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JWR 4.36 - On Amazon Reviews


Most of the reviews I write on Amazon are for books that I get through their Vine Program. They send me free stuff that I pick out from a list of products and I write a review on it. I try to be honest and straight-forward while respecting othersí opinions and feelings (except for James Pattersonísóbut heíll just roll around in piles of hundred dollar bills, so screw him).


I donít think a lot of people understand what a review actually is. I also donít think they understand how a review works. Combine these ignorant attributes with people acting like they are known to act when given the opportunity for anonymous digital confrontation and you get the Amazon reviews system.


(Herein Iíll mainly be referring to reviews about books because thatís mostly what I review and thatís really what Amazon got its reputation for selling.)


Why does everything have to be 1-star or 5-stars? Iím not a ďtoughĒ reviewer, Iím just honest. The five-star rating system goes like this:


            1-star: you hated it

            2-stars: you didnít like it

            3-stars: you liked it a little

            4-stars: you liked it a lot

            5-stars: you loved it


You can also assign letter grades to the stars if you like that better. One star is an F (a failure), three stars is a C (average), and five stars is an A (exceptional, if you will). It is interesting to note that a three star rating is not necessarily negative. Itís not glowing, but Iíd be pretty happy with a C in a real hard class.


I really have to love something to give it five stars. As of the writing of this, I have written 60 reviews on Amazon: twelve of them are 5-star, 33 are 4-star, nine are 3-star, four are 2-star, and only two are 1-star reviews (although this is a little skewed because Iíve not reviewed books that I purchased with the intention of reviewing them from time to time to avoid writing a negative review). I pick out the books I want to read, so the chances of me liking them are pretty good because I do a little research, including reading negative reviews about them in advance, but I think there is a good smattering of reviews that are ranked across the board.


Everyone else seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of person. They either give something five stars (love it) or one star (hate it) when the world isnít really like that. Itís just the opposite, in fact. If you love everything and give it five stars, how do you distinguish something thatís really great? Itís like crying wolf. If you tell people that everything you read is amazing and great and then when you have something that really is and you want to share it with others, nobodyís going to care.


I think negative reviews are actually more helpful than the positive ones and not necessarily to dissuade others from reading the book. As I said, I read the negative reviews more closely than positive ones. If someoneís going to take the time to write a negative review, then they really were irked. Hopefully theyíve put a little effort into that review to convey exactly what they didnít like, and if the things that they point out are not a big deal to meÖI might-could read the book after all. But if they donít put any effort into the review, then itís no help to anybody.


Hereís a real example of a 1-star review that is not helpful:


One of those cheapo Kindle books. Don't bother. I couldn't read past the first story. Just ugly, not literary value. - edithe swensen


This review is for an anthology consisting of about a dozen stories each by a different person. Anthologies are a mixed bag; seldom will you like all the stories contained within one. Not liking an anthology at all is a valid opinion, but thatís not whatís going on here. Letís say the reviewer had read all the stories, or even half the stories, in the anthology and their opinion stayed the same, then the review would have read: One of those cheapo Kindle books. Don't bother. Just ugly, not literary value.


Letís dissect this a bit, shall we?


One of those cheapo Kindle books. So, this was a Kindle book, not a paper book. What was ďcheapoĒ about it? It wasnít cheaply manufacturedóthe pages werenít falling out of the bindingóbecause itís an e-book; it wasnít manufactured at all. Perhaps the cost to purchase it was so low the reviewer is calling it cheap for this reason. But I would think thatís actually a good thing and would reflect positively in the review, so that canít possibly be it. I see people constantly complaining about e-books being too expensive compared to the price of the print book. Well, then they must mean either the formatting or the writing is cheapo. But how the fuck would they know? They only read one story.


Don't bother. All rightÖa word of warning (two words, actually). In essence, itís the summation of this review. Usually this would come at the end, but the reviewer isnít being judged on their writing; it is they who are judging the bookóa book they didnít read. Iím sure theyíll give reasons for this ominous caution throughout the rest of their review.


