Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Amazon reviews

I have two or three friends who take Amazon reviews very seriously. By that I mean they get really pissed off when some dude or dudette trashes their books. I agree that this is an odd way to sell books--by having reviews that trash the merchandise. Though you can make the case for providing a consumer guide by offering yay and nay opinions.

I've certainly been disembowled by Amazon reviews. One woman hated my book so much I thought she'd probably turn me into the feds. She even wrote me personally to tell me how much she hated my book. She wanted to make sure that I saw the review she'd posted.

Now, I like Amazon. I buy virtually all my new books from them. But their reviews--not so much. And not just because I get dinged occsionaly but also because there's always seemed to me some weird Phillip K. Dickian system at play that low lives (i.e. me and my buds) aren't supposed to know about.

All this is preamble to recommending a fine strange article by Garth Risk Hallberg on Slate that is well worth your time.

What's interesting is that Hallberg isn't just complaining. He's seriously trying to understand the process by which you become a Top Ten Amazon reviewe and what such reviewers portend for the future.

This certainly won't deter me from shopping on Amazon. But it is a lenghty look at a rather weird reviewing system.

the literary amateur.
By Garth Risk Hallberg
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008, at 7:33 AM ET

"Full disclosure: It was late at night, in a fit of furtive self-Googling, that I discovered the first Amazon customer review of my debut book of fiction. "Superb," wrote Grady Harp of Los Angeles. "Fascinating ... addictive." Not to mention "profound." Such extravagance should have aroused suspicion, but I was too busy basking in the glow of a five-star rave to worry about the finer points of Harp's style. Sure, he'd spelled my name wrong, but hadn't he also judged me "a sensitive observer of human foibles"? Only when I noticed the "Top 10 Reviewer" tag did I wonder whether Grady Harp was more than just a satisfied customer. After a brief e-mail exchange, my publicist confirmed that she'd solicited Grady Harp's review.

"I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but I had imagined Amazon's customer reviews as a refuge from the machinations of the publishing industry: "an intelligent and articulate conversation ... conducted by a group of disinterested, disembodied spirits," as James Marcus, a former editor at the company, wrote in his memoir, Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut. Indeed, with customers unseating salaried employees like Marcus as the company's leading content producers, Amazon had been hailed as a harbinger of "Web 2.0"—an ideal realm where user-generated consensus trumps the bankrupt pieties of experts. As I explored the murky understory of Amazon's reviewer rankings, however, I came to see the real Web 2.0 as a tangle of hidden agendas—one in which the disinterested amateur may be an endangered species.


"Like celebrity bloggers and Wikipedia "Gnomes," then, the Top Amazon Reviewer heralds the arrival of a curious hybrid: part customer, part employee. This feels like a loss. But perhaps it means that in the coming age, every writer will be a salesman: up past dark, sifting through the data stream for evidence that somewhere, some honest soul is buying."


Randy Johnson said...

I've reviewed books on Amazon a number of times. The thing is, I never review a book I don't like. Why? Because it might not be the book. It might be me. Outside influences(life, health, etc.) can infect my feelings about a book, so I don't blame the book. I give a good review to inform potential readers with similar likes that it might be something they'd enjoy. Even a badly written book takes a bit of effort. Someone else might enjoy it.

Ed Gorman said...

I should've made myself clearer, Randy. I don't agree with all of his comments about reviewers of various kinds--I was talking about the Top Ten reviewers. I just don't know how anybody, speed reader or not, can read that many books and comment with any real understanding of what they've read. Plot, they can get but I'd think little else.

Unknown said...

Why would any non-professional finish a book he or she didn't like? More importantly, how could they? Reading a book you don't like isn't a passive act like spending 2 hours watching a bad movie. As for the pros, well, it's a lot easier to sound clever writing a snarky review than praising a book. Enthusiasm is what made Tony Boucher such an effective critic.
Amazon? Anybody who buys a book based on a two sentence review deserves what they get and beware of critics who read 400+ volumes a week. They won't have time to even go to the bathroom and you know what that makes them full of.

Anonymous said...

Most folks I know take any low marks from Amazon reviewers with a big old grain of salt.
A common trick is to read examples of both the lowest and the highest ratings and see which makes more sense.
Considering that the most negative Amazon reviews tend to be along the lines of "It's stupid because it sucked" or "It sucked because it was stupid", I'd bet that those scattered single stars make less difference to a potential buyer than you'd think.
They're still irritating, but anything less than a flock of single-stars is probably no big deal.

Cap'n Bob said...

The first review I ever saw of my book was a rave on Amazon. A few others came along after that, all positive, and many months later a lukewarm one from a guy who said his review was a special from Mystery Scene. Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin, as Daffy would say. What galls me is that the lame review is on tap while the rave is buried on another screen.
Worse, B&N ran the KKKirkus review, as mean and uninformed a hatchet job as ever saw print (three factual errors in the first few lines). If they aren't concerned with my fragile ego they sould at least worry about their sales, which won't be encouraged by so harsh a flogging.