Boola Boola Book reviewer

Yale's business school released an overview of a study that concludes customer reviews "do have an impact on what consumers buy" at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. Observing randomly selected titles, they found "the addition of favorable reviews at one site increases book sales at that site relative to the other retailer. It also finds that negative 1-star reviews carry more weight with consumers than do positive 5-star reviews. The impact of a negative review is more powerful in decreasing book sales than a positive review is in increasing sales." Bear in mind, though, that the researchers were not using actual sales data; they were just working from posted sales rank data. (Publishers Marketplace-emphasis mine)

Nonetheless I find it fascinating that buyers have cottoned on to the "five star friend" phenom. Miss Snark is as guilty as the next agent of both writing reviews (hey I DO like this book...I didn't exactly buy it though) and soliciting friends, relatives and passersby on the street to do the same. Time for a new strategy I guess....finding books from your cross town rivals and writing 1 star scathing reviews.

So, does this match your buying patterns? Do lots of five star reviews make you think it's hype? Do one star reviews make you click to another book? Fess up Snarklings, the boys at Yale are watching!

From Publishers Marketplace


tremblor said...

When I was in mid-level retail management, I read a study about word-of -mouth which stated that if a customer has a stellar experience, they tell 0-3 people... but for a negative experience, the average is 10.

MissWrite said...

Personally I find reviews of little worth. Just like movie critiques, they only mean as much as the taste of the particular person reviewing, and I may, or may not agree. Only I can tell. I prefer to read the jacket, or blurb and form my own opinion on whether I'd like a book, or not.

Bernita said...

Quality and logic of the review counts - bad or good.
On the other hand, any time movie critics consistently pan a film I know I will love it.

Bunneh said...

I can't really say that a five-star review makes me think a book is hype. Usually I see WHAT the reader has to say about the book. If a negative review is mostly misspelled and the reviewer complains that the book was too long/complicated, it won't affect my intent to purchase one way or another. Anne Rice may have an impressive horde of fans, but all of the five-star-reviews in the world won't get me to read her stuff.

I do admit that a well-written negative review will hold more weight than a positive review. And reader-reviews carry more weight (with me) than professional reviews. The last time I took a chance on a book that had a good NYT review, I was disappointed beyond words. But when a friend recommended Jennifer Crusie to me, I was pleasantly surprised.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

I agree with this study - I take negative comments more seriously than positive, though I do try not to let them overly influence me.

AnimeJune said...

Well, I think the reason that negative reviews have more effect than positive is simply because it shows the prospective buyer that somebody actually took the TIME and EFFORT to bad-mouth the book - as in, they found it so bad they were willing to go out of their way to tell twenty million people.
Also, authors, authors' relatives, agents, friends etc. can always post as many fantastic reviews of their own books as they like (didn't they recently discover that so many of the positive book reviews were written by the authors themselves?)
On the other hand, one can safely assume that the person giving the horrid review is not related to the author at all, so customers find they can trust negative comments more than positive.

Kristin said...

The only time I've noticed the obviously biased 5-star reviews is on POD books at Amazon. I work at a magazine for truckers, so we hear about it every time a trucker writes a POD book. I'll go check it out at Amazon and see five or six reviews that are from other POD writers or somebody's hometown folks.

I like reading Amazon reviews. I definitely consider them when I want to purchase something. I consider the Amazon reviewers more like "real people" than magazine reviewers; I feel they are more likely to share my opinion on stuff. I give the negative reviews more weight but only if they have valid points. If somebody just says, "I hated this book. It was stupid," I assume not that the book was stupid but that the reader was. Also, I consider the ratio of positive reviews to negative.

Nicholas Colt said...

I think that actually sitting down and writing a book should be a prerequisite for becoming a book reviewer. That way, the critic would be more likely to appreciate the amount of work it takes to get from once upon a time to happily ever after, and less likely to make scathing comments.


Janna of Canada said...

This study is 100% consistent with my buying habits. I take Amazon's one-star reviews (the reasonably well-written ones, that is) very seriously when considering making a book purchase. It's not that I believe the five-star reviews are hype, for all that such may sometimes be the case. Rather, it's that I find they're often of a very general "This-book-was-fantastic"; "It-kept-me-up-way-past-my-bedtime" variety (at least they are for fiction; non-fiction five-stars tend to carry a little more weight, so I read them closely as well). Plus, I already know what makes a good story, so I don't need someone else to tell me.