Just ugly, not literary value. So distraught and disappointed was the reviewer that they could not even form a complete sentence or even a sentence fragment that makes sense to describe why you shouldnít bother reading this bookÖthe book from which they read only the first story. Itís ďugly.Ē Got it, no ugly book should be readÖbut Iíve seen The Catcher in the Rye described as ugly. I think ďnot literary valueĒ means that the book has no literary value, as in donít compare it to Ulysses, a novel consistently listed as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, a bookóI think itís safe to sayóthat has literary value. (Of course the magazine that first published a serialized version of Ulysses was prosecuted for the perceived obscenity in it. Obscenity is ugly, right?)


Hey, not everybody likes opera eitheróitís okay. But why is it ďugly?Ē Why does it have ďnot literary value?Ē Show your work! More than likely this reviewer downloaded this e-book free of charge and decided their time was being wasted after reading the first story and their time would be better spent tending to their ill parent or serving food at a soup kitchen or researching cures for cancerÖas soon as they finished hammering out this well-constructed reviewÖabout a book of many short stories in which they read only one.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, 5-star reviews can be unhelpful too:


Well written with a good story line. Well developed characters. A very good read. Looking forward to reading more by this author. - JULIA K DAVIS


This wouldnít be so bad (yes, itís short, but so are haikus) except that it is also a review of a short story anthology. This person also most likely received the book or e-book free of charge in exchange for the promise of a review (otherwise why bother giving a positive review for something you clearly did not read?). Even if the book in question was a novel by one author, does this review actually say anything at all that would help someone decide to read the book?


Boiled down, thatís what a review is: a means of telling someone your opinion to assist them in deciding whether or not to read a book, see a movie, use a plumber, visit a hotel, fly an airline, eat at a restaurant, and so forth. Take the hubris out of it; itís not all about you.


Amazon reviews need to be at least 20 words. The first review here is exactly 20 words and the second is 22 (and yes, those are the complete reviews as published on Amazon). My last ten reviews averaged 359 words each (not counting the titleóand a lot of work goes into titles because theyíre hard). I came across a guy (that sounds so dirty) who writes reviews that are so long, he puts as much of it as he is allowed in the Amazon review and then adds a link to his website where the dissertation is presented in its entirety. What Iím saying is, thereís got to be a happy medium between saying nothing at all and making someone read something as long as the book thatís being reviewed itself.


One thing that I find helps in crafting a concise review is not regurgitating the plot in your review. That may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out. First off, there is already a plot description on the productís page, sometimes there are more than one. Do you think someone is going to just look at your review without some knowledge about the book before that? No, they read the product description and if it piques their interest, they might start looking at the reviewersí star ratings. (If the product description doesnít interest them they move on to the next book.) Personally, if there are a lot of 5-star and only a few 1-star reviews, that gets me curious and I read the 1-star reviews first. (1-star reviews for a good movie are usually from people bitching about the lack of closed caption options, the horrible transfer, bad picture quality, poor audio, sparse bonus features, and so forth, and they can be quite entertaining; seldom are they actually about the content of the movie itself.)


Secondly, you can reveal too much about the plot. The big twists donít always only come at the end. People call these reveals ďspoilersĒ and if you include them in a review, youíre supposed to warn people about themóbefore you spill the beans. Youíre essentially encouraging them not to finish reading what you wrote. Seems like a bizarre tactic to me.  For a while I thought people were marking my reviews as not helpful because I didnít always type out a plot summary so I started including a very brief one, but that didnít really seem to help so now I think Iíll just do whatever I want, include it if I feel like it.


Lastly, I think of it as a fuck you to the reviewers whose reviews are only a rehash of the plot and contain no real opinion about the book. Thatís not a review. Thatís the product description, dumb shit, and thereís one provided by the publisher on the product page!


I struggle with what it is about my reviews other people find not helpful. My helpful rating has remained pretty consistently around 74 percent. Whatís the problem, 26 percent of people? I try to be clear and concise and to say something unique, something others havenít. What is it thatís not helpful?


I now realize Iím my own worst enemy (much like Christian Slater). I usually donít bother reviewing things that have more than 100 reviews. I feel once a product gets that many reviews, everything that can be said about it has been said, positive and negative. Plus, what are the odds of your review helping someone when there are a hundred, or even hundreds of, other reviews? So Iím not going to be reviewing Stephen Kingís books or the Harry Potter movies. There are exceptions to this like James Pattersonís First to Die, which I wrote about in a Rambling and then cleaned up the foul language and other content to post to Amazon as a 1-star review (First to Die has 769 total reviews and mine has 2 out of 3 helpful votes, by the way). Also I got a book called The Dog Stars from the Vine Program and wrote a 5-star review for it (4 out of 5 helpful votes so far). Although mine was the 26th review posted, right now there are 501 other reviews of that book.


