Amazon Book Reviews: Pure as the Driven Snow?

If you’re an author, you have a certain expectation that your work will, at some point, be noticed and reviewed. And with online booksellers such as Amazon allowing for the bibliophile equivalent of Joe the Plumber to post their reviews at the click of a mouse, there’s more chance than ever that something you’ve had published will actually be reviewed by someone. Sounds good, huh? – all nice and egalitarian! Well, in theory, yes. In practice, however, it has its pitfalls…

Unbiased "customer" reviewer

Unbiased "customer" reviewer

…The main one being that an unbiased review by Joe the Plumber-turned-Reviewer may not, in fact, be so unbiased. One of the most recent and highly publicised examples of this involves historian Orlando Figes, who wrote negative reviews of his competitors’ books on Amazon. This sounds like something straight out of an episode of Inspector Morse, minus the murder and Oxford setting. Now imagine, if you will, the number of times this happens that we don’t get to hear about. I suspect it is not at all uncommon and has probably happened to most authors at some point in their careers, whether they’re aware of it or not.

I’ve had a handful of suspect reader/customer reviews myself, and the instant I read them a red flag went up, because they didn’t sound as if they were written by a layperson at all. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they might actually have been penned by someone who either had a “competing” book out or who submitted work to me that I rejected. I’ve edited a number of anthologies and dealt with a number of egos, so believe me, this is not as paranoid as it sounds. There are just certain things that ring false, and after awhile you get good at spotting them.

So is it a personal attack or a way of trying to swing the vote away from a competitor by lambasting his/her book? Like, duh! Anyone who thinks it’s a touchy-feely love fest in the book business is living in another hemisphere, especially in this era of dwindling imprints and dwindling disposable incomes to pay for such luxuries as books. The expression “dog eat dog” didn’t come out of nowhere. Heck, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if whoever coined the phrase was a writer!

The point is, these reader/customer reviews are intended to be unbiased and absent of any agendas (or vendettas). Joe buys book, Joe reads book, Joe loves or hates book, then gives us his verdict by writing a review – at least this is how it is in theory. The key to having this process work is very simple and straightforward – unbiased book reviewing from the general book reading/buying public that is not subject to any outside influences. However, it seems that the purity of the process is becoming even more corrupted in ways beyond those mentioned previously. For example, what about authors/editors who give away free copies of their books to any Tom, Dick, Harry (or Joe) who will agree to post a review? Is it likely that someone who is handed a free book direct from the hot little hands of an author is going to write a review proclaiming that said book is total shite? The odds are they won’t, even if the book IS total shite. So much for that unbiased reader/customer review from Joe, eh? Now I’m all for self promotion (as we all know!), but this is crossing the line into the inappropriate – and I’m not sure how happy the average book buyer will be to discover that all those rave reviews posted by other “customers” were actually solicited in this manner.

When I look at reviews posted on Amazon or other sites, I tend to give more credence to those from legitimate and established publications and websites (ie Publishers Weekly, The List, Midwest Book Review, The Library Journal), professional book reviewers, and websites/bloggers/authors who have some sort of track record as book reviewers (and are accountable for their words by using their real names). Mind you, even so-called “legitimate” reviews can be laced with a bit of subjective arsenic. Professional reviewers have agendas too, and it isn’t unknown for them to trash a book for personal reasons.

Of course it isn’t only books that fell prey to this kind of thing. There are product reviews as well on these sites. Some time back I heard about negative reviews on various websites that were discovered to have originated from competing brands, which wanted to get one over on their competition. I’m sure it continues to go on, but again, the average consumer is likely unaware of it.

I am certainly not advocating the annihilation of reader/customer reviews. But when no one is guarding the hen house, how can you ever be entirely sure of their legitimacy? You can’t. The point is, take these reader/customer reviews with a grain of salt. Although the majority are probably kosher, rest assured there are some that are otherwise. So buyer beware!

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24 Responses to “Amazon Book Reviews: Pure as the Driven Snow?”

  1. Terri DuLong Says:

    VERY well said and I totally agree on all of it, EXCEPT…..I, too, until last year thought that Publishers Weekly were “Professional” reviewers. Had always thought that. Wrong! ANYBODY can be a reviewer for PW. AND….(all the info is on Wikipedia) they used to pay $45 per review….downsized last yr. to only $25. My point is….any Tom, Dick or Harry can review for PW and I was very disappointed when I learned this. FOR years…..I thought their reviewers were all professional, literary people. NOT so…..wanna be writers, etc. can apply to PW to do reviews. WHICH makes all of what you said very true. I’m told many celebrities NEVER read their reviews….good OR bad…ever. Might be smart!

  2. Pat Patterson Says:

    I’ve never wondered because I simply don’t often read them. It’s like online restaurant reviews where people who have never been there try to top each other in hyperbole. But a few years ago something like over 2,000 reviews attributed to one reviewer turned out to be neo-Nazi rants where Amazon hadn’t noticed them because he would change the first paragraph to something that delved on the book but only using the title as his key.

