I hate Amazon’s review system. I consider it a trash fire sitting on top of another garbage fire lit by trolls and paid reviews. The reasons are numerous.
I dislike the 5-star system. It’s too simplistic and doesn’t offer the user an option to rate the Amazon delivery experience separately from the product experience. Thus, when a book is received damaged, which happens and for which Amazon should be called out, the book gets a 1-star review. Did the book deserve the 1 star for content? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know.
I dislike how one-dimensional the system is. My reviews often integrate multimedia (anything from tweets to videos to images). Those media don’t function on the Amazon system well. Much of my content would be lost in translation. Why would I bother with a system that’s not designed to integrate the technology that quite frankly is basic for any other platform?
But, it’s more than usability. It’s the reviewers themselves.
I’ve seen books doxed with 1-star reviews by troll armies hell-bent on downgrading the book so that no one will buy it. (A strategy that often backfires.) I’ve seen a reviewer literally say he had not read the book and then insult the author by calling her a traitorous bitch. I have seen reviewers give a 1 star to books because they did not receive bookmarks. I recently reported one guy for describing how he masturbated to Chetan Bhagat’s latest book (a book that contains exactly 0 sex scenes). Eww.
I have seen 5-star reviews by people I knew were the author’s friends. I have seen 5-star reviews by “people” I was pretty sure were fake paid reviews. I have seen book bloggers give almost identical reviews for different books, leading me to believe they hadn’t read either book.
The list goes on.
Moreover, early in my reviewing experience, I had a review plagiarized on Goodreads. Although the two systems are separate, they are related, and my experience with Goodreads made me want to avoid the Amazon system. When I reported the plagiarism, Goodreads took the review down, but the experience showed me how little oversight exists. My trust in the system was broken that day.
And yet, people use Amazon reviews to make their buying decisions. According to a recent USA Today article, 20% of sales are driven by reviews. Despite the issues I cited earlier, consumers consider Amazon reviews among the most trustworthy. So trustworthy that people check the Amazon reviews while standing in Best Buy, which has its own online review system.
Conventional wisdom says that your book needs 50 Amazon reviews to become a bestseller. I’ve never liked this wisdom as I consider reviews a lagging indicator of sales, not a leading one. People review products after buying them, not before. If you sell enough units, people will write reviews. Book bloggers can help push the number of initial reviews up by reviewing shortly after release through blog tours, but your typical consumer won’t do that. If you want honest reviews written by real readers, you need to sell your book first. After all, 20% of sales from reviews means 80% of sales are from something else. Like digital marketing, traditional advertising, word of mouth, and those in-app pop-up suggestions from Amazon that tell me to read Preeti Shenoy and Ashok Banker. You get the idea.
Furthermore, my skepticism about Amazon reviews stems from my own review reading habits. I write book reviews on my website, but I don’t read Amazon reviews. I look at the cover, read the blurb, and (if available) read the sample. If I read the Amazon reviews, it’s for amusement or to learn about consumer sentiment, not to make buying decisions.
So, why in the hell would I decide to finally jump into the trash fire?
Because it’s cold in Philly right now and a fire sounds toasty warm?
No…because I’ve been thinking about this move for a while.
I realized that it was time to let go of my anger about the plagiarism. It wasn’t Goodreads’ fault, and they did fix it.
It’s also time for me to speak my truth and stand in my power. You see, I am a college-educated white woman. That makes me part of a powerful book buying demographic. For the record, black women in America are the most powerful readers. But, when it comes to sales, my demographic dominates. At least for now. That seems to be changing, but while it’s still the case, I want to use my power to amplify the voices of people of color—and especially women. Amazon reviews help me do that. As much as I dislike them and their limitations, those reviews have a much larger audience than my blog or YouTube channel.
Over the last few months, I have followed two marketing campaigns closely. The first for The Girl in Room 105 by Chetan Bhagat. The second for Eating Wasps by Anita Nair. Eating Wasps released just a couple of weeks before The Girl in Room 105. Both books were from established bestsellers and published by Westland (an Amazon company). Yet, the books and their marketing campaigns were significantly different.
Bhagat’s was the best campaign of his career and totally over the top. It featured contests and major cross-promotions. Nair’s was a more traditional campaign relying heavily on reviews in major newspapers with a strong assist from social media and lit fest appearances. The question I asked while monitoring the campaigns was whether they would work interchangeably.
The answer is no. Their audiences are too different. Bhagat’s young, urban fanbase went wild for the #RideWithChetan promotion. And his trolls went even wilder. Now, try to imagine a #RideWithAnita campaign for this book. You can’t, can you? Neither can I. Nair’s literary fiction fanbase would be unimpressed by such shenanigans. That tactic might work for the next Gowda book, but not for this one. This book requires a sensitive approach, not only to the content, but to the marketing.
Nair’s reliance on newspaper reviews reflects where her audience lives, and what they consider when making buying decisions. Newspapers matter to this audience, whether they consume the content physically or virtually. In truth, Nair had so much buzz in newspapers that she probably didn’t need my Amazon review to create buzz for the book in India.
But I decided to check out the Amazon reviews anyway. The Girl in Room 105 had 1000+ in India and 13 in the US. Eating Wasps had 11 reviews in India and 1 in the US. This disparity left me stunned. But still hesitant.
Then Kiran Manral tweeted her best of 2018 list.
Eating Wasps by @anitanairauthor
All The Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy
Pyjamas Are Forgiving by @mrsfunnybones
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
The Rakta Queen by @shwetawrites
Shooting Star by @shivya
Feminist Rani by @shailichopra and @MeghnaPant
Lethal White by @jk_rowling https://t.co/IO9n43Jb4z
— Kiran Manral (@KiranManral) November 24, 2018
Eating Wasps sat right at the top, in the exact place I would put it. My research indicated that Eating Wasps’ sales ranking was significantly lower in the US than in India. Although not a surprise, the difference was so significant that it angered me. The book had meant a lot to me, and I wanted it to mean a lot to others.
And so I decided to take my first steps into the world of Amazon reviews.
- Opened my Amazon app and created a proper profile. With a photo and everything!
- Located the original review on my Facebook profile.
- Copied and pasted the review into the app.
- Edited the review slightly because one of the sentences no longer made sense out of context.
- Created a blurb-worthy headline.
And presto! Now, Eating Wasps has 2 reviews on Amazon.com. Yeah!
You can read the review here: