So, here's the thing! What's a book review? You wrenched the very question out of my chocolate-stuffed mouth, Grasshopper. Well, let's scrutinize this phenomenon, shall we? (Have I said how much I like the word shall? I do - and I shall continue to use it!) Anyway, let's scrutinate! (You could retire on words like that).
I am, of course, referring to the wonderful Mrs Amazon's 5-star classification system for customer reviews (see picture on the left). I'd like to say that the picture was a screen grab of the reviews from one of my books, but alas it is not. This particular item has had 31 reviews - sounds like review heaven to me. The most I've had on one book is two reviews - I mean, what's that about? Anyway, I'm sure I will re-visit the lack of reviews further along in the blog. First though, I'd like to dissect the whole idea of reviews, because I don't want you to take them at face value. Ha, you're thinking: A review is a review, isn't it? Unfortunately, Grasshopper, no it's not. Read on, and all will be revealed.
Numero uno is the Five-Star Review. I can hear your breathing rate increase, you feel your chest getting tight at the very mention, perspiration breaks out along your hairline! "Oh yes, yes," I hear you moan. "Give me a bucketful of those." But... and here's the thing - Can you trust 5-star reviews? There's an article (yes, of course, someone has written about 5-star reviews. Let's face it, reviews influence sales, and if humans are involved in the review process then they'll find a way to lie, steal, cheat, and twist everything around to benefit themselves!) I know, call me a cynical old fool - but quietly please. Here's the article, which basically says that eliciting or posting dummy positive reviews is called 'shilling' - those fabulous Americans have a name for everything, don't they? (They also have a few other names such as: Amazon bombing, Sock puppetry, Astroturfing, and Seeding!) Well, I suppose it's because they invented them all! The British aren't like that, are they?
Anyway, I thought a shilling was an old British coin - just goes to show what I know! Only this morning, my wife and I were harping back to the good old days of the farthing, halfpenny, penny, threepenny bit (my gran used to save them up in a bottle and give my brother and I a handful when we went on holiday to Colwyn Bay in North Wales. There was an ice cream shop on the corner that sold the best ice cream in the whole world with bits of ice in it), the tanner (sixpence), the shilling (bob), the two-bob bit (florin), and the half-crown (we were poor, so I never had a crown - five bob). Those were the days - you could get four liqourice Black Jacks for a penny! They used to make your lips, gums and tongue all black, but they were great to chew on. Do you remember the Jubbly as well - I loved sucking on those babies in the summer - they made your lips and your tongue numb!
Anyway, apparently these 5-star reviews aren't all they're cracked up to be. If you're on the ball though, you can spot them: 1) If there are only a few reviews, assume that there is a good chance they've been planted by friends or foes (now hang on a minute - all my reviews have come from genuine reviewers - I have no friends or family - and I've only got a few reviews - dabs eyes with tissue); 2) If there are many reviews, act like a statistician, and start by dropping the most extreme comments; 3) watch out for similarities in style between reviews from people with different usernames, particularly if those reviews were placed about the same time; 4) watch out for people who are new users, or whose only reviews are on the same item; and 5) a sudden wave of five-star reviews after a more sustained run of lower ratings should provoke suspicion. Also, be wary of: 1) gushing praise; 2) advert-like qualities; and 3) repeated key phrases.
So, in my experience, getting reviews is like trying to push a piece of string uphill, or skydiving with a concrete parachute, or skating on thin ice, and equally impossibile pastimes! My books have been on Amazon for 8 weeks, but lets just take one book - A Life for a Life - which has sold 119 copies (in the US and UK), but has only attracted two reviews on the US site and two reviews on the UK site. I mean, why don't people leave a review? Is it overly difficult for readers to post a review? Some feedback from readers here would be useful? Maybe, after reading the book, readers are disappointed and just can't be bothered writing a scathing review? Maybe... Well, who knows? Certainly not me. I'd like a few honest reviews.
