Sunday, January 14, 2007

How much notice do you take of Amazon reviews?

Ok, so we established the other day that we writers are totally pathetic, and we look at our Amazon reviews with obsessive regularity to glean whatever drops of approbation we can find to feed our voracious egos...

But I am wondering: just how much notice do READERS actually take of those reviews? Now I know this is probably an extreme case, but just consider this example:

A book, Danse Macabre by Laurell K. Hamilton, sits at 3,590 on the Amazon.com rankings after publication in June 2006. That's over 6 months ago, it's a hardcover and the paperback is not out till March 2007, so that's a pretty good ranking. It has 533 reviews. Wow. But it has been almost universally rubbished by those reviewers - it has 2 stars.
WTF? People are still snapping up the book, reading it, and then writing a review about how lousy they think it is. There are already 9 reviews for January. Don't any of them read the reviews first, and wonder whether they really ought to buy it in the first place? Apparently not. Or not enough to give the author a lousy ranking.

Interesting, eh?
From a writer's point of view, I guess the moral is: if you get a bad review, don't worry. Perversely, it might even sell more books...

22 comments:

Kendall said...

I frequently read them...with a big grain of salt. I usually sort the reviews to list most negative first, to see if there's a trend or something I think would annoy me.

But a big grain of salt! Tastes differ, I don't know these people, and sometimes there are contradictory reviews (e.g., "author does X poorly" and several "author does X great" -- um, okay, what-e-vah). I try to read what they say and not pay so much attention to the # of stars. (Some people don't say what's bad; well, that "review" is ignored by me... ;-)

But also, not every "problem" is meaningful! If someone dislikes X and I don't have a problem with X, then I don't read that comment as negative, I just shake my head and move on. The bottom line is many large grains of salt with the reviews.... ;-) Sometimes I just read them to get a better idea of what the book's about. (E.g., if Amazon's description is terse or missing and I can't find information elsewhere about it.)

Simon Haynes said...

I'm guessing there's a bit of tall poppy syndrome where big name authors are concerned, whereas trashing a new author's first book is like kicking puppies.

For big name authors there's also the problem of not meeting expectations, or experimentation gone wrong. And given Hamilton sells books by the hundred thousand, 500 people leaving negative remarks is a pinprick.

If an author disappoints a reader that reader will be sure to let everyone know, but if an author's book is just as good, or better, than their previous effort, where's the news in that?

Remember, when someone is browsing a bookshop they're often attracted to works by authors they've heard of. If they've heard a load of negative they might pick up the book and scan the back cover to see what all the fuss was about. At that point, half of them might decide to make up their own mind and a sale is made.

Emmaco said...

I don't shop from amazon but read a lot of blogs and so on that review books. If a lot of people seem disappointed with a book I will probably try to get it from the library before buying it. Or give it some serious scanning in the shop!

Like Kendall said, though, it depends on what the reviewer did or didn't like about the book. If it's a theme I don't mind then I probably wouldn't worry. But if someone complains about something I also dislike I'd pay attention.

Satima Flavell said...

I write and edit reviews for www.specusphere.com and the only people who ever pass comment on them are writers and editors. It used to be the same when I wrote dance reviews for The Australian - dance companies cut them out and saved them in a clippings file and now and again a director or choreographer would take umbrage at something I'd said. But in all the years I was doing it (about seven all told) only once did a member of the public ask to be put in touch with me because he had a gripe about what he'd seen as an insult to the culture of his ethic origin. Nothing about dance at all. Even my friends and family didn't read them. *sigh*

I seldom buy newspapers and therefore seldom read print reviews, but now and then I check other e-zines to see what they have to say. It's interesting to compare other reviews to my own. The weirdest site I've come across is one where the blogger reviews reviews! Honest! (Get a life, I say!)

Satima Flavell said...

Oh sorry, I never got to the point:-) Amazon reviews. Mm. I read the odd one but many are so amateurish I shudder and give up. They need a good editor:-)

Sharyn said...

never, ever read them, and rarely even use amazon. My choice of buying a new book comes from one of two ways: listening to people I know and who's opinion I respect in regards to plot and characterisation, browsing the book store, reading a page or two, to see if I personally like the author's style. Once I've established that I like their style I will buy their subsequent books

Fuzzy Goblin said...

