Thursday, October 13, 2011

SO MUCH CONTROVERSY: To post or not post a book review on Amazon.com

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Amazon.com Losing its Book Reviews Footing or Literally Misunderstood

Gaining a great book review is very important for a debut author. Reviews help us stand out in the sea of books that release around the same time that ours do. Book reviews help readers find us. Depending on the media outlet, reviews can get us placed as featured authors in book festivals and shelved in independent bookstores.

Today book reviewer, Curiosity Builds blogger, and former book store manager of LA’s Mystery Bookstore Linda S. Brown shares her insights about book reviews, and posts a controversial water cooler topic about the Amazon.com review system. Please join us today, as we discuss the topic of Book Reviews. At the end of Brown’s post we’ve also added links to related articles that buttress Brown’s argument.

We hope you find this post insightful and please share your thoughts with us.

-Miranda Parker for ITW Big Thrills

 

SO MUCH CONTROVERSY: To post or not post a book review on Amazon.com

by Linda S. Brown

Over the past few months, several authors have asked me to read and review their books. I am honored by those requests. Moreover, I am touched and flattered that those authors respect my opinion enough to ask me. But when those authors asked me to post my reviews to Amazon, I cringed.

No, Amazon did not single-handedly destroy indie brick-and-mortar bookstores. However, it has dealt death blows to many and weakened scores more. And that truth greatly disturbs me.

And… I am uncomfortable with the Amazon.com review system. For those unfamiliar with the system, Amazon.com allows anyone [who has an Amazon.com account] to post a review of a book and give the book a value based on a 1 to 5 rating system (with 5 being best.) After I did some homework I came to the conclusion that this system is flawed on at least two fronts:

  1. Some Amazon reviewers are paid. As far as I can determine, they are not identified. That strikes me as misleading.
  2. The Amazon review and rating system is directly related to sales -- and I don’t feel comfortable with that since I do not work for that retail establishment. I don’t begrudge the authors making money by any means, but why should I, as a reviewer, put more money in the pockets of Amazon.com? The difference between Amazon and book blogs like LibraryThing, GoodReads, CuriosityBuilds.com (my own blog), and publications such as Crimespree Magazine is that Amazom.com will receive direct revenue from someone, who read my review and chose to buy the book based on my review. LibraryThing, GoodReads, Crimespree Magazine, and the rest would not.
On another note, I’ve read some of the reviews on Amazon.com while doing my reconnaissance work: I chose authors whose work I knew and whose books I’ve read. Some of the reviews were well-crafted and thoughtful. Some, not so much. But that could be true in any forum. A review is, after all, primarily one reader’s opinion, informed or otherwise.

Author K. Bennett (aka James Scott Bell, author of a mainstream suspense series featuring an L.A. based attorney named Buchanan, as well as several inspirational novels – and some popular writing manuals) recently asked me if I’d consider posting to Amazon my review of the first book in his new series, PAY ME IN FLESH: MALLORY CAINE, ZOMBIE AT LAW. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I gave it high marks on LibraryThing and GoodReads, and I posted a review on my blog. Jim’s request – innocent enough – sort of sparked this whole debate.

I threw it out to the Twittersphere to discover what other people thought about Amazon reviews. And the issue brought up some lively Twitter and email debates. Some authors felt Amazon ratings and reviews have a direct impact on their sales, and also broaden their exposure to markets they might not otherwise reach. Some authors disagreed. Some authors, bloggers, reviewers and readers refused to look at the ratings and reviews on Amazon, for the same reasons I listed above.

Thriller writer Meg Gardiner (CHINA LAKE, THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB – which I enjoyed so much while working at The Mystery Bookstore that I made it one of my monthly picks – and more, including her latest, THE NIGHTMARE THIEF) admitted that she had “been surprised to hear from readers who say they hesitate to buy a book that had any 1-star Amazon reviews. To me that sound incredibly shortsighted. Almost every book has at least one 1-star review. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK have 1-star reviews, for Pete’s sake…” However, Meg further pointed out that she understood “why some authors count on good Amazon reviews, especially if their books don’t get a lot of editorial coverage.”

