Tag Archives: Amazon.com

Is the Amazon Customer Review System Broken?

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In principle, book reviews spur sales. But on Amazon, they don’t seem to. Any author who’s following the sales of his/her books can testify to this: when good reviews come in, they rarely signal a spurt in sales. Yet book reviews are needed to be able to use the better advertisers like BookBub that will not take an author’s books unless a sizeable number of reviews can be shown, and particularly reviews from “authoritative” sources.

Add to this the now confirmed fact that e-book sales have gone very badly in recent months and Amazon’s bottom line is showing it. David Streitfeld in an article in the Business Standard, (see here, it was then picked up by the New York Times) has drawn attention to the fact that “to secure its upper hand, Amazon disrupts its own model.”

What Streitfeld is talking about is this: some $250 million in profits that had been expected by analysts somehow went missing last summer. Why? It seems Amazon practiced deep discounts and giveaways, offering free music, videos and e-books and that hurt profits. And of course Wall Street took note.  The argument is that Amazon is doing this on purpose to secure an ever-increasing share of the market – until it will be the only retail colossus on the scene.

But a lot of people have rushed forward with other reasons for the slowdown in Amazon sales, in particular attributing it to the long drawn-out Amazon-Hachette dispute (it last 6 months!) and continuing disaffection from once-loyal clients.

Whatever the reason, there is one thing that works poorly on Amazon and it’s their customer reviews of books. As long as Amazon doesn’t make an effort to organize it better, Amazon’s hope to compete with Hachette or any other “Big Publisher” is doomed. Because traditional publishers have got their buzz-around-books model down pat: they get top reviewers to write in major newspapers and magazines, they organize big prizes like the National Book Award or the Puliter, all events that drive traffic and draw the public. All stuff that’s closed to self-published authors and where authors published by Amazon imprints get little space, if any.

But we all know the arguments: This is the digital revolution that has enabled self-published authors to compete with traditional publishers. And Amazon rankings work to show who are the top sellers. And Amazon’s system in the Kindle Store is totally democratic, driven by the customers likes and dislikes, allowing everyone to express his or her opinion and the sales numbers speak for themselves.

Until they don’t.

You have books with thousands of reviews…and they don’t sell or don’t sell as much as you might expect. You don’t believe me? Look here (a book with over 2,000 reviews and a ranking on Amazon above #6,000) and here (over 800 reviews and a ranking above #10,000). Of course, there’s a high correlation if you check out the pages with books that have over 1,000 four-star reviews and above (see here) – there are nearly a million titles there, and the correlation is strong at first, as long as the number of reviews is above one thousand, but as you keep going through them, the correlation starts to fail you.

First lesson: you need at least a thousand reviews (more or less) to hope to sell steadily in the Kindle Store. But your book can still peter out, like this one, the Shadow of the Wind: over 1500 reviews and a ranking that doesn’t reflect it, at over #5,000 – and that happens to be one of my favorite books, I highly recommend it, it’s an extraordinary combination of dark poetry and suspense.

Second lesson: reviews on Amazon mean relatively little. In spite of Amazon’s policing efforts (they’ve gone after “sock-puppet reviews” in a systematic way since the 2012 scandal), it is still a fact that a 5-star review can be written by a friend or by someone who has absolutely no idea of literature or more simply, doesn’t know the difference between a good read and a bad one.  Ditto of one and two-star reviews.

Consider this one, about Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (click here), a particularly juicy dyad of 2-star reviews; here’s the screenshot:

As the friend who drew my attention to this said: “I’d like to know what Tennessee Williams would have said.”

Indeed. And to think that the second reviewer (“Kona”) is ranked by Amazon as a “vine voice” and “top 1,000 reviewer”… In short, someone whose reviews are appreciated by both Amazon and its customers. Someone who presumably has an “experienced” taste and a professional touch: you get up there in the Amazon Hall of Fame of reviewers by doing lots and lots of reviews and having lots and lots of people clicking that button which says that “they found the following review helpful”.

So what is wrong? I am not going to go into what happens with reviews of other products on sale on Amazon, the endless electronic gadgets, apparel etc – I shall limit myself here to books (a product I happen to know something about).

And books require special handling. You can like or dislike a book but that is not enough to constitute a helpful review. The next person doesn’t know you and may not share your tastes. So anyone doing a review should always explain the how and the why a book is likeable or detestable: that’s only fair to whoever is going to read your review. And the reviewer needs to come to some sort of conclusion that is reflected in the number of stars awarded. You can’t say something is absolutely transcendentally wonderful and then give it 3 stars because it’s not the kind of book you normally read or like. If something is transcendentally wonderful, then it deserves 5 stars, full stop. There is an organic linkage between the value judgments expressed and the number of stars given.

