That’s not what Amazon is used for!

Every so often, shit hits the fan when it comes to commentary on reviews. Most of the time, the stuff that generates big news are the times when authors and/or agents take serious exception to the fact that somebody posted actual criticism of a book instead of a glowing review. We’ve all seen it happen. It generates hits for blogs, it causes controversy, and usually results in a load of bad publicity and people vowing never to purchase that author’s books.

But there’s some more subtle backbiting going on when it comes to reviews, too. Not so shit-stirring, but still enough to make my smack my forehead with my hand and wonder how people actually justify this stuff to themselves.

Most of the time, I see it happening on Amazon. People post reviews. Then other people come along and have the chance to vote a review as helpful or unhelpful. Which seems like a great idea in principle, until you realize that damn near everyone uses those buttons as the equivalent of Facebook’s “Like” button. If they agree with a review, they say it was helpful. If they disagree with a review, they say it wasn’t.

Never mind that plenty of negative reviews ARE actually helpful. They’re helpful in the way that they can influence whether people purchase a copy of that book for themselves. They’re helpful in the way that authors can know what people are saying about their works, and perhaps note areas where they may need improvement. Not agreeing with something doesn’t automatically make it bad, worthless, or unhelpful.

But I see it happen time and time again.

I’m reminded of a passage from one of A J Jacobs’s memoirs. He mentions that his father would often go on Amazon and look at reviews of his son’s books, and then mark every review that gave it a rating of 3 stars or less as unhelpful. This was supposed to demonstrate that Jacobs’s father was loyal and supportive to his son. But it completely ignored the fact that that isn’t what the buttons are there for. It’s not a “Like” button. It’s a button to critique critique.

That sort of behaviour reminds me of a subtle version of people getting their panties in a twist whenever somebody says anything bad about them. I used to hang around a lot on, and the amount of times that people would send hate mail to me because I didn’t rate their story very highly, or because I actually gave critique on grammar and spelling and pointed out plot holes… Well, let’s just say there’s a reason I stopped bothering. It became pretty clear to me that people wanted little more than to be praised, preferably for as little effort as they could get away with.

This isn’t the case with everyone. But I do see echoes of that kind of mentality in the people who will bitch that somebody didn’t rate a book higher. The ones who will comment on reviews and leave deliberately inflammatory and personal comments to the reviewer because their opinions on someone else’s work happened to differ.

If there was ever such a thing as purity of reviews, it certainly doesn’t exist on Amazon.

I understand that low ratings on major sites like that can kill a book’s chances at succeeding. It’s a tough world out there, and I can completely respect that. But misusing the “Helpful” button and leaving snide comments to reviewers isn’t going to do you any favours. If you’ve got something to gain from the book, then you’re being unprofessional. If you have nothing to gain from the book, then you’re likely just being a troll.

Maybe I’m ranting about this because I came across some inflammatory comments on a review I’d posted, including one person insinuating that because I hadn’t purchased the book through, then my review was somehow suspect and shouldn’t have been posted. But that, I think, was just setting the spark to a pile of tinder that has been growing for a while. This is something I feel rather strongly about, and have been wanting to go into detail over for a while now.

I’m sure some people will disagree with me. They’re welcome to. I welcome some debate on this, because someone might say something to change my mind, or add some greater depth to the ideas that I’m playing with here.

Which, I think, might just go to prove my point in the end anyway…

One comment on “That’s not what Amazon is used for!

  1. I was just talking about this with someone the other day. I’d say there are a couple of problems hiding behind the “helpful” vs. “unhelpful” button issue. First is the underlying question – what is a helpful review? For many people, this honestly can only mean a positive review. But does that mean that a review that does not bestow praise upon the book is automatically unhelpful? And this is entirely ignoring the ridiculous rating inflation that Amazon has created (in which 3 stars is negative, and almost every book has an average of 4.5 stars…).

    The bigger issue is that of the effectiveness of negative reviews. Many, many, many people dismiss the mere existence of negative reviews. Many reviewers are firmly against negative reviews, citing “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. But of course, that makes no sense. As a steadfast supporter of negative reviews, I think that an honest, polite and analytic negative review is necessary in providing potential readers with all possible impressions of the book in question. I have often been convinced to read books because of their negative reviews. If the analysis proves contrary to my own opinions, I may give the book a chance. If the negative reviews are all incoherent, I’m even more likely – clearly no one has given me a real reason not to read the book. These cases are particularly frustrating when they’re actually bad books that nobody bothered to negatively review well. A clearly stated, honestly negative review would have immediately steered me away from many of these bad books.

    Once upon a time, the number of helpful votes I received on Amazon meant the world to me. Sometimes it still does, if only because an unhelpful vote on a review I worked hard on (and it’s a positive review of a popular book…) can seem entirely unjustified. This is one reason, among a myriad of others, that I use Amazon a lot less these days than I did in years past. I’ve concluded that the votes themselves mean little – reviews that are truly unhelpful will continue to be written, and people will continue to rate detailed reviews as unhelpful just because they disagree with the content. We reviewers just need to make sure that this does not affect how we review…

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