Hey readers. Got a bit of an interesting one for you today. How well do you look at user reviews when you’re examining a product?
Okay, now to be clear, most of us know that reviews, with the advent of the internet, have sort of become a giant free-for-all. Sands, I remember when One Drink had just come out, and I was young and innocent and looking for ways to get my book out there. I was astounded and disappointed with the amount of paid review services out there.
And oh yeah, that’s not allowed. But despite a lot of online companies’ best efforts (such as Amazon) the process continues. I recall, when looking out there for One Drink, being shocked at how easy some of these places made it seem. Why wait for real reviews when a company in China could simply give you several hundred reviews for a few hundred dollars, all from “guaranteed different accounts” with a “guaranteed variance” so that while you’d end up with the 4 or 5 star rating you chose (no joke) you could still have a wide range of reviews that averaged there, so that Amazon’s automated systems wouldn’t pick it up. Again, guaranteed. All you had to do was pay them and gift them a copy of your item for every review you wanted.
Now, while Amazon and other places have worked at closing down loopholes, they’re still there. I remember another site, a book review blog that seemed fairly popular (though that isn’t my sphere, so it’s hard to say) that would freely take any book sent to them … but pointed out very overtly in their “review request” section that they wouldn’t look at it without a “donation” and that said donation would have a lot to do with how much attention they gave your book.
I wish I were joking, but I’m not. If memory serves correctly, a “donation” of $500 meant that they were “very likely” to feature your book on their banner and praise it for at least a few weeks, while further “donations” could lengthen that time.
This was years ago, and I’ve long since stopped looking, but given that sites like Amazon continue to make changes to their review policies (such as the recent Amazon change where you must be spending $50 a year on average to leave reviews) would seem to suggest that the issue is still an ongoing battle.
Honestly, I can’t say I’m too surprised. I mean, I don’t believe for a second that major newspapers and media companies are impartial at all with the books they recommend or advise. My old boggle at how little The Martian was reported on, for example, compared to once the author signed with a publisher and released Artemis. NPR had two mentions of The Martian as a book, one of which was an offhand mention that the blockbuster of a film was based on a book, and somehow eclipsed that with dozens of mentions of Artemis before that title had even released.
So yeah, my shock and surprise is really just at what is a smaller scale of the larger publishing industry. But most of you readers know that. And there have been a lot of steps taken to wipe out bad-faith user reviews.
Well … bad-faith user reviews from people with an agenda tied to the author in some way. Or a large-scale agenda.
But … not just regular folks with weird bones to pick.
Okay, I feel I need a bit more of an explanation here, so I’ll back up. Obviously, most people at this point, if they’ve been online, have learned to be skeptical of reviews. I hang out in some reading circles online, and the common rule I see a lot there (though I don’t agree with it) is ‘ignore all good reviews or take them with a heavy grain of salt, only look at bad reviews and middle-of-the-road reviews.’
Here’s the thing I’ve noticed about that: It weights things. Heavily. In favor of negative reviews. Why? Well, the common explanation people have is that reviewers won’t be negative without good reason (HAH!) but will be positive without good reason, therefore low reviews are more trustworthy than high reviews.
The problem is … I’ve never seen any evidence of this in good faith. If we’re going to be critical of reviews, then we should be critical of all reviews, not just positive or negative ones alone.
I got thinking on this because of a 1-star review that cropped up on one of my own books about a month ago. Now, I suppose one day I’ll be jaded enough that when a new review crops up on a book I’ve written I won’t look at it, but for now I do keep an eye on them. Keep an eye on the pulse, right?
Anyway, I’m not here to try and “counter” a 1-star review. That’s a terrible idea on a lot of levels. Instead, I want to point out what I found examining it. They were extremely unhappy with the book, though not with much reason given, so out of curiosity and to try and gain some clarification as to what they may have been looking for (not every book is for everyone) I decided to check out the rest of their reviews.
Starship Troopers? 1-star. Utter drivel, according to this reviewer. In fact, every Sci-Fi novel they’d ever reviewed on Amazon was, and they had reviewed a good couple of dozen, including some real classics like Troopers.
Save one. One Sci-Fi story that got a decent review. Because, upon looking at it, it shared one singular aspect with all the books this reviewer was giving 5-star reviews to: eroticism.
That’s right. This reviewer was leaving 5-star reviews on every erotic adult book they read, and 1-star reviews on just about anything else. The reasons are pretty obvious—they liked erotic books—but nowhere in any of their 1-star reviews would they say that. Or their 5-stars. Instead it was stuff like ‘Oh, the characters in this book were so fake and weakly written’ for the 1-star books and ‘These characters felt so real and actualized’ for the 5-star erotic books.
Here’s the thing, though: That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. They’re allowed to have their opinion, which seems to boil down to “erotic romances are amazing, and everything else sucks.”
But where things get murky is that they’re not saying that at all in those many 1-star reviews they’ve littered around Amazon. Instead they’re ripping at the book for other “failures” (and try as I may, I honestly can’t believe that something like Starship Troopers has worse dialogue than a 99-cent erotic romance novel).
Again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have the ability to say what they want to say. Amazon’s customer reviews (and most online reviews) allow anyone to speak their mind on something provided it doesn’t engage in obvious red flags.
However. what I worry is that this can create issues when combined with the current mentality of “trust good reviews not at all, and low reviews quite a bit more.” Again, there’s good reason to check low reviews (I do it myself), but I believe we need to exercise a bit more discretion while we’re at it, and maybe, just maybe, do a little bit of digging sometimes if we find something that looks odd at face value.
Something like a reviewer that gives all non-erotica books a 1-star rating without explicitly stating that is the very kind of thing we should be wary of. They’re allowed to do it, and there’s really a solid argument that the sort of thing they’re doing shouldn’t be allowed. They’re only stating an opinion, after all, even if they’re not being up-front about the reasons behind it.
But as readers, it means if we want to continue to check reviews, we need to be vigilant in why we give those reviews weight. We need to be careful about which reviews we trust and why.
This goes both ways, too. Don’t get me wrong, I like 5-star reviews as much as the next author, but when I see that one was left by someone who never leaves anything but 5-star reviews, almost as if it’s a marker for where they’ve been rather than what they really thought, well, that makes the review quite a bit less useful.
Ultimately, at the end of all this, what I’m saying is “context.” We shouldn’t stop looking at user reviews, nor should we trust them blindly. We should treat them as what they are: Bits of opinion from a random individual online who may or may not have entirely different goals, objectives, or viewpoints from your own. Or similar ones. You can’t tell.
Does it mean that there’s a bit of work involved with reading user reviews? Well … yes. For example, when deciding whether or not I wanted to purchase a title recently, I tracked down several different reviews of the title in question, and then in a few cases looked at other reviews by those same reviewers to see how their opinions fell on titles I had enjoyed before.
Still, at the end of this, all I’m really saying is “context.” Treat user reviews with a grain of salt, good and bad, and maybe do some digging. Approach them as you would any other review where you’re not sure what their opinion or outlook is, as something new that you need to get a firm reading on first.
Are reviews useless? Of course not. But none are bound in steel either. At least, not until we’ve checked for ourselves what those bands are, and whether we should be trusting them. Be they user reviews or reviews with a major publisher standing at the helm.
So, you know, long, roundabout way of saying take it all with a grain of salt. Maybe do some digging. Don’t blindly trust.
Or, you know, just bite the bullet, depending on your budget.