Amazon Reader Reviews: 12 Things Everybody and His Grandmother Needs to Know

Amazon has changed a lot since 2011, when I wrote this post. (Although it still labels a three-star review as "critical.")  For an update on Amazon rules read my post the Laws of the (Amazon) Jungle.  Yes, this is the post that got me death threats emailed along with photos of my house. Read at your own risk :-) ...Anne

Earlier update: This post was written for grandmothers (and grandfathers)—readers of my generation (Boomers) and our parents—non-tech-savvy folks who never think of writing online book reviews. I wrote for people who don't realize the Amazon review gives them a voice they never had before. Instead of calling everybody in our book group when we finish a book we love and insisting! it be put next on the list!! immediately!!!—we can go to Amazon, write a review, and reach more people.

Obviously, if we don't like a book, we can tell people that too.

Without negative reviews, the positives would mean nothing. I am simply reminding people to think of the impact of what they write, because online reviews have a lot of power.

Reviews are for readers. They should be honest and fair.

However, at the request of several grandmothers, I offer some tips on making your star rating match the content of your review.

This is because the online star system is different from the ones we grew up with.

One sweet woman in her seventies had been devastated to find out that giving a book "a gold star" wasn't letting people know she liked the book. She thought one star was a good thing.

I chose the title "everybody and his grandmother" because I thought it was a cute way of saying this is a post for older folks.

Instead, a lot of younger people have taken it as a challenge. It has made a lot of them irrationally angry—so irrational they are unable to read the actual text of the post. I do ask that if you decide to comment on this post, that you read it first—and don't rant about stuff it doesn't say.

All obscene, threatening and criminal comments will be deleted.

You lose your moral high ground when you stoop to sending death threats. Seriously.

This is not a post about self-publishing. I am not self-published. Traditionally published authors need reviews too.

Unfortunately, it's human nature to be more vocal with complaints than with praise, so continue to urge fans to support their favorite authors and their favorite reviewers. If you love a book, say so, and if a review is useful, whether positive or negative—say that too. Good reviewers need our support just as much as good authors. Publishing is a business, and professionalism should be rewarded.


Original Post on AMAZON reviews

One of the less fortunate results of the Kindle revolution is the outsized portion of the publishing market that has been gobbled up by Amazon. Yes, Jeff Bezos got his near-monopoly by being author-friendly, while the Jurassic sector of the business still treats writers like single-use plastic bags of poo, but the truth is: monopolies are always scary.

Whether or not Mr. Bezos has taken sole possession of the Interwebz, as Wired reports, or he’s about to lose world supremacy, as Mark Williams  predicts, most authors are dependent on “the Zon” for about 90% of their income. (Check sample stats at the Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing.)

This means an Amazon glitch can stop your cashflow dead, as has been happening to Saffina Desforges, since her bestselling Sugar and Spice disappeared from last week with no explanation.

It also means that Amazon reviews, which were only mildly significant three years ago, now have a make-or-break impact on an author’s sales.

When you’re buying an ebook, there’s no helpful bookstore clerk to tell you what might be appropriate for your nine-year old niece, or if there are any new cozy mysteries you might enjoy, or whether the new Janet Evanovich is up to her usual standards.

Instead, you check reader reviews and Amazon’s “also bought” suggestions. These are all generated by consumers, which gives the ordinary reader immense power.

But most readers, especially those who are my age, don’t have a clue this power exists.

As Ruth Harris and I have found, the gap between “I love this book! I want to tell everybody to read it!” and leaving a review on Amazon seems unbridgeable to most people born before 1965.

I recently discovered this the hard way. A kind older friend asked what she could do to help me, since I’ve been on overload with seven books coming out before Christmas. I said, truthfully, the most useful thing anybody could do for me is write an Amazon review of one of my books.

She bought FOOD OF LOVE, enjoyed it, carefully posted her wonderful review, and gave me…three stars. She bought another copy for a friend who “thought it was a hoot,” and gave it…two stars.

