More on Amazon reviews

Following on from my previous blog regarding Amazon reviews, there was an interesting discussion in a Facebook writer’s group where we talked about the effects of positive and negative reviews and our own reviewing strategy. Here are some of the points raised.

It is too easy for somebody to leave a damaging comment, without having to justify their reason. An example was given by a writer who has been a journalist all her working life. Somebody commented that her book was badly written. However, the person who wrote the comment didn’t mention their own qualifications. Do they have a degree in English, are they an editor in a large publishing house? Of what value is their remark without knowing their credentials?

One suggestion made is that the review facility on Amazon should be re-worked, so that when someone leaves a review, they have to justify it. Something vaguely along the lines of:

  1. What was it about this book that first appealed to you and made you want to read it?
  2. Having read it, would you recommend it to others, and if so, to what readership?
  3. What genres most appeal to you?
  4. Have you read, or would you be likely to read more books by this author? Why?
  5. What was it that you most enjoyed or disliked about this book?
  6. What encouraged you to write a review of this book?

The current single requirement for a minimum of 20 words makes it far too easy for anybody to write: “Brilliant, the best book I’ve ever read. Somebody Something is such a wonderful writer I’m going to buy all their books” or “This book shouldn’t have been published because it’s very bad and I’m surprised at Amazon for selling it. Don’t they check these things first?” These are comments, not reviews, and serve no useful purpose.

Another suggestion is that reviewers should be graded and show icons according to the number of quality reviews they have written, to give potential buyers an idea as to their credibility and experience.

I was asked whether I review every book I read. The answer is not always, purely due to time constraints, although I do make a point of leaving a star rating on Goodreads.

Somebody also asked whether I leave harsh reviews.

No, for two reasons.

Firstly I think spiteful reviews say more about the reviewer than the author of the book. Why be unkind to somebody? They’re all doing their best. To a writer, their book is their child, brought into the world by long months of sweat and toil and for which the parent has high hopes and plans. So maybe it’s an ugly little thing, but you’re not going to say that to its mother, are you? :)

Secondly, and probably more pertinently, if I don’t enjoy a book, I stop reading it. Simples! And because I stop reading it, I don’t have anything to say about it.

Why would anybody read something they don’t like? When I see comments like: “I hated every word of this boring book, and couldn’t wait to get to the end. Although it was free, it was still a waste of my time. Rubbish.” I think “Oh dear, how sad. You could have gone and done something useful and fun, so why on earth did you spend so much time being bored?” As I mentioned above, sometimes reviews say more about the person writing them, than the book they’re reviewing.

Any comments?

When is a review not a review?

REVIEWS – POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE

I wrote this in response to a friend who had recently downloaded from Amazon an e-book that had six stellar reviews – it was apparently “brilliant”, “fantastic”, “should be made into a film” and was written by “a wonderful author”.

Now he’s what I’d regard as a fairly sophisticated and switched-on person, but he was ignorant of how Amazon ratings and reviews work.

The plot was non-existent, the characters unbelievable, the prose embarrassing, the formatting all over the place, and it was full of spelling and grammatical errors.

“How on earth did this tripe get so highly rated?” he asked. “From the reviews it sounded like a great read.”

So how did it gather such glowing praise?

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For a start, anybody can leave a so-called review on Amazon. They don’t need to have any qualifications, not even proof of having actually bought or read the book they are reviewing. They don’t even have to reveal their identity.

We had a look on the Amazon page for the book in question, and noticed that none of the six people who had left reviews had actually bought the book. You can see whether they have, because it will say “Amazon Verified Purchase”. If it doesn’t, the chances are that it was probably given to them in exchange for a review. That’s common practice. Most authors do it, just as the large publishing houses send out free copies to selected people well before publication date, so that when the book is published it already has reviews and ratings to encourage sales.

We  looked at the history of each reviewer by clicking “See all my reviews”. This shows how many products the person has reviewed and gives an idea of their personal tastes. In this case, all six had only ever reviewed this one book. All six reviews had been posted within 24 hours of each other.

From this you could conclude that the reviews are likely to be from friends of the author, giving him/her a helping hand to promote their work. All writers have to start somewhere. It doesn’t mean that every book with 5-star reviews from people who have never reviewed any other book is a bad book. After all, just as everyone has to write their first book some time, everybody has to write their first review.

There are also people who write paid reviews. As it’s unlikely that an author would pay for poor reviews of their own work, it’s safe to assume that a paid reviewer will rate the book highly.

Reviews that contain similar phrases and are of similar length can also indicate that the writer has written the reviews and fed them to other people to post. Common phrases that often pop up are: “I can’t wait for the next book”, “(Author’s name) is such a wonderful writer”.

Here are a couple of examples of reviews for 5-star rated books.

Example 1:

This is such a wonderful book. I found it extremely interesting and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.”

Example 2:

Widowed unexpectedly when she is still a young woman, Daisy finds herself gradually excluded from her previous social circle, as friends fear that she may steal their husbands. Her children are off the rails, and her financial position is precarious.

Daisy feels that when she lost her husband, her whole identity went with him. Without him she no longer knows who or what she is. She must take her courage in her hands, and learn to stand on her own two feet.

