Writers of that ilk don’t usually get published, but Thackara’s book came out in 1999 in a print run of 30,000, sold in five countries and was lauded by its publisher as “a work of extraordinary vision and range magnificently fusing mythology and the inexorable events of history”.
Other reviews were mixed: none as bad as Hensher’s, but often underwhelmed by sheer length, rambling passages and lack of editing. I don’t believe The Book of Kings became a runaway bestseller.
But bad reviews don’t necessarily kill books. Sometimes they help sell them. A Harvard Business Review report by Jonah Berger in 2012 analysed the sales patterns of nearly 250 books reviewed in The New York Times over two years. Not surprisingly, good reviews increased sales by up to 52 per cent. Bad reviews of books by established authors caused an average drop in sales of 15 per cent. But bad reviews of books by relatively unknown authors caused sales to rise by an average of 45 per cent.
The reason? Product recognition outweighed the effect of negative comments. In other words, any review, good or bad – even terrible – of a little-known book meant readers were aware of it and were more likely to buy it.
But is this any consolation to the poor author on the receiving end of a bad review? The standard advice is: Don’t fret, most people won’t notice, the effect will pass. Usually this is true, but sometimes there is more permanent damage.
The kind of reviews that really harm a book and may even cause it to be withdrawn come through angry social media campaigns and cancel culture, particularly against young-adult books.
These are not evaluations of how well or how badly the author has done: they are assertions that the project should never have been attempted in the first place because in the reviewers’ opinion, the writer is not qualified to speak.
Charges of racism or cultural appropriation may be enough to shut down a project, even if the author apologises and recants. One well-known author, John Boyne, was targeted for his book My Brother’s Name is Jessica, about a boy and his trans sister (Boyne is gay but not trans). There were calls for boycotts of his novel and threats to his safety.
So bad reviews are not only a blow to the author’s ego, they may actually be hugely stressful and frightening. Maybe more writers should be like Thackara: invincibly armoured in absolute certainty of their calling and their genius. Trouble is, that could lead to some terrible writing.
Jane Sullivan’s latest book, Storytime, is published by Ventura Press at $26.99.