Saturday, November 12, 2011

What I Learned from Reading Amazon Reviews.


Sometimes when I am considering whether or not to read a book (usually one I have already bought or taken out from the library) I will go to Amazon to see what people think about that book. I usually drift around a bit (terrific site for wasting time) and find reviews of books I have already read.

Some reviews are helpful in making a choice of what to read.

But many reviews show a complete misunderstanding of the book they are reviewing. Books like Lolita will have reviews commenting that this book is about a nasty pedophile and I recommend you give it a pass.

Or a review of book about an obvious misogynist will say this man hates women.

A book poking fun of someone who can't adjust to life abroad will draw the comment, this guy should have stayed home.

Apparently a lot of people don't see irony or satire or even an attempt to point up societal flaws in what they read. They read each book as if it was written by the same writer and should be held to the same standards. They choose a book using these wrong standards and then hold the book accountable for their mistake in choosing it or their inability to understand it.

Amazon has brought about the democratization of book reviewing, but is that a good thing. Are you always sure that your perception of a book is correct. I'm not. I have only ever posted one bad review on amazon and that was out of pique that an ordinary book was getting so much hype. How about you?

35 comments:

Cullen Gallagher said...

The only time Amazon reviews can be helpful is in pointing out actual flaws with the physical product. This is more useful with DVDs, when it comes to bad quality, incorrect aspect ratio, and such. Most reviewers won't go into such details, but when they do I appreciate it. There was one DVD I was going to purchase because it had 3 movies on it -- turns out that one of them is a shortened version, while another is actually incomplete.

But when it comes to actual reviews of the content, customer reviews doesn't sway me one way or the other.

Deb said...

I wouldn't take my car to someone who had I suspected had no knowledge of how to fix a car and I wouldn't call someone who I thought had no background in plumbing to repair a leaky faucet. It is for this reason that I never use Amazon's reviews to make my reading decisions. However, I will admit to sometimes looking at Amazon's reviews AFTER I've read a book to see if other readers have the same take-away as I have.

George said...

I prefer to read critics and reviewers who are smarter than I am. I get the impression from many AMAZON reviews that the reviewers have completely misinterpreted the book. And then you get the "reviews" complaining about the shipping service. Sheesh!

pattinase (abbott) said...

The sad thing is as print reviews decline, Amazon takes on more weight.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm an elitist when it comes to this. I've heard funny stories, like Stephen King's echanges with Twilight fans, that are more than a little pathetic. I'd rather read a review by a "real" reviewer (as long as I know what his/her biases are) or someone I know than an anonymous amazon reader. I find way too many of them seem dumb to me (sorry, but there's that elitist thing) and too easy to dismiss.

The panel on Bouchercon with Bill Crider where moderator Colin Cotterill was reading from various amazon reviews was instructive. (My favorite was the reviewer who said the King James Bible was "a little preachy.")

Jeff M.

MP said...

What I learned from Amazon reviews is fear. I see the astonishing ignorance on display, near total innocence of grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. One star reviews of books the reviewers haven't even read are posted because of the Kindle price. And the really scary part is that these things are written by people who read. How ignorant must the rest be? Film critic Molly Haskell said it best: the internet is democracy's revenge on democracy.

Anonymous said...

CUllen makes a good point. When we were buying a DVD player we wanted to make sure it could play region 2 (England) as well as region 1 DVD's. The guy on amazon actually told you how to configure it to play all regions and it worked!

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And no one ever says maybe I got this wrong...they are as sure of themselves as Kakutani.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I agree with you Patti, and it is unfortunate that Amazon reviews are becoming so important. What seems equally sad is that it is changing the function of criticism. To me, the purpose of criticism isn't to tell me, as an individual, whether I will or will not like a book (or whatever) -- I've never met the reviewer, they've never met me, and they most likely have no idea that I even exist. What I want to read is someone's intelligent comments on the book, what their take on the story is, what the author was trying to accomplish, how it compares to other work, etc. A quick "good" or "bad" and some star rating is pointless to me, because without a thorough review, such simple grading techniques are meaningless. Unfortunately, Amazon reviewers tend to pull the trigger too quickly without putting a lot of though into it. Some reviewers take their time and put a lot of thought into it, and it is pretty easy to tell the good reviewers from the bad ones--grammar is often a good indication.

Randy Johnson said...

Until I got into Amazon's Vine program, I didn't review a lot of books. I never reviewed one I didn't like because it might not be the book's fault. It could be mine, bad mood when I read it for instance, a genre I'm not really into, the style of the writer.

Since I got into the Vine deal, I've given some less than stellar reviews, not completely bad, just expressing that it wasn't what Zi expected. You see, they send out a long list of things to choose from, books of all genres, some electronic devices, food products(drinks, snacks), and have just recently offered up large appliances(hard to get though; I tried for a thousand dollar refrigerator and got the message, Out of this product). Mostly I just stick with books and try to pick something that looks to fall in my wheel house(crime, thriller, science fiction, western). I miss once in a while.