Reviews are not easy to do.

In fact, since the 19th century at least, book reviews have been in the hands of literary experts, people who are both widely read and know how to express a judgment clearly. This is far from simple and not everyone can do it or has the time to do it. Professors of literature at universities can do this successfully, they have the time and in a way it’s part of their job; best-selling authors can do this, and in general writers are good at this because they were all born readers first. You are never going to be a good writer if you’re not an avid reader in the first place; and someone able to read critically, as Francine Prose has so masterfully explained in her book Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

On this blog, I have argued in the past (see here) that Amazon should provide help in guiding book reviews, ensuring that major points normally covered in a professional book review are in fact covered (for example, the setting, the development of characters, plot pace, language/dialogues etc). But if Amazon is not willing to help and possibly fears that this type of guidance would be viewed by its customers as an unbearable intrusion, then there is another way to do this.

Amazon already has in place this Vine Program for reviewers (I blogged about it here). But at the moment, the program covers reviews of any sort, and top reviewers tend to review anything they wish, and remarkably enough, the very top reviewers (highest rank) cover all sorts of products but no books!  No books at all, or very few books, and in a most desultory way, reaping in fact very few votes from online viewers.

What Amazon should do is establish a Vine Program for Books Only. Book review guidelines should be issued and reviewers would be able to maintain their rank only if they follow the guidelines. And, once the system is up and running, the ranking of reviewers could start to take place, in order to arrive overtime at 1,000 top-notch book reviewers. My guess is that those reviewers are likely to be literary types of all kinds, including bloggers who specialize in reading  books in given genres.

Once Amazon has got a Vine Program for Books going, they should consider revamping the book description page, separating customer reviews from Vine Program reviews. That would be very important. Because at a glance, you could read the reviews that you can trust, that you know come from people who love books, read them all the time and can talk about them in a meaningful way.

At that point, and at that point only, would book reviews start to make sense and jumpstart the famous book buzz everyone is looking for, readers and writers alike…

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A Perfect Summer Breakfast

What a way to start a perfect summer day! A foamy cappuccino, a crisp croissant (or cornetto if you are in Italy), fresh fruit and a good book:

 

 Am I plugging my latest book? Yes, shamelessly, ha ha! I just got it in the mail, brand new, fresh from Create Space’s printing presses (you can see it here on Amazon – for some mysterious reason, the blue in reality is several shades darker than on the website, looks much better in reality. I confess that I love a printed book. It looks more real than the digital version, it’s got pages you can turn, a shiny cover you can slide your fingers on, and you can write in the margin. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t feel I’ve published a book until I hold it in my hands…

And I’m not afraid to say it’s a damn good book…Though I must also confess that I find it hard to self-promote, it goes against the grain. I’ve been brought up by old-fashioned parents who felt children should be seen and not heard.

…Well, not quite like that (though it pretty much sums up the influence of my mother and father, Mom was always the one who showed affection and Dad the one who discussed ideas). And it’s hard to shake off a lifetime of acting reserved and demure.

So what is this book Forever Young about? A near-future thriller (yes, scary!), it is set 200 years from now. Last week it got a Nevil Award for climate fiction and has already garnered 5-star reviews on Amazon. Actually, last year, when I published the opening, it got a lot of attention on Goodreads (23 ratings) – and more recently on Wattpad (400 reads) and Readwave (1685 reads, 13 likes, my most successful short, a 3 minute read, see here).

Here are some excerpts, and I treasure them, there is nothing that makes a writer happier than a good review that shows the reader enjoyed the book:

  • “Futuristic and yet spot on” (Beate Boeker, here) 
  • “A highly plausible future. Scarily plausible” (Bob Rector, here)
  • “A prophetic view of our future” (Lit Amri) 
  •  “a roller coaster ride” (Marsha Roberts, here
  • “A growing tension among the main characters as the fatal end approaches” (C.E. Rodriguez)
  • A fascinating concept, Nougat provides beautifully-written science fiction, with enough reality to scare the hell out of us” (Vikki Patis, see article here)

So why not make your summer perfect and get Forever Young?

Right now, if you live in the UK, the digital version is under promotion (at a 70% discount) – until 22 July, so hurry! If you don’t live in the UK, don’t despair, the digital price is low and the printed book can be had with a free digital version. I made sure to make the digital version free; in my opinion, this is something  that should be standard: if you buy the printed book, you should always get a free digital version, it makes sense.

Now, as to why Amazon doesn’t run “countdown deals” in markets other than the US and UK, I have no idea. Not fair. I can only presume that in the near future, they will do so.

