Sunday 12 September 2010

An Amazonian call to arms

I saw this ridiculous 5-star 'review' on this morning, in relation to Brent Weeks' The Black Prism:

"After the brilliant Night Angel trilogy, i'm really looking forward to this book.
It arrived today in the post and what a book! It's a proper book. this hardcover version is like a large dictionary, love that. looks like an epic and it's only part one!!
I just wanted to comment on the physicalities of this book, it's awesome! gonna start this off now and will post my opinion on it when i'm done."

Whoa - a proper book? Who would've thought?  And like a large dictionary, eh? Gotta love those large dictionaries. 5 stars!

Seriously though, this is yet another example - there are countless others - of the appalling standard of reviews that blights Amazon. In fact, this drags the standard down even further, since the dude has not even reviewed the novel, but the physical book. And sure, anyone with half a brain cell can see this, but that doesn't stop it affecting the overall rating afforded to the book.

And the thing matters. So many books are bought online these days, yet the standard of customer reviews is shocking (did anyone from Amazon even check this review? Doesn't look like it). Sure, I imagine it must be tough moderating so many reviews, but if you're going to do it then it should be done properly. Permitting people to post 5-star reviews of a book's physical properties is a joke. There are all sorts of horror stories from people who bought a book as a result of dreadful (or even fake) reviews.

This is why I now post all my reviews on Amazon, and why I think all reviewers and serious readers should do the same. It's important to try and drive up the quality of the reviews available. If each new release has four or five well-written reviews attached to it from prominent members of the online genre community (or from anyone that can write a considered review), then it's offering consumers a far better idea of what to expect from the product.

Please do take the time to post your quality reviews on Amazon - you'll be helping the author, the publisher, and most importantly the consumer (because without the consumers, there's no publishing industry!). The well-read, intelligent members of the online community have the ability to drive up the quality of reviews on Amazon, but only if we all take the time to post our reviews.  

So let's do it.


Lifeless Loser said...

One thing that is absolutely grand about the internet is that it gives everyone their own voice, and that in many circumstances (customer reviews being the perfect example) that voice can make a massive impact. These days I would never choose a hotel without reading what its patrons have said about it, and when ordering a book online, I do usually peruse the customer reviews, although, nine times out of ten I have already made up my mind.
The kinds of review you're mentioning are one of the many downsides to the idea of everyone having their say and I completely agree with you that the best way to combat things like this is for reviewers to be active in making sure they get their thoughts onto the site. There is also the "was this review helpful" radio buttons, but I'm not sure how useful they actually are.

There are also certain elements of quality control that the review reader can implement as well as the writer. If a review is written in text language or has things like <3 in the title then I tend to move on to the next one. If the grammar is poor then I usually won’t bother, and if its overly short then I might not pay it much attention either. So there are things that the reader can impart to protect her, or his self.

Anyways, a god point well made chap. Keep it up.

Madigan Mirza said...

Well, the thing about the internet is that it is very democratic. Amazon doesn't pretend that the reviews posted approach any kind of professional quality. There are amazing reviews written by the average citizen, and there are reviews that are absolute dreck.

I found the review example you posted to be middle of the road, actually, not completely horrible. For the right kind of reader, this may be all the review they need, because it imparts a few key pieces of information. If you are a fantasy reader looking for your next door-stopper of a book, hopefully a series, then you'd be all set.

What bugs me are the 2-line reviews that focus more on the speed of shipping which sound almost more like an e-bay review.
"Product arrived quickly and was undamaged. I was pleased with the item."
Or, the reviews for children's books that go something like, "My 2-year-old loves this book! Buy it!"

Clicking the radial "was this review helpful" buttons does make a difference -- it knocks unhelpful reviews to the end of the queue, and most shoppers do not bother to look past the first three or four reviews. And Amazon does have systems in place to comb through and remove "sock-puppet" reviews -- written by family or friends of the author, or employees of the publisher meant to artificially inflate the book's rating.

