Dear Authors: On Amazon’s Editorial Reviews

Yesterday I stumbled across this blog post about Amazon’s practice of putting editorial reviews (from Publishers Weekly and similar mags) above the book description on Amazon pages. The post’s author notes:

You may already know that book reviews can be extremely sweet, or bitter as a mouthful of moth balls. You may also know that a bad review can sit on your book page, festering, scaring readers away until it falls out of sight. But did you know there are some reviews that can be posted to the “Editorial Review” section of your Amazon book page without your consent?

I get that it’s frustrating to have these reviews show up before the product description; it certainly seems counter-productive. However, I had a growing sense of irritation with how the blogger presented this, and eventually I realized why.

An author who thinks that a bad review is going to sink their sales is an author who’s assuming readers are stupid.

Now, as a reader I agree that it’s ridiculous to have editorial reviews above the product description, but it has NOTHING to do with how the reviews might affect my buying decision. Instead, it’s because I have no interest in those reviews, and certainly not before I know anything about the book. I skip right past them to the product description because I want to know what the damn book is about. I’m far from the only reader who does this, so while the reviews should be annoying from the author’s perspective, they shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world.

Now, let’s get to the other problem in the quoted paragraph up there. The assumption that a negative review “can sit on your book page, festering, scaring readers away”. Let me go back to the above point: you are assuming your readers are stupid. Readers are perfectly capable of reading a negative review and taking away from it, NOT “that person hates a book so I guess I would too,” but rather EITHER “this reviewer’s view tends to match mine/be the opposite of mine, so I’ll react accordingly” OR “this reviewer didn’t like a, b, or c, and those are things that bother me too/don’t bother me, so I’d not enjoy/enjoy this myself.”

I’m not just blowing hot air here. I have a reviews site that’s been active for years. I get to see the Amazon stats on which books sell via click-throughs and which don’t. Guess what? It has nothing to do with the rating I gave those books. People are reading the reviews and deciding for themselves via the details I provide whether they would like a book. Plenty of those click-through buys are of books I didn’t like. I’ve had people tell me straight out, “X doesn’t bother me the way it does you, so I’ll give this book a try; thanks for the info!”

I can tell you right now that the truly wise book PR people are quite well aware that reviews, no matter whether positive or negative, sell books as long as the reviewer explains her thoughts and feelings. When dealing with Penguin (they have some of the most professional PR folk I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with), I’ve sometimes found myself getting MORE of an author’s books after coming down hard on one of that author’s novels. Why? Because a strong negative opinion engenders discussion, which attracts attention, which gets the author’s name in front of more people, which sells books.

Sure, there will always be a few people who blindly do what a review tells them to, but frankly that works for you more than against you. More people tend to review books that they like than ones they don’t (the latter are just more memorable for you as authors). By and large, readers will read what they want to. They read reviews to get an idea of whether a book matches their needs. When you talk about a negative review destroying your sales, you are giving the reviewer far more power than she actually has, and you are assuming that your readers are fools who cannot think for themselves. Don’t do this if you want these people to buy your books—assume they can make their own decisions and act accordingly.

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