Wondering about where I took the image with my book and cappuccino? On this terrace:

That’s our house in Umbria, an old stone farm near Lake Trasimeno, one of the main settings of my previous book, Crimson Clouds. Yes, under that umbrella, a perfect place to read a book!
Cheers and have a happy summer!

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Two Good Reasons Why You Should Do Audiobooks

Should you do audio books of your titles? The answer is YES! And there are two very good reasons for doing so, but before I get to them, here’s a little introduction to the world of audiobooks.

It’s a new aspect of the digital publishing industry, now worth $1.6 billion (still peanuts) but growing fast. If you’re considering doing an audiobook, I highly recommend the following article by Michael Kozlowski on Good E Reader’s blog, click here. You will see that in addition to Amazon’s services, there are several excellent alternatives you might want to investigate.

Audio titles so far are relatively few (13,255 titles came out in 2012, up from 4,602 in 2009 – compare that to the millions of ebooks). Audiobooks seem to be the province of affirmed writers with a proven market, like, for example Elizabeth Spann Craig, a successful “hybrid” author (“hybrid” means she has both traditionally published books  and self-published titles). She has a hefty number of published books under her belt and writes 3 to 4 books a year, making sure they’re available in ALL formats. See here for her own summing up of her experience in 2013.

What is remarkable about her is that she spends (next to) zero $$$ on marketing, does just a little blogging and facebooking and tweeting (plus a couple of giveaways on Goodreads/year) – in short, she doesn’t relate directly to her readers as an author. They are more interested in her books than in her, they’re fans of her book characters, not of her as a writer or even as a person! This is what she calls “book-centric reader engagement” (and she is engagingly shy and modest about herself). All that means she has to write more books every year to keep it up rather than waste time on book promotion campaigns.

This is where audio-books come in, a format with a rapidly rising audience as more and more people are engaged in activities that preclude reading (for example, all the time wasted driving your car). We’ve all heard of Audible (acquired by Amazon in 2008), ACX and Podiobooks and I won’t go into it here. One of my fellow author friends, Bert Carson, who’s just dived into turning all his titles into audio-books, waxes enthusiastic, check him out here. He’s got a lot to say about making them (see his “lessons learned” sections).

What I do think is that before you make that extra effort of producing an audio-book you should consider whether it is really worth your while. Which gets me to the reasons for doing audiobooks:

Reason #1: You should definitely do an audio book if you are in Spann Craig’s position, where you’ve “saturated” your corner of the market. If not, you’ll find that your audio-books face the same marketing hurdles as all your other formats (ebooks and printed versions) and are in need of selling boosts. Are you ready for that extra-marketing?

But there may be alternatives. For example, producing audio-clips of portions of your book, say a particularly breathtaking passage that could help in marketing your book, though the places to upload your clips are still essentially limited to soundcloud.com, click here to visit. You can set up your “sound” page there and share your clips – also very useful to embed your clips on your blog or website.

Reason #2: with the advent of Amazon’s “Whispersync For Voice”, it makes total sense. Your readers are able to move from reading to listening and back again without losing the place they stopped reading (or listening). Check it out here. The cool thing is that Amazon provides readers with a discounted audio copy if they buy the ebook first. So what you’ve got here is a built-in marketing tool. See here author Stephen Woodfin’s experience that he very kindly shares on the Venture Galleries blog, an eye-opener.

If you’ve had any experience with recording your book, please share!

Latest News about my publications:

Crimson Clouds, (new edition) romance the second-time-around (on Amazon, click here for ebook and here for printed version) Just garnered new three 5 star reviews (excerpts):

“Honest, profound and emotional, Crimson Clouds will have you exploring some of your own emotions and question the meaning of your own life” (Bill Howard);

“The scenes unfold vividly in front of you, full of color and life, like a painting” (Mamta Madhavan);

“By allowing each of the main characters to narrate their side of the story, Claude Nougat skilfully delivered a must-read novel, enabling the reader to have a deeper understanding of the thoughts and feelings of each character” (Faridah Nassozi)

Beware of the offer of a printed first version of the book, under the title “A Hook in the Sky”, see here. It looks nice and cheap ($10.80!) but it’s no longer in print and I have retired it. It’s just that the Amazon system is slow to register change…

Luna Rising, the full saga (new edition, 3 volumes) one young man’s battle to rebuild the family name (on Amazon, click here for ebook and here for the printed version)

Again, beware of the printed version presented  here, it’s cheaper BUT that is the first edition (originally called “Fear of the Past”) and unless you are a collector of rare editions, don’t buy it!

Note: ebook is 40% off compared to buying each e-volume of the saga separately. See here.

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