I post my reviews on Amazon, and I've had some internal debate about it, because they are a proprietary, profit-driven business. Do you use GoodReads or librarything? I find a lot of the reviews there are written by passionate book-lovers, and thus, have an overall higher quality than ones written by your casual book shopper.

James said...

I totally agree with both of you that it's great the internet has this democratic element in that anyone can give their opinion where everyone else can see it - it's just that so many people misuse this opportunity (either deliberately or otherwise).

Lifeless - the 'helpful review' buttons are pretty pointless as they're so open to abuse. People will click that a review wasn't helpful simply because they don't agree with what it's saying, rather than because it's poorly written or whatever. If a lot of people do this, it can unfairly knock the review down the pecking order.

Madigan - seriously? I think we must have different ideas of what a 'middle of the road' review is. I don't regard someone describing a physical book as being a review at all, and it's utterly unhelpful. I don't think it imparts any helpful information at all, as you've suggested. In this instance, I actually think the "My 2-year-old love this book, buy it!" are more helpful, as at least they're talking about the story rather than the book's physical properties (though they're pretty woeful too, admittedly).

I imagine Goodreads and other similar sites are of more value, and I really need to get around to checking them out.

Nathaniel Katz said...

I've been hesitent to put my reviews up on amazon because they're generally a thousand words or more, and the amazon standards seem to be more in favor of ten or fifteen words. Still, I suppose I should probably get around to it. Though that means I need ratings.

And am I a terrible person if I go to books I like on amazon and laugh at poorly written one star reviews? They're just so...bad. Not because they're one stars, mind you. Just because most amazon reviewers seem to have review writing skills on par with someone who has yet to read the book.

James said...

The Evil Hat - the only reason many of the reviews on Amazon have 10-15 words is because that seems to be all some people are capable of writing, and has nothing to do with any official guidelines.

I recall that Amazon does suggest reviews should be 'concise' but they've not stopped me from posting my 1000+ word reviews. I think 10-15 words reviews are largely pointless - how can you review a book in so few words?

And yes, many of the one-star reviews are terrible. Many are written from bitterness, or are people reviewing the hype rather than the book, etc.

Jeremy Shane said...

Wow. And here I worry about how bad my reviews are when compared to actual reviewers. The internet never ceases to amaze me.

Tom Weaver said...

I second Goodreads. Whilst it lacks the one feature I really want (an iTunes Genius feature for books based on the books you've actually read and rated), it is still pretty good and is a great source of ratings and reviews from people who are actually likely to have read the book.

In addition it has a thriving number of communities for recommending genre books, lots of fantasy groups, and the ability to follow other peoples reviews, blog inside the site, etc.

I think you should totally be on there. For one thing, the ability to actually see how you would rank all the fantasy books you read would be very interesting!

Unknown said...

I've been posting my reviews on Amazon for a while, which I imagine helps, but doesn't solve the problem. This is what I call the YouTube-ization of America (though apparently it's true of the UK now, so globalization seems to have taken over...wonderful).

What's even more shocking is the kinds of arguments you see in the comments of Amazon reviews. The other day I poked around for kicks and saw comments to the effect of "because there aren't a lot of reviews in your profile, you must not be qualified to talk about a book." You know, because there was never a point of time before in which people read books, let alone reviewed them. Ever. Reading started in 1995 when Amazon was founded...

It's sad, really. You're right, though. We need to all post our reviews there to try to raise the quality of discussion about books.

Nathaniel Katz said...

I just put eight or nine of my reviews up (and damn, this is a really time consuming process), as I figured I should do my part in this. Doing this is making me kind of regret quoting so extensively in a lot of my reviews.

Anonymous said...

I've been working for the past few weeks on posting all my reviews to Amazon and Goodreads in addition to my blog. As Evil Hat mentioned, it takes a surprisingly long amount of time. Not that I'm going to stop or anything.

