I recently got a book review that I didn’t care for. It was a five-star review, but one of the comments was, in my opinion, way off the mark. Which got me thinking…
- Why would the reviewer give the book five stars if it was lacking in some way?
- Why are there not better criteria for reviews?
- We need reviews as a mark of credibility, but how credible are the reviewers?
I’m not going to say which book of mine I mean or who reviewed it or what comment I didn’t like. I’m bringing all this up because I think we need to have a frank discussion about reviews. I knew I was taking that particular comment personally, so I decided to look at reviews of books I had no stake in. I looked at reviews of bestsellers. You know, books by household names that have hundreds of reviews.
It was eye-opening. I don’t feel so bad anymore. Or I feel bad on behalf of those authors. It’s kind of a fifty-fifty mix.
People Are All Over The Board
I didn’t just look at the number of stars, I actually read the comments. Two reviews right next to each other would completely contradict each other.
- Reader 1 said the book was cliché but well edited.
- Reader 2 said the storyline was fresh but had typos throughout.
Three reviews would have similar comments, but each would rank the novel differently.
- Reader 3 said the book was a fun and fast read—four stars.
- Reader 4 said the pacing was good and the content was easy to follow—three stars.
- Reader 5 said the novel kept his or her interest and he or she finished the book quickly—two stars.
Aren’t these basically the same thing? There’s no consistency.
My favorite reviews (and please note my sarcastic tone here) are these:
- “I hated it.” Particularly when they give two or three stars instead of one.
- “I don’t usually read science fiction, but I tried this novel. I didn’t like it.” Of course he or she didn’t like it. That reader doesn’t like science fiction!
Shouldn’t there be some oversight on these? How are they fair or helpful assessments of the work?
Compounding the Problem
The good folks at Amazon, bless their hearts, have decided to exert some control on reviews and reviewers.
They don’t allow authors to pay for reviews. I can understand that. The wealthy could circumvent their algorithms that way and rise to the top of the charts. But what about authors who don’t have any public exposure yet? Shouldn’t they be allowed to pay a service to distribute their books in exchange for an honest review? The waters get murky here. Those services exist, and the reviewers are supposed to say, “I received a free ARC in exchange for my honest review.” But some of them don’t say that. Why, you ask? Because Amazon sometimes removes those reviews. And readers hate taking the time to read and review something only to have their assessment removed, so they leave that statement off. Problem is, they didn’t buy the book, so they aren’t verified purchasers. Amazon takes note of those, and “seemingly” on a whim deletes some of them.
Per Amazon’s customer help page:
When we find unusually high numbers of reviews for a product posted in a short period of time, we may restrict the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on that product.
Well, I guess that’s one way the non-verified purchase reviews get bumped. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen reviews get bumped that weren’t because of high traffic days, though.
Another way Amazon interferes is by deleting reviews from people they think know each other. That means not only family and friends, but also author reviews of other authors. Because they’re either friends trading reviews or they’re competitors trying to hurt each other. I guess Amazon never considered that writers are voracious readers. It’s pretty likely that we’ll read a book once in a while, and because we know how important reviews are, we will review what we’ve read. Doesn’t matter to them, though. If they think you know the writer or are competing with the writer, they’ll pull your review.
Per Amazon’s customer help page:
We take the integrity of the Community very seriously. Any attempt to manipulate Community content or features, including by contributing false, misleading, or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited.
In other words, don’t game the system. As for whether authors and reviewers are manipulating things? Well, I’ll leave that to you, and them, to decide.
It seems like Amazon is always coming down on the side of caution, right? That’s fair, always taking a hard angle one hundred percent of the time.
Wrong. That’s not what happens. Here’s where the whole thing breaks down.
A long time ago, I swear it said reviews are supposed to be at least twenty words. I can’t find where it says that now. I suppose I could be wrong. (Old age and memory issues, I guess.) It’s possible a review could be one word. “Great.” Or “Awful.” Or somewhere in between. But is that really a review? I’ve seen plenty of reviews that simply say, “I hated it.” How is that helpful? If a customer can’t learn anything useful from a review, it should be pulled. That person is far more likely to be trying to hurt an author than the reviewer from the example above.
If a book is listed in the “mystery” genre, and a reviewer bashes it by saying, “I hate mysteries, and I didn’t like this one, either,” then Amazon should pull it. The author is getting a bad review from a negatively-biased source.
Per Amazon’s customer help page:
The Community is intended to provide helpful, relevant content to customers. Content you submit should be relevant and based on your own honest opinions and experience.
So, yeah. There’s that. I’m not sure how relevant or helpful some of these reviews are, but Amazon didn’t ask my opinion. I guess technically they’re taking those biased opinions, instead, though.
If Amazon wants to monitor reviews, then they should be just as concerned about treating the author fairly as they are about treating the reviewer fairly.
So what’s a writer to do?
You probably think this rant (and I do apologize for the negative tone so far) is just sour grapes from an author who has few reviews, has had many reviews removed, has had reviews she’s written denied, and who has recently received a review she didn’t like. I’m honest enough to admit that might be part of it. But a small part.
You see, the problem doesn’t just impact me. It impacts all writers.
Sure, we can click on the “yes, this is helpful” or “no, this isn’t helpful” buttons all day to try to move good reviews higher and bad reviews lower. We can petition Amazon to remove damaging reviews (good luck with that). We can beg family, friends, and neighbors to read and review our work and hope Amazon doesn’t think they know us.
But all of that work is basically like adding a single blank page to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I have that book. It’s massive. Trust me, no one would notice.
It’s doubtful anyone will notice the two reviews you manage to get from blatant begging, either.
My best advice is to keep following the best practices you find all over the web. As promised, here are ten ubiquitous tips for getting exposure for your book.
- Build your email list.
- Start a street team.
- Offer free books.
- Request reviews.
- Put an author note in the back of the book to your readers.
- Maintain fresh content on your website and your social media platforms.
- Try a book tour.
- Run targeted ads.
- Trade guest posts with like-minded authors.
- Give more than you take.
With a good product and a lot of hard work, the reviews will come. Or so they tell me.
There’s no fix—simple or otherwise—for the review process. Everyone has a different scale and a different opinion. For authors with hundreds or thousands of reviews, the average probably indicates the quality of the book. But for those writers just starting out, the average of five reviews may not be as balanced.
My recommendation? Keep your chin high and your skin thick. And most importantly, keep on writing your next novel.