When I expressed my reservation to Jim about posting a review on Amazon, I asked him what made him think people took them seriously. Who takes them seriously? Do authors? Do critics? Do publishers?

Jim’s response was that “readers take (the reviews and ratings on Amazon) seriously, so publishers and authors care because they could affect sales.”

Jim takes marketing very seriously. In addition to offering seminars about the writing process, he also teaches about marketing the finished book.

In the current publishing environment, we all understand the desire for good reviews, good ratings, and most importantly, good sales numbers. I am not currently receiving any compensation for the reviews I’ve written. However, if it ever came to pass that I am compensated for offering my opinions, it would be clear that I am being paid to read the books and to work with the authors.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to continue to read and review books sent to me by authors, publicists and publishers. I will post those reviews on LibraryThing, GoodReads, CuriosityBuilds.com, and I will submit those reviews to other blogs and publications, including the award-winning Crimespree Magazine.

And, meanwhile, I think I will leave the posting of reviews on Amazon to others, until such time as the Amazon system is more clear, open and equitable.


Laughing Linda_small Linda S. Brown was the Assistant Manager of The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles for 6 years, where she leveraged her love of crime fiction into a position in which she developed and coordinated author events, acted as liaison with publishers and public relations firms, and coordinated media campaigns. Since the closing of the bookstore earlier this year, Linda has become Book Lover at Large, in search of self and a job; meanwhile, she is reading and reviewing crime and young adult novels, writing articles for various blogs, and in the process of developing her own book-loving blog, CuriosityBuilds.Com.


Connect also with Linda S. Brown at:

  • linda.brown@filagree.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/LindaSueBrown
    FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/linda.s.brown

Related Links:

Now that Linda has opened the doors to this great question, let’s discuss:

Do you agree with Linda’s decision? Do you think Amazon.com’s Reviews have the same value as before? Why are Amazon reviews important to your readership?

15 comments:

Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for providing such an insightful post on reviews. My first book will be out in April, so perfect timing.

Tracey

Miranda Parker said...

Thank you, Linda for this great discussion topic.

Before I became a published author with Kensington Publishing I was a reviewer for RT Book Reviews Magazine. I was there six years and loved it. I still love it.

So when I read your statement that reviewers are soliciting authors for payment I cringed. Now I also understand why the FTC changed its rules for Book Bloggers.

I have had book blog for seven years and a member of many book blogger alliances. And, thus, I defend book reviewers to my author peers, who don't think we're so great.

Now I see why.

I will be bringing people over today and this week to join in on this conversation. But I would like to know from you outside of sharing this information to authors what can we do?

I know my editor, publicist, and marketing & sales director pays great attention to Amazon Reviews.

jenny milchman said...

What a wonderful, timely topic, Linda. I'm looking forward to checking out CuriosityBuilds!

I have a third hesitation to add about Amazon reviews, which I supposed can be applied to any so-called reader reviews versus professional ones, and that's the extent to which they become popularity contests or simply collegial, being good friends to one another. As soon as you're asked to submit a review, isn't there some burden to find the good things in a book, and there almost always are some?

Whereas book reviews in pubs like CrimeSpree seem to be called upon to be more objective assessments of high points and any weaknesses in the books.

Too often the Amazon reviews--my own rare ones included--read less like reviews and more like opinions to me.

I think there's a a valid place for these. But I also think the distinction should be noted and understood.

Thanks for a great post!

Thomas A. Knight said...

What a great, informed article.

I personally believe that the Amazon review system *is* broken, and I don't think there is any way to fix it.

That said, according to my (very limited) research, the number and rating of reviews does not have a significant effect on sales *on amazon*. This doesn't mean it doesn't affect other sales channels, but thus far in my research, whether you have a 2-star rating or a 5-star, whether you have only a few reviews, or boatloads, it doesn't seem to affect the overall sales volume of that title.

