Negative Book Reviews: Is There Such a Thing as Bad Publicity?

A few years ago, after her book received a negative review, Katha Pollitt concluded, “Apparently there is such a thing as bad publicity, and that’s bad publicity that people don’t know about.”  I was reminded of these words a few days ago, when I saw Patrick Somerville’s thoughtful but rambling piece on salon.com, “Thank You For Killing My Novel,” where he reacts to a negative review in The New York Times of his new book, This Bright River.  It’s a big deal to be reviewed in the New York Times, which Somerville acknowledges, still lamenting the fact that his book did not pass muster in the prominent book critic’s eyes.

I’ll be honest that Somerville’s reply is the first I’ve heard of him or his work.  His “damage control” reply interested me enough to write about it here, but it did not motivate me to buy his book.  Why not?  There are two reasons: (1) I know his book received a high profile negative review; and (2) the price of the book does not outweigh the negative review.

It’s easy to get bent out of shape because of a negative review.  Authors work hard on their novels, a highly personal creative endeavor.  It hurts to know that someone doesn’t “get it,” which will inevitably be the case.  Nothing will appeal to everyone (oh, how I laughed when I read Abbey Road’s negative reviews).  A negative review alone rarely convinces me not to buy a book.  I’ve purchased loads of books that were panned by a mixture of prominent and anonymous reviewers, but only when the price of the book was right.  That’s easy when the book in question is under $5, which is usually only the case for indie books.  That’s not so easy when the book is more expensive, like most traditionally published books.

In this case, being a traditionally published book with loads of “middle men and women” driving up the production cost, This Bright River is listed on Amazon at $13.80 for the hardcover and $11.99 for the kindle edition.  The costs (bad review + hefty price for ebook + time that it would take to read 464 pages) far outweigh the theoretical benefit that I might like the book despite the fact that a prominent reviewer and a smattering of anonymous reviewers on Amazon did not.  Their opinions are subjective and may be entirely different from what would be my opinion of the book, but I won’t know until I either check the book out of the library (which doesn’t help his sales figures) or find it at a steeply reduced price.

That said, now that I know who Patrick Somerville is and the review and his reply have piqued my curiosity about his writing, I might take a look at this earlier work, The Cradle, which he mentioned in his salon.com reply received good reviews.  That seems like less of a risk on my part, and who knows, if I like it, maybe I’ll give This Bright River a try, too, and maybe it will be on sale by then.  So, to the extent bad publicity raises your profile as a writer, maybe it’s good after all, particularly if the book is priced reasonably.

8 thoughts on “Negative Book Reviews: Is There Such a Thing as Bad Publicity?

  1. Pingback: When the Person Behind the Book Fights Back | The Misfortune Of Knowing

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  3. I agree. I know enough (few hundred or so?) authors, mostly who publish with indie publishers, who would kill for a NY Times review, but a high profile kill is a kill. On the other hand, negative reviews on, say, Amazon can be a forum for expanding the dialogue, selling more books and, in fact “getting on the map.”
    Why is this? IF the review is mainstream media (like NY Times) in print, the response mechanism is virtually non-existent. We all know the very definition of the word critic includes the concept of “opinion.” Unfortunately, we’re culturally trained to give more weight to a “mainstream” critic.
    This, I believe is changing. A book with 300 Amazon reviews, some negative and some positive can probably offset the damage of a mainstream review. Unfortunately, for an author, publishers, indies especially, do send out for review of the trades and mainstream as a common practice (the automatic part is the unfortunate part of this practice).
    This may not be best for a debut. It might be better to build a platform online. All the major review platforms (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, etc) post reviews automatically to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. This makes the review — which is, after all, an opinion — very influential for better or worse. I sometimes coach my author friends to focus on reviews the same way a publicity or PR person focuses on the news. Start smaller, building credibility with blog and zine critics, Amazon readers and smaller trades.
    Of course, the downside is that you may miss a major push from a major publication. It’s agonizing for authors and it pains me to see what some of my friends go through.

    1. Thanks for providing your insight! I agree that the situation is changing, as the mainstream reviewers at the present time lose their clout with the continuing rise of social media.

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