Shouting In the Aisles

I have no idea if online customer reviews at sites like Amazon actually help sell books. I’m sure studies have been done, but in a practical sense I haven’t seen these types of reviews do much for me, not on either side of the cash register. As a book buyer, I usually already know what I want to buy when I go to an online bookstore. Most of the time it’s because of reader word-of-mouth or other reviews I’ve read. Never have I been swayed to or against buying a book because of an online customer review at the point of sale.

Similarly, as an author, I can’t say I’ve seen customer reviews do much either. Back in 2004, after Walk In Shadows came out, I decided to try an experiment. Sales were sluggish, it was the first book by a mostly unknown author, and my publisher wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with any kind of marketing and publicity plan, so I announced in my blog that anyone was welcome to write a joke review of the book on Amazon, even if they hadn’t read it. There were only two rules: 1) the reviews couldn’t be negative (unless they’d actually read the book and disliked it, in which case they weren’t part of the experiment anyway) and 2) the reviews had to be completely absurd. Rather than talking about the quality of the stories inside the book, they were to talk about how the book cured their hangovers or was a handy weapon for knocking burglars unconscious. That kind of thing. (A couple of these joke reviews are still on the Amazon page, though they found and removed a lot of them in the intervening years.) The purpose of the experiment was to see if the presence of positive, four- and five-star customer reviews mattered on Amazon, regardless of what those reviews actually said.

What I discovered was that it had no affect whatsoever. The joke reviews did not hinder sales, which were already low, nor did they increase sales. Neither the people who rushed to the Amazon page to write joke reviews nor their network of friends who went to read those reviews bothered to pick up a copy of the book while they were there. No parties uninvolved in the experiment ever commented on it. It was all thoroughly ignored. The book went out of print the next year.

I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that things are different today. In the past, standing in the virtual aisles and shouting “Hey, everybody, this is actually good!” might have been ignored, but now, in a glutted marketplace, especially when it comes to e-book exclusives, customer reviews for books are probably more important to bookbuyers than ever before. Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of crap out there, and it’s a lot easier than the crap-makers think for readers tell the difference between a legitimate five-star review and a friends-and-family five-star review. For starters, look for lots of Random Capitalizations and at least one ALL-CAPS EXCLAMATION!

But I digress. Ultimately, what I’m saying is this: I think online customer reviews matter more now, and my e-book Still Life: Nine Stories could use some help with getting the word out. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever else you like to review books. (Blogs, too. Blog reviews can create a strong buzz.)

Whatever you decide to do, and wherever you decide to review it, I sincerely thank you for helping me get the signal out in a field obscured by a heck of a lot of noise.

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