While you’re all groaning and saying “with friends like that, who needs…” let me tell you what this experience taught me:

Stuff we take for granted in our insular online publishing world is a mystery to outsiders—especially readers who don’t spend much time in Cyberia. They may have noticed their local Borders store has closed, and that nice little bookshop on the corner is gone, but hey, in this economy….

A lot of readers don’t have a clue the old publishing paradigm is over. If they don’t own an e-reader and mostly get their books at the library (when it’s open) they may not have even shopped at Amazon.

This is complicated by the fact some older people don’t have a clue about online customer reviews. They assume they’re like TV Guide movie ratings. A Sandra Bullock rom-com always gets 2 stars, right? 3 stars are for something deep and moving, or a spectacle like Avatar; and 4 stars are reserved for Oscar winners.

(If you’re under 25, you may not know what TV Guide is, which shows what a huge information gap we’re dealing with.) 

So I figured I’d write a handy guide you can send to your older friends and relatives—or anybody who isn’t savvy about the book business. They want to help. Really. But they feel like they’re being asked to speak Klingon.

I’m focusing on Amazon here, because it has such a huge share of the market. Barnes and Noble and places like Smashwords keep the Zon from having a total monopoly—at least in the US—and I don’t mean to exclude them. A review posted anywhere, especially a readers’ site like Goodreads—is always useful. They have a slightly different rating system, so make sure to check guidelines. UPDATE: Amazon's share of the market has decreased considerably since this post was written.

A Reader’s Guide to Amazon Reviewing

If you’ve got favorite writers who aren’t superstars, they can use your help, right now—whether they’re with a small press, indie, or even published by the Big Six. The demise of bookstores and print book reviews means online reviews can make or break a new title. If you see a book hanging out there in cyberspace with only a couple of reviews—or none—remember that with just a few minutes of your time, you can jumpstart that writer’s career. 

Here are some helpful tips to get you started:

1) Anybody can “Like” a book’s Amazon buy page. There’s a button. Click it. We used to be allowed to “rate this book” by giving it stars whether we reviewed it or not, but that seems to have changed. “Liking” doesn’t do much, but it makes the author feel better. UPDATE--Amazon has removed the "like" button on the US site.

2) You don't have to be a regular customer at Amazon to sign up. You just have to have bought one thing from Amazon at some point. Plus you can sign up with a pseudonym or your real name. A “real name” review carries more weight with some readers, but if you prefer to remain anonymous, that’s fine. If buying from big corporations is against your religion, consider signing up anyway--and buy that one item--because that’s how you get your power.

Once you’re signed up with any branch of Amazon: UK, DE (Germany) CA (Canada) etc. you can leave reviews on any country’s site. Posting reviews to both the US and UK site can really help sales, since inhabitants of the British Isles buy more books per capita than any other people on the planet. (Maybe it’s all those rainy days, or maybe they’re just smarter than the rest of us, but all writers need to pay attention to the UK/Eire market.)

3) Rating the existing reviews as “helpful” or “unhelpful” has significant impact. Reviews with the most “helpful” votes appear on the buy page. By voting for the most informative and favorable reviews, you have the power to get them moved to the head of the line.

You’ll also be giving props to the reviewers who were kind enough to post a thoughtful review. There are regular Amazon reviewers who write dozens of reviews per month. (We LOVE these people.) You can check their tastes and ratings by clicking on the “see my other reviews” button after the review. “See my other reviews” is also a way to find out if the reviewer is legit. If somebody has given only one- and two-star reviews to ten or more books in the same sub-category, he’s probably a troll, paid by one author to bring down other authors’ ratings. (Yeah, I know. Creepy.)

Raising the position of the most descriptive reviews is especially helpful if the publisher hasn’t given the book a very effective blurb, or has simply quoted the initial pitch letter, like Nathan Bransford’s publisher, Dial/Penguin. (They still post the dated information that Nathan “will be hosting extensive games, parties, and giveaways in the lead-up to publication” on the buy page of his first Jacob Wunderbar book. Not cool, Penguins. We know everybody’s overworked, but Nathan deserves better.)

