Friday, 11 October 2013

Let’s review Amazon reviews



When it comes to reviews, I don’t believe there is an author alive who isn’t thrilled by a five star thumbs up, or devastated by a one star thumbs down. But with the advent of the internet, and Amazon encouraging every purchaser to leave a review, do online reviews carry the same weight as those in print?

I believe independent bloggers and review sites, who often also post their comments on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, compare favourably with print reviewers. As many of them are genre specific, they usually have a regular following of readers who trust their judgement, which means they won’t praise anything not measuring up to the standard required.

But what of the ‘regular’ Amazon reviews? How seriously can a rash of five stars be taken? (I currently have twenty-two five-star reviews, six four-star reviews and one one-star on the UK Amazon site for Bad Moon Rising, so feel qualified to both ask and answer the question.) Some of these are from review sites, each of which made me dance a jig, a couple are from people I know so, although nice, I didn’t take them seriously, and the rest are from readers with whom I have no contact whatsoever outside of the author/reader pact, resulting in more wild dancing!

As an author and reviewer, I understand the Amazon system, so am constantly amazed and amused when someone insists that multiple five-star reviews are proof positive their novel compares with the best the literary world has to offer. A quick check on the reviewers usually shows the novel in question is their only foray into the reviewing jungle. This doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth the praise, it just means more than a pinch of salt has to be taken into account when reading the reviews.

In the guidelines for submission on my Frances di Plino review site I make it quite clear that grammar, spelling and punctuation matter. If I can’t get through the opening chapters because the book is poorly written or formatted, I won’t post a review, but I always let the author know why I’m passing on a book.

Every time I’ve done so, I’ve had emails back pointing out the number of five-star reviews it has garnered – implying I either don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I have some ulterior motive in declining to assess the novel, such as not wanting to help possible competition. Out of curiosity, I will read what others have said – frequently amazed at the praise heaped on what I’d found to be dire reading. Without fail, the comments are over the top – the type of fulsome wording that belongs only to the very best of novels – and, in every case, the reviewer has only one review to his or her name.

Against the over positive, let’s take a look at negative reviewing online. One of the best things about an unfavourable print review is that it disappears as soon as the next edition of the newspaper or magazine comes out. Unless the author has a strong masochistic streak and keeps the page, there is no need ever to read the damaging words again. The review soon becomes a bad memory and it’s always possible to pull a few words out of context to make a positive quote for the website a year or two after the event. After all, putting ‘I’ve never read anything quite like this’ sounds like the reviewer loved the book. Who is likely to recall that the quote was followed by a derogatory comment?

This isn’t possible with online reviews, of course. The words remain there for all to read – forever! In the case of good reviews – yippee! But the bad ones are also there for as long as the internet survives – not so yippee! With the intense rivalry that seems to exist on the Amazon author forums, it’s not unknown for unsavoury elements to give a one or two star review, purely to get back at someone who upset them on a forum thread.

When one takes into account the fact that even some quite well-known authors have posted less than favourable reviews on rivals’ books (possibly also to even the score over a real or perceived slight), then the Amazon review facility loses a certain amount of credibility.

If you’re on the receiving end of a deliberate attempt to sabotage your sales it must be very distressing. How should the author deal with this? By doing nothing. It is never a good idea to respond to a negative review. If it is impossible to ignore the comment, then a simple ‘thank you for your time’ allows you to keep your dignity, while irritating the offender who was most probably hoping for an outburst of some kind.

Author meltdowns in print are bad enough, but as per my earlier point about the internet lasting into infinity, an author meltdown online could spell the end of a writing career.

It is far better to remember that there isn’t a book written which appeals to everyone and a bad review is only one person’s opinion. Bad reviews won’t necessarily hurt sales, but bad behaviour by the author almost certainly will.

So, to end by referring back to the title of this blog post, let’s review the Amazon reviewing system. I think independent reviews can help to make a title, but are very unlikely to break it. However, as anyone with a grain of commonsense will be able to spot reviews from family and friends, they might make the author feel good, but are irrelevant from the point of view of showing whether or not the book is worth investing a potential reader’s hard-earned cash on.

This is a modified version of a guest post I wrote for Multi-Story.co.uk in September 2012.

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2 comments:

DW Rob said...

Right on the button, Lo.

I have my share of good and bad, almost exclusively from readers, not professionals, and my experience is that they do not affect sales. The bad ones may be irritating, but when I think about it, I'm never slow to slate a book or a movie I didn't like, so as far as I'm concerned, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Nik said...

Eloquently put, Lorraine. I like the use of 'perceived', because that's what it is, subjective. It is not the word handed down by God - it's someone's opinion, and probably not that informed either (good or bad). Lovely to get a good review when your reader actually mentions some plot point or character trait, though.