Friday, August 15, 2008

The Five Star Review: What's It Good For?

The Five Star Review: What's It Good For?
by Dianne Salerni

Readers seem to be incredibly cynical these days, and a positive review for a book will not get you the respect that it once did. In a recent online discussion about what readers look for in a review, one of the participants claimed that she examines the profiles of reviewers on Amazon before deciding whether or not to trust their reviews. “If I see that a person only writes 5-star reviews of newly released books,” she said, “I assume he is getting the books for free and feels obligated to write a good review.” I admit; I was taken aback. What a suspicious frame of mind! And yet, as I read through the numerous responses on the discussion thread, it became apparent that many, many readers no longer trust 5-star reviews. When they find a reviewer who writes numerous positive reviews, they suspect an ulterior motive, and when they find a 5-star review written by a person with a blank profile, they know they’ve found a shill.

It is true that the review system—on Amazon in particular—can be compromised. There are countless instances of authors using sock puppets (fake profiles) to write glowing reviews of their own work, start discussions about their books, and comment angrily on negative reviews. In some cases, it is believed that authors have managed to get negative reviews deleted by enlisting a small army in a “click” campaign to report the review as abuse. The “helpful” votes for reviews are shamefully manipulated; readers tend to vote based not on helpfulness, but on whether they agree with the review, and sometimes the reviewers themselves will engage in warfare—voting down their rivals in an attempt to raise their own ranking!

So, what’s a poor POD author to do? Clearly, we want to acquire reviews of our books, and since most of the mainstream book reviewers have barred the doors against us, online sellers such as Amazon are an important market for us. However, readers have become jaded, and although many of the authors engaged in unscrupulous shenanigans are traditionally published, POD authors unfairly take a lot of the blame. Apparently nothing is more suspicious to a reader than a self-published book with an average rating of 5.0!

Discerning readers expect to see a balance of reviews on a book; they want to know the best and the worst it has to offer. Some readers report heading straight for the 3-star reviews, which generally identify strengths and weaknesses—something the potential buyer wants to know. Others look for the 1- and 2-stars, to check out the “worst case scenario” and decide if it’s something they can live with. In many cases, a well-written “average” review will sell more books than a 5-star review which foams at the mouth with unadulterated praise that hardly anyone believes.

Now, I am NOT suggesting that POD authors should put socks on their hands and start anonymously bashing their own work! However, as a group, I believe we need to get over our own insecurities and welcome reviews that present a less-than-glowing assessment of our work. I’m as guilty as anyone of moaning and whining about a lackluster review. A teenage reviewer at Flamingnet said my book was “long and drawn-out”, with people engaged in “tedious scamming”, and she had trouble finishing it. Yeah, my feelings were hurt, but a review like that one provides a counterpoint that shrewd readers use to make their buying choices. At the time, I was relieved she didn’t post it on Amazon, but now, I wish that she had. It would provide a needed balance for the positive reviews already there. As authors, we need to trust that readers know what they like to read and are capable of picking through both positive and negative reviews to find the books that will entertain them.

See Also: Dianne Salerni's Website
Dianne Salerni's Blog


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

As a reader with a limited book budget, I tend to buy books that I already suspect I'm going to like a great deal. This tends to lead toward a high number of 4- and 5-star reviews. Unlike professional book reviewers, I don't have a stead stream of the good, the bad and the ugly to consider. If I did, logic would dictate that my reviews might fit more neatly into an appropriate bell curve of scores. But I'm aware of the problem of appearing to like everything!


Gabriel Garçonnière said...

Having avoided cross posting our reviews at LLBR ( to Amazon for this very reason, I recently posted that anything under three stars probably wouldn't be reviewed on our site anyway. The same goes for books I read for pleasure and consider posting reviews of on Amazon. Less than 3 stars? I think it over before posting.


DSalerni said...

Personally, I have a hard time forcing myself to spend time writing about a book I didn't like. But these "investigative readers" seem to feel that if you write only good reviews, you're not being sincere. I just think there has been so much "review scamming" on Amazon that the readers are wary and apt to think the worst ... when in fact, most reviewers are only moved to write something for a book they really enjoyed!

JanetElaineSmith said...

It does make one wonder, if all of the ratings are 5-star, if it is simply "padded" by the author's friends. Personally, I grin when I see a review that has less than stellar rankings, because it (usually) means that at least the reviewer actually read the book. If you look at the "big name" authors reviews, you will see that they get some negative ones too. I treasure my 5-star reviews, especially if they are given by somebody I never heard of or met.
Janet Elaine Smith

Lloyd said...

As a POD, self-published author and a reader, I do read the reviews posted at places like The detailed reviews more so than shorter ones with little to no detail. I've noticed at that the longer, better written reviews tend to get more readers that find them helpful. I've voted yes for some of those too. Another point to take into consideration are reviews from sites like ‘Midwest Book Review’ that clearly state they only review books they like, or other sites like ‘Litarena’in London, England where the author has to submit a summary of the novel first to see if the reviewer is even interested. Although there is room for abuse on the Internet for reviews, there are also legitimate sites that do not guarantee a positive review. Since traditional media reviewers have hundreds if not thousands of complementary books sent to them each month, it is expected that Internet and/or alternative reviewers should be given the same courtesy, and in return authors should expect honesty even if it is negative. Sincerely, Lloyd Lofthouse