The negative reviews, on the other hand, tend to cut much closer to the core of a book's problems: "The characters showed no growth"; "The plot was unbelieveable"; "I don't like stories written in first-person". When reading these reviews, I look for recurring themes, and then decide how important these themes are to me as a reader: if a number of reviews complain about lack of character growth, and I enjoy strong, character-driven stories, I'll probably take a pass. On the other hand, if a number of reviews dislike the first-person and I love it, I may still give the book a shot. I rely on the Amazon reviews so much, I do the majority of my book shopping online just so I can see what people are saying. And whenever I see a book I might want to buy in an actual bookstore, I always look it up on Amazon first before taking the plunge. I even stopped using Chapters.ca (Amazon's majority competitor in Canada, where I live) because the quality of the Chapters reviews pale in comparison.

On a slightly related note, Miss Snark, I have a question about online book sales and book sales in general, if you would be so kind as to field an inquiry from a long-time lurker and first-time commenter: Do online sales count toward an author's sales record the same way bookstore sales do? How does the online price (which is often reduced) affect this? And what about online pre-orders? Also, what about bookstore sales before the book's official release date (for sometimes, a book is shelved a few days ahead of time)? This last instance, especially, I've heard doesn't always count. The reason I ask is because there are a few authors whose work I enjoy very much, and want to make sure they're fully benefitting from my patronage.

LargeCrepe said...

"What do you give me out of five?--would you give me one?"

Bernita said...

Can't agree, Nicholas. Reviews should be based on the end product, not hours and angst.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Actually, the only reviews I pay attention to tend to be professional reviews.

I've seen too many reviews on Amazon that have little to do with the book and everything to do with the reviewer's dislike of the author to take them seriously.

But professional review or not, I tend to buy a book because it looks interesting to me, not because of what somebody else thinks. Same with movies--if it gets panned, I may still see it because there are a lot of movies that get scathing reviews that I like.

Saundra Mitchell said...

I'm with you, Bernita. A pile of crap is still a pile of crap, whether it took 12 seconds or 12 years to accumulate.

AnimeJune said...

I COMPLETELY disagree with you Nicholas.
I write for Green Man Review, and every so often we get letters back from angry authors saying "Well, what do YOU know? Have YOU written a book?" Well excuuuuuse me.
That excuse is pure crap - who do you write your books for? The general public, or the small minority of the public who've written books?
You don't write books for writers - you write books for readers, and readers are just as able to tell the difference between a bad book and a good one as the next guy.

Tsavo Leone said...

Nicholas Colt said...

I think that actually sitting down and writing a book should be a prerequisite for becoming a book reviewer. That way, the critic would be more likely to appreciate the amount of work it takes to get from once upon a time to happily ever after, and less likely to make scathing comments.

I agree with the ladies: who gives a rat's *** about the time and effort involved in writing a story if the end result is akin to a product of the aforementioned rat's ***.

Those that can, do. Those that can't, teach. And the rest are simply critics of both...

Personally speaking, I write for myself for the most part, and if others like what I do then it's a bonus.

Bill Peschel said...

I don't write reviews for writers; I write reviews for readers, as a reader.

The only difference between a good reviewer and a reader is that the reviewer should be able to put into words what he or she thought about the book.

When I talk to someone about a book they've read, I try to ask what it was they really liked about the book. Most of the time, they have no idea, just that they liked the story and it left them feeling good about devoting a few irrecoverable hours to it. Which is fine, but a reviewer should do more.

Nicholas Colt said...

While I agree that a piece of crap is a piece of crap, I still maintain that someone who has written a book makes for a more fair-minded critic. You don't HAVE to play tennis to know the rules and appreciate what a difficult game it is, but it helps.

Of course I write for readers, but if someone is going to give me a bad review then said someone should have at least some sort of credentials to back it up. Otherwise, like the saying goes, if you can't say something good don't say anything at all.


Bernita said...

I see it like this:
Two babies are in a beauty contest.
The fact that one mother threw up every morning for the whole nine months and had a 36 hour labor, and the other mother breezed through pregnancy topped off with just four hours in the delivery room has nothing to do with the comparative looks of the two infants.Neither should judges be only women who have previously given birth.
Experience can also bias, and not automatically in a positive way.

