"It's not personal..."
Negative reviews: they happen. It's just a fact of life. Every reader who likes some books is going to hate others, and that doesn't always mean a book is crappy or you hate the author. I know it's a cliche, but it's just business. It doesn't really make it easy though.
As a reviewer, sometimes I have to write tough reviews. For whatever reason, I don't like a book, or it just wasn't my cup of tea. As the star ratings go down, I admit, my guilt level goes up. Sometimes it gets even tougher if you know the author, or you later get to know them. You want to love it for their sake, but you also have to be honest.
Days like those make me want to hide under the covers and avoid my computer for a little bit. But in the end, the review goes up, and it's plastered for the world to see. It feels like a giant billboard screaming "I hate you!" to the author. Even with the most professional dictation, sometimes you are doomed to sound a little mean from time to time. But being mean is sometimes better than just being nice.
Let me explain.
The "Nice" Syndrome
Readers who review eventually have to come to terms with guilt, or they will catch the "nice" syndrome. The nice syndrome happens when ever book someone reads has a glowing review: "Great characters!", "I stayed up all night!", "Couldn't put it down!", "A+++!". After awhile, reviews like this feel cookie cutter, and they really do little to describe a book. As an author, you also learn to resent them a bit. Sure, it's great to have 5-stars, but stars by themselves have no sustenance. A star-rating is only as strong as the review that backs it. What makes it five-stars? What kept the pages turning? Was the prose brilliant, was the characterization flawless, did they do something new and creative?
In the same way, with time you learn low reviews don't always mean a book is bad. While there will always be flamers, books are bound to have people that just didn't like them, and that's okay! If someone loves steamy romance the chances of them loving fart jokes may go down a bit! People who like everything turn into robots, and that makes it difficult to relate to.
Be Honest, Not Cruel
All this being said, to be helpful negative reviews need to stay professional. Not going to lie, I've been on Goodreads skimming through their top reviews of all time, and some of them are soooo mean....but soooo funny. People will pick out one analogy and tear it to pieces, or rip a plot flaw to shreds. It's times like these when reviews can become personal, and that's a line to try to avoid crossing. Sometimes, yes, it's funny. But unless you're just reviewing for friends, it's probably better to resist.
We all slip up from time to time. But honest reviews are going to funnel all the volatile emotions you experience during a book into a clear and relatable road map for future readers. You have to make a choice: are you writing the review to make them laugh, or to actually help them identify whether this is a book they will like? If you're trying to be helpful, than be honest, not cruel.
A Few Final Tips
So, what do you do when you're about to write a negative review? How do you avoid being too nice or too mean? These are just a few of my personal practices. I'd love to hear if you have some of your own.
What to do if it's a Bad Review
1. Let it Rest
If a book makes me particularly irritated, I may give it a night to settle first before typing up my thoughts. This is particularly useful when you have a rage fit over a cliffhanger or an untimely character death. Give it a night, let yourself be mad. Return in the morning.
2. Narrow it Down
Funnel emotions into more concise feedback. What was it really that you didn't like. Did the plot never get resolved? Did you really hate one particular character? Try to isolate those emotions, remark on them, but also try to look objectively at the book beyond those things.
3. Be clear about any triggers.
This is important. Different readers have different triggers that can upset them. Was there dating violence? Was there crude humor? Identify (without spoilers if you can) anything that may have upset you more than the average reader.
4. Note pet peeves.
This is less serious than a trigger, but also important because the emotional response can be so high. For instance, I hate unexpected perspective changes in first person. Hate it. When I read 70% of a book and we suddenly switch characters, I can feel myself punting a star out the window. It's like I'm standing in front of the author, holding up that little star saying "that was uncalled for, now you're not getting this back!" With pet peeves, you actually have to sit back and have a little talk to yourself. "Self, is it really necessary to take their star for that one line of dialog? No? Then give it back."
5. Finish with a positive.
In drama class, there are critique sandwiches. You have your praise on the outside, and your critique on the inside. As you finish your review, focus on the good. Focus on things other readers may enjoy, even if you didn't. Try to identify another audience who may like it more.
If it wasn't your cup of tea, whose is it?
A Final Note
Reviews are not bookends. They aren't just a point a or point b destination. The best book in the world to me is going to be the worst book in the world to someone else, because they are based on very personal opinions. There are the mechanical issues, sure, (were there spelling errors, did this book have formatting problems) but reviews are more about planting street signs, so readers can guide themselves. Readers use reviews to navigate whether or not they may enjoy a book. So leave helpful comments, even if they're negative.