I agree that the radio buttons on Amazon are easily abused. I try very hard in my reviews not to insult a readership, implicitly or explicitly, just because I didn't like a book (not that I always succeed). Even so, if someone happens to disagree with one's view of the book they will mark the review unhelpful (these people often enough make a comment too). I've read reviews that had a very different view of a book than I did, but I don't always see them as unhelpful just because they disagree. Many of them are very well-written. And although the buttons can be abused, I've found that the reviews with the most helpful votes usually are the best. Not that I have been able to read every review for every book I look up.

I wish they had a more thorough system for approving reviews. And I for one would enjoy having that as a job. :-P

Nathaniel Katz said...

I actually only rate negative reviews on amazon, though I mostly only read those there (as I have blogs/reviewers I trust for a more unbiased opinion). If I don't agree, I'll leave it alone, but if I find its argument wholly unconvincing, or if it's insulting something that's just blatantly false, yeah, I'll dock it.

Neth said...

As I've said quite a few times in a number of places, I refurse to put reviews up on Amazon because of the unreasonable terms and conditions Amazon has for its reviews. Basically, you forfit all your rights to what you post and Amazon can do whatever they want with it - including reposting/republishing, and even changing the words in your review. I simply can't allow Amazon to do whatever they would like in my name.

Yes, I think Amazon should reserve the right to remove reviews, but all that other stuff is simply not necssary. Now I'll admit that Amazon probably won't ever do more than delete reviews, whatever the terms & conditons allow them to do - but I won't risk it.

So, posting good reviews on Amazon is a good thing, but make sure you read those terms and conditions and are actually comfortable with what they you have to agree to.

redhead said...

I used to post all my reviews on Amazon, and then I stopped.

Why? I surf Amazon for book titles, prices, release dates, other titles by the same author, etc. But I rarely read the reviews there because for the most part they are pure drivel (what really gets me is when someone doesn't care for a book but still gives it 4 our of 5 stars?). That's what I've got a packed google blog reader for - near unlimited access to quality reviewers that I trust.

Last time I logged onto Amazon, it asked for tons of information, wanted to sign me up for mailing lists, sell me a bookcase, practically wanted my first born child. forget it. Too many hoops just to have someone completely ignore it when they could read 10 other reviews that are 15 words each, all written by Amazon's "top reviewers".

Anonymous said...

What if you've only read half of a book, before giving up out of boredom? Can you write a review then?

What if you only read the first page, and the prose was so dreadful, the story already so cliched, that you couldn't go any further?

If a single story in an anthology is brilliant enough to overcome any faults of the others (I'm talking Ted Chiang-brilliant here), can you base your review on that single story?

Why do you, in your blog, talk about book jackets and artwork so much? Why must reviews be based only on words? If you buy a collectors edition of Lord of the Rings, can you give a one-star review if the cover is made out of cheap plastic and the pages falling apart? And the physical substance of a book is indeed important -- many people despise the Kindle precisely because they want the sturdy, musty beauty of a thing they can hold.

Unknown said...

Anon: I'd like to answer those, because they sound fun to me.

Yes, you can write a review if you gave up on a book halfway through. You can even write a review if you drop it in the first chapter if the writing is atrocious. People who say you can't are people who want to keep you silent about your opinions. better be truly atrocious if you're dropping it in the first few pages...

I don't think you can base your entire review of an anthology on a single story. You should treat it as a bulk item.

When it comes to different printings for the same book, I do think you can down-grade your review score due to the quality of the printing. I don't think you should give 1 star. That implies that everything is awful about the book, which may or may not be the case with LOTR (depends on your opinion, I suppose).

So, there you go :P

Todd Newton said...

Yes, and add to that Amazon is only allowing you to review items you've purchased FROM AMAZON... this may not be new to you, but it is definitely new to me. Kind of makes you wonder who's running things over there.

Unknown said...

Newton: Unless they changed their policy within the last two weeks, they still allow you to review books you didn't buy from them. If you did buy the book from them, however, they apparently put something on your review (a preferred customer thing, or whatever). I've never put stock into it, though. Whether one buys the book from Amazon is irrelevant.