Wow, I never thought of it like that, but then I haven't ever been to Amazon.com to check out the reviews, that must be a failing on my part...

hrugaar said...

I guess readers will weigh what they know of the reviewer against what they know of the author. With an established ‘name’ (as Hamilton is) they’ll buy the book anyway, based on the author’s name and reputation. With an unknown author a review might carry more weight - depending on who writes it. (In other words I think reviews, like cover quotes, influence the marginal increase to the core readership.)

If it’s a review in the Times newspaper, chances are that if reviewers hate a book or movie, I’ll love it. I know this from experience, heh.

With amazon reviews, the problem is getting a context for the reviewer - what else have they read, what books do they prefer, what have they said about books I have read already, etc.? Like Kendall, I probably look at amazon reviews more to find out what a book (or movie, or video-game) is about, rather than paying much attention to what they thought of it.

And yeah, as Simon says, trashing a new author’s first book is like kicking puppies. Why is it that we seem to have a culture where it’s easier - and apparently more ‘entertaining’ - to trash something rather than to say something good about it?

Glenda Larke said...

Fascinating. I'm a bit of an oddity. If I want to know what a book is like from Amazon reviews, I seek out the bad reviews. I think they will tell me more about whether I will like the book or not.

And Hrugaar - it is easier to be witty or clever when rubbishing something. Much harder to write entertaining stuff when you are praising something.

Hmm...am I past the puppy stage? Yes, fraid so, but never mind. The small puppy hasn't become a tall poppy yet. I'm safe yet a while *g*

Simon Haynes said...

I don't buy newspapers, only read them online, and they usually only review literary works & non-fic. It's like SF doesn't exist.

So, I get info on new books via blogs these days, never book reviews. It's interesting: people rarely trash a book on their blog, unless it's by a big name author. Maybe that's because they're not as anonymous as they are on Amazon. What I have found is that people sometimes blog about books they've enjoyed, and those recommendations are worth more than half a dozen five star Amazon ratings.

And I like Satima's reviews. Satime has great taste ;-)

Simon Haynes said...

Whoops, got your name wrong the second time around. SATIMA. There, that fixed it.

hrugaar said...

Oh yes, Glenda, I quite agree about the wit factor. I suppose I didn’t ask my question the right way la.

To put it another way (leaving the wit element largely aside) why does it seem that people who hunt down my email address to write and tell me how much they’ve loved my books (there have been one or two) will seldom write a review on amazon to let other people know (even when nagged, heh) - as opposed to those who dislike my books who have no qualms about telling the world?

Of course, it could be that people are embarrassed about admitting publicly that they enjoy my books. Perhaps they hide them under the pillow, along with their copies of Enid Blyton and Jackie Collins!

And Mr. Haynes has revealed his handsome face at last. :o)

Mary Lanser,USA said...

I have just now found you, your books and your blog. I love your blog. You take beautiful photographs, and photograph beautifully, so you need to stop complaining about the fact that you don't like to have your picture taken and keep the photos coming!! I may even like your books too. I intend to find out. When I do, I will let you know, and I won't wait till you are enormously famous either...I'll be back!!

Thank you for this wonderful window on you and your life. Your girls look like great fun and are beautiful. I love my two children beyond words, so there's that too.

Glenda Larke said...

Thank you, Mary!

Hrugaar - Maybe it's easier to be moved to action by a negative reaction than than by a positive one?

I know there are loads of times when politics and politicians move me towards writing a scathing blog entry and I have to walk away because I don't want to turn my blog into a political rave!

ink paw prints said...

hmm... I think people are more likely to leave negative reviews partly because of the negative cultures we live in (e.g. the press report on all the bad things the government do, but few of the good) but mainly because disappointment is a very powerful emotion. It also lasts longer than the elation a good book can bring. And going to amazon, finding the right page, logging in and writing a review is a lot of effort ;)

I tend to use amazon to try out new authors, and like other people read the reviews more to get an idea for content than to decide if the book is any good or not. If I'm interested in the book, I'll read all of the reviews unless there's a lot, in which case, if they all seem to be saying the same thing I'll ignore the rest except for the negative. How I actually decide I want to buy a book? I'm not entirely sure, lol, usually I think there's an unique idea mentioned which catches my imagination.

hrugaar said...

