An American Editor

June 16, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books — the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review  to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, “2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better  chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

9 Comments »

  1. Brilliant, Rich! I love your suggestions!

    Comment by Kris — June 16, 2010 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

  2. I’m a non-fiction ebook self-publisher and as you indicate, my book is just another straw in multiple haystacks. Impossible for people to “discover” unless they’re looking for it. Getting the word out about my book is the main challenge, finding an audience is second and getting people to preview the book is third. Would a review help? Certainly! But in my mind, only a review by a well-respected guru on my subject matter or some popular Internet personality will generate more sales. I could be wrong of course, but that’s my perception.

    Comment by Mister Reiner — June 16, 2010 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  3. My gripe with the “official” big players in the world of book reviews has been that too many reviews spend half the space on information about the subject of the book or its author, and far too little on whether the book is any good. I think a legit review should include all of the points you suggest. I certainly would read such reviews.

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 16, 2010 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

    • I agree that too often (and this is my biggest complaint with reviews of almost anything in the New York Times) it is difficult to tell whether the reviewer thought the book was good, bad, or indifferent. I don’t mind all the information provided on the subject in reviews of nonfiction books — in fact, that is one of the things I really like about reviews in The New York Review of Books and (now) the Jewish Review of Books — as long as it is clear whether the book is better than, as good as, or worse than other books in the same subject area. But I’ve never quite cottoned to all of the information being provided in reviews of fiction books. Unlike nonfiction books that should be compared to other books on the same subject, I think each fiction book should stand or fail on its own merits. I also think that in the case of fiction higher emphasis needs to be placed on originality and readability, whereas for nonfiction books the highest emphasis should be placed on the scholarship followed by accessibility.

      Comment by americaneditor — June 16, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  4. What I find fascinating in your post is how clearly you indicate that you are part of the problem. Obviously you write–this blog post is evidence of that–an yet you’ve completed nearly no reviews afterwards.

    I write and publish on the eBook market. My stories are light adult erotic fantasy and science fiction and getting someone to even click on a Fictionwise 1-4 rating, or Amazon 1-5 stars is rare. So much so that I’ve started adding an afterward to my latest titles encouraging an honest rating of the book. We’ll see how well that works out.

    One idea that you haven’t suggested above is the Netflix model. Netflix aggressively solicits customer ratings. When you return a movie you get an e-mail asking how much you liked it and allowing a feedback right there. And on the site it shows your last few rentals and whether or not you’ve rated them yet. You can also write 2000 character reviews, of which I’ve written dozens. The pay off for Netflix users is that your ratings are used to suggest other movies you might also like.

    So Netflix makes it easy to rate the specific movie you’ve just rented, whether you’ve watched it or not, and gives you something in return (recommendations) for having done so. This is their alternative to Amazon’s Customers who bought this book also bought… recommendation feature.

    Perhaps if Amazon and Fictionwise presented you with a list of your recent, unrated, purchases and all you had to do was click your feeling about that book you’d at least get more ratings. And make the comments box easier to find since most people never return to the page of a book that they’ve already purchased.

    The real question, however, is: So what would it take to get “you” to write more reviews? Whatever can encourage you to write more of them might work with other people as well.

    –D.B. Story

    Comment by D. B. Story — June 20, 2010 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  5. Rich–

    Once again, thank you for the kind mention.

    I think you’re identifying an legitimate concern for the small, independently published or e-published author like myself. We are lost in a sea of other authors. The major genre authors whose backlists are now flooding the big third party online retailers like Fictionwise and Amazon are choking off the bestseller lists, consigning authors without that name recognition scores of pages down on the site. Only a reader actively looking for us can find us. Review sites with enough clout to impact book sales focus upon the works of authors published through major houses. Many sites have a ‘no e-book’ policy right from the get go and hundreds of independent books mildew on the shelves while reviewers concentrate upon the big names. It’s difficult to garner the reviews you need to build a readership even with fists full of four and five starred reviews from smaller sites. Unless you have that PW or NYT or RT recognition, it all goes for naught. It takes time for us to work our way into the readers’ notice, time taken away from our writing and editing and focused instead upon any kind of promotional activity that will encourage a reader to try something new–something a little risky.

