Monday, January 22, 2024

The Most Common Reasons a Book Gets Negative Reviews

We're pleased to welcome Andrea Moran, Book Reviewer & Blogger at Kirkus Reviews. Be sure to see the special offer by Kirkus for the IWSG audience at the end of this post. 

Bravely putting a book out into the world is difficult enough without fearing a slew of unfavorable reviews. While you can’t please everyone who picks up your book, there are reasons many readers may have a negative reaction—and the good news is that most of those reasons are avoidable. Here are a few of the most common ones to consider when you’re writing and editing a draft.

1. The book is categorized in the wrong genre.

Readers don’t like to feel as though they have been tricked. So when a particular book is marketed as one thing but in reality is something completely different, there is probably going to be backlash.

This is particularly useful to keep in mind when choosing your book cover and other promotional blurbs. After all, you want to ensure that a gut-wrenching character study doesn’t have the color palette of a romance, or that a book that is 99 percent science fiction doesn’t have back cover text emphasizing a hard-boiled detective. Despite the common wisdom to the contrary, many people do judge a book by its cover—and are more than willing to share a bad review based on that judgment.

2. The main characters are unlikable.

While you can develop a protagonist who possesses a few character traits that are less than stellar, sometimes characters can be too unlikable. Obviously no one is perfect, but readers will have a hard time relating to (never mind rooting for) someone who is so full of flaws and negative traits that their common humanity gets lost. So go ahead, make some people in your central cast of characters delightfully marred—just don’t forget to imbue them with an occasional redeeming quality.

3. The ending is too abrupt.

No one likes reading a book that’s cut off before a proper ending. You may alienate readers who don’t like investing time in a book that never really ends or frustrate them with an ending that answers only some of the questions they have.

Even if this is the first book in a series, leaving it on an all-out cliffhanger is a risky move, and readers may refuse to invest more time reading the next book. It’s perfectly fine to leave some ambiguity, but there should be enough resolution to the main storyline that readers don’t feel slighted—or else they’re likely to air their grievances via a bad review.

4. The book hasn’t been edited well (or at all).

Nothing can derail a good book faster than lots of errors. Typos, punctuation mistakes, inconsistent formatting—these can leave a bad taste in readers’ mouths. Errors tend to distract readers from the main message of the book. This means all your hard work developing characters and a plot will likely be overshadowed if readers are continually pulled out of the story by a set of missing quotation marks or a misspelled word. Luckily, this is one issue that is easily avoided by hiring a qualified editor.

5. The stylistic choices are off-putting.

Everyone’s taste is different, but going for a less popular choice can sometimes backfire. The use of second-person narration—“You walk down the hallway,” for example—is rarely used in novels, which means it’s a bold and perhaps not highly advisable option when choosing your book’s point of view.

Similarly, readers tend to find choices like the excessive use of ellipses more annoying than illuminating. And if you’re going to use creative line spacing or other alternative formatting, make sure there’s a good reason for doing so. (If you need an example of how to do it well, look no further than House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.) Readers are likely to leave a bad review if they feel the style is too out there or makes the book confusing—of course, whether that’s a fair assessment is another matter entirely.

6. The characters are inconsistent.

Readers become invested in a story’s characters, and that’s a good thing! But they can’t get invested when characteristics change from one chapter to the next. If someone’s whole personality revolves around a particular trait and that trait is forgotten about or betrayed simply for the sake of moving the plot in a different direction or throwing in a surprise twist, you are going to have some pretty annoyed readers. Characters are supposed to be complex, nuanced, and layered. They shouldn’t go against previously established trait markers that helped make them who they were to begin with.

7. The ending is unsatisfying.

Often, the hardest part of writing a story is nailing the ending. We’ve all read at least one book that was humming right along until the final act that, instead of sticking the landing, turned into one giant clunker. Readers who are left feeling unsatisfied with how the situation resolves (or doesn’t resolve) will likely feel motivated to leave a bad review that vents their frustration.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have an ending that is sad or unexpected or even a little ambiguous (but see number three!). It just means that the ending should fit the tone and lesson of the book as a whole. A romance novel pretty much requires a happy ending, for example, while a gritty character study should offer some semblance of personal growth at its conclusion—even if that conclusion isn’t necessarily a joyous one for all involved.

Andrea Moran lives outside of Nashville with her husband and two kids. She’s a professional copywriter and editor who loves all things books. Find her on LinkedIn.

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Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee - Andrea makes very good points ... I've been put off with poor endings of a book I enjoyed - yet felt it was 'unfinished' because of the end. Cheers Hilary

Natalie Aguirre said...

Andrea has some great reasons for negative reviews. And she's right that it's very hard to create a satisfying end. I find this especially true in the final book in a series.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those are good points to consider when writing a book. I've read many that had really negative and unsatisfying endings.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Those are all excellent points!

cleemckenzie said...

Some of these are easy to fix with only a bit more attention and care. Good editing and choosing the right genre are really technical. The rest take some work. I appreciate this post. So clear and so right on.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Some of those are reasons a publisher rejects a manuscript, too.

G. B. Miller said...

I rarely leave a negative review for a book of fiction these days, when Amazon allows me (lowest I've given a book of fiction was a "3"). But back in the day, most of my negative reviews were for non-fiction, almost none were for any of the solid reasons listed here. I'm curious though, do you have similar guidelines/reasons for non-fiction books?

Megan | The Booknerd Lifestyle said...

As a book reviewer, editing is HUGE for me. If a book looks like it hasn't been edited (or it's been edited poorly), it is an almost instant turn-off. Thanks for sharing this!

H. R. Sinclair said...

Great tips!

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent tips!
For me, if I'm not rooting for the character in the first scene or 2, I likely won't finish the book