On the How & Why of Amazon Reviews – by RES
We’ve all read them and on occasion most of us have written some. We each have our signals for which to ignore and which we attend to, and why. As there is little that a reader can do which will so much help move an author’s books (that is, keep the moolah flowing to encourage an author to give us more) as writing a good review, it behooves us to give some practical consideration to the mechanics of reviews, in order that we might write more and more helpful ones in support of books we’ve enjoyed.
Some elements of reviews seem obvious. We’ve all seen and shrugged off the reviews that condemn a writer for Bad Think™ and denounce the author as an apologist for oppression of [Womyn, Homosexuals, Minority Religions, non-Cis-Gendered Persons, People of Venusian Ancestry, Other] and proves the author is a racist/sexist/something-phobe hatey-hate Mchater.” Just so, we have also read and discarded reviews from obvious drooling fangits who will buy and praise the author’s shopping list. [I take offense at this. My fans would buy my shopping list, and they’re not fangits- SAH] But the question remains: what should we put in a review?
The first step seems to consider what our intended purpose is in writing/reading any review. For such things as DVDs there is useful information to convey regarding such technical details as whether the video transfer is crisp or so muddy that the action is impossible to follow, and whether the audio is mixed so that when the sound is turned up enough to follow the dialogue the music and effects will damage your speakers, eardrums, and relations with the airport three miles away. But these issues are not relevant to books, which is the primary concern for the moment.
Mostly we want our reviews to promote sales of books we enjoy and ward off unsuspecting readers of books we found tedious and/or offensive. Thus a positive review should offer some sense of the elements of a story; we might note that characters are clearly drawn or that it becomes difficult to keep track of them. We would properly describe the plotting, employing terms such as fast-paced or intricate – or as unduly complicated, bogged down for pages on end, confusing or downright not credible. We might even describe characters as stereotyped, two-dimensional, or tepid versus vivid, credible, multi-dimensioned and “people with whom we’d like share a bottle of wine.”
It is best to eschew spoilers, although it can be fair game to give away minor plot elements, such as “The section of the novel depicting Thorby’s assimilation into the Free Traders was exciting and thought-provoking.” Such a statement does not give away anything critical and alerts the reader that there will be such a section without giving away how Thorby gets there nor how he assimilates. Saying “I cried for hours at Old Yeller’s death” probably crosses the line into TMI.
It is certainly appropriate to warn readers that an author’s head has found its way into tight malodorous places, warning of such egregious inaccuracies/improbablities as having Hopi Indians raiding White settlements along the Ohio in the 1640s, but what about lesser transgressions? A mighty swordswoman (e.g., Belit or Red Sonja) could be tolerable (as long as she isn’t wielding a claymore) where an entire legion of gorgeous gladius-wielding warrior-women is likely too much to accept. Certainly any prospective reader deserves to be warned if elements of the book are likely to result in damaged walls.
It is sadly true that realistic review ratings are not really possible. Anything less than five stars is often interpreted as negative no matter how hard reviewers strive to reserve that status for the truly exceptional reads. A four star review with a very positive title (subject line) might be a fair route to go, providing a very positive response while still recognizing that the real five star book is rare. Perhaps some among us is sufficiently familiar with Amazon’s algorithms to enlighten us as to how the stars affect sales?
I find in my use of reviews that some of the best information is found in the one star reviews, knowing that what infuriates an SJW is likely to delight me or, at least, be something which will disturb me not in the least. Just as I often find the effusive praise of some five star reviews is as clear a warning as a Hugo nomination.
What are elements you rely on in judging reviews as guides for your book purchases? Do you find brief reviews more effective than several lengthy paragraphs? Keep in mind that a well written review is one of the main ways you can help a favored author move enough books to write sequels – and that as the publishing world moves further toward Indy the review becomes an increasingly important way of promoting the sorts of reading you like. We are all likely insufficiently diligent about providing reviews, and a part of that is probably a consequence of early school experiences writing book reports. The Amazon review acts more as a blurb and ought be approached as such. Leave us work on ways to help our favored writers make more money and sell more books.
[Thank you, oh Wallaby of Wisdom. And you guys: listen to him!]