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Swarming a Book Online

21 January 2013

Reviews on Amazon are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published.

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

In “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

Read it all New York Times

Hat Tip:  Lynn Blackmar


35 Comments to “Swarming a Book Online”

  1. …And this is why we can’t have nice things.

    Like many other retailers, you should have to have a verified gift/donation/purchase receipt to review on Amazon. Yes, even if that means no more hilarious comments on 3-ring binders about them being “full of women.”

    • No. Because that means that authors can’t get advance reviews.

      No, because a ‘gift’ is considered compensation by Amazon if it’s from the author/publisher.

      And no, because the online fake review mills already purchase copies of the books they write five-star reviews from.

      I don’t know how to eliminate fake reviews, but this is not it.

      Of course, Amazon could also change their stance on ‘we don’t require a reviewer to have experienced the product in order to review’ (also quoted in the NYT, in another article), which is even more ridiculous.

  2. Seriously? Does it really sink the book?

    Swarming a book is a nasty thing to do, but it’s like grafitti — it’s just ugly and malicious and makes people mad, and can hurt people’s feelings. There is no evidence that it actually does much damage. (And if it creates controversy, there is definite evidence that controversy does good things for a book.)

    As with controversy, swarming does boost a book in both Amazon’s and Google’s algorithms — it marks a book as a high-interest item or topic.

    Let’s not forget the online retailer who specialized abusive service — because angry consumers were more likely to write a review than happy ones, and they found that the more they angered the consumers, the higher their ranking was in search.

  3. To be honest, I’m prepared for Amazon to remove the review function. It is so easy to run a scam, either for a book or against a book. It’s absolutely ridiculous. What happens is that all reviews become suspect and readers/buyers begin to ignore them altogether.
    I don’t know what the solution is. I doubt there is a solution other than to ban reviews.
    I’ve actually had a review for one of my books that said the following (paraphrasing) – “I haven’t read this book yet but I’m giving it 3 stars because my copy arrived in a timely fashion.”
    Uh, hello?

    • Best comment in this whole thread. If the reviews have become so meaningless, it’s time for Amazon to drop them altogether. The “take alook inside” function on Amazon is a much better tool for picking the good writing from the bad, or the “my kind of book” from the “not my bag”.

      • But they aren’t meaningless. This happens to one in thousands of books. The rest of the time, a book has two or three or six reviews, relevant to the book, and it’s very likely that I’ll get some useful information out of them.

  4. I’m with Camille on this one. Swarming a book online is a lot picketing a movie you don’t like. Calling attention to entertainment you don’t like backfires at least as frequently as it works.

    Most writers should worry more about obscurity that hate.

    Amazon will never get rid of their review system. It drives sales. The Amazon review rules aren’t really designed to be “fair” or help “indies” or hurt “indies” or any of the other nonsense that people peddle. Amazon is in a low margin, high volume business. That fact explains everything you need to know to understand how they manage their review system.

  5. I’ve used Amazon Book reviews dozens of times to get a sense of a book. I read the more trafficked positive ones and the more trafficked negative ones, and some in the middle too, if I am really interested. Reading between the lines, it is not too hard to tell when there is something other than candid evaluation going on.

  6. Firstly, I find it highly ironic that this article appears in the snooty New York Times, which has never reviewed some of the books that appear on its own “bestseller list”. (Full disclosure: three books I researched appeared on the NYT bestseller lists.) For example, Nora Roberts OWNS the romance genre, and every one of her novels in the last couple of years has topped that list, but the Times refuses to review her. No doubt they are hoping this embarrassing author of popular genre fiction will just go away. So I take every essay on books published by that rag with a huge dose of salt.

    Secondly, as an Amazon Vine reviewer, I can attest to serious problems with the review system. The main problem is that in order to continue to receive books for review, I am required to post reviews for the ones I’ve already been sent. Some of these books are unreadable. I burned one of them, it was so bad.

    In defense of Amazon, however, I will say that they have never challenged a negative review I’ve written in more than ten years. I’ve written a couple of really scathing reviews of bad books, and Amazon hasn’t said a word. Considering that they are in the business of SELLING books, I think it’s remarkably broad-minded of them to host negative feedback on a book.

    • Well, Sarah, I am kind of an outsider, but I would say that the NYT declines to review romance novels for approximately the same reason that sports writers decline to review World Federation of Wrestling Matches.

      I only just yesterday, for the first time, exposed myself to a first chapter of a NYT best selling authoress of a Harlequin brand ‘romance’. The writing was so bad that I felt bruised, soiled; I felt at some risk of damage, if I went on exposing myself to such toxicly sloppy text. If I had a daughter, I would strictly forbid her exposing herself to the stuff, as much as I would protect her from porn. It was a long, loooooong ways from from Pride and Prejudice!