Many of the books Iíve reviewed that were not from the Vine Program have been from independent publishers or were self-published by the author. These are books that donít get a lot of attention, are often printed on demand, and cost more than a bestseller. Youíll never find them at a bookstore. Iíd be willing to bet that most of you only read bestsellers and would never give a book from an independent publisher a second glance because you donít recognize the authorís name, let alone a self-published book with questionable editing. The authors of these books want reviews, good, bad or indifferentówell, maybe not indifferent. They want to hear what others have to say about their story. For example, recently I purchased a book by this guy Danger_Slater (no shit, thatís how it appears in his book and everything) and I wrote a 3-star review after I read it. He saw it and sent me a direct Tweet noting that is wasnít a glowing review but it was honest and that readers would appreciate that. I thanked him for being cool about my review and told him I was looking forward to reading more from him, to which he responded that heíd try to get me a copy of his new book when it comes out. Now, why would he do that? Because I actually took the time to write a review where I pointed out some good things and some bad things I felt about the book in a straightforward way (it also helps that I wasnít a prick).


Why do you think indie- or self-published e-books only go for a dollar or two and are often free for a weekend? Itís because the authors and indie publishers want to get it into peopleís hands so it gets read. Of all the people who download a free e-book, how many actually read it? And of those that do read it, how many will take the time to write a review? Itís like a late-night talk show: The biggest audience tunes in for the monologue, about half of them tune out before the first guest hits the couch, the audience is halved again by the time the second guest comes out, and the audience is so small when the musical act performs that the powers that be donít even measure the ratings at that point.


I also try to only write a review if I have something to say. Not all my reviews are going to be as insightful as Iíd like, but Iím making the effort and Iím actually reading the book, two things I know for a fact many reviewers donít do. In the Vine Program, you have to write reviews for 75 percent of the products you receive from them or you canít get additional products. Iíve read some duds and coming up with something to say can be a bit taxing, but I do it.


I didnít like the book so I gave it two stars and hereís whyÖ Whatís wrong with that? The problem is that there are trolls who are fans of the author, know the author, or actually are the author and they vote down a critical review just because itís critical. Iíve had the opposite too, where I posted a positive review of a book and received not helpful votes because people have a problem with the author and any positive review of his books gets shit on.


But why is everybody so fucking nasty, downright rude and absolutely dismissive about other peopleís opinions? From politics to religion to a fucking 250-page book, if you donít agree with me then youíre simply wrong and your opinion is, therefore, shit.


Well, I know how to solve this problem: Iím gonna keep doing what I do while you continue doing what you do. The difference is Iím not going to give a fuck about you anymore.


And by the way, I donít understand people who donít understand the 5-star rating system. Remember that?


            1-star: you hated it

            2-stars: you didnít like it

            3-stars: you liked it a little

            4-stars: you liked it a lot

            5-stars: you loved it


A lot of people write a negative review and make the comment that they would rate something lower than one star if they could or, even more annoying, bemoan Amazon for not allowing a zero-star rating. These are the dipshits for whom plusses and minuses for letter grades were invented in school. I mean, if Amazon wonít let you do zero stars itís not a conspiracy to make it seem like you enjoyed the book a teeny-tiny little bit. ďJesus Christ, Jim, this fucking guy goes on and on about how much he hates this book in his review but then he rates it 1-star. What a moron. Why didnít he rate it zero stars? Doesnít make sense to me.Ē Let me educate you as to why Amazon doesnít allow a rating of zero stars: By forcing you to choose a star rating of one through five, it means that the star rating canít be left blank by oversight. Get it? If they allowed zero stars how would anyone know if you missed rating it all together or if you actually did want to rate it zero stars? Itís ingenious because itís simple and people that complain about it or, worse, donít understand it should take their hands off the keyboard and just stick their thumbs back up their asses.


Copyright © 2013 John Lemut