by Allison Maruska
A few days ago, this article came out on Consumerist.com. If you don’t want to click over and read it right this second, allow me to summarize: there are companies that sell five-star reviews to authors, and Amazon is suing these companies.
I think almost everyone would agree that paying for fake 5-star reviews is a detestable practice. It undermines the entire purpose of reviews and is one reason many readers say they don’t pay attention to 5-star reviews (as both a writer of and recipient of legitimate 5-star reviews, I find this annoying). Why are reviews so important that some authors are willing to cross ethical boundaries to get them?
Let’s go back in time twenty years, when the internet was a newborn entity. We bought books by walking into bookstores, finding a book in a genre we liked and that had an interesting cover, read the back matter, and if we deemed the story interesting enough to continue reading, we purchased the book. Reviews were probably not involved, though friends’ recommendations likely were. If I had to choose between two books and a friend had recommended one of them, I’d choose the one my friend liked.
Enter the internet and the massive wave of independently published books hitting the market. There is a perception that independently published books are substandard–I mean, if they were good enough to be published traditionally, they would have been, right?
Wrong. As an author working both sides of the publishing fence (traditional and independent), I can tell you there is a myriad of reasons why an author would choose to go indie that have nothing to do with their work being “good enough”: traditional publishing works at the speed of glacial erosion, there are elements of the book that make it unappealing to agents or publishers (length, unique characters, etc.), or they want more control over pricing and marketing, to name a few.
Bogus or not, the perception is there. With no marketing support coming from a publishing house (which I’ve heard is waning for the majority of authors) and certainly no big name appearing on the copyright page, indie authors are quite literally at the mercy of readers and their reviews. Having skipped the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing, indie books depend on the words of readers to persuade others to buy.
Frankly, I don’t care how a book was published. I just want a good story. So how can I find one?
The first and most important factor in whether or not I decide to read a book is if a friend recommended it. I’d say 90% of the time, I’ll read a book a friend suggested regardless of the reviews it’s received. Granted, I’ll still read the blurb and consider if this is an author I’d enjoy, but the odds that I’ll purchase are strongly in the book’s favor. This is like the pre-internet days, when word of mouth was king.
If I don’t have recommendations handy, I’ll search my favorite genres and read samples. I’ll consider price, and yes, reviews, but only if there are dozens of crappy reviews that outnumber the positive ones. I’ve heard many people say they don’t look at 5-stars or 1-star reviews, because 5-stars usually came from friends or family or were purchased, and 1-star reviewers often have their own issues that have nothing to do with the book.
Add to this the fact that different sites have different review criteria–an average score on Amazon is usually higher than Goodreads, because Goodreads has a more specific rubric, if you will. Four stars on Goodreads means “really liked it”, whereas four stars on Amazon just means four stars.
The whole reviewing process is murky, to be sure. So are reviews as important as we think they are?
Yes and no. Many positive reviews help an author pursue listings on promotional sites like Bookbub, which can boost sales into best-selling territory. I use snippets of good reviews in my own promo material (especially if they’re funny). A high rating on one book can support the sales of another book by that author.
But I think the primary driver of sales even today is word of mouth, which if you think about it, is what a well-written review is, regardless of the number of stars associated with it.
Before I read the first Harry Potter book soon after it was released, a friend told me the first few chapters were slow. Know what? I agreed. Had she not told me that, I wonder if I would have made it to Hagrid telling Harry about his lineage, when the story really picks up. I knew what to expect because of my friend’s review, and I devoured every Harry Potter book after that.
So maybe when we consider reviews, both in reading and writing them, we should think of our friends telling us about books they’ve read. What made it awesome? What were its shortcomings? Is it worth reading in spite of those?
Word of mouth is still king.
Guest post contributed by Allison Maruska. Allison likes to post in line with her humor blog roots, but she also includes posts about teaching and writing specifically. Check out her website for more of her work.
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