Miranda Parker said...

Jenny,

I share your sentiment. Although I'm a new author I've been a publicist for over ten years. Reviews are one of the best forms of PR for authors. However, in the past five years customer reviews like Amazon has become a thorn in our side. Sure Publishing Houses can peak at their authors reviews and rank, but when they rank its stats a higher value then a genre specific book review publication then we have a problem. Publishing houses are trying to find ways to cut marketing expenses. Amazon.com reviews are free, supposedly. Asking book clubbers or online reviewers to post a review in lieu of a book is cheaper than paying a lit PR pros for media outreach and management. So now the question is what is this PR Opp really costing the industry?

Miranda Parker said...

Thomas, thanks for commenting. I agree the system is broken and Amazon is so huge they don't have to fix it.

However from where I sit, Amazon reviews and ratings do have a direct relationship. Amazon uses an algorithm to determine which books will be referred to other Amazon customers based on the number of reviews the book receives. It is a very successful infrastructure with a goal to anticipate a customers want. Therefore, in the Amazon bot's eyes all it sees is that many Amazon customers are reading this book. When the amazon bot notices that then it reminds amazon account holders who have a history of buying similar books to that one in their monthly email, on their site under "other customers bought." Without reviews Amazon.com does not pick up the book or feature it.

Unless the publisher has a great metadata person coding the book then it's like having a book at the bottom of a book bin.

With my PR and Marketing cap on it is hard for me to believe that sales on Amazon.com aren't affected when a book has very little reviews.

As far as the rating. I agree I don't think it matters. However, the number of reviews does help push the book's visibility up. I encourage everyone to learn the basics behind Amazon.com as it relates to ecommerce, what happens to your books once it is warehoused at Amazon.com

Tracy March said...

Hi Linda,

What a great post. I, too, am looking forward to checking out Curiosity Builds. Love the name!

The whole review debate is interesting and I can certainly understand your position regarding Amazon.

As a consumer, it is difficult to know what to believe anymore. I admit that I do read Amazon (and B&N or any other retail site that offers reviews) most times prior to purchasing a book. I'd like to say I'm not influenced but I'm sure I am!

Thank you for the informative post and the links. The NYT article on paid reviews and the research into fake ones is really interesting!

Nora St. Laurent said...

WOW!! What a great informative post. Thanks to Miranda Parker for directing my to this with her post on facebook.

I review books for the two face to face books I run. I have to say that I don't read many reviews anywhere in making out my list.

I belong to a few Blog Alliance groups for bloggers. I always put in my review that I received a review copy of this book if I have. I also work in a book store. If I want to know about a book I have a look.

I like to post my reviews on Amazon because they let me post a long review. Barnes and Nobel have a cap and some other sites do to. If I don't like a book I don't post a review and let the publisher know why.

I only review books that I think are 4 and 5 star books. Books are subjective and if I don't like it someone else will love it. So, I don't put much weight on a reviews I read anywhere!

BUT NOW THAT I'VE hear about how Amazon works with reviews and all. It really makes me look at things differently.

THANKS Miranda for directing me here and THANKS LINDA for writing the post and bringing up this topic so we can all learn!!

Nora St.Laurent
The Book Club Network
www.bookfun.org

Chrystal said...

First, let me say, thank you Linda for this post – and Miranda Parker for making me aware of this conversation. I had heard of reviewers being paid to post book reviews on Amazon.com, although I have posted a few to the site, I have NEVER been paid to do so. I would love to be paid for the book reviews I write – alas, I do not. I enjoy being a professional Book Review Writer, because I enjoy reading and reviewing. It is time consuming to read an entire novel, and then write a well thought out unbiased assessment of the author’s work, and perhaps pay should be in order for doing so – but not at the expense of an honest objective review being clouded by compensation.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I image the concept of writing a book review as, providing:
• Bibliographic Information - Author’s First Name/Author’s Last Name/Title of Book /Publisher/Year/Number of Pages - so that the reader can look up the book. It’s also a good idea to tell the reader what genre the author is working in, for instance, Missing Persons by Clare O’Donohue is a Mystery.

