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!
Hi, I'm Tim Ellis - I write a lot and I hope you enjoy what I write.