It’s been a fact since before I was published that authors these days love reviews. It’s another fact that readers love to leave reviews — sites like Goodreads have created an entire reviewer industry out of ordinary, everyday readers. No longer do you need a doctorate in literature in order to bestow your lofty opinion from the hallowed pages of the Times Literary Supplement. These days, anyone with an internet connection can review whatever they read, however they like.
Obviously, indie and small press authors have embraced (for the large part) this reviewing culture with open arms. Sites like Amazon actively encourage their customers to leave reviews on any- and everything they buy. They’ll even send out occasional emails asking people to do so (hence the plethora of book reviews on the Zon where the reader states they haven’t read it yet). Reviews boost buyer confidence in a product — more important than ever since the drawbridge was lowered and anyone could dust off an old Word document and call it a book — so it stands to reason the more positive reviews a book has, the more likely a reader will purchase it. So far, so logical.
Amazon’s reviews have, of course, been gamed since they were introduced. Some of the early breakout indies were exposed for buying fake reviews [x] [x], and whole industries grew up around such practices on sites like Fiverr, but this isn’t a problem specific to the book market, but rather to Amazon (and online retailers of all products) as a whole [x].
These days it’s commonplace to log onto social media and see a reviewer complaining all their reviews have been removed from Amazon. The Zon periodically has sweeping clampdowns, trying to tame the beast they unleashed, which result in authors losing the precious reviews they’ve invested so much in attaining in the first place.
Now when I log onto social media, I see different kinds of review begs. They’ve always existed, cute graphics asking people to like Amazon author pages (back when that was a thing), to avoid pirate sites, to tell their friends they enjoyed a book. Such graphics subtly change as often as the wind blows — authors wanted Goodreads reviews, until they didn’t. They wanted their books tagged, or the tags voting on, until Amazon deleted that function. They wanted ARCs mentioned, and then not mentioned, and they wanted social media shares until people suspected Amazon of infiltrating Facebook to find reviewer-author friendships and now everyone wants everything to be kept separate for fear of reprisals. It’s a mess of supposition and paranoia.
The fact is, Amazon doesn’t tell any of us what it’s up to, which means we’re all floundering in the dark. It also means people are making stuff up as they go along. Do you really think Amazon acquired Goodreads just to trawl through friendship connections, cross-compare them with the email addresses of authors and reviewers, and target those reviews for deletion? Hint: Amazon doesn’t even do that on its own website, where it has access to family connections, book loan and gift senders/recipients, and an entire
sharkpit forum of authors who are all too happy to make review-swapping arrangements right there on Amazon’s server in plain sight.
No, the only thing Amazon is interested in is the bottom line. Cold, hard cash. When they got snotty with Goodreads for scraping book covers and blurbs from their website without permission, Goodreads responded by changing all its book links to direct to B&N, Amazon’s — at the time — biggest competitor in the book market. Fast-forward a year or so, and Amazon bought Goodreads and changed all those links back to its own store. Now every book published on Amazon is automatically carried over to Goodreads, and you can update your Goodreads profile directly from your Kindle. They didn’t purchase the site to get rid of reviews, but to gain more, and to ensure all the lovely purchase links on the biggest book community website in the world went straight to their site. It isn’t a conspiracy, it’s good business.
That hasn’t stopped people from separating their Goodreads and Amazon (and, oddly, Facebook) accounts out of fear their reviews will be deleted. In fact, with every move Amazon makes, the graphics that are so familiar on social media get a bit more demanding, and make even more absurd claims. If I had a penny for every time in the last six months I’ve seen a graphic drawing a direct correlation between the number of reviews a book has, and how Amazon treats that book in its rankings, I’d be a very rich lady. No matter Amazon reviews are increasingly embattled and distrusted, authors actually want readers to believe they’re so important they outweigh sales as the method by which Amazon sorts its shelves. If it wasn’t offered so frequently and earnestly as a fact, it would be laughable.
Now readers are told that 25 reviews will get books on “Also Bought” lists. 50 or 75 or 100 (or whatever the number is this week) reviews will mean Amazon starts promoting the book on the author’s behalf. If you don’t leave a review for your favourite author’s book, these graphics imply, it will be your fault if it doesn’t sell. You bad reader, you.
And here was me thinking that as long as the reader accessed the book legitimately (i.e. not through a pirate site) the reader-author contract was complete. What a fool I’ve been all this time, trying to market my own books when I should have been guilting my readers into doing it for me.
Here’s the truth: the only thing Amazon cares about is sales. The only thing that will move a book up Amazon’s lists and get it seen by more eyes is sales. Not reviews, not likes on the Amazon book page/author page. Not the number of tags a book has, or the number of people who agreed with them. Nothing, nothing matters more than sales. And I can prove it.
Here are three of the fifteen pages of “Also Boughts” from my last release, Dom on the Side. You’ll note another of my titles in there, which makes sense because it’s from the same series. You’ll see a book with 78 reviews, a couple with zero, and everything in between. They range from 5* average down to 2.3*. Know why? Because the reviews are meaningless. Hell, even the rankings are. What links these books to mine is that people who bought my book also bought these more than any others on Amazon, and that means someone looking at my book might be more tempted by one of them. Amazon is in the business of selling, and it uses all its clever algorithms to make sure that happens more often than not.
Maybe I’m a fool for not jumping on this bandwagon, but it gets my goat to see readers being lied to and manipulated by authors desperate for any perceived edge, even one as patently false and easily disproved as this. What those graphics are saying, when they insist that reviews and reviews alone are what makes the difference between a book that sells and a book that doesn’t, is it’s the readers’ responsibility to make sales happen. The reader owes the author a debt. Purchasing a book and putting money in the author’s pocket isn’t enough, the reader has to ensure that other people also purchase that book and put money in the author’s pocket. And that’s so unfair it makes my blood boil.
Dear readers, it is my responsibility, and mine alone, to manage my career and market my books. I might do that by blogging, by having a sale (as I am doing right now!), by taking out a Bookbub ad, or by any other means at my disposal. What I’ll never, ever do is pass the burden of earning my livelihood onto you.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want or like reviews. I adore them, as all authors do. What it does mean is I won’t be breathing down your neck about them. If you want to leave a review, I’ll be ecstatic, but if you don’t I’m not going to come beating down your door to demand to know why not. I certainly won’t imply my career depends upon you doing so.