Friday, November 27, 2009

It only took a decade, but ...

Back in June 1998, I met with the then-manager of author relations for at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle. It was an opportunity to tell her what was wrong with's online book-review system (in my humble opinion), which had been thrust into the marketplace without any consultation with writers' groups.

I outlined numerous difficulties with the way the system was then set up, including most egregiously that although the author has the guts to put his or her name one what he or she wrote, reviewers could hide behind pseudonyms, and there wasn't any way to verify that they even owned the book in question.

One by one, Amazon has slowly but surely come around to agreeing with me on each of the points I raised. They added a "Real Name" flag to reviews the authorship of which could be verified, and now they've finally added a flag that proves, within the limits of their abilities to verify the information, that the reviewer actually owns the book (or product) in question, something they're calling Verified Purchase Reviews, described thus:
When a product review is marked "Amazon Verified Purchase," it means that the customer who wrote the review purchased the item at Customers can add this label to their review only if we can verify the item being reviewed was purchased at Customers reading an Amazon Verified Purchase review can use this information to help them decide which reviews are most helpful in their purchasing decisions.

If a review is not marked Amazon Verified Purchase, it doesn't mean that the reviewer has no experience with the product – it just means we couldn't verify that it had been purchased at Amazon. They may have purchased the item elsewhere or had some other interaction with it. If we could somehow validate their experience with the product, we certainly would. The Amazon Verified Review label offers one more way to help gauge the quality and relevance of a product review.
Only took eleven years, but, hey, we SF writers are always ahead of the curve ;)
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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At November 27, 2009 4:14 PM , Blogger g d townshende said...

I see all sorts of horrendous reviews at Amazon, including reviewers who accuse the author of posting anonymous reviews and/or having their friends and relatives stuffing the review "ballot boxes" in their favor. It's ridiculous.

I've reviewed books I've not bought at Amazon, but I never review something I've never actually read. Also, my reviews always show my real name.

Although I'm not published... yet... (well, no fiction I should say; I've a handful of non-fiction credits) I've sometimes defended fellow writers against some of the things I've seen posted by others. I probably shouldn't let things like that bother me as much as they do.

At November 29, 2009 5:25 PM , Blogger brian_l_raney said...

With a love of reading books, I have always found it hard to give anyone a bad review unless they really deserve it, and then I am careful to limit my criticism on what matters and not just trivial matters of style. Although, I must admit, with all the good books I have read, it hard to find a bad book worth reviewing.

I thought people would rather review the good books they read over the bad ones first, but it seem some people only want to review the bad ones they read. It amazes me that anyone would want to review only books they did not like. Some people’s only purpose on Amazon is to list all the bad books they have read, and it does not take much for them to give a book a single star: just a bad tile, the wrong character name, wrong setting, wrong gender roles, wrong beliefs, or (gasp!) wrong happy or sad endings.

It does surprise me to learn that some people will trash more books on Amazon than they have read in real life. How does someone have the nerve to review books he or she has never read? Talk about personality disorders!

Then there are the politicos whose only purpose it to trash a fiction writer for their liberal or conservative leanings. Often these reviews are a product of an email list that encourages their sympathizers to attack a writer for not sharing their specific beliefs. Thankfully, these types of reviews are brief and easy to spot in their vindictiveness, but leave me to wonder why Amazon would tolerate such obvious political trolling.

Of course, there are the lost souls who just do not like the book I have read. For some reason, they oppose all the good things that make the book unique and special and did not find the same book I loved very appealing. That does happen, but at least it was not a hatched job; it was just someone who did not like or understand the book.

Overall, reviews by other readers on Amazon do not general appeal to me. If I need a review, then I will ask a friend or someone I trust. But, for the most part, I now buy books based on word of mouth and what I see in the bookstore.

At November 30, 2009 12:47 AM , Blogger g d townshende said...

I was thinking about this some more, especially some of the writers I've defended. What I've found most common is when a writer puts out a short book (either a novella or, as in one case, a story that was serialized in a magazine and later published as one work in book form) and then their readers get bent out of shape because of the supposed "lack of character development" that usually marks that writer's other work.

It amazes me that some of these readers, who are otherwise quite intelligent, don't understand that shorter works will mean less character development.

While I can appreciate readers' sensibilities and their appreciation for all the nuances they've come to recognize in a favorite author's work, they need to understand that it doesn't equate to knowledge of what goes into creating a novel, novella, or short story. I've seen several reviews that have said, "This reads more like an outline than a novel." And they've actually seen a novel outline? I doubt it. They might've outlined a novel they read in high school, and while that can give insight into the process a writer might follow when outlining a novel, it doesn't actually equate, in my experience, until you've actually written an outline for a novel you intend to write. "Reverse engineering" a novel can only take one so far. Eventually, one must design and construct those circuits one's self, and that's often an entirely different beast altogether. That's the sort of thing I was referring to in my earlier comment.

As a reader, the one thing that has bothered me of late is the serialitis that plagues fantasy novels, especially when a book in a series lacks a real ending. I rather like the old idea of a series, where all the books are obviously connected, yet each can stand on its own. As an example, I recently read and reviewed Gregory Frost's SHADOWBRIDGE novels (diptych/duology/whatever-you-wanna-call-it) and I didn't like that neither was a stand-alone novel. What if I didn't like the first? Why must I be given a cliffhanger ending that tries to make me feel obligated to buy the second? The novels were short enough, compared to so many other fantasy doorstops, that they could've been published as one book.

I've also talked to one professional fantasy novelist who said she had written a trilogy several years ago wherein each volume was stand-alone. Each had a true ending and each was obviously connected to each other, yet the publisher requested that she change the endings to the first two books so that they were cliffhangers, saying that it would increase sales. That particular novelist was not convinced that the requested changes had the desired effect.

I've personally come to the opinion that cliffhanger endings at the end of a novel in a series can carry with it implications a writer might not like to be applied to themselves: 1) that they're lazy; 2) that they don't know how to write a real and satisfying ending to a story; 3) that they only know how to write cliffhanger endings; or 4) that they don't understand that a satisfying ending to a book is far more often better than a cliffhanger at selling the reader on buying their next novel.


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