Kelly said...

I'm heavily influenced by Amazon's customer reviews. I pay almost no attention to editorial reviews, since I seem to have nothing in common with those folks, and I figure their opinions are political, anyway. When I'm considering a book by an author I haven't read before, I give the customer reviews a careful read - especially if the book doesn't have the "search inside" feature enabled.

I do pay more attention to 1-stars than 5. I'm also interested in the 2s, 3s and 4s, though, because I think those tend to be the most honest. 1-stars often sound like sour grapes of one sort or another (like a homophobe complaining about a book that features 2 men in love; yes, I've seen that). And I never pay attention to Harriet Klausner. She gives everything 5 stars - even books I know are dreck because I've read them.

Of course, the longer and/or more skilfully written reviews carry more weight with me. One-liners and those with egregious misspellings, I ignore. Another thing that's helpful in determining a review's validity is to click on the "see all my reviews" link. If the reviewer only posted that one review 2 years ago, then I assume he had an ulterior motive for reviewing (i.e. a POD author's friends, or the homophobe mentioned above). On the other hand, you may be lucky enough to stumble across someone whose tastes mirror yours.

Carter said...

I agree with kelly on this. Overall, I'm very cynical about reader reviews on Amazon, B&N, etc. The majority of them give nothing useful at all. Most of the time, the 2-, 3-, or 4-star reviews are thoughtful and give good reasons for their rankings. I tend to stay away from books that look like someone is shilling them.

I usually give more weight to PW, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews, anyway.

Debra Hamel said...

This touches on a pet peeve of mine. I post a lot of reviews at Amazon, and I take the writing of them seriously--i.e., they're honest responses to what I've read--and there are, I know, a lot of other Amazon reviewers who take the task of writing customer reviews seriously. Unfortunately, there's also a big problem with fraudulent reviews on the site. The other day, for example, I posted a review of a book I'd received from a publicist. Self-published, I gather, thus not something that one would expect to be garnering very much attention. But by the time I posted my review seven others had been posted. One from Harriet Klausner (positive, of course), one negative, and the others all five-star reviews. Now, if you look at the history of each of those five-star reviewers you'd find that each of them had never reviewed another book. In other words, these reviewers had all been *so* moved by this rather bad book that they'd jumped up upon reading it and established an account at Amazon (or whatever you have to do) and written a glowing review of it.

I hate this. Either the author himself is adopting false personalities and posting reviews (which is unfortunately possible, despite Amazon's real name system), or he's inducing friends and associates to do it, or his publisher or agent is. Any way you look at it, it's deceptive. It's seeking to talk gullible Amazon customers into buying the book based on lies. It undermines the strengths of the reviewer system.

The day after I posted my negative (but very polite, mind, and I believe constructive; I'm not nasty--you can read it yourself at book-blog.com -- it's the most recent two-star book) review, three new reviews popped up. (This guy's got more readers than Dan Brown!) All of them were five-star reviews. Guess how many reviews each of these new reviewers had posted in their lifetimes?

Anyway, I wrote to the publicist who had sent me the book and mentioned the problem, but haven't heard back from her. I don't know if this is deemed acceptable practice in some circles, but it shouldn't be.

AnimeJune said...

"Of course I write for readers, but if someone is going to give me a bad review then said someone should have at least some sort of credentials to back it up."

What, so the unwashed masses are perfectly free to enjoy your book, but not to dislike it? If I read your book, and feel that the characters are underdeveloped, the writing style is florid, and the ending is forced, are my opinions worth nothing because I do not have a college degree?

Daniel Hatadi said...

The real world just ain't perfect. So a lot of five star reviews makes me go 'hmmm'. If that's peppered with a few four and a half star reviews, I'm thinking about buying.

One star reviews are mostly written very badly. "This book got what life like on Alpha Centauri all wrong." On the other hand, a well written one star will make me do that humming sound again.

Miss Snark is a four and a half star.

I'm thinking about buying her.

the chocolatier said...

I pay very little attention to the amazon.com reviews, because they have no credibility at all. For all I know, the author/publisher could be writing the 5-star and the author's bitter second grade arch-nemesis could be writing the 1-star.