As an attractive widow she is not short of suitors. When her best friend’s husband continues making advances, Daisy is torn between her loyalty to her friend and the temptation of finding happiness again.

Her journey to a new life is in parts laugh-out-loud funny, in parts cringe-worthy, and in parts touching. Daisy’s character is well-drawn, and I could identify with her fight to build her self-confidence and start living again.

From the sleepy Somerset countryside to the bustling exuberance of Spain’s Costa Brava, the story swept me along on a feel-good wave.

Entertaining, well-written, and rather thought-provoking.”

If you compare the two, the first tells you nothing upon which to form an opinion, while the second discusses the book and its merits.

On the other side there are the negative 1-star reviews that downgrade the overall rating of a title.

It isn’t unknown for rivals to try to damage each other’s reputation by leaving savage reviews. There are of course readers who genuinely don’t enjoy a book, and people who miss its point. There may be a particular section of society who are offended by some element, in which case they will persuade others who share their beliefs to attack the book. Books containing even mild sexual content, profanity or criticisms of religious beliefs can invoke a shower of poison arrows.

Here are some 1-star so-called reviews:

“I didn’t find this book at all funny and will not be buying any more books written by this author.”

“What a total waste of money. I was too bored to finish it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”  

It never arrived so I cannot tell you what I think of it. Therefore I can only award it one star.”

“This book is quite awful and I wish I hadn’t bought it. Why would anybody want to write such an awful book?”

“This book was ordered by mistake and is not the type of book that I read.  So I didn’t read it and cannot write a review of it.”

While everybody is entitled to express their opinion, statements like those are meaningless in helping potential customers form an idea of the book. Yet by giving it just 1 star these people degrade its overall star rating, which is what many people, including my friend, look at before deciding whether to buy.

This is also a 1-star rating:

As a long-standing fan of this author, having read all his previous books, I waited eagerly for his latest title to be published.

Unfortunately it has not lived up to my expectations.

None of the characters come to life, and the plot weaved and waved about all over the place. This book seems to have been written very hurriedly, and felt as if the author had lost his way. I found it rather confusing how the timeline jumped around, and certain parts seemed slightly unlikely and contrived.

That said, I read it at two sittings, always hoping that it would improve, but sadly it didn’t.

I would highly recommend all the author’s previous books as excellent reads written by a master wordsmith, and I shall await his next book with impatience. I can’t help feeling he didn’t really have his heart in this one.”

That’s a review by somebody who has taken the trouble to explain what they disliked about the book and why they gave it a low rating.

To have any value, a review needs to be a critical appraisal, written by somebody who has read it and taken the time to share their opinion for the benefit of other potential readers.

Amazon customers are able to “Look inside” both paperbacks and e-books, or download a sample from the e-book. It costs nothing, and is the equivalent of browsing a book in a bookshop so that you can see whether it’s to your taste or not.

Rather than seeing how many stars a book carries, make your decision by reading a sample, and by recognising the difference between a helpful review and a couple of dozen words that tell you nothing about the book.

To go back to my friend and the highly-rated book of which he had high hopes. The cover was gorgeous. But as the saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” :D

And equally, don’t judge a book purely by its star ratings.

The desk conundrum

Since the beginning of July, I hadn’t done any filing or tidying in the office. The desk, dresser and window sill have been heaped with a messy tangle of paperwork, photos, cheque books, pens, scraps of paper, notebooks, CDs and DVDs, instruction manuals, dust, dead flies, coins, jewellery, camera lenses, folders, files, receipts, bank statements, medical reports, bills, batteries and chargers.

I’ve been totally ashamed and disgusted every morning, and every evening I have resolved to deal with it first thing next day, and the months have rolled by with the only change being increasing mess.

There’s no  excuse. True we did have visitors staying for almost three months, and I was unwell for several months, but neither the visitors nor the ailment left me unable to sort out a pile of papers. I can’t find an explanation for it.

Among the piles was correspondence with the tax office, who thought we hadn’t paid something which we had. Failure to make the requested payment in time would result in a visit from the bailiff. The correspondence had been there for several days, picked up and put down every day, but today was the deadline to respond. The choice was to ignore it, let the bailiff turn up and triumphantly wave the receipt for the payment under his nose, or write to the tax office and send them all the necessary evidence and receipts. That seemed the more sensible path, so fortified with a strong coffee and a bowl of porridge I sat down and wrote to them, copied all the correspondence, and filed it away.

That seemed to unlock the dam, and in less than an hour the surfaces were clear and cleaned, everything dealt with and filed. As quick and easy as that.

I’m feeling better and far less tired today than I have done for months. Whether that’s the effect of sorting out the mess, or the cause of it, who knows? But it’s certainly a relief on both counts.

Is a cluttered desk a sign of a cluttered mind, or a creative one? Speaking for myself, I find that it does nothing to feed creativity, in fact just the opposite. I don’t want to sit at it. The clutter overwhelms me. On the other hand, a totally empty desk is daunting. How do other feel about this? Does anybody else let mess get on top of them?

As Albert Einstein (renowned for the untidiness of his desk) said: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

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Maybe a potted plant, a pen, notebook and cup of coffee will strike the right balance.