't sweat it. No one likes getting a bad review and some people are going to be immature asshats about the whole thing.
I've posted over a hundred reviews at Amazon.com and a tenth of them have been marked unhelpful. Nine-tenths of them, however, have been marked helpful so I know I'm doing something right. You can't deal with the audience reaction to your reviews, whether from rabid fans or authors who act like five-year-olds. The majority of Amazon readers aren't going to pay attention to your review ranking, either, but instead what you wrote.