4) Any reader can “tag” a book. You probably won’t need to mess with this, but it’s nice to know you can object to existing category tags or add your own. If you see Jennifer Weiner’s iconic chick lit comedy, Good in Bed is categorized as “erotic romance” you can object. Or if it’s labeled as a romance but not “humorous romance” or “romantic comedy,” you can add the tags. That means people looking for comedy can find the book in a search. UPDATE: Amazon has removed tags on the US site.

5) If you see something troll-y going on, you can get a review taken off and checked by Amazon personnel by clicking “report abuse.” This doesn’t happen often, but it can.  If you see a reviewer has panned a book he obviously hasn’t read, you can click the button for “report abuse” that appears after each review. I once checked out a well-known author’s page and saw three almost identical 1 and 2-star reviews from R. Jones, Bob J, and RJ, which all said in pretty much the same words that the book was extremely long, dry and boring. Thing is: it was an action-packed novella that other people found too short. The generic nasty review didn’t fit. I hit the abuse button.

But do NOT abuse the abuse button. It has to be pretty clear the troll hasn’t read the book or is making a personal attack on the author, or the Zon will restore it and you’re the one who will look bad.

Update: The lynch-mob mentality online has made the one-star review the "punishment" of choice for many fanatical groups. I have recently seen groups listing the names of authors they disagree with and urging people to leave one star reviews on all their books without reading them. I'd hope none of my readers would consider it. But do be aware it happens--and that you can fight this kind of bullying by reporting it to Amazon. Other sites are harder to police, but Amazon has safeguards in place.

6) You don’t have to leave a review to comment on one. If a review is extremely helpful or unhelpful, you get to say so. If a review of Melissa Banks’ The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing gives it one star because it’s a novel and not an outdoorswoman’s manual, you can leave a note for the reviewer pointing out she’s a doofus. (In a nice way of course, or you’ll be on the receiving end of the “report abuse” button.)

If you find a thoughtful, thorough review that helps you decide whether to buy the book, the reviewer will always welcome a little praise. Maybe he’ll even remember when your own book is published.

NOTE: Do not comment on your OWN book's reviews. These are for reader-to-reader commenting. Arguing with a reviewer in the comments can get you marked as a "badly behaving author."

7) Amazon reviews are guides to help other customers, not essays for the NYT. You don’t want to ask yourself, “is this War and Peace?” A better question is, “does the book deliver as advertised?”

Here’s what an Amazon review isn’t:
8) Anything less than 4 stars means “NOT RECOMMENDED” to the AMAZON ALGORITHMS. 2 or 3 star reviews are going to hurt the author's sales, no matter how much you rave in the text.

Those stars are the primary way a book is judged on AMAZON. Without a 4 or 5 star rating, a book doesn’t get picked up in the Amazon algorithms for things like “also bought” suggestions. Giving 1 or 2 stars to a book that doesn’t have many reviews can impact an author's income, so don’t do it unless you really think the author isn't ready for prime time.

Giving a bad review to a good book in a genre you don't particularly like isn't helpful to the reader and can do harm to the author.

If a friend asks you to review something you found amateurish, or wasn’t your cup of tea, just tell her you don’t feel you can review it. That happens all the time and we appreciate it.

4-star reviews can often be the most helpful. If a reader sees something like, “I loved this mystery, but the humor is pretty farcical. If you’re looking for a standard whodunit, this isn’t it,” or “this is awfully intellectual for something called chick lit.” Those offer honest information to buyers, without telling them not to buy.

I'm not saying you shouldn't be giving 1-3 star reviews. I'm just saying that on AMAZON (not all review sites) 3-Stars is perceived as a negative rating by the site itself. If you intend to be positive, then 4 stars will better convey that sentiment.