      I think amazon doesn’t intervene because there is no profit for them in doing so, much certain cost, and almost certainly any intervention is a lose/lose proposition.

      • If you were ignorant enough about the romance genre to pick up a Harlequin romance, you got what you deserved. They’ve had a reputation for slapdash writing since God was in short pants.

        Modern romance novels are not defined by Harlequin or its spinooffs. As others have here suggested, try Nora Roberts. Or her other avatar, JD Robb; under that name, she writes futuristic detective mysteries that mix romance, police procedure, and science fiction. Even more challenging, her lovers are *married* to one another. No one else I know of dares to mix and match genres that way.

        If you don’t want to read Roberts, by all means check out the no-holds-barred reviews on Goodreads or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. They are honest, they are policed for sock puppets, and they are written by readers.

        • Well, Sarah, to be honest, I didn’t seek the thing out… it was left by a family member on the coffee table. I’d been reading heavyish non fiction for several hours and wanted something ‘to clear the palette’ (sp?) so to speak. It may be incorrect, but not wholely unreasonable for an outsider to suppose the Harlequin would be the last word in Romance genre.

          I DO have a question about that, and since you sound familiar with the business, maybe you can enlighten me: If they are so bad, why do they sell so many books? Truly, I don’t mean to be a smart ass here…. I am puzzled. I read that chapter, was astounded to see that someone had recently paid $7.99 for it, and thought “Surely I could write as badly as that, if I sank enough bad whiskey at least!” The lure of easy money has risen before my eyes! But, and here’s a second question, this market that the Harlequin outfit sells to… does it object to better writing? The narrator in the chapter I read sounded like a welfare mom that sits in front of the TV all day watching crude talk shows and scheming on how to convert her food stamps to cigarettes. Does the market consist of consumers with similar sensibilities?

          I wonder if anyone has tried some sort of A/B testing with this business….

          • Harlequin is in the business of supplying a “fix” to people who want that particular fix — and those may vary from Many People to Barely Enough To Make This Book Worth Publishing. Harlequin offers particular plots that Push Buttons.

            It’s basically a lot like fanfic, from what I can tell. If you have a particular itch, then you’ll read anything that might scratch it. If there’s not a lot of stuff for that pairing or whatever, then you’ll probably look at whatever is there, written in crayon or not. Heck, if you read really fast? Then even a moderate amount of a given type of fic may not be “enough,” and you’ll start with the good stuff and go back to the really awful stuff that is Just Good Enough to give you the emotional resonance you want.

            Other genres probably have underserved themes/plots/character types as well, where the readers who want those will hold their noses if they have to, and wade through the slushpiles of the Internet, just to get more Pomeranians In Space Mysteries.

            Anyway, does Harlequin object to better writing? Probably not, though they may insist on a given formula for any given “line” they publish. They may or may not pay enough to justify anything more than hackwork, depending on one’s skill, speed of writing, etc.

      • Troll much?

        • Liked!

        • And of course he trolls romance readers, too. Sometimes I wish the trolls would develop some originality and start trolling – say – readers of crime fiction or fantasy or SF or westerns.

          • If you mean me, no ‘trolling’ is intended. I just call’m as I see’m. I presume no one mistakes pulp fiction for high literature…. I am simply wondering about the nature of its market.

            • Well, then, if you are not trolling, let me respond to your comments.

              1. Making judgements about an entire genre based on your reading of a single chapter from a random book is foolish, stupid, and ignorant. The ignorance can be cured, but I fear you are stuck with the stupidity and foolishness. You would have my sympathy if I thought it would help.

              2. People who use words like authoress, who feel soiled by reading fiction, and who become overcome with protective feelings for non-existent daughters are beyond parody. That makes me sad.

              3. Are you sure you didn’t pick up “Casual Vacancy” by J K Rowling? Your description sounds a little bit like that book.

              We can do without snide comments about welfare moms and their sensibilities. I have far more respect for writers who would try to appeal to poor single moms than writers who appeal to the likes of you.

              • I think you are guilty of doing to Mr. Montana what you accuse him of. Drawing sweeping conclusions about what type of person he is based on a couple of brief comments.

                • That was the point. If he’s not a troll, my comments should make him reflect on his behavior. It’s called mirroring. I’m trolling a potential troll. The crazy thing is, I can even be open about it and it still works most of the time.

                • Asok: “You just explained your plan right in front of him.”

                  Wally: “It’ll still work. That’s the freaky part.”

              • It appears, then, that writers of this stuff are fairly ego-invested in their product, and that their sensibilities and personalities are in keeping with those of the persons that consume their product. I was a little afraid that that might be the case. It’s probably a chicken and egg thing, with the direction of causality being a mutual ongoing process.

              • 1. One needs to see only a single page of porn to form certain judgments about what is most certainly the case for the entire genre.

