Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Amazon Broadens Book Review Tools

I have mixed feelings about user reviews.  I guess, like most people I use them to help guide whether to make a purchase, whether a booking for a hotel, a new vacuum cleaner of the latest Kindle Deal of the Day offer.  I also guess that, like most people, I probably don't contribute to the common wealth of knowledge by putting my own reviews up there myself often enough, though.

I have done, especially for books, sometimes for hotels, never for vacuum cleaners.  However I've been quite tardy in the last year or so for leaving reviews for books although I have dedicated a few blog posts to update on books I've read recently.

Why so reluctant?  Well, I'm a great fan of democracy and the cornerstone of that is voting.  Although not an overly political person I do insist on voting at all elections and have a blanket policy of not getting into discussions over politics with people who refuse to vote.  But voting for a political representative is a fairly quick affair and  thankfully is only required every few years or so when you include local elections as well.  But when you read a lot of books, writing a meaningful and fair review can become an onerous task quickly. A bit like deciding to write a regular blog, I guess.

Of course I could strip the reviews down to bare basics and slap a 1 - 5 star review on.  It might make a few review hungry readers feel frustrated but it would add something to the canon.

There is another reason that I shy a little from posting reviews these days and that is if I give an author a glowing review and they reciprocate, on purpose or by pure random chance, then it wouldn't take much for the intelligent book reading population to recognise a mutual admiration society in the making.  In a similar vein, if I truthfully mark a book down in a review and the author(or a committed fan of the author) spots I'm also a writer then I could find myself on the receiving end of some harsh reviews.  I don't get a lot of reviews, so front-loading with negative ones isn't the way forward, I guess.

But I'm actually loath to rip a book apart on artistic grounds.  I've read a few books lately that I either struggled to finish or in the case of one, failed to finish.  Common issues were a preponderance of minutia and an over zealous focus on character traits.  One book, which has received fairly good customer reviews, spent more time describing the attributes of different coffee brews than developing the story.  Perhaps the coffee played a major part in the denouement - I never got the end of that book.  However, perhaps it was the wrong person reading the book - I chose it from a Kindle Deal of the Day offer and perhaps I read more into the blurb than was actually there.

So, if I'm not going to condemn a story because I don't like the way the author unravels it, what is left?  Well, I spot plenty of spelling and grammatical mistakes and in fact have just completed an otherwise entertaining thriller by a mainstream author that had way more typos than should have been expected.  Fair enough, in an ideal world there shouldn't be any typos, but I rarely find a book without any these days and I'm  sure there still remains some in my own, despite editing until I'm blue in the face.

But who wants to read a review from the full stop monitor?

So the reality is that the reviews for any given book probably represent the views of a minority of readers.  From what I've seen, some reviewers regard the process like a hobby and review everything they read.  And to be fair, some of them are extremely professional in their reviews, because writing a good review is a real skill akin to constructing a good blurb.  Some of the reviewers clearly have an agenda, especially if you drill down their other reviews.  The rest probably just read books and occasionally something inspires them to say whether it was good or it was bad - probably not much of a middle ground there.

But one of the problems in this multiple eBookseller world is that a book may have a handful of reviews on Amazon UK, a couple more on their US site, some more on Barnes & Noble, and Apple may have a review or two.  So the reviews are distributed across a whole load of locations, hence the consumer is only exposed to a small amount of the potential reviews available.  Apart from anything else, the wider the field and the greater number of reviews means that something near a consensus can be identified.

I've noticed that Amazon have introduced a beta facility on its UK site recently that allows US reviews to be added to any UK reviews.  The two sets of reviews are kept separate so you don't mix them together, so if there is a national bias it should be identifiable.  I don't know at present if reviews from other regions are being included, and it looks like the trial is purely UK centric at the moment, but it should help some of us to select books to read unless we're too xenophobic to take the views of other nationalities on board.

Personally I think it is a good initiative.  The optimist in me would like to see a mechanism where all the reviews from all the eBooksellers worldwide were made available in one place, however that is probably a step too far.  Of course authors could take responsibility to collate all the reviews for their books and place them on their website, but could we trust them to place the negative reviews as well?  I think it would be a very confident person who did that.  For example, I'm currently the proud recipient of a one star review for Project: Evil by a lady who gave up after reading less than two short chapters - I have a view that she expected something different from a parody of the James Bond arch villain from a project manager's perspective (come on, keep up) and it's balanced by two very flattering independent reviews by a couple of guys in the US, and I think I've managed to treat the harsh criticism in a way that helps readers of the review make their own mind up but  apart from mentioning it on this blog I don't think I'm as generous of spirit as to leave the negative review on my website.

So for the short term I will have to be content with Amazon sharing US reviews on my UK Amazon pages, for the benefit of UK readers making their mind up.  If it is deemed a success, then perhaps readers from other regions might be able to look forward to enjoying this facility.


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