Monday, 14 December 2015

Review Policy

Amazon are addressing their review policies when it comes to books and the internet is in uproar. Well maybe not the entire internet, but my corner – where all the struggling authors hang out – is pretty pissy about it.

First off, tour organisers can’t post reviews. Well I can understand this. You’re hiring someone to help you with promotion, can they really submit an unbiased review? Probably not. Besides if you’re paying them to organise a book tour, it’s their job to push advance reader copies to honest reviewers so why would you need them to provide their own review?

The idea of payment for a review, whether it’s money, gift cards, or free books, is also dubious. I’m too much of a penny pincher to even consider this as an option for obtaining reviews. I’d rather just spend my money on more books!

The interesting part of this policy is that Amazon’s super computers are going to check whether you know the author you’re reviewing. And by interesting – I mean bloody scary that this is such an issue for Amazon that they feel the need to spy on their customers to check the legitimacy of their opinions.

Two weeks ago I was sat editing, listening to 6 music and they played the new release from an artist called Astrid Williams. I’d heard the song a few times, but this was the first time I was paying attention to the name of the artist. Having a free minute I checked her out, liked what I heard and followed her on Twitter.

For me there’s nothing unusual to this. But about an hour after listening to her song and following her, this artist followed me back on Twitter and tweeted me. It was a simple message thanking me for the follow (not you know – Hey L E Fitzpatrick, I love your books etc. but still unexpected). It felt rude not to respond so I tweeted that I thought her songs were great (got a little bit fangirl to be honest) and again she tweeted back her gratitude.

Now I’m not a big tweeter so this interaction with someone I had just heard on the radio left me a little bit giddy and excitable, and also encouraged me to buy her CD – which I did from Amazon incidentally. I’ve listened to the CD, it’s pretty good and I’ll pick up more of her work after Christmas – but here’s the thing – can I review this purchase?

Technically we are connected on Twitter, not only as followers but through a brief conversation that occurred pre-purchase. In fact through a conversation that encouraged a purchase. If I left her a review (which I have done) I would be in conflict with point 5 of their policy. Amazon’s super algorithms, that apparently have the ability to hunt through our media friends lists looking for suspicious connected activity, will see our connection and scrap my genuine review. Is this fair? And surely we could use this magic ethereal power Amazon seem to have for better purposes then checking book reviews.

Furthermore, shouldn’t Amazon be encouraging artists and writers to interact with fans, prompting them to purchase their material (through Amazon if possible)? Nowadays you have to have a social media presence and be active online. The amount of times publishers and book managers have told me to be more active (seriously I break out in a sweat just thinking about it) you’d think I’d be listening to them by now. But this activity now has the potential to shoot you in the foot and rob you of reviews that are genuine from fans that you have connected with and worked hard to get. Friending them might get you a purchaser for life – but not a purchaser that Amazon will recognise as genuine.

What a conundrum we find ourselves in. But it also got me thinking of reviews in general and why this is an issue for Amazon and for authors.

Initially when I self-published The Running Game I wanted the feedback – but reviews are not feedback, nor should authors look at them as feedback. If you want feedback for your work get it out to a beta reader first, that way you can correct problems. Don’t rely on reviewers to do that for you – otherwise you’ll be stuck with a rubbish review for life and a reader who won’t pick up your work again. Others look at reviews as promotional potential. “Hey look at The Running Game, I’ve got 30 reviews all of them 3 stars and up.”

But do readers care about reviews? I’m a reader and when it comes to books I know what I like. One of my favourite books is Black Angel by John Connolly. On this book has 103 reviews. 8% of these reviews are 2 stars or less. A one star review said:">I've read some silly books in my time, but this one takes the biscuit!” Apart from wanting to hunt this bastard reviewer down from having no taste (remember crazy fangirl here), this review/reviewer means nothing to me as a reader. A 5 star reviewer, commenting: “This is one of the best books in the series” also means nothing to me. I don’t know these people and clearly they both have widely different reviews about the same book. Which one is right?

I want to say the 5 star review, but the real answer is they are both right. Taste in books is subjective and readers like what they like. Our reviews are merely an opinion on something that has no definitive attributes, which is as valuable as gold to an author but as worthless as dirt to a reader.

There are reviews which are helpful to the reader, being well written and telling the reader more about the book. For instance Black Angel has supernatural themes, as well as being a crime thriller – a very helpful warning for those that prefer to stay clear of supernatural fiction, but this doesn’t mean that the supernatural aspects are going to make you like or hate it – it just means they are there. There are some reviewers who say, “I normally hate supernatural stories, but this was the exception.” And maybe this is more helpful, but still we don’t know why these reviewers normally hate supernatural stories and if they do maybe this one isn’t supernaturally enough to captivate a fan of weirder fiction. Mostly reviewers just provide paragraphs that can be summed up as; “I liked this book.” Which is about as helpful as saying “I like strawberries.” That’s great – but will I like strawberries?

As a sensible, reasonably intelligent reader, I take reviews as opinions that may or may not be biased, and have enough savvy (like I imagine most people taking time to read reviews) to filter through them to make my own mind up about whether to buy a book or not. Usually, if the blurb is well written, I just download a sample and go from there (let the author do the work in trying to wheel me in instead of relying on readers). If the book is poorly written or formatted, I will pick that up in the first page. If I want to keep reading after the sample then we’re off to a good start and nothing any other reader says will stop me.

Authors need to remember that reviews aren’t really meant for them. They may help to sell books, but not as much as being active publically, writing great books and being prolific. If Amazon takes reviews away you still have sales and you still have a ranking. Don’t worry about it – when all else fails there is always Goodreads to boost or shatter your ego. But I also feel that Amazon needs to stop getting its knickers in a twist on this unimportant issue. Readers aren’t stupid (they read after all). And authors have Amazon’s best interest at heart – to sell books. Maybe it’s not such a great business move to restrict the potential for doing this.

And now for my review:

Having just discovered Astrid Williamson, I feel like I have just been let in on the music industry’s biggest secret. Williamson’s voice is outstandingly pure and packed full of understated emotion. Her touching songs range from slow moving melodies, to fast paced dance tracks, but the highlight on this CD is her single Saint Saviour, a tune I will have on repeat for the rest of the month. I’m very much hoping Santa will bring me more of her CD’s this Christmas.

And in context to this review: I love Natalie Merchant, Flogging Molly, Thea Gilmore, The Mighty Stef, Nick Cave, John Grant, Queen… see not very helpful is it.

Check it out for yourself:

And while you’re at it check out Black Angel too (though if you haven’t read the Charlie Parker series you should start with Every Dead Thing). I haven’t written a review for this book because I read it before reviewing was a thing, but it’s on my TBR list for this forthcoming year so maybe I can add my own review to the 103 currently on Amazon. I rate it 5 stars and will endorse it as one of the best books I have ever read. Again context won’t help you, but check it out anyway (8% of haters can’t be right)

And because I always get a kick at putting my link next to Mr Connolly’s, these are my Amazon reviews for The Running Game, all genuine and unpaid for:

1 comment:

Anita said...

You make so many interesting points here, most of which i agree with, strongly too. I find the fuss about getting reviews generally overdone, although battling with all the traps of self-promotion, I see no way to avoid wishing for reviews. Invaision into privacy is almostbeyond my comments; it's actually terrorizing people. Too tired and frustrated to write more now, but I can't help but wonder what will they think off next to further complicate our lives?!