I used to buy books based on their reviews, but I bought so many horrible books (the type that made me wish I had some of Ned Flander's eye cleaning fluid) that I gave up.

In general, I don't tend to buy books online, especially authors I'm not familiar with, as I usually like to read 2-10 pages in the book store to see if I like the flavour of the writing, but if I do, I confess it's usually because I've heard something about the book offline or as embarassing as it is to admit, I just like the cover.

MissWrite said...

You know... it's funny. I have three books that are available at Amazon. All of them have the majority of 5 star reviews, and I DON'T KNOW A SINGLE ONE of the reviewers. Admittedly they didn't get a huge number of reviews, but small press, no pub, etc... none-the-less, don't automatically assume lots of good reveiws means the author did it themselves (I didn't), or had friends do it... nope on that one too.

Oh, and for the record, one of those books did get one nasty review... oh well, such is life.

Debra Hamel said...

Hi, MissWrite. I'm not sure if what you wrote is a response to me or not. I don't assume that all five-star reviews are bogus. Far from it. But take this recent example: a self-published book gets three five-star reviews overnight from people who have never written an amazon review before? (And this immediately after I post a negative review.) It's deeply suspicious. For one thing, as you suggest, small press books aren't likely to get that many reviews, and certainly not overnight. So I think you'll agree that it's problematic.

I am in fact a big fan of the Amazon review system, and historically I have based a lot of buying decisions on the reviews. That's why I hate to see it perverted.

MissWrite said...

Debra: I was not pointing at you specifically. Several posters made similar comments. Yes, it's true. It happens. It's not nice. (I sound like my mother... ick.) It just isn't necessarily true in all cases. Assuming that, because it happens, it's always the case isn't playing fair either.

That's all. In the grand scheme of things, I stand by what I said in my first response. As a reader, I don't much care what others have said about the book. Biased, or not, it's still just a person's opinion that may not jibe with my own. As an author, I like good reveiws. LOL

Debra Hamel said...

"As a reader, I don't much care what others have said about the book."

I kind of agree with you on this. What I want to know from a review is what sort of book it is--is the plot something I care for, a sense of what the writing is like. The reviewer's opinion of the book is in a sense secondary.

Negative reviews can provide interesting information: I'll look to see what the reviewer didn't like about a book to see if it's a deal breaker for me; the alleged flaw might in fact be something that doesn't bother me at all.

I actually don't like, and rarely read, reviews that discuss a book in the context of its author's oeuvre, say. I want to know about *this* book and whether it's worth my time.

"As an author, I like good reveiws."

I agree there too!

lady t said...

Reviews are tricky devils-I've reviewed books for my blog and so far,the writers are happy about it(haven't heard from Anne Rice yet...)and I also contribute bookseller's qoutes to the Booksense Picks(Booksense puts out a monthly list of
recommended titles that you can check out at their website or pick up a flier at a Booksense member indie store). I've heard many stories about the Amazon reader reviews but my take on that and other reviews is this: if the review has some good content(i.e,actually talking about the pros/cons of the work in question)and the reviewer is not beating you
over the head with their own personal agenda*cough*Liza Schwarzbaum*cough*,it's worth paying attention to.

One of the best critics was Pauline Kael-even when you disagreed with her,atleast you could see where she was coming from.

Anonymous said...

I understand some of the points made about the Amazon review system, and I think that there has been some good advice given on how to spot phony (author or publisher induced) reviews. Unfortunately, for self-published authors, this is one of the only ways people can get information on the quality of our work. It is tremendously difficult to get space in bookstores and just about every review site posts a message similar to "self-published, don't bother submitting your title."

I have seen a number of self-published works that are abominations, but there are some serious writers, who rely on the Amazon system for readers to tell each other what they thought of the book.

I make a point of asking every reader I meet at a book signing to post a review if they enjoyed the book as a way of helping me get the word out. To date, I have four 5-star reviews of my book. 3 of the people I have never met and the other was a friend who was trying to "help".

Given my choice, I'd prefer to have dozens of professional reviewers sounding my praises (and shortcomings) to the reading community, but the Amazon system is all that many of us have to rely on until our books garner some recognition.

My advice to readers is to read reviews with a critical eye and then read sample chapters online.

CJ West
Author, Sin and Vengeance