Anxious Authors in the Age of Amazon Reviews

Paul Doiron here—

Regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I have a new novel coming out soon—in two weeks, in fact. And like any author with a book glimmering on the horizon I have been thinking about reviews. Specifically, I’ve been dwelling on the brave new world of online customer reviews.

The Internet has transformed our lives in so many ways; it has provided a forum for anyone to share information and opinions on any subject imaginable. The value of this interchange is often self-evident. Angie’s List can tell you whether a local roofer has a record of providing good work or has a history of ripping off his clients. On Facebook you can ask your friends for recommendations on a new veterinarian for the puppy you just adopted. After living in the dark for eons, customers seem newly informed and empowered.

With books I find the matter murkier. As an online shopper—and I don’t browse online for new books as a rule, but I have done so occasionally—I read the descriptions and the excerpts. I pay attention to quoted raves from well-known journals like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. But what am I to make of customer reviews from total strangers, especially the anonymous and pseudonymous ones? I like to think I can separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ve been persuaded by thoughtful assessments by “nonprofessional” reviewers—although you always figure that a number of gushing reviews are the work of the author’s family and friends, many of whom are themselves talented and persuasive writers. (Thanks, Mom.) And a well-crafted pan has definitely made me think twice about a purchase. Some complaints are so silly (“I’d give [The Great Gatsby] negative infinity stars if i could.”) I can’t believe anyone would pay them any mind. If they’re not trollish jokes, they are sad things indeed.

My confidence ebbs, however, when I go on a site such as Amazon or iBooks or Goodreads or Librarything or Shelfari and read (often anonymous) takedowns of my own books. Because I am hoping for good sales myself, it’s difficult to dismiss as absurd that two-star review complaining about the grating voice of the audiobook narrator (which, if anyone is wondering, is not me and I had no part in hiring the fellow), the one-star review because the reader wanted to punish my multinational publisher for pricing the eBook at more than the going rate for a Big Mac (also not my decision, sir), or, my personal favorite, the scathing review because the reader was given the book as a gift but “doesn’t like mysteries!” (What’s wrong with you, my dear?) Even when the rational side of my brain is telling me these are obviously useless complaints that have nothing to do with the quality of my book—and that intelligent shoppers will look past these empty criticisms—a part of me still worries about falling star ratings and vengeful ex-girlfriends with long memories.

In the end, as an author in the age of Amazon, you hope that things even out. One wants to believe in the wisdom of the masses. And isn’t that supposed to be the promise of the Web, to locate quality creative work in obscure places and bring it to the attention of wide new audiences? (Steve Jobs made a lot of money promising musicians that very thing.) Talent ultimately prevails, right?

Maybe and maybe not. Despite his overwhelming genius, it’s pretty clear that Jonathan Franzen’s books suffer in online bazaars—his Amazon rating for The Corrections is an anemic 3.2—because he seems to be something of a jerk personally. And I couldn’t help but observe today on Goodreads than Fifty Shades Freed has a higher rating (4.02 average) than that masterful work of human empathy House of Sand and Fog (3.64). If the great Andre Dubus is getting trounced by an S&M romp, I ask myself, what hope is there for a mope like me?

So what say you, reader? How persuasive do you find Amazon, and other online, reviews? Do they ever influence your book-buying decisions? Anxious authors want to know. Or maybe we don’t.

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19 Responses to Anxious Authors in the Age of Amazon Reviews

  1. Deanna says:

    I don’t read reviews on Amazon, etc. I get reviews from other sites such as the Rap Sheet.
    I read synopsis’ as well. We all like different books. I’m so happy to have read so many writers. The Maine Crime Writers are all great as are the Jungle Reds! Dee

  2. Joan Emerson says:

    Good morning, Paul. Your concerns regarding customer reviews of books seem to be to be well-founded. I have seen some very “interesting” reviews when perusing them prior to purchasing an eBook. Generally, I pay absolutely no attention to such reviews unless I find multiple readers commenting on significant errors in spelling and/or grammar. Since those make me want to grab my red pen and assault the page with corrections, those reviews will stop me from purchasing an eBook. [And since Barnes and Noble has come out with interactive eBooks for children, I always glance through to see if other readers have had technical difficulties with the book not “working” as advertised before I make that purchase.] If I am “waffling” on an eBook purchase, I might read the customer reviews . . . other than these circumstances, all solely focused on eBook purchases, I never seek out reviews prior to purchasing a book.

    As for my deciding on “real book” book purchases based on customer reviews, not so much. I seem to have much better results going to authors who consistently deliver wonderful stories [or to the authors that they have recommended] for books to read. I tend to stand in the bookstore and look at the book, glance through a few pages, and then make my decision based on what I am holding in my hand rather than what I might have read in a review, professional or customer-drafted.