I'm not a professional reviewer, so I just offer up my thoughts on why I like a book, a bare bones of the plot, and the writer's style.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, the fear is a sad reality. Whether we like it or not, or whether it's smart or not, Amazon reviews can make or break sales, at least on Amazon. After SC got its first bad review on Amazon, sales dropped, and it was quickly followed by another slam. One tried pulling quoted examples in the review, but a search of the book proves they aren't from my text.

Still, sales have dropped off ever since.

And with HARVEST, someone I don't know who reviewed it positively sent me a copy of their book. I'm so far behind reviews it isn't even funny, so I never promised anything, and they pulled their review down.

It is what it is. I'm thinking of posting my reviews on Amazon, because I do think it helps writers sell.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I try and post a good review whenever I can too.
The problem with the Vine program is it can kill a book before it even comes out. Randy is a gracious person and a smart reader, but I know a very fine book that had five or six 2 star reviews up weeks before it premiered. I think it really hurt it ultimately.

Chris said...

If I see a negative review that seems reasonable, I'll check the reviewer's other reviews. Most often though a negative review comes from someone who only GIVES negative reviews, so I ignore it. It is very unfortunate that the review system can impact sales so much, though. I've seen one star reviews from people who admit in their review that they didn't even read the book. That should be against policy more than some of their other "terms of use" guidelines.

Charles Gramlich said...

I learned how subjective reviews are, and that some reviews are paid reviews. I'm fairly skeptical of reviews but I do look at them.

Yvette said...

I've never posted a review on Amazon. Can't say why. I never read the book reviews there - maybe that's why. I don't read them for precisely the reason you write about, Patti.

I'm still a NY Times Book Review king of gal. Habit. But I also read reviews on various blogs. I pay attention to what Nancy Pearl is recommending, that sort of thing. Or The New Yorker.

Maybe one of these days I'll change my mind and write a review on Amazon - who knows? Maybe I should. I'm just not sure that I want to.

Richard R. said...

I don't read them. I have a reason for searching out a book on Amazon; it's by an author known to me, it's on a topic of personal interest, it's part of a series I'm already reading, it's been recommended in a review by someone I know and respect. So what a bunch of other people, who may or may not have understood, or even read, the book have to say doesn't interest me.

With the nearly complete demise f the brick-and-mortar book store, I do buy from Amazon a good deal, especially with free shipping (not really free as I pay the $75/year for Prime) it's convenient.

I admit have on rare occasions looked at the worst review of a book just to see what the complaint is, it seems to be "not what I expected" most of the time. That's not the author's fault!

Elaine Ash said...

I read Amazon reviews and what I'm looking for is the ring of authenticity. If I hear "This is a great book by the finest author" and other generalized smoke-blowing it's a pretty good tip-off this is a paid review or somebody pulling a favor. I don't care if the grammar is bad if I can tell the person is speaking from real emotion. I guess years in Hollywood made me sensitive to "puff pieces." Perfect spelling and grammar are no indication of authenticity its real in my experience. Lots of writers and readers can't spell worth $#@!
Elaine Ash

James Reasoner said...

I read Amazon reviews, but they don't have much bearing on what I buy. I'd say blog reviews by people I know and trust are more important. I usually don't post a review unless it's one that I've already run on my blog. I try to do that, but I'm bad about forgetting.

The first "review" Livia got on her new book was a one-star complaining about Amazon's shipping policies. We immediately reported it as objectionable, and Amazon removed it very quickly. I don't know if that would work every time, and I'd never complain about a reviewer who simply didn't like the book, but I think those totally irrelevant ones shouldn't be allowed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder what makes someone write a review rather than complain to amazon about something like shipping. Or, and this is true time and again, why amazon allows a review to stand that says I only read the first twenty pages and then quit. I often only read the first 20 pages before I quit, but I wouldn't think to review it.
Unfortunately, the time when we could count on newspapers to review books is past. The NYT seems to review some books several times and most books not at all. So where do you go to find out about books? It's a quandary.

Todd Mason said...

The NYT has never come close to reviewing all the worthy books, nor have they ever hired anything like the best potential reviewers for books (Kakutani and such worse guests as Vollmann) or other matters (Crowther), or when they have (Boucher), it often seems more like an oversight. Your overreliance on them was never justified. Likewise, other papers have never had a particularly good track record of hiring good reviewers...in the States, the WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD was good, not perfect, and few others are even worth mentioning.

Meanwhile, for reviews, you go to the magazines and nowadays the webpages that feature reviewers who seem to have at least half a clue and then you don't take their word as gospel, either. I'm sorry that the amateurs and cranks on Amazon are affecting sales for books that underreviewed elsewhere, but I suspect anyone who takes Amazon reviews to heart might not be any writer's best audience, nor more consistent one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I consider David Denby and the other New Yorker reviewers as idiosyncratic as anyone. So what magazines do you consider reliable?
What blog? I wish there was a Rotten Tomatoes for books. Metacritic used to include them and stopped.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Experienced critics bring a wealth of background to their task. They usually know the author's previous works and can compare them to the work under review. They are familiar with other works in the same area, and can compare the work under review to those. They bring a formidable understanding of literature to their task. (A friend, Win Blevins, has a master's degree in criticism from Columbia.) Because reviewing is their vocation and passion, they often provide valuable assessments that elude readers who are simply expressing likes and dislikes.