  3. Lynda O'Connor Says:

    Don’t worry about Amazon’s reviews. Negative reviews are balanced with positive ones. Many authors have their friends and relatives say nice things about their books. I have written many positive responses to books that I loved and I enjoyed doing it because I wanted to share something I loved with others. Just read all of the reviews of a book which sounds interesting to you and then decide for yourself if the positive outweigh the negative. The best thing to do is to go to the library or book store and read some pages from the book to see if the style of writing appeals to you. Amazon is a great starting point to inspire you to read more.

  4. Sharon Bidwell Says:

    Very good points. If I’m seeking an opinion, I tend to scan through reviews on such sites to get an overall feeling only and I don’t take a single good or bad review as gospel. What also irritates me with these type of review, whether they’re genuine or not, is those that clearly have a personal dislike of the artist. This happens a lot in music reviews. The reviewer clearly dislikes the singer/musician and writes something along the likes of “yet another bad album” and asks why are you wasting your money listening to such trash? If one doesn’t like the person or his or her work, fine, but someone else might and a personal vendetta shouldn’t come into it. Remarks such as “this is as bad as the first (book/film/album)/ and other work” tells me the reviewer just doesn’t like what they’re reviewing even before they read, watched or listened to it (if they’ve even bothered to do so), and I don’t take it seriously.

    As for Amazon not noticing, I once reported a review on a child’s toy that had a paragraph that had nothing to do with the toy but was a mere rant over what a load of crap lapland was and even more derogatory remarks on Santa. I’m keeping it clean and polite here, but you can rest assured it wasn’t. The person clearly hated Christmas, and I couldn’t believe anyone had let such foul language be posted, especially in the children’s section.

  5. Paula Says:

    Hi All

    I am one of those Amazon reviewers writers. I am honest and sincere at the same time. If you like Mitzi then you will buy her books no matter what. Whether the reviews are good or bad. As for me writing them maybe just A budding writer here starting off in A slow way. I have toyed with writing books. It maybe A way of getting new custom. I often buy something if it had lots of good reviews. If one person out of 200 readers buys A book isn’t that A good thing. You tell me.

    Paula xx

  6. Lily Says:

    Anyone with half a brain can sort through the fake reviews, the hostile reviews, and the completely incompetent reviews.

    If lots of reviews show up for your book–whether good, bad, or indifferent–a potential reader will think that the book has merit or is fashionable, and want to read it anyway.

  7. Debra Says:

    I am so glad you wrote this article. I often see comments that I think “did they READ the same book as I did?” I truly expect others not to totally be in love with an author as I am, or the other way around. But if you follow the trail to see what other reviews the commentator has written, you will often find “none” or that rarely does the commentator like anything.

    I should have asked permission, but I passed your blog onto my writer’s group as food for thought. I hope that was ok with you. I know the subject has been brought up before with my group, and I thought it would make some of my author friends who were bewildered at the almost “hate mail” that was on Amazon.com.

    Keep on writing Mitzi – you always give me food for thought, and chuckles that sometimes turn into giggles. And THAT, my friend, is an honest review!

  8. mitzi Says:

    Thanks very much! Of course, pass on the post to whomever you think will get something from it. That’s why it’s here!

  9. Patricia Oshier Bruening Says:

    Of all the books I have listed on Amazon from three different publishers, I have never received a bad review, but then I don’t have many reviews at any rate. Being a reasonably intelligent person with my own likes and dislikes, I rarely allow reviews to dictate what I read or watch. My views seldom coincide with those of most reviewers anyway, especially regarding most movies. At any rate, I don’t pay much attention to reviews, good or bad. When I do get a good reveiw, yes, like most authors doing self-promo. I do post it, but after such posting, I dont’ usually think about it.

    However, using public reviews to trash a competitor is the equivalent of sibling rivalry or childish squabbling–immature and very easy to ignore. People who love an author’s work will continue to read that author’s work regardless of what some ‘reviewer’ has to say about it. As you probably see, such reviews rarely get my attention and I don’t get worked up about it.

  10. mitzi Says:

    I think the real concern is, the process of the “lay” review has been corrupted via the ways in which I’ve outlined, such as competitors’ writing fake “bad” reviews, and authors who use dishonest and unprofessional methods to get “good” reviews rather than allowing genuine readers to write a genuine review of the work. That is what irks me.

  11. Stuart Neville Says:

    I blogged about this very subject recently:

    http://conduitnovel.blogspot.com/2010/05/open-letter-to-my-amazon-stalker.html

    and…

    http://conduitnovel.blogspot.com/2010/04/on-recognition-or-otherwise-and-why-my.html

    One person has so far posted seven one star reviews on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk using five different screen names. They’ve also been taking shots at a couple of other authors. I know exactly who it is, and why they’re doing it, and it’s more than a little pathetic. One of these days I might go public and name-and-shame my stalker, but I’m not sure it’s worth the bother.

