Speaking of Reader Reviews

Earlier this week I talked about what I'm calling the Reader Blurb (I literally talked about it -- with my own voice!), and now here there's this:

Would you buy a book if it was like other books you bought and you knew others who bought what you liked to buy bought that book, too?

The answer to that convoluted question is one of the open secrets of Amazon’s success in the e-tail business: Once you’ve sold products to consumers at low prices and shipped them at little cost, suggest they buy another product – but not just any product, a product selected just for them by a complicated algorithm based on what they’ve searched, bought and otherwise shown interest in.

Consumers love it.

Of course, these consumers are fairly skeptical about some things, which they very well should be:

Consumers aren’t so much worried about whether Amazon rigs its own system; they’re worried about a different kind of foul play – by authors.

“I used to trust book recommendations until I saw how authors and self-help gurus were using the ratings system to boost their sales,” said Nicole Guillaume, 32, the owner of a dog-training company in Corona, Calif.

According to Guillaume, a well-known self-help expert emailed her asking for “help” on Amazon in the form of a book review on the day her book came out. Hundreds of people immediately responded with five-star reviews, despite the unlikelihood of them actually owning the book since it just came out that day. A few weeks later, another author tried the same thing with Guillaume and had similar, positive results.

“I am disgusted with such ploys,” said Guillaume. “I understand that these experts and authors want to increase their sales, but the rating system was created so that real people could create real reviews. Having people create reviews of books they’ve never read totally defeats the purpose.”

This is, of course, a very serious problem. So what can we do about it? Who knows. As a writer, I obviously would like as many positive reviews as possible. I even encourage readers to leave reviews -- honest reviews. If they really liked the book, great. If they didn't, well, hopefully they'll like the next one. Many readers, I think, understand the importance of reviews, so if they don't care for a particular book, they just won't review it.

You have to take the book reviews “with a grain of salt,” said Jay Buerck, 29, from St. Louis and the chief operating officer for an online reputation management company.

“If the book only has a few reviews and all of the reviews are five stars and overly positive testimonials about how great the book is, I tend to discount the reviews,” he said.

A friend of mine has said he would actually prefer to get four-star reviews over five-star reviews, and I think that makes sense. I'm a cynical person by nature, so if I stumble across a book with a ton of five-star reviews, a red flag immediately shoots up (note: that doesn't mean I would prefer four-star reviews over five-star reviews, because obviously I would prefer the five-star, but you see what I mean, right?).

Again, reader reviews are great for helping potential readers decide whether or not to check out the book, but they also play a major role in Amazon's algorithm. It could be completely coincidental, but in the past few days, since that one-star review, I've seen my sales start to slip for my novella Spooky Nook. Again, it could be coincidental, but I don't think so. I also don't think readers are totally turned away by that one-star review. Instead, potential readers aren't being recommended the book as much as before that review entered the system and changed the algorithm. Scary thought, huh? Well, yes and no. The thing is, there's really nothing you can do about it. You can't predict sales. Even without that one-star review, sales might eventually start slipping. After all, what goes up must come down. It's completely out of my control. The only thing I can do is work hard on the next book. That, my friends, is very much in my control.

*  *  *

Now, on a completely different note, I'm including this YouTube clip. It's pretty longish but worth watching (or at least listening to). While a large number of teachers are underpaid and overworked and still do a great job, there are others who are completely disgusting in how they deal with students -- especially those students with special needs. So check out the video. Just be warned, it will piss you off.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfkscHt96R0]