Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Fix Amazon’s Book-Rating System

So, writers have all heard the hullabaloo going on for the past month (?) about other writers buying positive book reviews for themselves and leaving negative book reviews for their competitors with anonymous accounts.

Despite the fact that this argument still “rages” and has caused me to unsubscribe to some very prominent publishing blogs, there seems to be one issue that we can all agree on: Amazon’s rating system is useless for books. This was obvious to me before all the corruption was brought out into the open. Well before authors started confessing to behavior ranging from shady to evil, I stopped paying any attention to the book reviews on Amazon. It was apparent that for a lot of books, most of the reviews were fake, left by family, friends, publishing-industry marketers, I dunno. But way too positive.

And I really rely on reviews for most things. I rarely even watch a movie on Netflix Instant without seeing what other people think of it first, because it’s so easy to waste a whole afternoon on 15 minutes worth of one piece of shit after the other. So for me to start ignoring book reviews, the system has to be really screwed. When I do pay attention, it’s usually 1. for free stuff and 2. the negative reviews, which is why one of the most evil and least empathetic things I can think of for a writer to do is leave a false 1-star for another writer. I assume the 30 5-stars are fake and the few 1-stars calling out poor editing, thin characters and unbelievable plot are true, even if no specifics are mentioned. Why? Because most people can’t write and everyone can publish, so I believe the worst.

The thing is, the fix is so easy that I don’t know why the situation has gotten to this point.

If you’re not a writer, you might not know that a lot of writers consider readers at goodreads, librarything and shelfari to be much tougher critics than the readers at amazon. No, they’re not! Yes, books consistently get a lower average rating, but it’s not because the readers are tougher. It’s because they’re rating every single book they read.

I have a terrible memory. Before I self-published, I used goodreads to keep track of every book I’d read. Some readers use Goodreads and the like sites to connect to other readers and socialize and tell people which books they think are good and which aren’t. I used it to keep track of what I’d read because I’d constantly forget. I wish I’d started keeping track back in grade school (not on Goodreads, obviously). A lot of people use goodreads the way I once did.

People rate on amazon because they loved or hated something, and if they purchased inside a favorite genre, the scale shifts dramatically away from hate, just by the book following conventions and being about something they like. So people either don’t leave reviews because the book was meh, or leave positive reviews. Add that to friends and family, and suddenly your amazon average is way higher than your goodreads average, where people recording every book they read are as likely to go to the trouble to rate something 2 or 3 stars as 4 or 5.

So your reviews at these sites are far more likely to reflect what people who read in your genre really think of your book on average. These readers aren’t tougher (they’re the same people). They’re just more consistent at leaving their opinions. So you also get a LOT more reviews.

And that’s how Amazon fixes its book reviewing system. They bought Shelfari in 2008. Even if they don’t import the actual reviews, they need to list a shelfari 5-star system right beside their amazon 5-star system, with numbers of each star rating (2,451 3-star ratings), and an average. These systems are much harder to game because the number of reviews is so much greater.

The other fix would be to give people an incentive to review more on Amazon. This would get people leaving reviews of books they’d otherwise just have said, “meh” about. The benefit of this over Shelfari is that the incentive would only be for reviews of verified purchases. The drawback is that it would cost whatever the incentive is, be it $0.10 towards an ebook for each review or whatever.

There you go. I’m a goddamn genius.

By the way, I’m not interested in arguing the morality of fake reviews. Luckily, this blog is my platform and not a public forum and I’ll delete the hell out of whatever comments I like.



The internet doesn’t really tempt me into procrastination. I don’t even know how people get addicted to Facebook. I must not be using it right. But Cracked.com gets me. Those lists! I LOVE LISTS. This morning, I spent about an hour of time I should have been writing browsing cracked. This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on there: 15 Old Photographs That Prove the World Used to Be Insane


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