  12. Keith Says:

    I was contacted by an Amazon reviewer who had just started my book. He wasn’t sure, he said, how to review it. To make a long story short: Attempted extortion.

  13. Logan L. Masterson Says:

    The first three reviews of Leaves of Grass were written by Walt Whitman. This is not a new phenomenon. Further, remember that our standards have skyrocketed. At one point, not too long ago, literate and literary were pretty much synonymous.

    As a “wanna be” writer, I know from workshops and writers’ groups to take criticism with a grain of salt. As a film buff, I know which critics are worth my personal time.

    Reviews will be what they will. Trust the reader.

  14. Sharon Lathan Says:

    Great article, Mitzi. I agree with everything you said, with the same exception noted by Terri.

    The issue isn’t really a “professional” versus “lay” reviewer thing, IMO since the distinctions between the two are minimal and blurred. The real issue is lacking ethics and morals, so to speak. Whether a person reviews for a legitimate/professional newspaper, etc. or does so for a blog having received an ARC from the publisher or is just the average Joe/Jane, they may not approach the written review with honesty and integrity. We all have biases and prejudices, that is human nature. But applying those attitudes, or being downright mean and nasty and vindictive, is a free choice. One may believe down to their toes that a book is utter shite (great term!) and may have no choice but to give it that 1-star rating, but the review can be written truthfully and with reasons as to why. I have no problem with a negative review if the writer is decent about it and give their opinion as to why they hated the book. But I hate liars and people with agendas whose only goal is to maim and destroy.

  15. mitzi Says:

    Indeed, well said!

  16. Karen Mason Says:

    This is very true. Last year I criticised an author on the amazon discussion forums who was clearly using different IDs to promote his book in forums that were discussing a completely different genre of novel. Suddenly a really negative review appeared for one of my books and from the wording it was obvious they’d never read it… See more, just calling themselves ‘Customer from London’, they then proceeded to comment on every single genuine review I have, accusing them of being me using different IDs! I complained to Amazon about this ‘cyber stalking’, but of course this was totally ignored.

  17. Eva Ulian Says:

    Well Mitzi, I’ve always wondered how many of your Tom Dick and Harry would actually stop, pause, ponder and go to the trouble and time of writing a review for any book if there wasn’t something in it for them?

  18. Savvy Says:

    You said it! Not only do I know one author who regularly holds contests for giveaways to reward the “best” review, I actually know an author who writes multiple reviews of his own books under different pseudonyms. I’ve read a lot of bitey, snappy reviews, too: that’s always a heads-up that someone has a dagger to sharpen.

  19. Brent Allard Says:

    Some great points in your post. There definitely is a segment of the population that “believes it because they read it.” when it comes to reviews. This is true of all sorts of products. There is virtually no penalty to a competitor for posing as a customer/reader in order to trash your good name. I think that in time popular skepticism will catch up to the amount of bologna being posted, but yes, be skeptical and look for an agenda if the review goes too far either way.

  20. mitzi Says:

    LOL, no sooner do I blink then I see yet another “author” doing this free book in exchange for an Amazon “customer” review. I guess these people just have no shame at all.

  21. Jools Says:

    Well, I must say you’ve addressed this ugly little fact about as well as can be. And it more than justifies my belief in NOT EVER reading any of the reader reviews. Not that they can’t have their opinions. But isn’t a review supposed to be a review of the content/style….and not just an opinion be it humble or otherwise?

    I prefer to check with my literati friends or actually read the first couple of pages of a book (often available on Amazon) and come to my own conclusions, based on what the author has actually written.

    Perhaps a copy of Stunk and White should be issued to each reviewer with mandatory reading and a test before they are allowed to put finger to keyboard?

    Nuf said…

  22. Brandy Says:

    That is exactly why I either read none of the reviews for a book, or a whole bunch. If I’m going to read one, I’m going to read a lot to try to get the good, the bad, and the middle. Even after I’ve read the reviews sometimes I still throw them out the window and say I’m going to read that book anyway. I’d say that they need to police it, but it’s the internet…no one has that many resources.

  23. Zetta Brown Says:

    Great post, Mitzi. I like to think I have a thick skin when it comes to reviews and criticism, but I’m only human. Some time ago I had someone trash my book but their original post didn’t sound like it came from anyone who read the book closely–if at all. I say “original” because they ended up trying to rewrite it (as if trying to prove their point) after someone made a comment about it. This other person who had made a comment–who had read the book and gave it a positive review–challenged the negative review. What happened after that is both amusing and unsettling because they had a battle of words. But it all gave me a glimpse that there are those people who may come to this with an agenda.

  24. mitzi Says:

    Sadly, there are plenty of agendas out there! Sounds like your negative reviewer needs to get a life (and perhaps a job!) Too much free time on his or her hands lol!

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