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Amazon Reader Reviews

apricot_tree sent me a link to Anne Allen’s 12 Things Everybody and His Grandmother Needs to Know about Amazon Reader Reviews, asking if I had Opinions.

As is often the case, the question isn’t whether I have Opinions. The question is whether you’ll be able to get me to shut up about them. My first Opinion is that sometimes it’s okay to use “They/Their” as gender-neutral pronouns. (Which, knowing my readership, should be enough to spawn a passionate 200-comment grammar-war all by itself…)

As for the blog post, it opens by describing Jeff Bezos (King of Amazon) as “author-friendly,” and claims that most authors are dependent on Amazon.com for 90% of our income. (This claim apparently comes from The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing, but no direct link is provided, and I couldn’t find it on the site.) Color me skeptical.

That said, Allen provides some good basic information on Amazon feedback, explaining reviews and tags and “Likes.” I agree with some of her points, such as telling reviewers to review the content of the book. (As opposed to giving a book you’ve never read one star because you don’t like the price, or you’re boycotting the publisher, or whatever.)

But a few lines in her post jumped out at me, like:

“Don’t get your … snark on if you want to stay friends with the author.”

Raise your hand if you see the implicit assumption in that line. It’s an assumption that returns a short time later. 

“Positively reviewing an author’s book pays back in tons of good will. Review a friend’s book now, and when yours comes out, she’s a lot more likely to review yours. And even if you don’t write, writing positive reviews is the nicest thing you can do for your favorite authors.”

So, reasons to review books include:

  1. You’re friends with the author.
  2. You hope maybe they’ll review your books!
  3. You want to be nice.

Huh. I always thought you should review books because you wanted to share your thoughts about the books…

Most writers recognize that word-of-mouth is one of the most important factors in a book’s success, and Amazon has worked hard to allow customers to share opinions online. So I understand an author’s desire to increase Amazon reader activity.

Heck, I’d love it if you all ran out to review and tag my books. And hey, by encouraging you to do that, I can increase word-of-mouth about my stuff, which will increase sales, meaning I FINALLY HAVE DIRECT, IMMEDIATE CONTROL OF HOW WELL MY BOOK SELLS!

Or not. But I think that’s the underlying drive for a lot of what I’m seeing. I’m on one author e-mail list that spent several weeks on a “Like & Tag Drive,” encouraging authors to tag and like each other’s stuff. Had they actually read everyone’s stuff? Of course not, but who cares, right?

Maybe this actually sells books, but mostly what I see are incestuous circles of authors buying and reviewing each other. Meanwhile, popular and bestselling books continue to generate far more reviews and tags … because people genuinely like those books. Not because the authors are out spamming for reviews.

So here are a few of my thoughts on Amazon reviewing.

1. Tagging, liking, reviewing, blogging, and telling others about a book is very much appreciated. However, the reader is under no obligation to do any of those things.

2. I’m not aware of any solid data showing that the number of reviews/tags on Amazon has a significant impact on sales. (If such data exists, please let me know.)

3. Asking your fans to promote your work can become obnoxious. Like any other form of advertising, I suspect you’re going to annoy fans if you push too hard.

4. Negative reviews aren’t the end of the world. Allen says, “Giving 1 or 2 stars to a book that doesn’t have many reviews is taking money out of the author’s pocket.” Hello, little guilt trip. Even if this was true, so what? A reviewer’s job is not to support the author; a reviewer’s job is to review the damn book. Please don’t lose your shit because someone gave you two stars. And please don’t be the guy who says “I need people to post reviews of my book. Remember, five stars only!” (I wish I was making this up.)

5. Don’t review your own stuff. It’s tacky. Just don’t.

6, Finally, a review should be written for readers, not for the author. Your job as a reader isn’t to REVIEW ALL THE BOOKS because we guilted you into it and my children will starve if you don’t give me five stars. My job as the author is to write a KICK-ASS BOOK that makes you want to run out and tell all those other readers how awesome it was.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 70 comments — Leave a comment )
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Nov. 28th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
A reviewer’s job is not to support the author; a reviewer’s job is to review the damn book.

THIS! Reviews that are written to be nice for the author are generally useless for readers. Which I resent.

Allen says, “Giving 1 or 2 stars to a book that doesn’t have many reviews is taking money out of the author’s pocket.”

Good to know I can reach through the internet right into authors' pockets! I want to know where all that money taken from them ends up, though - it's certainly not magically arriving in my pocket! ;)
Nov. 28th, 2011 06:45 pm (UTC)
I can't say if reviewing or ranking on Amazon really does make a difference in sales since I don't buy books online. Goodreads reviews, on the other hand, are geared toward the readers and they are more likely to recommend other titles in their reviews too. Plus Goodreads uses the Amazon API and database so you get the same summary blurb and basic info that Amazon gives.

