Monday, March 7, 2011

Take Heart Young Authors: Negative Book Reviews Increase Sales

Even an old-growth red wine described as "redolent of stinky socks" experienced a five-percent increase in sales after being featured in a Wine Library video.

New authors who read reviews of their own books often never let go of the bad ones. I honestly can't remember a word of the positive reviews of my first novel, but I can quote to you verbatim the most disappointing sentence of the less-glowing Publishers Weekly review: "Such muddled, cumbersome prose weighs down the chronicle of Emily's nightlong struggle to survive in the sea, heavily reliant upon coincidences." My first reaction was catty: wasn't the reviewer's writing somewhat muddled, too? My second reaction was pragmatic: at least the description "nightlong struggle to survive in the sea" had an exciting ring to it. And as the saying goes, they had spelled my name right. I could live with that.

I've already posted my thoughts about why bad reviews are a good thing, and how dumbfounded I am that the world of children's literature has gone soft. Now, actual economic research reassures relatively unknown authors that any publicity is in fact good publicity, because it stimulates product awareness.

In their paper, "Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales" (Marketing Science, September-October 2010), Jonah Berger (Wharton), Alan Sorensen (Stanford), and Scott Rasmussen (Stanford) looked at the sales figures for 240 works of fiction following reviews in The New York Times. Positive reviews had the effect of increasing sales by 32% to 52%. Negative reviews for established authors decreased sales by 15%. But negative reviews of books of relatively unknown authors raised sales 45%. Moreover, follow-up research in behavior labs showed that the negative impression of the review diminished over time for study participants, while their desire to buy the book remained the same.

(I would argue that there is an implication for reviewers in this research as well: don't hold back your negative reviews to spare the feelings of new authors, because you may actually be doing them a disservice; rather, you should only withhold your negative review when you don't want to contribute to sales of the book.)

If an author has real chutzpah, he or she might even fan the flames of negative publicity. A Chicago colleague of mine did this for his debut middle-grade novel, when he challenged a high-school blogger to a duel in Grant Park and held Neil Gaiman hostage at the ALA meetings the year The Graveyard Book won the Newbery. I may have my facts a little off, but only a little.

As for my PW review, a producer called me soon after my debut, inquiring about the movie rights. She made a point of mentioning that the PW review had sparked her interest. When I expressed astonishment that such a ho-hum review could catch her eye, it turned out that she couldn't actually recall the details of the review. She said, "I just have a note here to myself that the story sounds exciting." Score another point for Berger, Sorensen, and Rasumussen.


  1. Hi
    While I'm no longer all that young, I am a relatively new and unknown YA author. This post is extremely helpful to me...the hardest part of being published for me has been coping with negative reviews (luckily only a couple) in a positive way. It's the public nature of them that bothers me the most I guess...I want to delete them somehow! Anyway, thanks for the post and the terrific blog.

  2. Thanks for your note, L!

    The only possible emotional solution to bad reviews is to always have a project that you're passionately working on.