I don’t usually pay attention to reviews until after I’ve read a book. I like to form my own opinion first and then see how it compares to others’ thoughts. Sometimes though–especially when selecting books for a discussion group or in looking for a new author–I do look at reviews.
Recently, I read a news story in Syracuse’s The Post-Standard, which picked it up from the New York Times News Service. In it, the journalist, David Streitfeld, writes, “In tens of millions of reviews on websites such as Amazon.com…books are better than Tolstoy…Or so the reviewers say.” He later states, “The boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race.” This story isn’t just about book reviews on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It’s also about other sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, and applicable to any range of products for which reviews appear online. Read the full article here.
It’s one thing for an author to invite his or her friends to give a positive review of their latest book, but it’s quite alarming that there are services that will pay people to write fake reviews. Conversely, rivals could potential post false negative reviews as the article mentions. So how is one supposed to make informed decisions? So many reviews on Amazon or Barnes & Noble average out to 4 stars or greater. Perhaps it is in our nature to be kind and focus on the positive? Constructive criticism, though, is useful. For authors and readers.
I like how Amazon allows customers to rank reviews–although this too could potentially be skewed–but not only do they present the most helpful reviews, they also include the most critical. Often times 2 to 4 star reviews provide the most balanced opinions. Even then, a discerning eye is needed.
Of greater concern is what this all means for the emerging market of self-published ebooks using either Amazon’s Digital Services or Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! I’ve commonly found several with reviews that rave about the book, love the story, but then see others commenting on that same ebook’s poor grammar or spelling! How is poor grammar acceptable? I don’t care how good the story concept is; it should be written competently.
I’m particularly leery of paying for one of these ebooks and just as concerned about taking time to read free ones. Self-published ebooks lack the vetting process of traditional publishing. However, they offer an opportunity for an author to build a fanbase/audience.
Sadly, all this means is that we must rely on our own judgments and take what we can from what is offered. Knowing information like that presented in the article helps. As does being reminded of the need for critical thinking. And hopefully, our analytical skills are up to the task.