Monday, 6 December 2010

You can't judge a book by its cover - or its reviews

I was going to have two weeks away from the computer, but I only lasted about ten days and to be honest my fingers were itching to be at the keyboard the moment I got back from my weekend in Madrid and from choice, not necessity. You just can't escape the next book.

But it gave me a chance to step back from things and take a slightly more detached view of books and book people. There were a couple of interesting stories in the papers about the Amazon review system, with suggestions that certain writers are planting poor reviews on their rivals' websites. It's not a new accusation; a friend of mine is certain that a much more successful author in the same genre has conducted a prolonged campaign against him under half a dozen different names. Only a couple of months ago the Russian scholar Orlando Figes was forced to apologise for savaging a fellow historian's books on Amazon under a false name.

Then there was the revelation that some publishing companies actually pay to plant glowing reviews of their authors' work on the site. A PR film has cheerfully admitted charging £5,000 for supplying the service, which probably makes it more lucrative to write reviews than most books. I suppose that helps explain why it's amazing how often when you look at a novel's Amazon page the first half a dozen or more five star reviews are followed by a one or two star as the actual paying customers get involved. Sometimes it's because it's the author has asked his mates to post a review if they've enjoyed his book, which I suppose is fair enough. But some writers seem to have a lot more mates than others.

Taken together it makes you wonder if the whole online review system isn't totally flawed.

Not that anything will change. No book publisher is going to take a single step back from the internet when the entire industry is in danger of being sucked into whirling vortex that is the world wide web. And, let's be perfectly honest, for a writer there's nothing better than someone giving their unbiased opinion that you've produced a masterpiece.

The only people who can improve the situation are the book buying public. If the first few pages of each and every book on Amazon were available in preview it would give readers the opportunity to try before they buy and there's no better, honest or more straightforward way of judging a product than that.


Debbie said...

I'd love the idea of a preview on Amazon. When I buy a book in a shop, I do tend to scan quickly to see if it has immediate appeal. At the moment, you can't do that when you buy online.

lizziee said...

Five grand? Two pound fifty and a bag of black bulletts and I'll write anything you want, Doug

Gabriele C. said...

I don't read Amazon reviews.

Since I can't browse English books in German stores, I rely on a) review sites I trust, and b) excerpts. I usually hunt an author's website down if Amazon offers no Look Inside. ;)

Gregory House said...

That appears to be a very fair assessment. I always skip througth the first ten reviews to get past the fluff and find out what 'real' readers think. I agree that it would be an excellent idea to have a sample five pages or so to give a better idea of the book's content and quality. Then after all that you have the problem of woeful book covers which I have begun to review in a more satirical manner on my blog.