Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

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4 comments on “Musings on user reviews

  1. The standard number that indie authors throw around is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 organic review per 100 books sold/read. If you feel the need for more reviews, you can do the legwork of contacting Amazon reviewers and bloggers. It’s time consuming but not all that hard to get all the reviews you want.

    Just to let you know, the general consensus among indie authors is that it is a breach of etiquette to reply to reviews. At all. Period.

    Granted, you are, of course, free to do as you like, but if you find professional standards important, I thought you might want to know that you’re violating one of them.

    • grimkrieg says:

      That’s interesting! I frequently receive replies to my reviews from published authors… why would indies be any different?

      • Three main reasons:

        1. There is a strong contingent of people who believe that reviews are for readers, not for writers. This group believes that any discussion of reviews is a Bad Thing.

        2. Some authors feel that responses have the potential to make reviewers feel uncomfortable. Let’s say I buy and read a book. I then leave my unbiased opinion that, subjectively, this author did this right and this wrong. The next thing I know, the author has responded? It wouldn’t bother me, but some reviewers have stopped doing reviews because of bad exchanges. Indie authors need reviews. Anything that stops people from leaving them is a Bad Thing.

        3. The practice is fraught with danger. It’s easy to mishandle such a situation and end up hurting your career. It’s a lot easier to just leave it alone.

      • grimkrieg says:

        Thank you for the reasonable response!

        1. I am not especially concerned about this group, so I won’t comment on that point. It is an interesting comment though, and I have encountered it before.
        2. I mostly agree with you on this. I do comment on positive reviews as a way of thanks or encouraging discussion, as other successful authors have with me. There are a few exceptions, notably the one I linked to in my post — but that response was deleted along with the offender’s account and part of a successful effort by numerous authors to expose that account as a fraud.
        3. This is a useful comment. It is easier and safer to leave it alone. On the other hand I tend to get better engagement from readers when I communicate constructively with those who comment on my work. It has helped me find a few great beta readers and learn a lot about what people like and don’t like about my writing. Still this point is very instructive, and definitely one that I have heard before.

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