    I must admit to not understanding the current tendency of readers to write “trash” reviews that have nothing to do with the book they purport to be reviewing. These sorts of reviews really hurt the author [we all do have feelings, don’t we?], they serve no constructive purpose, and most often, rather than offering insight into the book, they show the reviewer to be self-serving and ill-equipped to actually review a book. [This, of course, extends to that arbitrary assigning of “stars” as part of the review . . . if done objectively, they can serve a useful purpose; if part of the “ranting” that has nothing to do with the author’s work, then they become merely another indicator of the problem with a system that allows these “trash” reviews to be posted in the first place.]

    Do I write reviews? Never, unless an author has specifically requested reviews to be posted on sites such as GoodReads or LibraryThing . . . if I find myself in that situation, I endeavor to speak solely to the book itself.

    I am looking forward to reading “Bad Little Falls” . . . and I probably won’t read those customer-generated reviews at all.

  3. It’s funny you should blog on this today, because I just left reviews for The Poacher’s Son on Amazon and GoodReads yesterday.

    Personally, I am too busy and there are too many good books out there for me to waste my time on something terrible. If I start a book that is just not that up to par, I’ll give it a fair shot, but if it doesn’t come around, I’ll abandon it. I’m not going to pan it in a review however, because I just don’t think it is fair to write a review for a piece of work I haven’t read in its entirety.

    What’s tricky for me is reviewing books that I thought were “okay” (3 star reviews). If I finished the book, then it must have had some redeeming value to me, so I make certain that I give the positives their due, usually at the start of the review. At the same time, I also feel like I should explain why the book merits three stars in my opinion.

    As an aspiring author myself, I feel that it is my obligation as a reader in this day and age to leave a review for every book I finish, since there is no question that reviews have some influence with me on my own book selections.

  4. Caryn says:

    I do read some of the reviews if it is an author I’m not familiar with but I think that it’s pretty obvious which reviewers have read the book and are talking about the book and not about other non-issues like “I got the book as a gift abut hate mysteries….” That said, some of those comments are relevant to certain book forms- if grammar and or formatting issues mentioned in ebook reviews I pay attention because both bother me quite a bit, and voice quality in audios is a biggie for me. (I listened to The Poacher’s Son and the voice was fine.)
    I do review books for a couple of sites and often post those reviews on Amazon as well.

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Hi Caryn: I think one of the issues with Amazon in particular is that it groups all formats of a book together for a single rating. So you can imagine a situation where a novel, as written, is wonderful, but the audiobook narration is all wrong or the eBook formatting is all over the map. The result is a negative overall rating for the book that punishes the author for production decisions outside his or her control. That’s life, to some degree. But I don’t see why a company capable of inventing the Kindle can’t develop a different starring system for each product. But as you say, most of the bad reviewers give their biases away very quickly.

  5. Hi, Paul,
    Some reviewers obviously have their own agenda, but that’s nothing new. In the pre ebook days there were reviewers at Publisher’s Weekly who clearly hated romance novels and panned them for containing the very elements that made them romance novels. Sort of like being critical of a crime novel for containing a crime. But the thing that drives me crazy is when a reviewer gets personal. It’s one thing to dislike one of my books, but I’ll never forget the review (one of PW’s anonymous reviewers again) of one of my Face Down mysteries that proclaimed that I was “just cranking them out for the money.” At that point, my income probably averaged out to about ten cents an hour. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. When I realized that many of the online reviewers are similarly unfair (and just plain rude!) I stopped reading them. There isn’t anything you can do about them, so why set yourself up for a painful experience? One interesting thing I did note before I stopped, though, is that when one of my historical novels was offered free to online reviewers by the publisher the number of nasty reviews increased, as if these folks looked on a freebie as an excuse to find things to complain about. These people need to get a life!

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Hi Kaitlyn: Your point is a good one that there has never been a golden age of book reviewing and that “professional” reviewers can be as bad or worse as Internet trolls.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    I’ve tried to read The Corrections twice and found the prose to be self-conscious and precious and the characters not people in the least I want to invest time in. While I haven’t rated it online, I would not recommend it. I know some of the stories about Franzen’s general jerkiness, but I don’t have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with him, so that wouldn’t effect my rating.

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Hi Barb: We can agree to disagree about Franzen’s talent. 🙂 But my larger point is that you can easily go to Librarything or wherever and find a writer whose books you personally respect who is getting royally shafted for reasons unrelated to their actual writing. Similarly, you can find many not-very-accomplished writers with astronomical ratings because they are such charming people on the conference circuit. It’s like being in high school.

