The dark side of Amazon reviews

Spot the suspicious reviews
Like any other author I am delighted by good reviews and deeply saddened and wounded by bad ones. And amongst those we have to take very seriously these days are Amazon reviews. It might seem that a good review in, say, a national Sunday paper is far more important than a collection of good reviews on Amazon. And that's true over the weekend the paper was published. In fact when one of my books had huge, enthusiastic reviews in the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday it positively shot up the sales rankings. However, such reviews are transient.

Over time a book will build up a collection of Amazon reviews, and that will be the first point of assessment for many a potential reader. Such reviews probably weigh less for books than, say, reviews of a slow cooker, because as a reader you may well know an author's work and be quite happy to get another book from the same source. However, for many, the Amazon reviews will still be extremely important. We shouldn't read too much into a single review, but when there are plenty, it's usually possible to get a feel for what a book is like.

I've just posted one of my rare very bad reviews, of Stephen Fry's latest autobiography More Fool Me (you can see my review here, but for our purposes, the important thing is it's also posted on Amazon).

Now if you take a look at the Amazon page (I'll give you a link in a moment, but hang on til you've heard the argument), you'll see that all the major reviews - the ones that most people found useful - are one or two star and slagging the book off, just as I did. Frankly, it's very disappointing. But you will also see something rather odd. Although the lead reviews are all negative, the book actually has more five star reviews than any other - 118 five star to 66 at 2 star and 71 at one star. This is the reason it averages three stars, despite so many bad reviews. How could so many people rate such a bad book so highly?

Now take a look at the 'recent customer reviews' down the side of the page (extract shown above). All the five star reviews are just a word or two (apart from one, who doesn't understand the Amazon review system and is actually rating the price and delivery). If you click through to see all the five star reviews, there are certainly some genuine ones - people who just don't agree with readers who have taste, and that's fine. But there also a fair number that are just one or two words.

It could be just a coincidence that a lot of the people who like a book aren't particularly forthcoming as to why they like it. But there is another possible reason. Just like you can buy Facebook likes or Twitter follows, there are companies that will provide you with a set of good Amazon reviews. So if a publisher, for instance, is unhappy by how many negative reviews they are getting, they can balance them out with some cheap and cheerful good ones.

Now I need to stress that I am not saying that this was the case with More Fool Me; I am sure that the short five star reviews are purely coincidental here. But when there are so many short positive reviews (and some are by people who haven't reviewed any other books, or who title their review 'Five Stars' or who only ever leave four/five star reviews) it does look odd.

The way that the Amazon algorithm has shuffled them off to one side in favour of the decent quality reviews is a good lesson for anyone tempted to buy five star reviews - don't waste your money, because they aren't convincing. It's the same with the spam comments you get on a blog. They try to make them sound like real people making real comments, but they sound fake.

I must emphasize, of course, that a short review is not necessarily fake. I was intending to review this book with the single word 'Yawn', but my natural inclination to write overcame the urge. However, get a collection of them on a book that is otherwise being slated and, not surprisingly, people will be suspicious. Click through here and scroll down to the bottom for the reviews to see the effect.