    It is a risk when you purchase a book from an author you’ve never heard of, published by a small house you’ve never heard of. Is this e-published book going to fall into the stereotypical poorly edited, poorly written, one step up from a vanity or self-pubbed nightmare? Or, is this new author going to be one who’s either fallen through the cracks of traditional publishing or, like me, is working diligently on his craft in order to gain the notice of those major publishers? A few years ago, I think the former was more often the case than the latter. But e-publishers in particular have matured, the stories e-publishers are turning out are of higher quality, with greater attention paid to detail and there are scores of talented, as-of-yet unknown writers publishing darn good stories who can’t get reviewed.

    That’s why the attention you’ve paid to my work is so much more important than the customer ratings on the distributors–because it’s unexpected and it orginates from a source that the average reader will lend more credence to than a casual click on a star rating. It’s the kind of mention a writer in my position craves–and very rarely gets.

    Comment by Celina Summers — June 23, 2010 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

  6. I agree that review systems are flawed, but I am not sure about a couple of your suggestions, specifically:

    (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book.

    What about people who got it from a library, or at another store that is not affiliated with the review site? If I buy a book in an actual brick and mortar store, I should still be able to review it on Amazon. Providing proof of any such transaction would just cause even more people to not review.

    (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book.

    The problem here is that it would have to be so generic anyone could guess (or get it from the blurb or even other reviews), or people would become frustrated by not remembering the detail they are asking about. My mom reads a lot – she doesn’t always remember all the main character’s names – that doesn’t mean she can’t write an informed review on the book. And if the answer can be guessed from other reviews, you are just adding another step to a process most people already avoid.

    However, I do think these suggestions would add great value to reviewing:

    (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review.

    A coupon, or even the offer of a signed book plate could help. But I agree with DB Story’s comment…what would get YOU to rite a review when you admit that you rarely make the effort? Because writing a thoughtful review is an effort. It takes time, energy and experience to write well done reviews. I do it for many reasons: to help authors find an audience, to help readers find books, and to make reading a social experience.

    (5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling…

    I could not agree more. This is critical because small press and POD books are not the only victims of poor grammar and editing. I have found this in big publisher, NY Times Bestselling books as well, and to me that is more unforgivable than the small independently published works. This also helps sort between genres. Erotica is not exactly known for deep plots, so what distinguishes good erotic books from the rest? It’s amazing to me that Amazon already does this for toys and games, why not books?

    Comment by J'aime Maynard — June 24, 2010 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  7. [...] problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the [...]

    Pingback by Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance? « An American Editor — July 6, 2010 @ 6:42 am | Reply

  8. Asking readers to post up well-thought out reviews might be asking too much of the average reader.

    I think some kind of incentive would be required to get people to post reviews. It’s somewhat of a hassle to sit down and form coherent thoughts about a book. The majority of the readers out there just don’t have the time for it. If you do get a review, I think the one-word answers might be some of the best you will get from the masses.

    One idea I have been mulling over when I get my book published is to offer a free short-story related to my book that I’ll email to anyone who links me to their amazon review. It offers an incentive and I hope given the personal nature of me emailing them directly they’ll be more likely to give a positive review online and talk about it with their friends.

    I currently post reviews of all books I read on Goodreads, Amazon, and my blog. I read 2-3 books and short stories per week, and this eats up a lot of time. Time I should be spent writing my own book, reading, or even better, spending with my family. I do it as a sort of pay-it-forward thing, hoping karma will come back to me from my good will.

    Comment by Tom Hansen — August 17, 2010 @ 3:57 pm | Reply


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