Self-publishers, attention. Why Bad Reviews Can Lead to More Book Sales

Self-publishers, attention. Why Bad Reviews Can Lead to More Book Sales

Self-publishing is hard.

And if you want to make it, you have to get good reviews ASAP or otherwise you’ll tank in the sales ranking. Disappearing into the graveyard of indie fiction, never to arise again. Most of the people and peers I’ve asked told me the same: “Try to get an average four star review rating on Amazon, or otherwise you will not make any significant sales.”

But is it true?

So, here comes the moment that changed my (self-publishing) life…

I read a blog post by sci-fantasy author Chuck Wendig who had his first Star Wars novel unleashed onto the world. The tie-in novel to the seventh film of the popular sci-fi series landed on the fifth spot of the Kindle ranking, meaning it sold like hot starcakes.

We’re talking thousands and thousands of units sold per day.

But that’s when the shit hit the hyper-turbines. Die-hard SW fans ripped the novel apart like a pack of rancors…one star and two star reviews flooded the Amazon sales page. Within a day, the average rating was 2.3 stars out of 62 reviews, with 1 star reviews making up 52% of the average. Devastating, right?

Obviously, the fans hated the book with a passion. I thought, jeez, this novel is going to drown within days, but two weeks after the release, the book was still surging in the sales ranking, gathering hundreds of reviews, even though most of them were negative.

Chuck Wendig wrote a blog post about his novel getting butchered but also stated that according to Amazon, bad reviews didn’t lead to fewer, but actually MORE sales. He also said that Amazon only cared about the quantity of reviews, not the quality, which buzzed my brain. Different sources I consulted told me something similar…

Let that sink in for a second.

If the claim is true, it wouldn’t matter if you had one hundred 5 star reviews or one hundred 1 star reviews–what really seems to matter is that you have ONE HUNDRED reviews.


Apparently, Amazon doesn’t give two rats about the quality of your reviews, it only cares that you’re getting attention which translates into sales!

The first time I heard about it, my mind was blown from the inside out. I finally understood why so many books with devastating reviews were still shooting up the Amazon sales ranking like a mach 5 rocket. Just in the last months, I encountered two indie sci-fi books–one about a sex goddess and the other one about a lost star pilot–which were blasted with 1 and 2 star reviews and yet reached the 200-300 ranking inside the Kindle sales. Making the authors many thousands each month.

My eyes squeezed, my mouth wrestled, as I thought:
“People HATE this book and yet they’re buying it like gold-plated iPads. How is this possible?”

The saying from old media seems to be true–there are no bad news, because ‘bad’ news still give you free attention. Which brings me to the second realization–a well-known marketing principle which could help you sell more books in the near future:

If you’re into marketing, and as an (indie) author and content creator, you SHOULD be, you may or may not have heard about the infamous System 1 and System 2 thinking. In short…

  • System 1 thinking is your old reptilian brain; the part responsible for your intuition, emotion and reactionary instincts. The basic flight-or-fight response is classic System 1 thinking.
  • System 2 thinking is the new brain that allows for complex thought and analysis. Simplified, it’s what you use for math, writing, research and all that brainy jazz.

Now the revelation from marketing says that the most effective commercials only target the System 1 thinking. Good ads aim for a strong emotional response, be it positive or negative, because that leads to action, i.e. buying the product that was advertised.

Here’s the kicker–the ad doesn’t have to make any sense or even make you feel good. If it’s ridiculous, funny and/or disturbing and offensive, that would be fantastic, at least from a marketing point of view, because it makes you feel something.

On the other side, all the ads that aimed for the analytical System 2 thinking part failed to make any impact.

Feeling=good, thinking=bad.

Watch this compelling DO talk where a marketing guru John Kearon explains the concept far better: Why the best companies make you feel something

So what does this have to do with your self-publishing and Amazon?

It means in marketing, even aggravating your audience is better in terms of sales than leaving them unaffected. John Kearon explains a scenario where Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof was impatiently waiting for the money to trickle in via live TV, but the audience didn’t seem triggered. Bob Geldof eventually lost it, approached the camera guy and shouted,
“Give is your fuckin’ money,” after which the money apparently flooded in. The message:

Make ’em love or hate you, but don’t leave them indifferent.

Emotions on each side of the spectrum lead to sales. That’s why I don’t freak out anymore when some reviewers describe my books as “self-mutilation” and claim “it’s the worst book I’ve read”. Or even write 700(!) word paragraphs on why my story sucks. It’s all bucks in the bank…


Money follows emotion, even on Amazon. Don’t worry about getting ‘good’ reviews, just worry about getting reviews. The worst place for your writing is the dreaded middle which leaves the audience cold.

So when crafting your next stories, think about creating a unique style that doesn’t hold back.

  • Is your work politically incorrect? Go full anti-PC.
  • Or do you use a controversial topic that ruffles feathers? Set those feathers on fire and go the whole mile.

So if you think you’re ‘too’ out there, don’t worry. Go to the extreme.

Now do not create edginess for the sake of edginess, but don’t be afraid to push toward the edge. Rather than aiming to write a book that tries to please everyone, worry about a book that elicits strong emotions, be it positive and negative. It’s more buck in the bank.

What’s your opinion about writing stories that evoke a strong response from the audience?

And please share this post with the people you care about.

  • Darlene Jones

    Great post. I’ve always believed I just need someone to slam my series as being anti-christian and I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

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  • Ai-tama

    It’s true that it’s difficult to please everyone. As long as writing is enjoyable, there are people who like it, and you’re getting paid, then it’s all good.

    • Mars Dorian

      Agreed. I think you should focus on a small, but profitable genre niche and serve that market better than anything else. I think too many peeps are worried about creating a story that’s supposed to please everyone, which rarely happens (and when it does, it’s usually dull as hell)

      • Ai-tama


  • marti garaughty

    Being noticed in whatever way is definitely better than being ignored or worse, invisible!

  • Jon Del Arroz

    I’ve been waiting for bad/hate reviews for months but they keep not coming :( Maybe they will now that I’ve taken on Marvel.

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