It's the 'private praise / public trashing' contrast that intrigues me. Maybe it is our negative culture (or that bad times make more interesting reading than good times). Maybe it's the Devil Wears Prada theory that scathing discipline drives us toward excellence, heh.

Glenda Larke said...

Well, I actually feel that scathing criticism is more likely to drive a writer to either suicide or giving up altogether!

I can't say, though, that I have suffered from public trashing. in fact, with one solitary exception, I have been generally pleased with the public comment on all my books, both by professional reviewers and amazon-type reviewers.

The one exception was a doozy, I will admit. "An unpleasant read" was about the nicest thing she said. Lol!! I think she might have someone who likes "nice" books and she just came to the wrong place.

hrugaar said...

I don't respond well to scathing criticism either.

I have had a certain amount of public trashing. The one (amazon comment) that hurt most was being called "racist" (well, actually they said my first book "may even be mildly racist, however it is so bad you cannot really tell"). Yes, I know it was probably someone who didn't know me (they didn't have the spine to put their name to the comment) and the chronic political correctness malaise is that you can find fault wherever you look for it; but it was, as you say, a doozy. It had me chewing broken glass for weeks.

chocolatetrudi said...

What Hrugaar said:

With amazon reviews, the problem is getting a context for the reviewer.. is exactly why I don't read Amazon reviews.

Good reviews could be good because the reader is smart... or stupid. Bad reviews could be bad because the reader is smart, or stupid. There's no way to tell, so there's no point taking bad reviews to heart - or the good ones either.

And if you took on all the contradictory feedback, you could easily go mad. Or never write another word without doubting and questioning what you're doing to the point of choking.

I trust the feedback and opinions of friends and fellow writers instead. A million Amazon reviews wouldn't amount to a speck of the value of a good friend's feedback. And the same is just as true for book recommendations.

Glenda Larke said...

Not sure that I agree with you Trudi. I am a little distrustful of good friends' feedback, especially if it is positive! LOL.

I was actually asking the question of general readers, not writers pertaining to their own book, but I still think a writer can get something from reading reader reviews. Possibly this is more valid for the writer who has not yet hit the stratosphere and attracted the "let's knock down the tall poppy" syndrome, which might have some bearing on the Hamilton criticisms.

It would be stupid to get het up over comments written by a stranger about whom you know exactly nothing, but nonetheless I think a writer can learn from thoughtful assessments by unknown readers. They are the people we write for and if what they say strikes a chord within me, the writer, then I will learn something.

I think it is fairly easy to recognise a "good" reviewer. They give reasons that explain why they hold their opinion. They confine their comments to the book, not the writer. They are coherent and rational and thoughtful and you can get a sense of whether this is the wrong book for them, or whether they have valid crits of your writing. You can even usually get a sense of how widely read they are within the genre.

(BTW, Laurell Hamilton has reacted rather oddly to criticism with a stinging, sarcastic blog entry which also seems rather silly.)

What intrigued me about her amazon reviews, and which prompted my question, was the huge gap between her popularity (that book was on bestseller lists everywhere) and the extreme reaction of the reviewers. You don't usually see that, even with other hugely popular writers - the only other one I can think of is Jordan's 10th book that had over a 1000 reviews and only scored one and a half stars, and his case is slightly different because each of his books are more of the trilogy type rather than books in a series, so there is more reason for people to buy.

Kendall said...

Re. leaving comments v. e-mailing the author, I don't leave any type of "review" on Amazon.com or similar sites. I e-mail the author when I love a book, sometimes...but there's no flip side (for me) of giving private praise, but public criticism on a site like Amazon.

Anonymous said...

People buy the book to see how bad it really is. Schadenfreude has a big market in the US especially, people want to see that other people can be, and are worse than, they are. So yes, they will pay for the privilege of rubbishing a book. I mean, it's so bad you have to read it, I mean, really really bad, you have no idea how bad, until you read it. But before you read it you have to buy it :)