      • Barbara Ross says:

        Argh. I am still waiting to find the venue in life that is NOT like high school. I do take your larger point. I do tend to look at cumulative scores on Rotten Tomatoes, if I’m for example, deciding what movie to casually watch on TV. But I never seem to run out of books to read from word of mouth recommendations, bookstore browsing, authors I already like and reviews like the Sunday NYTimes, so I look a lot less at cumulative scores for books.

  7. Based on reading this single blog, Paul, I judge you fall into that vast group of authors who have split views. You want positive reviews and you give more credence to industry-pointed mags such as Kirkus and PW, in spite of the fact that far more potential buyers will read reviews by independent reviewers/readers like those of us whose reviews are included in Kevin’s Corner, Amazon, B&N, Mystery Review, Crime Spree, Library Journal, Midwest Review and other professionally produced sources.
    Reviews are what they are. They are a form of marketing/promotion and are beneficial to the book, regardless of tone. Since the beginning of time (or at least since PT Barnum said it) “To be ignored is death. Say whatever you will about my product, just spell my name correctly.” From my advanced age in these endeavors, I say Amen. One more thing. Some authors spend so much time and energy worrying about reviews, they lose energy that should be channeled to writing the next book. I hope you are not one of those.

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Hi Carl: Thanks for the comment. I think the Woody Allen shtick I was trying to bring to this post fell a bit flat, because my complaint was meant to be comic more than anything else.

      I’ve actually been extremely fortunate to have received great reviews (my website is and click under books) from a variety of reviewers, from the New York Times and Library Journal to the smallest of book blogs, including some you mentioned above. In general, yes, I do prefer positive reviews to slaps upside the head. But my cri de coeur here is just a plea for more thoughtful criticism, no matter where it is expressed and even if it is negative (especially when it is negative). The examples I cited are really places where I think the Internet troll mindset has infected our broader cultural conversation about books — and not for the better. Personally, I wish we didn’t feel obliged to apply letter grades and star scores to every collection of poetry, documentary film, and sculpture exhibit. But that’s the way of the times now. EW and TMZ set the tone.

      I actually make my living as the editor in chief for a national magazine, meaning I spend a fair amount of time receiving criticism (often shouted) from public people who disapprove of stories we have reported. So don’t worry about the thickness of my skin. In my job you need to grow an elephant hide. And as you note, a writer must stay focused on doing the best work he or she can. The rest is noise.

  8. W Smith says:

    Readers of Fifty Shades Freed and the readers of House of Sand and Fog are for the most part two different groups of people. As far as poorly written romances go, Fifty Shades Freed is darn good stuff. I would only compare its rating to other poorly written but entertaining romances.

    Below is a message I sent to Amazon about their book review system. Please pardon the references to the Fifth Shades of Grey trilogy, but it’s a good example of the abuse by so called “reviewers” and the fact that Amazon does not stand by their review guidelines.

    My review for Fifty Shades Freed was rejected by Amazon. I have written over 100 reviews for Amazon and I have never been told my review does not meet guidelines! I focused on the experience I had with the book in hopes of giving a helpful review. Per Amazon guidelines, I did not use profane or obscene language. I did not use advertisements, discuss promotional material or post a repeated review. I did not include URLs external to Amazon or personally identifiable content in my review. I did not use spiteful or rude comments.

    I recently found a review for Patricia Cornwell’s Red Mist where the reviewer gave it one star based solely on the author’s picture on the dust jacket. Seriously Amazon? Why does that get through? Several one star reviewers of all three Fifty Shade books (plus the box set) have turned to insults and name calling to those who liked the books. According to several one star reviewers fans are idiots, uneducated, have no brain cells, are worthless soccer moms, bored housewives, perverts, sickos, illiterate, sexually frustrated, lonely, they don’t know anything about books, etc. etc. Those reviews had a lot of venom. Why did those reviews get through? It’s not just in the reviews but also in the comments. Spiteful remarks and rude comments about other reviews/reviewers are a violation of Amazon guidelines! Some reviewers admit they did not read the book! How does that get through? That is not a review, it’s a personal agenda! There is a one star review for Fifty Shades of Grey that simply states “Amazon, please stop recommending these books to me”. How did that get through as a book review? I have reported many spiteful and/or inappropriate reviews/comments (by clicking the “report as inappropriate” button) in the past because they are insulting and say nothing about the actual content of a book and upon further checking, they are still posted. I recently reported a one star review of Defending Jacob because the reviewer insulted all of the five star reviewers of the book as well as readers of Fifty Shades of Grey. I replied to that reviewer saying her “review” was rude and unnecessary. That reviewer replied to me once again with a rude comment. That review is still posted even though I reported it twice. Amazon is not sticking to their guidelines. These reviews need to be deleted with a note to the reviewer as to why.