Now, when I say "honest reviews", I mean constructive reviews. Numero due (you're impressed with my grasp of Italian, aren't you?) takes me to the other extreme - the one-star review. Let's quickly mention the Normal Distribution again, Grasshopper! In any review system you would expect 68% of 3-star reviews, 13.5% of 2- and 4-star reviews, and 2.14% of 1- and 5-star reviews - that's the theory anyway! Does it work? Well, it's no use looking at my books because I've hardly got any reviews (have I already mentioned that?) So, let's examine some of my favourite books: 1) The Religion by Tim Willocks - he's got 47 reviews (41 x 5-star, 4 x 4-star, and 2 x 3-star)! The theory's looking a bit shakey already, but if you haven't read it you need to. 2) Lord of the Rings by an indie called JRR Tolkien - he's got 255 reviews (215 x 5-star, 18 x 4-star, 7 x 3-star, 7 x 2-star, 8 x 1-star). There's a distribution, but it's skewed heavily towards the 5-star review, but are you surprised? I mean, LotR is the best fantasy book ever! How could anybody give it a 1-star review? But.. and here's the thing... not everyone will like your book! WHAT? I know... shocking, or what?
I'm enjoying this! So, let's do one more for the road, but feel free to examine your own favourite books and see if the theory holds up! Let's look at 3) Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which in my humble opinion was brilliant (as was the trilogy and its a damned shame he died, and died intestate). It has 938 reviews (that's a serious number of reviews) - (465 x 5-star, 211 x 4-star, 115 x 3-star, 56 x 2-star, and 91 x 1-star). Although still skewed towards the higher reviews, this distribution lends a bit of support to the theory. So, it might be that you have to have a whole bucketful of reviews before the theory holds up. Or, maybe the Normal Distribution doesn't apply to books! I think I'll stop there, because I have the habit of rambling on. I did want to talk about book review sites, but I'll save that 'till the next blog!
Here's the thing! I know a thing or seven about Private Investigators (PI's) so I hired one to find out where all the readers had gone (I had heard that they congregate in hordes in abandoned mines and hotels like vampires, witches and zombies, you know). Now, if you aren't familiar with the term 'reader' let me clarify! Readers walk among (or is that amongst!) us, they even look like us! (Some of them look particularly alluring (good word, or what!) as seen in the picture of my sister on the left, but it's only to tempt us to the dark side). You could (note the past tense here) usually spot them on buses, park benches, in cafe's smoking with crossed legs (before crossing your legs in public places was banned, and quite rightly so in my opinion!) reading a book, a tome, an opus, a paperback or a hardback! Those were the days! You could swivel your head to look at the spine or the cover to find out what they were devouring, strike up a conversation with: "Good book that!", or "How you finding it?", or "He gets the girl, but dies in the end, you know!" I'm sure you get my drift!
But, as I intimated above, sadly those days are disappearing into the annals of history, spiralling down the plughole of progress, whooshing along the waterchute of evolution (and you thought I couldn't write - pah!) Now, they're more difficult to spot. Oh, they're still rubbing shoulders with us, some even have jobs, drink in clubs, lure us to their cosy little nests (I wish) and... (no, we don't want to make this an 18+ blog, do we), some get married, and some even have tiny baby readers. If you look hard enough, you can spot these readers (not the baby ones - we've moved away from them now) sashaying along the sidewalk with an electronic gadget peeping out of their back pockets, or dangling on a rope around their scrawny necks (the gadgets not the readers), or hidden in inside pockets, briefcases, or handbags - these are more difficult to differentiate from normal people. Now, I use the word 'normal' advisedly (whatever that means), because it is one of those 'pick 'n mix' words.