My favorite is Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. Look at his current review of a new Woolcott Gibbs collection, for example.

Todd Mason said...

That's because averaging opinions is a fairly ridiculous business. Assessments do not in any reliable way lend themselves to numeric scoring (hence getting a 95% on a math quiz or a spelling test has a lot less questionableness about it than in getting one on a short story).

And, of course, THE NEW YORKER has been afflicted with the same sort of undeserved self-regard as the NYT for decades.

I don't rely on reviewers' recommendations for what to read, but instead read them for what they have to say about a book. Even when the giants of my youth still strode the Earth, and I could regularly read Algis Budrys (augmented by Barry Malzberg and John Clute and Joanna Russ) in F&SF, Anthony Burgess in THE ATLANTIC, and John Simon in NATIONAL REVIEW, it wasn't as if I used them as investment guides, but I would certainly take the application of their acumen to the given item they're praising into account while enjoying their writing for its own merits.

These days, the closest I come to that is probably Elizabeth Hand or James Sallis in F&SF, Norman Spinrad in ASIMOV'S, occasionally the columns of the likes of Hitchens or Tsing Loh in THE ATLANTIC (and I certainly still miss some of the recently vanished reviewers from places ranging from HARPER'S to EQMM)...you go to the reviewers whom you find thoughtful or otherwise useful. Whether they write for SALON or THE NATION or TIN HOUSE or what have you. Including the blogs of your friends.

The bookseller Chris Drumm, when I was last in touch with him a decade or so back, refused to listen to any music that wasn't highly-rated by Robert Christgau in his VILLAGE VOICE column. I'm sure Drumm is still following Christgau around somewhere, but I can't imagine trying to depend so thoroughly on the opinions of others.

Todd Mason said...

Yardley is well-educated, and a decent prose stylist, and I rarely agree enough with him or his precepts to make his reviews too valuable to me. But his reviewing is more useful than his broader essays...again, to me.

Todd Mason said...

But Yardley as the Last Man Standing from the old regime at the POST (well, along with the rather better Dirda) is still better than [redacted] Carlin [redacted] Romano, formerly wasting everyone's time at the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. Yes, the one who, almost inexplicably tapped to edit PHILADELPHIA NOIR, could think of no better way to introduce that book than by insulting crime fiction as a whole.

Randy Johnson said...

On the subject of people reviewing books on Amazon they haven't read, I remember reading one on Max Allan Collins' collection of Nathan Heller stories, one reviewer complained because he had an introduction to what she thought might be a "fine set of stories." She was mad because she tried the sample ebook and didn't get any story. A review without reading a book is absurd. Yet it happens.

Anonymous said...

As you know, Patti, a high percentage of my reading is in the mystery field. I read a lot of the magazines (you could call them 'fanzines' but some people would look down on them if you did) as I know that people who write in them know (generally) what they are talking about and wouldn't think of reviewing a book they hadn't read.

That said, experience has taught me that there are some reviewers I can trust more than others. Some just love everything, others like subgenres I don't read, etc. George Easter's Deadly Pleasures, for instance, almost never publishes a negative review. I'm sorry, but if 90% of everything is crap (or whatever Harlan Ellison said), there is no way (in my mind) that 90% of books published deserve an A.

I wish I had a better solution but as always the answer is read as widely as possible and make up your own mind.

Jeff M.

Richard R. said...

Jeff, it was Theodore Sturgeon who said 90% of everything is crap. It's generally known as Sturgeon's Law.

Joe Barone said...

I find it interesting to go to the pages where a person's Amazon reviews are gathered. Some people are negative in most of their reviews; some positive.

Also, I have to wonder how many authors (and maybe publishers) push to have friends and acquaintances post knowing they will get positive reviews.

I affirm the democracy of the process, but it causes me to have to be more critical (in the sense of discerning) about the reviews.

Ron Scheer said...

If you know how to read, you know how to read an amazon review. The people who put any stock in them aren't the kind of people who will read your book anyway.

Todd Mason said...

Happily, someone's done a decent job of quoting it on WIKIPEDIA:

The first written reference to the adage appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture, where Sturgeon wrote:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1] Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

According to Philip Klass (William Tenn), Sturgeon made this remark in about 1951, at a talk at New York University at which Tenn was present.[2] The statement was subsequently included in a talk Sturgeon gave at a session of the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, held over the Labor Day weekend of 1953.[3]
[edit] Sturgeon's Law and Sturgeon's Revelation

Todd Mason said...

Sturgeon, btw, reviewed books for VENTURE, NATIONAL REVIEW, GALAXY, HUSTLER, and other probable and improbable magazines. He placed a short story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (I think the only one they've ever published). He had difficulty ever finding a book within which he couldn't find something to like. As Damon Knight once noted in exasperated admiration, "Danm the man!"

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Like everything else there is plenty of good review work at Amazon. The idiots get the attention.

Remember not all idiots can run for elected office--there are only so many positions to go around.

pattinase (abbott) said...

HA!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rick. I knew that was wrong but had brain lock and forgot it was Sturgeon.

Jeff M.