Thursday, May 10, 2012

Do Free Giveaways Guarantee Bad Reviews?

John Locke made an interesting observation in his book on epublishing. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, that a bad review only really means someone outside your target audience has read your book. Of course he also said it with the understanding that the book you wrote wasn't a steaming turd. 

It wasn't very long after reading those words that I created a free giveaway for my supernatural thriller MALICE and received a negative review that went something like this: "I gave this book two stars mostly because I don't like horror." It was one of my first such reviews (I was even wetter behind the ears back then if you can believe it) and frankly, I was floored. I mean, it was tantamount to saying: "I gave this Fettuccine Alfredo two stars mostly because I hate pasta." But then Locke's words started echoing in my ears and a lightbulb went off. If they don't like the genre or subject matter, how can you ever expect to get a favourable review?

Now, I've noticed that bad reviews on Amazon in general seem to be on the rise, particularly after the most recent holiday season. At first I wasn't quite sure what was causing it. Why were readers getting crankier? Then I was struck with another epiphany. 

Free giveaways. 

Around the holidays KDP Select was just building steam and it wasn't long after that most of the poor reviews began to appear. No doubt, there's a double edge to giving away your book to thousands of people for free and both sides of it are no less sharp. One the one hand truckloads of free copies can help spread the word about a book that would otherwise wilt and fade into obscurity. 

Another possible benefit is a temporary boost in sales (my own results have ranged from no perceptible boost to staying on the bestseller list for a month and a half after the promotion). But as far as reviews are concerned, this is where that other side of the sharpened blade comes in. People are snatching up free books they would normally never have paid a cent for. People seem to load up on free books even when it's not in their preferred genre. They sample widely (readers taking chances on new authors can be a good thing as I mentioned above), but for an author with a fairly narrow audience, that can also mean real problems. If anyone else has any thoughts or experiences on the connection between free giveaways and reviews I'd love to get your take.  


  1. I would be a lot more comfortable about my first free giveaway if it wasnt for the fact that I accidentally uploaded my rough draft lol. It's been town months and Amazon is still working on it. I have two negative reviews basically saying...good plot but the GRAMMAR IS HORRIBLE, I basically feel that has sunk my story. I guess free giveaways never know who could read and end up liking your book...could be Oprah

  2. Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, but thanks for sharing. The good thing is that ebooks are more or less forever, so it's very possible to upload a revised version and mention such in your product description, or at least as a comment in those horrible reviews. Bad reviews are often arbitrary though. And I'm not simply talking about everyone having their own taste. I mean, some people might look past a typo or two and still give you five stars if the story holds their attention, while others will automatically kick you down two to three stars at the sight of a misspelled word. It would be interesting to see if free books tend to get better or worse reviews. My feeling is worse, but that's all it is, just a feeling.

  3. Free books can do both -- bring you new fans and bring you a load of readers who will never read any of your books ever again. I find most readers are more apt to leave reviews for books they hate rather than books they like. And yeah, with free downloads, you get all kinds of readers, most who are reading outside of their "comfort zones." This was especially true for my dark thriller MAN OF WAX. Right off the bat I had two one-star reviews, both readers basically saying they read up to 15% of the book and stopped when there was a gruesome scene. Another one-star review claims they loved one of my other books, but hated this one ... though they apparently never reviewed the book they claimed to love. And finally, there was this one-star review that always makes me chuckle, especially the responses:

    But you know, I kinda like that those one-star reviews are there, because they most certainly will keep those readers who don't care for dark thrillers away. Readers who might purchase it and hate it just as much as those other readers and then leave one-star reviews themselves. So there's that.

    Then, of course, I have had other free promos were there were no one-star reviews (in fact, a bunch of five-star reviews), but you can never really count on anything.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for stopping by. Love that review you linked. Reminds of the time I had a husband and wife combo once hit me with twin one star reviews because of 'too much gore.' Can't please everyone, which is why Locke's point is so relevant. You've got to know your target market. Most of the time those one and two star reviews will tell you that either your book needs retooling or they're not the market you should be going after.

    I like your point about learning to appreciate those one star reviews. Strangely enough, a number of readers won't buy a book unless it has a fair amount of one, two and three star reviews.

    1. Yes, and some readers won't purchase a book if all it has is five star reviews. Especially if it's a very HIGH number of five star reviews.

  5. Free has always been something I cringe about. I know it can get you readers who will buy your next book, but it also gets you people who download your book just because it was free. They'll never read it or review and I just wonder why bother getting it then? It is a double edge sword and one must tread carefully. Since I only have one novel and a short story released, I'm keeping my novel away from free for now. I think that works better when you have more than one book because then you have another book the people who liked it may go and buy.

  6. I do giveaways because it is the best advertisement for an indie author. Sometimes the giveaway will propel the title to the stratosphere, other times nothing much happens. I don't understand the bad reviews for gore. It's a horror title, what do you expects?
    I get a kick out of this 1-star review for Where Darkness Dwells: "I had to just stop reading this book. I just couldn't take how racist it was. Now I do get that it was written from the point of view of a different time in our history but I don't think it was necessary to be quite so blatant with the level of racist remarks and N word. Just not enjoyable for me. I am going to be checking out other works by him and hope to not see this in the others."
    So, I'm a good enough writer that she's going to check out my other work, but didn't like my so-called 'racist' novel?

    1. Hi Glen,

      Thanks for stopping by. I remember seeing that review you mentioned and a number of thoughts crossed my mind. Sometimes people can't separate a character in a story from the person who created them. If you include a member of the KKK in your cast of characters, you must be a racist. Reminds me of when I was a kid, there was this silly rumor going around that Stephen King had murdered someone and of course we all believed it. Fact, we weren't at all surprised. He wrote horror novels therefore he must be a killer. Thank goodness we can look back and laugh now. And thank goodness Stephen didn't do it.

  7. The notion of this terrifies me.

  8. Hi Aphex Twin,

    Expectations play a huge part in bad reviews. Depending what you write, it can really help to include a sentence or two in your product description or in the 'from the author' section letting people know what they're in store for. For me, I had included something for my novel Malice indicating that the two main characters were teenagers and I think that really helped. Fact, after I changed it recently, I got a lukewarm review which basically said, 'oh, I didn't know this had teenagers. I would have preferred adults.' You can't please all the people all the time, but you can help people who give bad reviews steer clear of your work.