Update: Amazon algorithms change frequently, and the star rating doesn't have as much weight as it did when I wrote this post. A three-star review doesn't do the damage it used to, but it still can impact Amazon's recommendations. 

9) The star rating is like other online retail ratings, not like restaurant or film ratings.

When choosing a star rating, think of how people rate online clothing-store purchases:

5 stars means it’s just like the picture, fits great, and I wear it all the time.
4 stars means it’s pretty nice but maybe runs a little snug.
3 stars means it’s cheap-looking and the color is off. I wouldn't buy it again.
2 stars means the stitching is shoddy, the hem’s crooked, and the picture showed pockets, but it doesn’t have any. Yeah, I can wear it, but I’m seriously disappointed.
1 star means it’s a tacky mess and I sent it back. 

You don't give a great pair of jeans 2 stars because it isn't an evening gown. 

Note: I'm NOT TELLING BOOK REVIEWERS THEY HAVE TO WEAR EVENING GOWNS as one reviewer/blogger has reported. Um, little gray cells, people, as Hercule Poirot would say. Use them.

Unlike other online retail store reviews, this should NOT be a review of the retailer, but the content. If the book took too long to arrive, or was damaged in transit, it’s not fair to give the author a bad review. Contact Amazon directly.

With e-books, the line blurs. When there’s a glitch in the formatting, a lot of reviewers are giving bad reviews—both for self-pubbed and Big 6-pubbed books (yes, they have a lot of glitches too.) Also, with the proliferation of e-readers, there are lots of compatibly issues. Something that reads great on an iPad may be a mess on your Droid.

Again, it’s better to report the problem to Amazon or the author directly and keep your review to the content of the book, not the delivery system.

10) Anything over 20 words qualifies as a review Yeah. It’s that easy. It doesn’t have to be more than a couple of sentences, although longer ones are always appreciated.

11) Karma comes back. Positively reviewing an author’s book pays back in tons of good will. Review a friend’s book now, and when yours comes out, she’s a lot more likely to review yours. And even if you don’t write, writing positive reviews is the nicest thing you can do for your favorite authors. (I don't mean to suggest a quid pro quo review exchange, which would violate Amazon's review guidelines.)

12) A bad review is forever  As Patricia de Hemricourt said recently in her excellent series on book promotion on Publishing a Book is an Adventure , “Never forget that what is on the Net never falls through it, it stays there forever, so a bad review on Amazon is extremely detrimental.”

Note to authors: never, ever dis a reviewer in public. To quote Mainak Dhar on David Gaughran’s blog, “Some self-published writers assume that not going through traditional publishers means that they have bypassed so-called ‘gatekeepers’ that stand between them and their readers. Here’s a dose of reality – there will always be gatekeepers.

Review sites and blogs play that role, as do Amazon reader reviews.

Sometimes, self-published writers try and fight this, and degenerate to the pathetic spectacle of publicly complaining about poor reviews. Don’t fight gatekeepers, make them your friends.”

If you get a bad review, do your suffering in private. Chocolate helps.

How about you, scriveners? Do you make a habit of reviewing your favorite authors’ books? Do you have friends who know how to review? Have you ever had an experience like mine, where somebody thinks a 2-star review is perfectly nice?

I want to give many, many thanks to the wonderful Irish author and poet, Gerry McCullough, who gave THE GATSBY GAME a fabulous review this week on her blog, Gerry’s Books. 

Canadian noir writer Benoit Lelievre has also given THE GATSBY GAME a fantastic, thoughtful review on his great blog Dead End Follies. Merci beaucoup, M. Lelievre! (And you didn't even mention my awful misspelling of a French word. Which should be fixed by now. Thanks for the heads-up.)

And I also want to thank Elizabeth S. Craig, who hosted me on Mystery Writing is Murder on Thursday the 17th. My post on Bad Writing Advice got 163 likes and 44 comments!


This post is about AMAZON reviews ONLY. (Notice the word "AMAZON" in the title) 


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