It is usually through word of mouth (online: blogs, and even fanart, believe it or not) and reading lists that I learn of new titles and authors. IMO following people with similar interests is a much bigger influence since their enthusiasm (or lack of) tends to rub off on you.
Nov. 28th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
And please don’t be the guy who says “I need people to post reviews of my book. Remember, five stars only!” (I wish I was making this up.)

Urk. Although I confess that reviews by me of books by people I know do tend to be good ones, because if I have nothing good to say I just quietly don't say anything. I'm not sure whether that makes me nice and polite or just craven ...

I have lost days of my life to derived endless hours of entertainment from reading Amazon reviews. One-star reviews are usually the most hilarious. Insofar as Amazon reviews have any influence at all on my book-buying, which is not very far, I use one-star reviews as a kind of "anti-suggester" (I think that's what LibraryThing calls it?) -- if someone who hates Farthing, Paladin of Souls, and The English Patient also hates a book I'm considering buying, chances are good that I'll enjoy it ;) I'm sure there must exist people who base their reading choices on Amazon reviews, but I don't think I know any of them -- word of mouth, real word of mouth, is what I and most people I know rely on.
Nov. 28th, 2011 07:45 pm (UTC)
I once had someone on Amazon leave a two-star review of one of my books, saying, "I loved the book, but I gave it two stars because the Ebook version didn't load right." HEADDESK.

In general, I only leave reviews for books (friends' or otherwise) if I really liked the book. In part, that's because I know how much it sucks to get an unfavorable review, in part because I realize that just because something didn't appeal to me doesn't make it a bad book, and in part because--frankly--I don't have the time and energy to waste writing a review unless I really loved a book enough to want to shout about it.

But I do go out of my way to write Amazon and Goodreads reviews for the books and authors I like.

And about once a year, I remind folks that it is nice to leave a review to support an author (including me). More than that is nagging.
Nov. 28th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
The scenario in your first paragraph is SO FREAKING ANNOYING.

I like that reviewers warn their fellow readers of problems, but they shouldn't necessarily include that in the stars-giving. Something like, "[four stars] Story is enjoyable, but epub files are a mess" would be legit.

This concept slides a bit for me depending on the complaint. "Epub files are a mess" doesn't affect the print edition, so it should hold less weight on the stars-ranking. However, "book is riddled with typos and grammar errors" is not entirely out of line for knocking a book down the scale a bit. Those will be in every edition (until the efiles get updated). They are also something the author has some control over (doubly so if the book is self-pubbed).
(no subject) - jennielf - Nov. 29th, 2011 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cissa - Nov. 28th, 2011 11:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Nov. 29th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 28th, 2011 08:26 pm (UTC)
They/their are plural. Using them in order to be gender-neutral in place of he/she/his/her is wrong. Advocating bad grammar in order to be more inclusive is not a solution.

There are gender-neutral pronouns available--zhe/hir--which are not widely used because it grates the ear and throws off the eye. However, that's a matter of conditioning, not inherent ugliness. In addition, if people who think there should be gender-neutral pronouns do not take a stand and use them, which will undoubtedly require explanations and cause some awkwardness at first, then of course, these will never be adopted.

I know that everyone in your company would probably give you The Look, the one that means What the hell is this? or Jim, you're being weird again, if you used singular gender-neutral language, but again, I don't think using plural language for singular subjects is a solution either, especially as many debate that they/their is an extension of language that buys into gender-binary, rather than gender-spectrum.

For further reading, I recommend Anne Fadiman's piece "The His'er Problem," which discusses the issue of gender-neutrality in the English language.
Nov. 28th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
*ahem* One of my genderqueer friends has explicitly stated that they wish us to use the pronoun "they" when we refer to them, if we must use a pronoun at all. The Spivak pronoun is another option for em. (Also, there is debate on whether zie/hir is actually gender neutral, because zie and hir are feminine-sounding (and related to extant feminine pronouns). This writer rates them 2.5/5 for gender neutrality.)

Aside from that, *Shakespeare* used singular-they. The fine folks at Language Log have an entire category devoted to singular-they.
(no subject) - bigherman - Nov. 28th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - akiko - Nov. 28th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bigherman - Nov. 28th, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starcat_jewel - Nov. 29th, 2011 12:10 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bigherman - Nov. 29th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starcat_jewel - Nov. 29th, 2011 04:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bigherman - Nov. 29th, 2011 05:12 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellymccullough - Nov. 29th, 2011 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - icecreamempress - Nov. 29th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 28th, 2011 09:37 pm (UTC)
One thing I do with Amazon (and other reviews) is that I typically dig deeper than what is written. If there's a one or two star review, I not only read the review but go to that user's other reviews to get a feel for what they like/dislike. If they're just a shill or a troll, it will fall out really fast. If they have legit gripes but they typically dislike books that I do like, then I adapt. People do that with movie critics (and formerly music critics) all the time, so why not book reviews?

