Customer Book Reviews – Can’t Live With ’em, Can’t Live Without ’em

Twenty years ago, we would stand in our favorite aisle in the bookstore, hoping to select a few good books.  There weren’t nearly as many books to choose from back then – we only had to choose from the limited selection of books that the publishing houses deemed fit for us to read.  If there were any reviews to guide us, they were printed in newspapers and magazines.  We didn’t have customer opinions to help impact our buying decision – unless friends or family happened to have read the book.  The only customer reviews that we saw in the bookstore were the biased quotes and testimonials that appeared on the cover and on the first pages.  If you wanted to express your opinion, you had to have your own printed article.

How times have changed!  Now we can sit in our PJ’s and sip coffee while browsing for books online.  Customers express their opinions and even rate the books on a scale of one (*) to five (*****) stars in customer book reviews.  Everyone has an opinion, and anyone is free to share it.  You don’t have to be an expert to be a critic.  In fact, experts are often ineligible – since other authors who have expertise writing in the same genre are not allowed to review books in that genre.  For example, who would be better qualified to review a sci-fi book than someone who has been both reading and writing sci-for for thirty years?

But that’s okay.  We’re not really looking for experts to tell us what we should or shouldn’t read.  We want to know if we will enjoy the book or not, so we look at the opinions of other customers like ourselves.  So when we pull up a few pages of search results, we look at two things – price and rating.  Naively, we expect five star (*****) books to be awesome and one star (*) books to be awful.  After all, five stars (*****) means you love it, three stars (***) is neutral, and one star (*) means you hate it.

Then we find some of our favorite books online and see that they have three stars (***).  Why don’t the books we used to love have rave reviews?  Then we buy some five star (*****) books and learn that some don’t live up to our expectations.  Experience tells us not to rely solely on the rating.

Next we start reading the reviews.  This is when it really gets interesting.  Five people can say, “It’s the best book ever,” while three others can say, “Don’t buy it.  It stinks,” and yet everyone is talking about the same book.  This is characteristic of most books that have dozens of reviews.  Best-selling established writers who have hundreds of reviews often have a rating from three (***) to four (****) stars, including several customers who hate it and love it.  People form a wide variety of opinions, and some people like to disagree.  This is definitely reflected in the reviews.

So how do you know whom to believe?  You can discount any review that doesn’t provide a good reason for why they love it or hate it.  You can also discount anything that isn’t useful.  But you may still be left with plenty of reasons to read it or pass on it.  These days we can make well-informed buying decisions.  Too bad so much of the information is conflicting!

If you appreciate the struggle of sorting through these conflicting reviews as a customer, just imagine the emotional state of the author who only has a few customer reviews.  The fate of the self-published author, especially, often hinges upon every review.  If one of the first reviewers leaves one star (*), the poor author feels crushed.  This must be a tough blow after putting so much time, effort, and thought into a book to be shared with the rest of the world.  If you come across a book that has a single one star (*) review, would you buy it?  If a book has 100 reviews, we know that we will personally disagree with many of them; but for some reason, if a book has a single one star (*) review, instinctively we trust that review and avoid that book.

The books with just a few reviews are tough for both customers and authors.  The authors need more reviews to help customers judge whether or not the book suits them.  Potential customers also want more reviews for the same reason.  If a book has three reviews, it pretty much doesn’t matter what the rating is, it will be difficult to judge the reliability of the reviews.  For example, some customers shy away from a book that has three five star (*****) reviews because it seems suspicious.  Maybe these were all friends of the author..?

Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of books are actually reviewed.  Just look at the bestsellers.  A book that has sold tens of thousands of copies may only have hundreds of reviews.  Very often, one out of a few hundred customers will actually take a few moments to express his or her opinion.  That’s fine for popular books.  Once a book has a hundred reviews, another review isn’t going to matter much.  But when a book only has a few reviews, every review is critical – for both the author and for other customers.

If a book has dozens of reviews, that’s a sign that the book has been purchased frequently – at least, it appears to have been good enough for several other customers to try.  As long as the system hasn’t been abused.  The idea behind the customer review process is to provide an assortment of honest feedback about the book in order to help other potential customers make more informed purchasing decisions.  Unfortunately, the system can also be abused in a variety of ways, such as shill, sham, and paid reviews.  A small percentage of authors have created multiple accounts to leave themselves reviews, get family members and other parties who have a financial interest in the book to leave reviews, or even pay others to leave book reviews.  This practice hurts customers and all of the scrupulous authors.  Customers and authors alike need for the customers to be able to trust the system.

Personally, I’ll take the many conflicting reviews – which often times are entertaining to read – and occasional abuse of the system – versus sitting in the bookstore aisle completely uninformed about the books.  If you want to improve the system, the answer is pretty obvious:  If you happen to read a book that doesn’t have hundreds of reviews, take a moment to voice your opinion.  But beware!  If someone doesn’t like your opinion, you may get a No vote under, “Was this review helpful to you?”  We not only express our opinions on the book itself, but we even express our opinions on the opinions!  Have an opinion on that?

– Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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