I’m coming late to the brouhaha that surrounds customer reviews. The social web, it seems, is crawling with examples of sharp practice, where reviews are not written in good faith. If you want more background on the present storm, read this article from the New York Times about reviewers-for-hire and this from Forbes about the behaviour of author Stephen Leather.
Customer reviews are important. Without them, products with established brands would have too great an advantage. The Stephen King brand shifts many books; the Ian Hocking brand shifts few. The sources of professional review – newspapers, and so on – can help, but if I want to buy a product, I’ll be happy to know what other buyers thought.
As a writer, I do solicit reviews. I have afterwords in Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job that point out that I publish without the benefit of a publisher, and I need all the push I can get. People do try to help me out. Many of my reviews begin with ‘The author asked me to write a review, so here I go’.
Here’s one such, from a reader called Kvsir:
I’m no critic. I’m just a guy with who like his SciFi/Fantasy stories – a lot! Ironically, considering my opening sentence, I generally buy on the strength of the customer reviews which is what prompted me to download Déjà Vu in the first place so after reading Ian’s acknowledgments and blog excepts at the end of the book I felt moved to add one here for him as I know he’s going to read it. …I’m off to download Flashback, hope you make enough coin off that sale to go buy yourself a beer. Cheers!
So I solicit reviews in general. I also reply to tweets and emails asking for reviews. I keep to the form: ‘Hi, this is Ian Hocking. Thanks for tweeting/writing. If you could pop a review on the Kindle store, I’d appreciate it. No worries if not’. I try not to ask them for a positive review, but my replies are typically elicited by tweets that praise the book in the first instance.
If someone emails me to say that they liked a book of mine, I’ll often ask them to post up their thoughts as a Kindle store review. Here’s an email I received two days ago:
I just want to tell you, [Proper Job] is one of the funniest books I have ever read! Last night I was reading it in bed and almost choking myself with trying to laugh silently so I wouldn’t wake up my husband. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that made me laugh so hard!
I asked this reader to post up a review, and she did so – almost word for word. So there’s certainly a positive bias in these reviews, and I help to cultivate it. Do I feel any ethical qualms? Some, since my actions are helping to engender this positive skew. However, I don’t know these people; I offer them nothing in return ; and they’ve already established that they like the book.
Like any writer, I have family and friends who want to see me do well. I have ten or so reviews from these, er, ‘interested parties’. They are rarely five-star reviews, however, and those friends/family who did not like the book remained silent. All reviews in this subcategory are truthful.
I have a simple rule for reviews of my work: they need to be an honest reflection of what a person thinks, so that a prospective reader is getting an accurate picture of how the work has impacted upon a sample of people. No money should change hands. Any prompting from the author should be of the ‘It would be nice if’ variety.
A word about negative reviews. I hate it when a critic writes one, because (i) they haven’t paid for the book, and may not be one of the target audience, (ii) they assume a position superior to the writer, and (iii) the effect of their words are proportionate to their reader base. I’m much more interested in negative customer reviews. They are – most times, but not always – genuine, unadorned thoughts, and useful. Here’s a negative review of Déjà Vu, this time a one-star review from Goodreads:
Sub-adolescent prose fails to lift the pedestrian plot. Where there were attempts at twists, they were obvious and signalled to the reader in neon lights from several miles away. Cardboard characters perform series of actions in locations described in halting statements. They have stilted conversations with each other and the reader is left hard pressed to care what happens to any of them. The crass backstory provided for the (beautiful, sexy, female) lead protagonist is unnecessarily graphic and reads like filler material while the author is trying to work out how to proceed.
An irritating thing for me to read, to be sure, and it annoys the hell out of my partner, but there is some useful feedback here – not feedback I agree with, but comments I’ll drop into the melting pot of experience from which I’ll draw subsequent books. If this were a critic, I’d be annoyed, but he’s a paying customer and he has every right to share his opinion. You should have heard me mouthing off about Tom Hardy’s accent in the latest Batman film. I’d be embarrassed if Christopher Nolan heard me.
A second point, which need not be made, is that reviews do not necessarily reflect the quality of the work. I’ll head over to Amazon right now and pick a review of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
I dont know who decided Hemingway was a great writer but it couldnt have been a decision reached on the basis of this book because its bloody awful.