• Giving the reader a brief summary of the author’s main arguments or main points.

• Discuss the author’s arguments/main points in more detail and even provide brief quotes from the book to back up the author’s ideas. Also, a respectful (positive/negative) critique of the author’s style, ideas, and the storyline as a whole, can be included.

• Finally, you attempt to express an overall summation of the book. You don’t necessarily have to 100% like or dislike the author’s work, but perhaps try to indicate the author’s most important contribution - attribute the ideas or concepts found in the book to the author and how they made for a good or not so good overall story.

I think by providing a respectful critique of an author’s work it can be beneficial to both the potential readers and to the authors as well – regardless if they are a novice, experienced, or well-known author. I for one, will continue to provide an honest professionally written objective review, rather it is posted on Amazon.com or FictionAddict.com, or my own bookreview blog, Chrystal’sCorner.

Dee S. said...

Nora, thanks for coming over. What you do a LifeWay and with the Book Club Network is incredible.

Like I said before Amazon.com is very successful. Their objectives are quite impressive. Outside of the glitch with customer reviews it is a great, great thing. Moreover, this issue with online customer reviews aren't just reserved for Amazon.com.

Yet, for authors it is imperative that they understand the basics of how it works. Now Amazon.com can funnel data from your Facebook account with hopes to help you buy the right holiday gifts for your Facebook friends. It's really a big machine. And we know that when things get large small things get through the cracks.

There has been a debate with some reviewers on the reason why they chose to charge for reviews. I hope some of the pop in and enlighten us.

Dee S. said...

Hi, Chrystal,

thanks for joining in on the discussion. there are print publications that pay staff writers for articles and reviews just like staff book critics for WaPo, Publishers Weekly or NY Times. Those paid opportunities diminish every year, because we still haven't figured out how to monetize content, especially within book publishing. I hope you receive an opportunity soon to write for one of those kind of publications.

I remember back in the day on my blog I would embed amazon product links into my content with hopes that a subscriber (I had 10K now about 7) would click the link and buy. For a while my Amazon affiliate check looked decent. But then I found myself trying to craft content to fit whatever big item they were pushing and it was too much for me. I chucked all that backend coding stuff and went back to what I wanted my blog to be in the first place.
This discussion could go so many ways. Thanks, Linda for presenting it. It had been a while and I had forgotten.

Ausjenny said...

Thanks for the article to be honest reviews do not sell books to me. I also was surprised about the 1 star stopping people buying a book. Often these reviews seem to be more cos they dont like the genre and want to trash someone but not by informed people which is sad.
I didn't know some were being paid for that really should be mentioned on the review as it changes what may be said. For example if one author pays they may get a good review but if one refuses they then may get a one star review.
I do put my reviews there cos I have been asked to but normally I go to Goodreads first, christianbook and at times The aussie books sites just found out Word australia take reviews also.
thanks for the information

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Interesting post, Linda! You raise a lot of excellent posts - the most disturbing being that some people are paid to write reviews on amazon.com. Makes me think twice about reading any of their reviews. Of course, I suppose those same people could be paid to write glowing reviews elsewhere, too, whether they've read the book or not! It's kind of discouraging. I guess I'll stick with reading the back cover and the first few pages and decide from that... or more lengthy reviews in the paper and on blogs.

And thanks, Miranda/Dee for posting this thought-provoking article!

Liz K (author, book reviewer, travel writer, and family historian) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz K (author, book reviewer, travel writer, and family historian) said...

You state that some Amazon reviewers are paid. I wonder where you get that idea? I am a "Vine Reviewer" for Amazon, and outside of getting the items or books that I will review sent to me for free (why should I pay for them; they asked me to do this) I know of no other monetary benefit to Vine Reviewers. Prior to them inviting me to be a vine reviewer, I only reviewed items I purchased like everyone else.

You might want to clarify that a little.

Liz