                2. This is just a mean-spirited slam in which you end up mocking yourself. Sad, indeed!

                3. I do have a couple of Rawlins books, from yard sales … I’ve always meant to have a look at what it was that made them so popular, but haven’t done that yet. These were from that fledgling sorcerer series, the name of which I can’t recall at present.

                ” I have far more respect for writers who would try to appeal to poor single moms than writers who appeal to the likes of you.” …but you have no idea what writers would ‘appeal to the likes of me’. The only one that I mentioned on this site at all was Austen. So you have more respect for … ah never mind. At least you’re getting the chance to air your psyche some.

      • Dear Mr. Montana:

        Others will doubtless refute your implication in logical, reasonable terms, so I’ll just ask one simple question:

        How much lube does it take to get that stick in there?

        It looks very uncomfortable to me, but if you like it, by all means leave it in. I ask merely for research purposes. I write the kind of books where that might be useful information to have.

        • This is an example of the level of crudeness and vulgarity that surprised me, reading that above mentioned book.

          May you enjoy the company of others of your kind!


          • I certainly do, thank you.

            And just in case you entertained the notion, if you thought that was crude and vulgar, please don’t look at any of my books, or my website. I appreciate open-mindedness, but it will only distress you to no good purpose.

  7. Per the Times: “The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and Mr. Sullivan, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone who lives in Portland, Ore., promoted it on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.”

    Blaming the anti-Sullivan crusaders at Amazon for the book’s failure is simply looking in the wrong place for the reason it failed. The book got terrific promotion. It was reviewed in the Times, albeit poorly. Even a bad review in a major venue brings a book to people’s attention.

    The book failed for the following reasons:

    1. Celebrity coverage fatigue. Most people had already heard/read far more than they ever wanted to know about Michael Jackson over the years through the major media and tabloid periodicals. Sullivan’s book, a compilation of warmed-over scandals, was yesterday’s news. Nobody needed it.

    2. People who weren’t fans of Jackson wouldn’t shell out for a book on him no matter what revelations it contained. The only audience for the book was Jackson’s devotees, and they only want their idol venerated, hence the Amazon campaign.

    So the book really had no market to appeal to.

    • Nice practical insight! Market = near zero.

    • Ironically enough, at the end of the article the author points out that another Jackson bio is getting a more favorable review from fans, despite (or because of) the fact that it is self-published.

      Gosh, did the New York Times just review a self-published book????

  8. Sigh.

    Folks, it’s not all about us. Okay?

    There are many kinds of reviews, they have many different purposes. But there is one thing they have in common: a review is about the REVIEWER and the reviewer’s audience.

    Sure, the NYT has some problems with a cozy relationship with publishers, but if that were the “problem” they’d be reviewing a hack of a lot more of those best sellers than they do.

    They don’t because that’s not why their audience reads the book review. They can look at the best seller list to find best sellers. They read the NYT Review for its own sake — for the long, thoughtful essays on literature.

    It’s not the TV Guide. It’s not Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not an index of new books. It’s a magazine. And it’s a great one. It’s fun and informative to read. Try reading it sometime. It’s like reading Wired. You learn things.

    And frankly, most best sellers (and I’m not talking genre here — I’m talking about all of them) really aren’t that interesting to talk about on the “larger issues” level, at least not until the author has a large body of work (and maybe has fallen off the best seller list) to make it interesting and worth talking about in a non-promotional way. And sure, where such books are interesting to talk about in a “larger issues” way — they very often aren’t issues or subjects of interest to the readership of the Review.

    This is very different than, say, Publisher’s Weekly and review indices which are intended to be an overview and assessment of all the books that are out there. If you want to bitch about how those publications discriminate, be my guest.

    But just because a review publication actually bothers to cater to its own audience doesn’t mean they’re being unfair. They’re doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

  9. Amazon reviews are for selling books, not contributing to a great literary conversation. Sales figures matter. Author opinion and welfare does not. That’s just commerce and making money for stockholders.

  10. I know that I’ve started taking Amazon reviews with a grain of salt. Basically, I look for reviews that contain the same complaint/compliment over and over again.

    For example, take Heartsongs by Mattie Stepanek. While it’s understandable that a little kid would not be able to come up with top-of-the-line poetry, the fact that almost all the negative reviews contain the words ‘trite’ and ‘cliche’ is kind of suspicious. (Seriously, if you’re offended by cliche, making the same complaint using the same words as so many others is kind of self-defeating.)

    Still, I probably wouldn’t have questioned it if I hadn’t seen many other books in the last few days with reviews just like it, the same complaint (or sometimes compliment) with the same words made over and over again.

  11. Perhaps the reason the book is tanking is that, whether you loved or hated Michael Jackson (you can’t hate him for his music or dancing, unless you’re deaf and blind, and you can’t love him for his bizarre predilections), one and all can despise his greedy, talentless family for this naked attempt to commercialize his life.

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