How Amazon could Improve Book Reviews

English: Portrait of Yellow-headed Amazon Parr...
Happy with the quality of book reviews on Amazon? Do you read them before deciding on a book purchase - or even to just download a sample? Or do you go to the list of the top hundred best selling titles in the genre you like and stop there?

I suspect most people go to Amazon to buy a book they've heard about on Goodreads, generally considered the best book review site, or perhaps read about in the papers or a blog. If that's the case, it's a pity because Amazon has done a lot to make book pages as informative as possible. There's plenty of good stuff to be found on a book page, ranging from customer reviews neatly ranked by stars (one star = "I hate it" to 5 stars = "I love it") to lists of books purchased by other customers ("Customers who bought this item also bought..."), not to mention "highlights and notes" and forums and all sorts of goodies...

To Amazon's eternal credit one should point out that the book's sales ranking is hidden in the "book details" while customer reviews are in the forefront, like this (I took here the case of one of my books):

Yet there are problems with reviews and Amazon is well aware of them. Recently, the Big Zon went on the war path against reviews by family and friends and pulled down the so-called "sock puppet" reviews - in the process making many people angry because it took aim at reviews done by writers in the same genre. That was no doubt an error - it is standard practice in the publishing industry to ask for reviews from "people in the know", literary critics who are experts in the genre and recognized authors working in the same genre. One may expect Amazon to recant and return to a more reasonable stance on reviews.

But there is no doubt that the review system is not perfect and could be vastly improved. With its technical capability, Amazon ought to be able to improve the standard review done by readers who are neither literary critics nor expert authors, just people who love to read. True, Amazon has set up review guidelines that are very clear and readable but I'm not sure many people look at them before posting their reviews.

Surely, a more "guided process" could be electronically set up. For the time being, the star ranking is entirely subjective: you're asked to assign stars on the basis of an overall like/dislike, no need to provide supporting evidence for your choice. Instead of clicking on the stars to establish the ranking, why not ask a few simple questions in either a pop-up window or a drop-down menu that would "guide" the number of stars awarded, ensuring that all the main features of a novel are taken into account?

Let's take the case of fiction (obviously different questions would need to be developed for non-fiction): we all know that a novel's quality is based on a number of aspects, the same for all novels: the quality of character development, plot, setting etc. One could take, for example, the 8 points that the judges on the  SLO NightWriters Contest use to evaluate entries:
4)Narrative Voice & Point of View,  
5)Description of Setting, 
6)Emotional Impact,  
7)Plot / Story Arc,  
8)Use of Language.

My proposal is simple enough: ask readers to rate the book on a scale of 5, from bad = 1 to excellent = 5 for each of the above points, and once all the aspects are rated, poof! There you have it, it's electronic magic,  your 5 star rating would be all done, synthesizing all 8 points! Ok, perhaps 8 points to score a book are too many and could be reduced to 4 or 5, but something like that would force people to think before assigning stars and make the whole rating system a lot more objective and based on observation. The very same points should also help readers in writing up their review, drawing their attention to the criteria they should refer to when passing judgment.

One additional plus: if Amazon does this well, it could even be fun to watch the results of one's choices translate in a particular number of stars...

This is just a modest proposal to improve the quality of book reviews on Amazon, a simple electronic tweak but it might work wonders to make the system more reliable as a guide to book discovery. Because, when all is said and done, book reviews, aside from word of mouth, remain the single biggest tool for discovering new good reads!

What do you think of this idea? What other suggestions would you have to improve Amazon's book review system?

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Jack Durish said…
Actually, I like the idea of a review form. What if, instead of having reviewers assign stars, they ranking each item in your list, say 1-5, and stars were computed from the aggregate score?
Actually, Jack, that's precisely what I meant! Obviously, I didn't make myself clear! Thanks for pointing this out...
Anne R. Allen said…
What a great idea! And what a nice shout-out for the SLO Nightwriters. They're such a great group and their contest is still open! I'll let the contest director know you like her guidelines!
Anonymous said…
I love it. What a sensible way to evaluate what you've read. I'm a NightWriter member and have judged the contest many times in the past. I agree. Using a criteria such as this, really helps guide the reviewer to a more objective review than just assigning an overall star rating. Again, I love this idea and support it completely.
Unknown said…
Thank you for the acknowledgment of the SLO NightWriters contest process Claude! I am co-director of the contest this year and we've worked so hard to develop entry rating criteria that would facilitate consistency among the screeners and judges and ensure a quality winner. A great idea to apply sound criteria to other reviews as well! As Anne Allen says above, the contest is open until March 31st 2013 and we welcome all writers! Contest details at Sharyl Heber, SLO NW Vice President.
Thanks Sharyl, so glad you like the idea! I hope Amazon is listening in on us...And yes, I referred to your criteria system because I felt it really neatly picked up all the main points need for a balanced evaluation. And yes, I know your contest is still open and I for one have sent a submission (keeping my fingers crossed!)
So happy you like it! Yes, this is really a modest proposal based on my own experience as a project evaluation specialist - I spent 20 years traveling in the Third World and evaluating development aid projects for the United Nations. In the course of that work I developed rating systems to evaluate all the main elements of a project. I know, aid is not literature, but evaluation systems are there to help move people away from subjective opinions that don't help anybody!
Yes, I was impressed by the SLO Nightwriters and even took the big step (for me, I hate to compete!) of submitting a story to their contest...
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