Let me clarify! Normal is usually based on a 'normal distribution' - in other words, if there's a lot of people doing what you're doing, then you're normal. (Now, I don't really need you to tell me what you're doing, because I have a very vivid imagination!) So, drinking booze all night and then driving to work the next day to do heart transplants is considered normal, because... yeah, you've got the hang of it, a lot of people do it - especially heart transplant surgeons. Well, I'm going to shock you now, but I read recently that readers are increasing - I know, a bit scary to say the least - and I'm not one for saying the least. The University of Manchester did a study and found: 1) Women read more than men (that's because they've got more time - dives behind sofa with crash helmet on); 2) A quarter of adults hadn't read a book in the previous 12 months (can you believe that?); 3) In 1975 we read for 3 minutes a day, now we read for 7 minutes (UK and USA) (Unbelievable! Only 7 minutes - have you all got ADHD?); 4) The French (18 minutes) and the Dutch (12 minutes) beat us. (If the French beat us we've got serious problems!) 5) People reading books had increased by 17% (I bet that has also increased with the proliferation of ebooks - I mean, I've proliferated 11 ebooks for goodness sake!); and 6) People read in fragmented time (I knew my short chapters were good for something!)
So, what I'm saying (if I can still remember what I was saying) is that readers are becoming normal! I know - how alien is that. Gradually, we'll all look like zombies (walking round with staring eyes after ten hours reading a book on the Kindle, Nook, Sony eReader, etc); We'll only come out at night with translucent (what a wicked word) skin like vampires (after sleeping all day because we stayed awake all night to finish one of my ebooks - sorry, had to get that in somewhere!); Or, cackle like witches (because we've lost our marbles - and our broomsticks - because we stayed awake reading by the light of a full silvery Kindle instead of sleeping).
The world is changing people! You're either with us, or... not with us? There's no inbetweenies, you can't join Species 8472 and live in fluidic space (They were awsome, but I still thought the Borg were better (especially Jerry Ryan in Voyager - was she hot or was she hot? She was hot!). Which moron decided to end Star Trek, and Stargate, and all the other brilliant SciFi series? Now what have we got? Not a damned lot is the answer, and I love SciFi as well). So anyway, what about these readers? I mean, where are they? I've sat here all day watching my book sales stand still.
Even supposing I couldn't count, which I know my previous employer but one (that's the employer before the last one) would swear that I couldn't! I mean, I ask you, what's £5 million between friends? And talking of £5M - oh no, we were talking about book sales. I know its Monday and people are back at work, but can't these Kindles connect to the Internet from anywhere? And if they can, where are all these 17% of additional readers?
So, let's do some numbers again: UK population = 50M, the US population = 250M (we're talking about the potential reading population in both countries now - not the actual population, so don't go leaving comments that I can't count!) Anyway, we've got a combined population of 300M, and 17% of this nice round number is 51M (I hope that's right! I never know whether to multiply 300 x 17% or divide 300 x 17% - Anyway, its around that number because even I can work out that 10% = 30M and 20% = 60M, so 51M sounds about right for 17%. I was never any good at maths at school - In fact, the only thing I excelled at was not being there. Me and my mates (or 'my mates and I' for the puritans) used to spend the day in Mal's shed at the bottom of his garden smoking and just hanging out. Ha - those were the days we learned buggar all!
So, the bottom line is - if the people reading books has increased by 17%, which we now know is 51M, why haven't my ebook sales increased exponentially? Even a small fraction of that - let's say 1M, or 1/17th (that's a fraction isn't it?) - would be appreciated. I'd even settle for a million sales of one book (feel free to choose your one book from those on the right!) Maybe these increased readers went into the Lost Room and disappeared! (Did you watch it? Talk about inspiration - I was inspired! Absolutely brilliant. Whoever thought up that story wants to be lauded as one of the greats - I loved it. I won't tell you what it's about, but after watching it I bought the DVD so I could watch it again at my leisure - that's how good it was). So people, I think we have something just as puzzling as the missing objects from the Lost Room. Where do the readers hide? Answers on a naughty postcard to that Lost Room underneath Amazon's HQ that might contain the answers to where these lost readers have disappeared to, but definitely contains my ebook profits!
Hi, I'm Tim Ellis - I write a lot and I hope you enjoy what I write.