Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Post about Amazon reviews : One Year

I've been reviewing on Amazon for over a year now; my first review was of "Plant Life," by Cedar Sanderson, a member of The Mad Genius Club as well as the Evil League of Evil, on July 6, 2014. So, I missed my birthday.
I knew nothing of the significance of Amazon reviews, but a small amount of investigation (meaning I asked a frakken question, not hours in the library) disclosed that authors who publish on Amazon have their books rated on how popular they are. Therefore, good reviews are a sort of rarified currency for authors: lots of reviews means high ranking, high ranking means more visibility, more visibility means more sales, more sales means royalties. And Amazon evidently gives bodacious royalties, compared to traditional publishers, and this has encouraged many more people to write books and publish them independently. And since there are more books, it's harder to get noticed, hence the need for reviews.
Now, when I was a lad, I used to wish I didn't have to work, and could spend all my time reading. Lo and behold, this is EXACTLY the circumstances I found myself in. Time enough at last, and unlike Burgess Meredith, I did not need glasses (laser surgery in 1999 at Woodham's in Atlanta). But, books are expensive, even e-books, even though Gutenberg and Open Library provide freebies. Fortunately, Baen provided me with a VIP pass, since I am permanently and totally disabled, so I had that access to current work. However, watching the discussion among the Mad Geniuses, I discovered there was a program called Kindle Unlimited Lending Library, where for the paltry sum of $9.95 per month, I could borrow as many books as I wished, PROVIDED of course that the author had elected to place them in the KU program. I resolved to join that program, and to read works by the authors in MGC, and to review those works on Amazon. My reviews were to be impeccably honest; if I did not like what I read, I would say so, and why.
Now, I had another reason for writing the reviews, other than to promote the books, which was to provide meaningful feedback to authors.
 For my entire professional career, I was known as the go-to guy when something needed to be written: reports, grant proposals, and colleagues' dissertations. The Wordsmith, they called me, a title I bore with pride. I always had in the back of my mind that one day I would turn my hand to fiction, and write wonderful novels. But when I started to write fiction, I sent up a trial balloon: a short story, expandable into a novel, which I submitted to publishers and agents, all of whom responded with "doesn't meet our needs at this time." I never got one word of criticism, constructive or otherwise, and it was frustrating to realize that I didn't even know if they read what I wrote. So, upon the advice of the experienced writers, I submitted my work for perusal on a slush-pile forum, the work to be critiqued by others participating in the forum. The first response I got addressed some grammatical errors. I fixed those, and re-submitted. Here is every single word of feedback I got on the story I was pinning my hopes on:

"Seems fine."
Yup. That's it. two words. Not to knock it; at least that person, PBUH, took the time to give two words.
So, I contemplated. See, the deal was that it really wasn't so important to me that my writing was GREAT!!!! and MARVELOUS!!!! and a BEST SELLER!!!!! because my kids were raised, and I had  decent pension and social security, so I did NOT need to sell books in order to eat. What I really wanted was someone to TELL ME WHAT THEY THOUGHT ABOUT MY WORK.
And as I contemplated, I realized that was probably true for the MGC members and friends as well.  They desired money, fer shure, but being human, they also desired meaningful feedback. In fact, any number of them had explicitly stated that this was the case, that they preferred a meaningful 3-star review over a 5-star "Great read!" review.
So, mostly, that's what I've been doing. 120 reviews on Amazon, 114 posts here on my blog, and while there have been exceptions on my blog (like this post), it's all done to promote the works of authors, and provide them with meaningful review.
And MOST (not all) of those reviews are from books obtained through KU. Not counting other Amazon purchases, I have paid $90 thus far (since last November, when I joined KU) for the privilege of reading. That's less than a buck a book. It's been a good deal.
Then, last month, two things changed. The first change was with the way authors were paid for books in KU, which didn't directly impact me. For the authors, though, instead of being paid a flat rate after 10% of their work was read, they are now being paid proportionally to the number of pages read (for some value of 'pages').
The second change, which does have somewhat of an impact on me, is a change in the way books are ranked. From now on, books will be ranked based on
1. the 'freshness' of a review,
2. on whether the reviewer is a Verified Purchaser  (and KU isn't a VP)
3. on the helpfulness of the reviewer, based on the number of helpful votes the reviewer receives.
Now, in the past, my reviewer ranking has not mattered to me one bit. I noticed it, but paid no attention to it. My first review gave me a ranking of 14 million. I have climbed recently into the mid 40 thousands. And it didn't matter. I wasn't even sure what went into reviewer ranking; was it number of reviews written? 'Helpful' votes? Reviews in different areas? Didn't know. Didn't particularly care.
But now, it DOES matter, because my ranking has an impact on the author's book ranking.
And so, I find myself knocking on doors, selling greeting cards   asking authors and internet friends for 'helpful' votes on my reviews. I really don't want to do that, BUT if I am to best promote these works, I need the highest rating I can get.
Full disclosure: based on what I have discovered in the past two days, top Amazon reviewers are offered swag to review. Some comes through the Amazon Vine program, some directly from vendors. I am not requesting 'helpful' votes so I can get swag. (I doubt it's very GOOD swag, anyway.)
There is not much we can do about the fact that KU reviews don't have the same weight as Verified Purchase reviews. I rather think this is a short-term error; it's my understanding that Amazon is trying to eliminate bogus reviews, which appear to have been a problem. Reviews of a book obtained through KU still count, they just don't count as much as a verified purchase review; we hope this will change. In the future, though, I will make the appropriate designation on all my reviews of KU books.
A final note: I have just flipped through six paged of my reviews, and y'all, I have written some EXCELLENT ca-ca there that has not received a SINGLE helpful vote. Shall I call you at home?
A really, really final note: I read books because it is my format for experiencing wonder. Whether I review or not, I will read. And whether I get helpful; votes or not, I will review.


  1. I often had this happen to me when I reviewed extensively on Amazon, Pat. I'd write a thoughtful review, and get no feedback whatsoever. No helpful votes, even...I never did understand why this was, either, because if I was willing to read a book and think about it critically, didn't that mean something?

    Since then, I've noticed this phenomenon over at Shiny Book Review, too. Sometimes the most thoughtful reviews get read extensively, but no one says anything whatsoever. (Granted, at SBR, it is not essential for a ranking to be upheld. The work is the work, and so long as we do the work and keep doing the work, that's all that matters.)

    I think sometimes the reason no one says anything is because I've done my job.

    But I also think people are tired, stressed out, working too much for too little pay, and they don't have much time to give constructive criticism. People will say something if it's really awful, sometimes, but if they like it, they just give it a "like" and move on (and sometimes don't even give it a like, or it's not recorded even if they did give it...sigh).

    I've been a Vine Reviewer in the past; I haven't been active now for two-plus years because of my own writing and editing. (I only have so many hours in the day, so most of my reviews have been because of work I've done at SBR. Sometimes I will review a book I think is extremely outstanding even if I don't review it at SBR, but that's rare; usually I am going to review it at SBR and do so in a week, or I have already reviewed it at SBR and then review it again at Amazon.)

    Finally, Pat, I'm glad you have picked up Kindle Unlimited. It's because of people like you that I put my four novellas into KDP and hope people will find 'em...though so far, I haven't had a whole lot of luck.

  2. I'd encourage you to remove most of your bloggy bits from your reviews and shorten them substantially. Most readers of reviews want about a paragraph or two and won't read much more than that unless they find the topic compelling. Just a suggestion. :)

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