Word of Mouth or Cyber Bully?

I’m hearing more and more conversations crop up lately from small business owners who say dissatisfied customers with even an ounce of Internet savvy can create an unfair disadvantage for their businesses. They argue customers are too quick to zap off a bad review, poor rating, or negative ‘word of mouth’ without ever giving the business a chance to make it right. “Feedback is a gift,” business owners claim. “And I never even got to open it until it was too late.” I can’t help wondering if it’s more like a party too many businesses don’t pay attention to until a hundred people jump out of the dark and yell “Surprise!” Either way, these highly visible online rants and ratings of the unhappy and dissatisfied can be a real detriment to acquiring new customers. And some businesses are crying, “Cyber bully!” 

But are they really? Let me take it closer to home: enter the novice or mid-list author. These author folks may feel a similar squeeze when negative comments or one-star ratings crop up for their books at various reader/author social networking sites or online booksellers—sometimes even before the book is released and based solely on how excited someone is (or isn’t) to read the book. Add the rumor of authors gaming the system by soliciting everyone and their brother for 4 and 5 star ratings and by low-balling competitors’ titles, and you can see why authors can be squeamish about the power of word of mouth on the Internet. At its best, it works for you. At its worst, not so much.

But does that mean people who scatter low ratings like jellybeans at an Easter egg hunt—with or without commentary to support them—are really abusing the author? Don’t readers realize how much power they wield, how much of a boon or a detriment their ratings could be for an emerging author? 

Probably not. And not only is it a bad idea to police the system, I think it’s futile to try. Internet word of mouth is organic in nature. Those who trust and value the opinions of others will continue to seek them out, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for everyone. Just like when we write we make positive assumptions about our reader’s intelligence and ability to follow our stream of consciousness, we shouldn’t underestimate the sensibility of those same readers when it comes to their ability to sort through the good, the bad and the ugly reviews. I like to think unless the negative rating came from a highly trusted or personal source, most prospective readers toss out the outliers and look for themes anyway.

What about you? As a reader, how much do negative ratings influence your decision to try a new author?

18 Replies to “Word of Mouth or Cyber Bully?”

  1. It depends on the number of bad reviews and what they have to say. If there’s a lot and confirm the same points, I might not be as willing to plunk down money. In fact, I was looking at an ebook today on Amazon, but after reading 10 one star reviews that pretty much all agreed on the same bad points of the book, I didn’t click buy.

    But, if the book really grabs me, then I don’t care what the other reviewers say. I snag it anyways and make my opinion.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Melissa! That begs the question…do 10 one-star reviews constitute a trend or does it depend on approximately what percentage of the overall number of reviews they represent? Do most readers even get that scientific about it? I seem to have more questions than answers these days. (:

  2. Hmmmmmm, I prefer word of mouth as a recommendation to buy a book, but, I have to admit that if I see something on Amazon with lots of bad reviews I will think twice 😦

    As a reader, and writer, my problem is giving reviews. If I know the author personally I really struggle to say anything bad about the book, because I know how it might affect their sales. That’s the hard part 😦


    1. I can see your quandary, Vikki. It’s nice that you’re at least leaving reviews. I always thought even a ‘neutral’ review was better than none at all. (:

  3. I agree with Melissa above. I tend to read the reviews and if there are many that point to the same problems then I shy away. However, if someone I trust has pointed me to the book, then I ignore those other reviews. I think that’s the value of Goodreads.

    1. What I love about GoodReads as a review site is a lot of the people there will take the time to actually provide commentary with the review—which really helps understand where they’re coming from. It’s those who leave just the star (for a bad review) that are the tough ones. Honestly, unless there’s a whole bunch of them, I just ignore them.Thanks for your comment! (:

  4. I actually prefer to see one or two low or mid-level reviews among all the high rankings, for a given product, especially if the low reviews are specific as to the reason for their disappointment.

    The low reviews help balance it out and give me a better idea of what to expect from the product. Most often, the difference between a high review and a low review is a matter of consumer expectations.

    1. I’m with you on liking to see a range in reviews. The reality is you just can’t please all of the people all of the time. Thanks for the comment, Joe. (:

  5. This is a subject that moves me. I’m at the point in my career that I still do the happy dance for good reviews and sink low over the bad ones. I can’t wait until I can let this go. I’m just not there yet. Last night on one of my social book sites, I saw a reader marked one of my books to read. She has done almost one hundred reviews of many well known secular books (mine is Christian) and her average rating is 2.64. I can’t help but hope I don’t get one of her jellybeans.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Dianne. I’m not sure anyone ever completely gets over a bad reviews, but middle-of-the-road reviews are par for the course. I am sure you will get many to balance whatever sort of review you get from her. But I’ll be praying for you! (:

  6. Regarding the above, the reason I knew this was that she messaged me about sending her a book to review. I looked at her profile, saw her review average and decided not to go that route. But then I saw she had marked my book to read after that.

  7. I read reviews, but weight them in my mind depending on what they said. If they don’t off any help other than “This was great!” or “This was awful.” then I pretty much disregard them entirely. If they offer real comments, then I weigh them again — clues like “I don’t generally read this genre” will get less weight than someone who appears to read it a lot.

  8. I don’t pay attention to subjective critiques,which is what opinions of written works or other art are. I know what I like. Objective critiques I look for the patterns.

  9. Negative reviews don’t necessarily put me off. I too look for repeated criticisms to spot the book’s weak points, but also consider the character of the reviewer as betrayed (as always) by his or her tone. Some reviewers are just naturally tougher, and that’s not always a bad thing. Also, if the book’s subject matter piques my interest I’m more likely to give it a try regardless of poor reviews, if the price is right (those high e-book prices are real dealkillers).

    I read a blog post on Goodreads recently that explained how studies show that if you have fewer than ten books published, negative reviews don’t hurt your sales at all. And I suppose that if you’ve got ten books or more published, you don’t care. So relax, authors.

    I review regularly on Goodreads, and I can tell you that a whole bunch of 4 or 5-star reviews right on top when it’s a new author is AUTOMATICALLY regarded as suspect. You’re much better off soliciting completely honest reviews from a bunch of people who don’t know you, via a giveaway for example.

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