As authors, we understand the value of rating and reviews not only for our own work but in selecting titles to read. With that in mind, I want to address an issue that Amazon is struggling with that concerns us: the integrity of reviews.
Reviews Are Important, But…
We all know that ratings and reviews affect the book sales. When readers want a book review, they turn to Amazon and Goodreads. Since 90% of readers rely of ratings and review to make purchasing decisions, it is no surprise that the New England Patriots of the publishing world have entered into practices that — while legal — calls into question the integrity of book reviews.
In December, 2012, the New York Times reported Amazon was becoming aware of fake reviews and deleting them. While many were causing the problem, the author that brought the issue to the forefront was Tim Ferriss with the release of his book The 4-Hour Chef. On opening day, his book had hundreds of 5 star reviews. Did Ferris cross an ethical line because none of these hundreds of people had anything to say negative about the book? No one gave it a 4 star? Since he extols having VAs (virtual assistants) in his first book The 4-Hour Workweek, many question if he hired VAs to write and publish only 5 star reviews.
Some authors have no problems with paying for 5 star reviews. Other demand only 5 star reviews from family and friends (both real and on social media). I struggle with both of these because I am one of the 90% who wants honest reviews.
The purpose of this article to lay out my case for honest Amazon review.
What The Stars Mean
The first question to look at is what do the stars mean. Amazon provides this guidance:
5 = I love it
4 = I like it
3 = It’s okay
2 = I don’t like it
1 = I hate it
Most likely, the words “love”, “like”, “okay”, and “hate” have different meanings to you than they do to me. I rarely give 5 stars because I reserve that for the best of the best. I don’t give 1 star review because if I hated, I won’t finish it; therefore, it’s not proper (in my way of thinking) to give it a review. The majority of my reviews are 2, 3, and 4 stars.
There are some people who never give 2 or 4. They either hate it, found it okay, or love it.
There are some that ignore 1 and 2, giving a 3 if they hated it and a 5 to anything they enjoyed.
There are also many who will use the rating system to express an opinion or viewpoint not directly related to the book.
Since there is no standard for the number of stars, we have to ask of what value they really are? Conventional thinking says that more is better but that is not always the way that Amazon’s super-secret rating algorithm functions.
Here is an example of Amazon’s star system failing to express the quality of a book. As of this writing, 50 Shades of Grey has 28,946 reviews at 3.5 stars. With those two values, it is easy to imagine a standard bell curve, skewed slightly to the right. That would be a normal result with the majority of reviewers rating the book between 4 and 2. But that is not what is going on. Here is the breakdown of ratings:
5 stars – 46% (13,416)
4 stars – 11% (3,248)
3 stars – 9% (2,680)
2 stars – 9% (2,412)
1 stars – 25% (7,122)
With nearly 29,000 reviews and 46% of them being 5 stars, we would expect this to be THE best-selling book on Amazon and the most read books in USA, especially with the film adaptation coming soon, but it’s not. As I write this, 50 Shades of Grey is at #8, and declining.
At #1 is Harper Lee’s new book that won’t be released until July. At #2 is Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder with only 33 reviews at 4.4 stars. A book that has not even been published and another that has only 33 reviews are beating a book with 13,416 5 star reviews. Something does not seem right here.
If it’s not the ratings keeping 50 Shades of Grey in the top 20 — especially since 24,975 people found the Most Critical review helpful while only 761 found the Most Positive review helpful — then why is it at #8 and the highest selling Bible — the most sold book in the world — at #88?
It’s The Content, Stupid
To draw on a theme from Bill Clinton’s first campaign, it’s the content, stupid.
In 1960, young, first-time author Harper Lee amazed the world with To Kill a Mockingbird and she was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize. Frank McCourt did the same thing in 1996 with Angela’s Ashes. Lee has not published anything in 64 years. Why are the pre-sales of her second book #1? Because her first one was so wonderful. McCourt’s second and third books were not nearly as good as the first one but they sold well because of the quality of his first one.
I have not (and will not) read 50 Shades of Grey but the reviews say that it is not well written but it has something that always sells: sex and controversy.
My advice to myself and to you: stop worrying about the stars and write good content. Write books worthy of who you are and give readers a reason to read your stuff.
You may ask, how can I sell my books if I don’t have lots-o-stars by the book name? That I can tell you in one word: marketing. Yes, it is a dirty word to many authors but if you want to sell books, you have to market. While reviews have some affect sales, the greater effect comes from marketing.
Well marketed books like The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman sell thousands of copies every year not because of Amazon ratings but because Chapman is constantly marketing the book and providing value to his readers and those he has helped.
How Not To Ask For Reviews
So what does this mean for authors? Getting as many reviews as possible on Amazon is an element of a book marketing campaign but it is only one element. There are many excellent resources on getting reviews so I am not going to cover that. Instead I going to focus on a ways NOT to get reviews.
Never ask for or demand a 5 star review. Never, ever.
Ask for honest reviews but never dictate to a potential reviewer what you will accept. By demanding a 5 star review you are saying that your work is so bad that you only want reviews that will make it look good. Let’s be honest, if you cannot handle less than 5 stars, you are not ready to publish.
Think what demanding a 5 star review does to those who want to help you succeed? You are demanding that they put their reputation on the line for the sake of a fragile ego.
Here is an extreme example: Pretend I have written a book on Thomas Aquinas and I am asking Dr. Taylor Marshall for a 5 star review. He is a well-known expert on Aquinas and having his endorsement if going to help me sell books. The problem for Marshall is that in the book I draw the conclusion that Aquinas was a drunkard who molested sheep and blackmailed others to write Summa.
If Marshall gave my book 5 stars what would that do to his reputation? He is the president of the New Saint Thomas Institute and an expert on Aquinas. His endorsement of my book could cost him the ability to provide for his family because no one would trust his opinion on Aquinas, or on anything else.
Of course I have not written a book like that, and from what I know about Marshall, he would never give 5 stars to such a piece of poop.
Friends, in the last 6 months I have been asked twice to put my reputation on the line and give 5 stars to something I thought was not worthy of that rating. I recently asked a fellow author to review my book. She told me no because she had a bad experience with another author who demanded a 5 star review from her.
This needs to stop, and it might as well begin with us. Let it be said of us that we:
- Write the best possible content we can
- Are becoming excellent in marketing what we write
- Always ask for and gladly accept honest reviews
Gil Michelini’s mission is to help lay Catholic adults to learn why and how to live lives worthy of their calling using the wisdom of Vatican II. He is the author of Daddy, Come & Get Me, the story of his adoption of a daughter from Guatemala. Gil blogs at GilMichelini.com.