    The “was this review helpful” button has become a popularity tool. Readers who hate a book will click “no” on a five, four or three star review and readers who love a book will click “no” on 1 star reviews. Many of these reviews are legitimate reviews based on a reader’s interpretation of the story, like it or not. This seems to be a trend. I’ve noticed this with all Fifty Shades books. I also noticed it with Harlan Coben’s Stay Close. I read several good five and four reviews in a row. They were all marked 0 to 1 not helpful. That is an indication to me that someone did not like the book and was spiteful and just clicked down the row “no”. They disregarded the actual reviews that were based on content. That’s a problem. Perhaps a “yes” only response would suffice.

    Reviews based on price should be inappropriate. We can all see the price and it may change. Most of the one star reviews for the Fifty Shades Box Set are complaining about price. I still see plenty of reviews based on shipping experience. That s a clear violation of Amazon guidelines and should be discussed in a forum or taken up with Amazon or other seller. Those are complaints not reviews. Reviews based on a reviewer’s assumption that Amazon did not disclose information about a book being a short story should be inappropriate. “Short Story” is in the product title and/or the product description.

    On the Amazon reviewer guidelines page is states “we want customers to get the information they need to make smart buying choices”. It’s not happening with regard to books. Spiteful or rude reviews and comments, complaints on price or shipping, reviews that discuss personal agendas with or without reading a book are not helpful. Reviews based on anything other than content is not helpful. Current guidelines need to be enforced and additional guidelines need to be implemented to make reviews fair and based solely on content.

    Does Amazon realize unfair reviews hurt reviewer’s rankings, publishers, writers, and potential readers? Many consumers turn to Amazon for books with the decline of brick and mortar stores and the increase in Kindle use. Amazon has an opportunity to be the very best, but the non-reviews are damaging. Does Amazon realize that such unfair reviews damage their bottom line as well? I’m sure some many people only look at how many stars a book has and do not read every posted review. I am passionate about books and writers, but I will no longer post reviews on Amazon unless guidelines are updated and enforced.

  9. Gordon Kaplan says:

    I rarely read Amazon reviews.

    I put more stock in opinions of friends who have similar reading tastes and in reviews in Library Journal and New York Times Sunday Book Review.

    (I’ve read every Sue Grafton book since “A” is for Alibi, so a bad review is not going to stop me from buying her next book.)

  10. As an author, First, I worry about getting any reviews at all. Then, yes, I worry about what they say.

    As a reader, I read the description of the story from the author. If not enough description is there, then I go to the reviews and skim them to see if I can get the gist of the story. If I don’t like a story and decide I really don’t want to read further, sometimes I’m curious enough to look at the reviews to see if other people didn’t like it.

    As a reviewer, I only review stories I like. I’m afraid to give 5 stars, because if an author gets too many of them, the trolls on Amazon sometimes come out and make nasty comments. Still, If you get a lot of good reviews, they’ll make up for the nasty ones.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. I’ve gotten a couple of vicious reviews and took them hard, but now I roll with it. As a reader and someone shopping for books, I tend to disregard the reviews at the top and those at the bottom. I read longer reviews in the middle, looking for “meat” about the book and how it struck the reviewer.
    By the way, I put down House of Sand and Fog after 100 pages. I read The Corrections, but just didn’t get it.
    Not every book is for every reader.

  12. I do read reviews, including reviews of my own books, but I don’t take the nasty ones seriously unless the writer has shown him/herself to be more or less rational and to have at least an adequate grasp of grammar and spelling!

    “This bok suks and my frend says the writter is a jurk so thats why Im givving it one star” as a review of my own or anyone else’s book isn’t going to affect me much…

  13. One reader says:

    Negative reviews sometimes prompt me to give a second look to a book I was hurrying past just to see what I think as I peek inside. I would think that negative reviews that are attacks on your publisher would double the inclination of many would-be readers to give your book extra time.

    One nonfiction crime book that I greatly enjoyed and intend to buy a reference copy of was panned for the supposed chopping writing style, etc., etc. (The writing style was for the purpose of keeping mystery in the stories.) That attack on that author just reminded me to mention the must-read aspects of that book to more people. I will probably write an Amazon review of it too, something I otherwise would not have gotten around to doing.

    I’d say just enjoy your new publication time, Paul, and work on the next one!

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