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.