The Importance Of Reviews

As I mentioned a long time ago, I'm usually a three-star kind of reader. This isn't a bad thing at all -- it simply means I like the book or collection or whatever.

Four stars means I really like it.

Five stars means I love it so much, I wish I would have written it.

Of course, many people -- writers in particular -- aren't too fond of the three-star review, even if it doesn't mean the reader (such as myself) disliked the book ... and, as you can imagine, they are even less fond of the two- and one-star reviews.

But, as John Scalzi once taught us, it's good for writers to embrace bad reviews. After all, nobody's work is ever universally loved, so why should yours be any different?

People oftentimes dismiss Amazon reviews as having no real importance -- I know I've done it in the past -- but the truth is they're very important. Sure, potential readers might not be swayed one way or another -- they might instead decide to read the book based on the author or cover art or product description or whatever -- but the star rating on Amazon is crucial.


Well, my friends, because of Amazon's mysterious and almighty algorithm.

How it works it beyond anyone, but the simple truth is that once a book gets in the system and starts being recommended more and more to readers, more and more sales occur. It's a fun ride, let me tell you. But, just like with anything, the ride can stop in the snap of a finger (which, by the way, doesn't really make sense, as you need two fingers to snap together ... right?).

A friend of mine had an e-book priced at $4.99 which was selling very well for several months. In fact, he was bringing in about a grand every month from that particular book. Then, all of a sudden, the sales trickled and he started making maybe $300 at the most from the book.

So what happened?

Well, before the sales stopped, he had one five-star review for the book. Then someone gave his book a one-star review (which is suspect, because the reviewer had never reviewed anything before then and hasn't reviewed anything since).

Is it that readers suddenly stopped buying the book based on that one-star review? Or is it that the book just wasn't being recommended as much as it had been because of the new review?

The answer could be a little bit of both, but I'm leaning more toward the latter. You see, not too long ago I read this post about writing Amazon reviews for Dummies. It's interesting stuff, but the one thing that really stuck out to me was number eight on the list (the bold is mine):

Anything less than 4 stars means “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Don’t expect an author to be pleased with 2 or 3 stars, no matter how much you rave in the text. Those stars are the primary way a book is judged. Without a 4 or 5 star rating, a book doesn’t get picked up in the Amazon algorithms for things like “also bought” suggestions. Giving 1 or 2 stars to a book that doesn’t have many reviews is taking money out of the author’s pocket, so don’t do it unless you really think the author should take up a new line of work.

To be honest, before I read that post and saw that one line, I hadn't really thought much about Amazon's algorithm. Obviously I knew it was there and that it was useful, but I wasn't aware of just how important it really was.

However, I experienced my own fallout from the Amazon's algorithm just this past week. The Serial Killer's Wife, which so far had six five-star reviews, had been selling on average twenty units a day for the past few months. Those numbers add up, as you can imagine. Then I noticed the book had gotten a new review, which was a four-star review when I first saw it, then when I looked later it had been changed to a three-star review. The reviewer actually gave the book three-and-a-half stars, and even went so far as to recommend it to readers despite having a few issues with the third-half of the book.

But that didn't matter.

Within the course of a day the sales slowed to maybe ten, and maintained that average for the course of the next several days. Before, The Serial Killer's Wife's ranking had bounced between 2,500 and 4,000, almost always staying in the tail end of the Kindle top 100 paid horror titles. Then it fell down below 5,000 and hasn't yet regained a higher position.

Well, some might be saying, that's what you get for self-publishing the book.

Actually, no. The algorithm doesn't differentiate between self-published and traditionally-published titles. At least I don't believe it does. And if you view the top 100 titles for any genre, you will see a wide varieties of self- and traditionally-published titles, as well as a wide range of star ratings.

So what does it all mean? That, believe it or not, reviews on Amazon are actually a big thing. It's scary to think that a book selling very well could suddenly stop selling altogether at the snap of a finger (are we not counting the thumb as a finger? because if so I guess that would make sense then), but that's how it happens.

But not many readers actually post reviews on Amazon. They're more apt to post reviews on Goodreads instead. I know I very rarely post reviews on Amazon, but that's because, again, I'm usually a three-star reader, and I know that rating a book three stars on Amazon wouldn't be helpful to the author even if it meant I enjoyed the book.

My point in all this? Well, if you really enjoy a book and tell your friends or even mention it on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or whatever, consider also posting a quick review on Amazon. The more five and four star reviews, the more chance the book has to reach an even wider audience.

Which is not to say I'm endorsing the whole writer-to-writer circle jerk: If you give my book five stars, I'll give your book five stars. That's a disgusting and immoral practice that doesn't help anyone in the end: not the reader, not the writer, and not the reviewer.

Granted, if you feel compelled to post reviews with a lower star rating, that's certainly okay too. I'm not trying to discourage anyone from posting a low-rated review. Every year I read numerous books I don't care much for and could easily give them one or two stars. But as I writer I know how damaging those can be, so I personally try to refrain from posting them, at least on Amazon.

In fact, I'm going to make it a plan in the next year to try to start posting more reviews on Amazon for the books I really enjoy. After all, if I enjoyed a book enough to say so on Goodreads (and sometimes even here on this blog), why can't I take an extra minute and also say so on Amazon? It just might help the author sell a few more books. And in a world where fewer and fewer people are reading, every little bit helps.

P.S. On a completely different note, remember that I'm doing a live reading on this site tomorrow evening, both at 7 pm EST and 7 pm PST, so no excuses to miss out!