Amazon Reviews: To Be or Not To Be?

This is part of a series special for this edition of AtHomeCon, called the One Interview Blitz. Many of the one-questionees have been interviewed on Darkcargo before.

Barbara Friend-Ish is the publisher and editor and do-er-it-all-er of Mercury Retrograde Press, and the author of Shadow of the Sun. Being both an author and publisher, I thought she was a good candidate for this question. The Lady in the Hat has been very supportive of Darkcargo and we’ve enjoyed her participation.

Games as Story-telling Medium, Interview with Barbara Friend-Ish

Mercury Retrograde Press

Interview with Author Barbara Friend-Ish

“Why are the Amazon reviews so important to the publisher? to the writer? “Everyone” knows that the reviews that show up on Amazon for a product or book are not edited or peer-reviewed, and can be entered by anyone, regardless of whether or not the reviewer has bought or used/read the product. As a reader, I see the reviews, but take them with a grain of salt. Why are the reviews on this one website so critical to sales?”

Reviews are more important to the success of a book than you might think. The people in the book business who make the decisions that determine what will turn up on store and library shelves are greatly influenced by the pronouncements of trusted review outlets e.g. Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. A review in one of those outlets tells industry insiders that the book in question is important enough to consider buying. But wholesale buyers are only half the story: a book can go into retail warehouses and never move from the shelves unless readers come looking for it. And that doesn’t happen unless a book has managed to generate positive awareness among its potential audience. Traditional advertising, for example print, radio, and tv ads, create awareness—and frequently if an ad is well-crafted it will generate a certain amount of buying response. But in recent years we’ve all become very aware of the fact that advertising isn’t to be trusted; because it’s not truth, it’s just a message about what someone else wants us to believe.

So who do we believe? Research shows that the main source of information for a very wide range of buying decisions is word-of-mouth, and nowhere is this more important than in entertainment: books, movies, etc. Over time we learn our friends’ tastes, and we learn whose opinions we can trust. And if a trusted friend recommends a book, we are much more likely to give it a chance than if we are simply exposed to an ad or to the book itself.

Not only that: as a society we’ve grown so (justifiably) cynical and suspicious of “sponsored” messages that we will take the recommendations or criticisms of strangers to be more reliable than the messages advertisers are sending our way—particularly when we take those strangers to be people more or less like ourselves. People who have read a book in which we already have a certain interest (otherwise why would we have wound up looking at that page on Amazon or BN.com?) can be assumed to have interests in common with our own, and so we’re inclined to trust their assessments, even though we can’t really evaluate the usefulness of their opinions.

Naturally certain strangers’ opinions get discarded as unreliable: because something they write or say strikes us as ignorant, or because they seem to be shilling for the book in question. Our brains sort through all these inputs, decide what is trustworthy and what is not, and form theories about whether or not the book is worth taking a chance on. What makes Amazon special in this regard is the fact that its pages become repositories for a wide variety of opinions. Just seeing a lot of people taking the time to post reviews about a book tells the part of our brain that weighs the reliability of possible facts that the book must be important. That in turn makes us more inclined to take that chance.

In recent years Amazon has been criticized for allowing people to review a product when others feel their opinions aren’t reliable, and they’ve tried to increase the perceived reliability of reviews by putting a lot of restrictions on reviewers. It’s no longer possible for a person to review a book if they don’t have an Amazon account—a requirement which includes the necessity of having purchased something from Amazon in the past. And it’s no longer possible to post anonymous reviews. Both of those restrictions have had the unfortunate effect of decreasing the willingness of people to post reviews on Amazon—and while some may think they’re seeing more reliable results, the truth is the reliability hasn’t changed. It’s just that the number of reviews for any given book has gone down. Particularly unfortunate in this regard is the fact that people are less willing to be truly honest in reviews when they have to put their real identities on them, and instead tend to simply say nothing.

This isn’t a problem for books that are very popular, because people don’t worry about whether others will judge them for having read something popular. If everybody’s doing it, it’s automatically OK. And unless seemingly everyone either likes or hates the book in question, a nice variety of opinions will be posted, giving potential readers plenty of useful data.

What suffers is the books on the “long tail”—which, these days, is most of them: books that don’t get the big advertising budgets, books from authors who are at the beginnings of their careers, books that are worthy of attention but don’t have mass appeal. The reduced number of reviews overall is exacerbated on Amazon pages that don’t seem to be seeing much traffic: potential reviewers get very self-conscious, unwilling to take the risk of having an opinion. And then people extrapolate the small number of reviews to the book being unimportant or unloved or both. It’s just like high school, only for books.

Whether we like it or not, Amazon has become the go-to website for information on books. When we want to know about a book, that’s the first source we’re likely to check. That’s largely because Amazon has developed the reputation of being the place to get the available data on any book. So as potential readers evaluating a book, we put enormous stock in what we see there—right or wrong, fair or not, reliable or not. A book that gets no love on Amazon is that kid who sits alone at lunch.

Back when it was new and easy, reviewing books on Amazon felt like such a cool thing to do. We were all eager to post our opinions. Now there are so very many places to post our opinions on the web, and we have to attach our own names and real functioning email addresses to anything we say on Amazon. The bloom is off the rose. But the books we love and respect need our attention on Amazon more than ever. The long tail is getting awfully crowded. It’s more true than ever that books, like the Velveteen Rabbit, become Real because they are loved.

It would be too heavy and guilt-trippy to say that we have an obligation to review the books we read, as if we were voting for government officials; but it absolutely is true that even one more review, good or bad, makes an enormous difference to a book on the long tail. (And yes: a well-thought-out negative review is a service nearly as great as a well-thought-out glowing review.) If as readers we want to see authors we like continue producing, that vote of confidence on Amazon will have a real and important impact on that author’s career, because it will have a real impact on sales.

Yes, that one review. The long tail’s an awfully big place.

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4 thoughts on “Amazon Reviews: To Be or Not To Be?

  1. Until I started doing reviews for Darkcargo, I really didn’t see the power in them. Now I am part of goodreads and I try to leave reviews there as well. I have even been known to grace Amazon with a thumbs up or down.

  2. Nice article. I know I certainly always take a look at the reviews before I purchase anything off Amazon. While they don’t always directly influence my decision, but seeing enthusiastic reviews in favor (or not) certainly doesn’t hurt my decision making process.

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