The "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" viewpoint toward reviews annoys the hell out of me, and is almost as bad as the "yooo all suck and yr a bunch of loooosers!" trolling type of reviews. At least with the latter you can spot them easily. The others, not so much.
Anne R. Allen
Nov. 28th, 2011 10:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the shout-out and the fair review of the post. I did screw up on a few things, since my info was based on observation, not actual Amazon rules. I'd seen a lot of review sites that said "don't come to us unless you have at least 10-20 4-5 star reviews. Plus I'd seen a whole lot of books with dozens of 5-star reviews, so I figured people might want to know the star system is kind of inflated.

The purpose of the post was to tell older folks like me that when we love a book, we have the power to help the author by writing a review, and that it isn't hard. Empowering readers: that was my goal. (It was an older reader friend who suggested the post.)

BTW, I used "everybody and his Grandmother" after a Google search to see how many times people used "their" Grandmother vs. "his" grandmother, and "his" seemed to get the vote. I try to avoid the construction because it's such a hot potato these days, but I thought the expression would make a humorous title to what I intended to be a humorous post.

But oh, my: talk about hot potatoes! Little did I know that Amazon reviews are a taboo subject on the Interwebz. I'm now being told the entire book reviewing community is boycotting me and (all my followers!) for my heinous heresy about three-star reviews. I said they mean "not recommended" as in "meh," but I have been corrected and told they mean "recommended, not" as in "meh," which is entirely different.

Got that?

I do hope you're right that the reviews aren't as important as they seem to be. The system is kind of broken. As is, apparently, the link to the Writers Guide to E-Publishing, so I'm off now to fix that. :-)

Thanks for this post!
Nov. 29th, 2011 06:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks!
Hi Anne!

That's interesting. I hadn't come across review sites where you had to have a minimum number of high-star reviews, but I definitely believe they're out there...

I've always considered three stars to mean the book was "middling/average," not particularly great, but not bad enough to be shredded and used to line my daughter's guinea pig cage. I think part of the problem is that Amazon doesn't have any clear standards, so reviewers and authors all have to guess at what they mean. I've had three-star reviews where the reviewer seemed to like the book, and I've seen three-star reviews where they were trashing it.

::Shrug:: Personally, I try not to sweat about it too much.

Re: Thanks! - icecreamempress - Nov. 29th, 2011 07:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thanks! - kayay - Nov. 30th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 28th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
I review pretty much everything I read on my blog. I've never actually reviewed anything on Amazon. I find so many reviews that I read there contradictory with the rating they gave the book, and then there are the one star reviews that often have nothing to do with the quality of the writing, but reference the price or the time it took deliver or any one of a number of other external factors for which the writer cannot be held responsible. When I do review something I try to give my impressions and be totally honest about how I saw the book.
Nov. 28th, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC)
I definitely read Amazon reviews when trying to decide whether to buy a book where I can't just download a sample chapter.

I have to tell you, though, on the few occasions where I can tell that it's a friends-reviewing-friends thing--particularly when I twig that it's probably a self-published book, there are six reviews, none of them editorial and all Vague and Glowing, there is immediately no chance I will buy that book. I won't even download a sample. Why? Because I resent the author having wasted my time with spam reviews. I'd far, far, far rather read a three or four star "Pretty good, worth the read, had some structural flaws here and here and I felt it ran a little slow, but the descriptions were nicely lush," than "YAY, another book by a literary master!"

Genuine bad reviews don't stop me, necessarily, but obviously whitewashed ones are a huge turn-off for me. It stinks of desperation.

(I also very adamantly do not read my own reviews--that way lies madness, and I decided years ago that I would be much happier without it. Since I rarely have any good reason to go and check my own books on Amazon, it's actually pretty easy to ignore now.)
Nov. 29th, 2011 01:54 am (UTC)
Honestly, if I see a swath of 5-star reviews, it has the opposite effect. I don't think, "Wow! This book must be awesome!" I think "Oh, these reviews are by the author's friends."

Real books get 4 stars too.
Nov. 29th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
Agreed. And while I don't typically use reviews for book selections, I do use them to vet other possible purchases online, and I can (usually) tell the difference between a person who is paid to write reviews and a real person.
Nov. 29th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC)
Buttons. :3 And I don't mean like, I mean pin-backed buttons. Handbags, t-shirts, sky-writers, bumper stickers, notebook covers
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Jim C. Hines


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