There has been quite a lot of criticism thrown about over ‘online reviews’ recently. In particular, articles like this (such as this) have appeared discussing the issues with reviews posted by random members of the public on sites like Amazon. The issues mainly revolve around the idea of ordinary members of the public commenting on products, often referring to nonsensical things that are nothing to do with the book such as the delivery time, and the old bugbear of sockpuppet reviews.
These things are apparently not related solely to Amazon. I have seen travel and hotel reviews where the reviewer blames the travel company or hotel for the weather, the fact they got mugged while there and the traffic on the way. It seems that when people are asked to give a product review online, they often go the whole hog and review everything without stopping to think about what is actually the fault of or fixable by the person who created the product. I suppose it may not help that Amazon does not distinguish between a review of the product and the review of the service they provide. This means that if the delivery is late you might sometimes get a bad review regardless of the quality of the book you have written. Many do not see this as being fair.
As for sock puppets, I have to say that there is actually a great deal of temptation here. It is very easy to create a new account on something like Amazon (all you need is a new email address) and use that to comment on, review and rate books. This means you can review your own books and give a false impression of how good it really is. You can also review other people’s books multiple times and give them many bad reviews. It is a nasty tactic which, unfortunately, only has moral and ethical concerns to stop people from doing it. This, I suspect, is why it happens so often.
The combination of these two factors gave me cause for concern when Transitions went out on sale last August. I was initially worried about reviewers potentially scuppering my book with nonsensical complaints. Then, as time went on, I became even more concerned that no one seemed to be willing to review it at all. Had anyone actually read it? That was my panicked thought as I searched in vain for anything at all that said something about my book. I was caught between two options – did I want reviews, even though some if not all of them might be terrible or even irrelevant? Or did I want to stay in obscurity, knowing that no one was bothered enough by me to take the time to review?
It was a tricky dilemma but in the end I decided I preferred the former. I also decided on some proactive strategies to get me those reviews. To supplement my Publisher’s efforts (which led to two fairly decent reviews, one in the Penumbra Press ezine the other in Long and Short reviews ) I decided to offer ten copies of Transitions to members of a Goodreads community that exists to match authors with potential reviewers. A number of people signed up for this offer and, at the time of writing, I have received two rather good reviews which have been posted to both Goodreads and Amazon. This does not mean that the remaining reviews will be good too, but I am feeling rather encouraged by this.
You see, the point is that I believe that Amazon and Goodreads reviews serve one very important function. While some may think that they exist only to allow small minded idiots to vent their complaints or egotistical authors to over-pimp a book and are more than able to present the evidence to prove it, I consider there to be another purpose. They are a direct link to the readers. While professional and semi-professional reviews are usually written by writers or others with an expertise, these reviews can be written by anyone regardless of their qualifications and experiences. While this fact may well be contributing to the problems outlined above, I think it is also useful to see what someone who only reads books recreationally thinks about your work. Are you actually managing to engage their interest? If someone is prepared to comment favourably on your work then I think the answer is certainly yes. Even a bad review written in a constructive manner which points out sensible reasons why they did not like it shows that they at least read the book and cared enough to bother telling you why they hated it. This is why I think it would be a shame if Amazon decided to stop allowing reviews altogether and also why there are issues with their apparent recent policy change over deleting reviews as discussed here and here
Getting even a single review, whether positive or negative, with evidence that they read it and with appropriate constructive criticism is worth a lot to any author and easily outdoes more than a million arbitrary ‘I did not like the font’ comments and ‘it waz tha best buk I eva wrot myself’ sock puppet reviews. I am not sure what the solution is to eliminate the bad reviews (maybe some form of positive reinforcement to write good reviews rather than negative reinforcement for bad ones?) but I do believe that it is important that there exists some system where people can feel free to rate books and where authors can still get those encouraging comments.