A Book Is Not A Widget

News, trends, and the future of publishing
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MindyKlasky
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A Book Is Not A Widget

Post by MindyKlasky » January 14th, 2010, 5:58 pm

This week is National Novel Starting Week - NaNoStaWee. Okay. Maybe it's not a national thing. Maybe it's just a personal thing. Whatever - I'm starting the first chapter of the first novel in a new series, and I'm pretty much looking at any reason to procrastinate.

In fact, my graduate-level powers of procrastination have led me to think about the marketplace for books, particularly the marketplace that is represented by the behemoth online bookseller, Amazon. Come on, admit it. Even if you support your local bricks and mortar bookstore religiously, you've browsed the Amazon website once or twice or a few million times.

As you likely know, Amazon permits people to rate books (and a bunch of other goods, but I'm not writing about those right now.) Amazon lets anyone set a one- to five-star rating, regardless of whether the person has purchased the book, read the book, read any book, etc. Amazon does not give raters any guidelines for rating; it does not clarify what factors should be used in rating. In the interest of fairness, Amazon does provide a "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" rating of the rating, where users can indicate whether they found the rating helpful.

Given the utter lack of control, Amazon ratings are essentially meaningless. A book can receive a (low) one-star rating for lots of reasons or for no reason at all. The rater might: 1) misunderstand the rating system and mean to indicate that the book is superb; 2) dislike the cost of the book; 3) dislike the political, religious, or other social themes expressed in the book; 4) have a personal grudge against the author; 5) be upset that the book's Kindle release is being delayed; or 6) simply like the way one star looks, shining in the distance.

Of course, the rater might also think that the book is poorly written and that it fails to meet its goal of providing entertainment or edification.

Also, of course, (high) five-star ratings might be given for any number of reasons, unrelated to the merits of the book.

So, what are we left with? A rating system that is absolutely, completely, 100% unreliable. In theory, a book could have 100 ratings, all one-star, all tagged as "not helpful", but the book would still show up as a one-star rating disaster. And yet, some portion of the buying public will rely on those ratings, because they're placed at the top of the online page, and because most of us want to know what our peers think about things, and besides, what else do we have to go on?

As a published author, I've reached my peace with the Amazon ratings. I accept that I don't understand them, and that I can't control them. I grin, and I bear it.

But I continue to worry about the ratings for another reason: they turn books into widgets. They make stories and storytelling nothing more than dull objects. If raters down-rate books because they aren't released promptly enough on Kindle or because delivery was delayed by a UPS foul-up, the author suffers. The book receives a "poor grade" as if it were guns or butter, as if it were any commodity, without regard to the fact that what most readers care about is the writing, the words between the covers (or within the plastic Kindle-frame).

For now, our only option is to rate "widget" ratings as "not helpful." Do you have suggestions for making online rating systems meaningful? How would you change the world if you were Ruler of Online Book Ratings?

Mindy Klasky
www.mindyklasky.com
mindy@mindyklasky.com

IN STORES NOW: HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH (Mira)
When a genie grants wishes, what could possibly go wrong?

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Rick
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Re: A Book Is Not A Widget

Post by Rick » January 14th, 2010, 7:16 pm

"Given the utter lack of control, Amazon ratings are essentially meaningless. A book can receive a (low) one-star rating for lots of reasons or for no reason at all. The rater might: 1) misunderstand the rating system and mean to indicate that the book is superb; 2) dislike the cost of the book; 3) dislike the political, religious, or other social themes expressed in the book; 4) have a personal grudge against the author; 5) be upset that the book's Kindle release is being delayed; or 6) simply like the way one star looks, shining in the distance."

I respectfully disagree that the reviews are meaningless. While largely unregulated, the rating system is nevertheless fair because it is the same for every book. All of the reasons for "unfair" or inaccurate reviews you state, while true, are potential factors for every product's (book) rating.

Moreover, it seems to me (through casual observation, not scientifically controlled study) that more than anything it's the sheer number of reviews on Amazon that matters, regardless of their content. 1,000 bad reviews will translate to much, much, much higher sales than 1 stellar review. Also, qualitatively, while I have seen some reviews that I consider unfair or just plain unhelpful (e.g. they have problems with the typeface or it took too long to be delivered so they rate it low), I have also read many quality reviews that are well-written and illuminating.

Amazon just puts it out there. What happens after that is largely beyond everyone's control.

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