Reviews and Reviewing

5th December 2011

As an article I was quoted in posted to The Huffington Post today, I wanted to get your input and flesh the conversation out a bit. I don’t say anything earth shattering or all that interesting (which is why I didn’t post the link to IndieReader last week), but the author Terri Giuliano Long really does. In “The Ugly Truth About Consumer Book Reviews: Part One,” she discusses GoodReads and Amazon reviews.

I have never found either particularly helpful and note that. In fact, in our conversation, I told her I get easily over 90% of my book recommendations from bloggers or through mentions on Twitter. The rest of my books either come from review offers, library trips, or random shopping on my Nook Color. These purchases/rentals are random, but I often find great material this way.

The few times I do bother to check reviews on Shelfari*, GoodReads, or Amazon, I tend to get frustrated. Very often, these “reviews” are simply someone’s thoughts: “I loved this book!” or “Best book I’ve ever read.” These do not tell me anything about the book, and I don’t really trust people when they cannot articulate what they loved about a book or why it’s the best book they’ve ever read.

I compare these “reviews” to the comments section of many news outlets. They can be skewed in all manners, and the moderation seems to be either slow or ineffective. Comments range from wildly extremist to people sincerely trying to converse about the topic at hand. Unfortunately, there is no real way to weed through and eliminate the chaff from the wheat, so to speak.

That said, I know some people do take a good amount of time on their reviews or they simply post a review from their blog into the Amazon review. The problem is, this practice seems to be rare.

Terri brings up the skewing of numbers/stars in reviews on sites such as Amazon or GoodReads, and commenters on the HuffPo piece mention that authors often request readers to post a positive review. I think, personally, this is because many authors have taken such an active role in marketing. I am a firm believer that each person has (usually) very specific talents. An author/artist/creative person may not be the ideal marketing specialist. That’s ok. That is not necessarily his or her forté. However, when publishing companies rely more on the author, this sort of blatant self promotion is bound to occur.

I do not have a distinct problem with authors on Twitter or authors who have blogs. I understand that in this economy and in the current publishing climate, everyone has to pitch in. However, I think we need to have more discussions on ethics. Ethics in the era of social media/blogs/hobbyist reviewers are extremely messy. I, for one, think much too much about them. It is a conversation that needs to happen, and I urge you to check out the full article if you have a few minutes.

What do you think? Do you like Amazon/GoodReads/Shelfari reviews? If not, where do your reading choices come from?

* I use Shelfari mainly to document books I’ve read – past and present.

  • I’m in agreement with you, Picky. My reading choices come from other bloggers, mystery book websites, recognition of the author’s name, The New York Times and The New Yorker. I also use Nancy Pearl’s BOOK LUST and MORE BOOK LUST to clue me in. She is a wonderful source for ‘what to read next’.

    I don’t bother reading the reviews on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or whatever. Don’t trust them. It’s a shame that they seem to carry so much weight.

    • I get it. For people who don’t have friends who read and don’t know about book blogs, I can imagine why people would turn to these reviews. Many may not trust the NYT or have very different taste from that.

      Thus, online reviews are born. BUT I wish these sites would be a bit choosier in publishing reviews. I know the few times I’ve pubbed to Amazon (based on author/publisher request), you have to be approved. I’m not sure why offensive or particularly blah reviews get approved.

      • That was a great conversation between you and Wordyeti. I never thought much about ‘flame-wars’ and the many ugly comments people seem to get some joy out of posting. I just don’t bother looking at them on youtube, though occasionally by accident my eyes cruise over some absurdity.

        People can be very strange. That’s what I tell myself and move on.

        • I’m just grateful that my blog (and most book blogs I’ve seen) have been able to steer clear of these sorts of problems.

          I tell myself “people are strange” too, but it doesn’t always lift my general cynicism about these sorts of forums. πŸ™‚

  • Anonymous

    Jenn –

    You’ve wandered into two extremely deep topics here, stuff that those of us who have been toiling on the web for the last 15 years (or so – Gads, has it been that long?) have been struggling mightily with: 1) discovery; 2) reliability.

    Discovery can best be expressed by the basic problem with relying on buying keywords in Google as your ad/marketing solution — how can someone search for you when they don’t know you exist yet? For a beginning or mid-list author, this is a real problem. I can tell you that I have seen the change in publisher’s marketing budgets from when I published my first book in the mid-90s, to now … as in, there *is* no more marketing budget. Back in the day, I got booked on a satellite tour, got on the morning shows, had segments done on me on E! and Entertainment Tonight and Extra! That kind of attention to someone not named Stephen King or Danielle Steele just doesn’t exist any more.

    Which is why, as you have correctly identified, authors are having go the DIY route. Which I’m perfectly comfortable with (my long-ago punk rock ethos is showing, I’m afraid). The question about what constitutes acceptable conduct in self-promotion is one that gets sticky very fast, unfortunately; a no-holds-barred approach leads us down some dark paths to “Balloon Boy” territory.

    As for reliability – well, that’s something that is inextricably linked to Online Identity. How can we give proper weight to what some person has said on the web without knowing who they are? Or if they can “sock puppet” up a chorus of voices that all seem to agree with them?

    It’s an issue that is still very much in chaos right now; if you want to see what kinds of solutions are being tried out to solve the various problems (troll control, astroturfing, pseuicide, etc.), the best place to look is on the political and video-game forums, where the commenting & reviews fly fast & furious.

    Anyway – nice piece. You are hereby added to my RSS feed.

    • Thank you so much for such a well-informed and practical comment. It’s interesting to see it from someone who has such experience.

      As for this “reliability…is inextricably linked to Online Identity” – yes, yes, yes. People can easily stand behind anonymity and getting away with saying all manner of things.

      I’m very interested in observing what you’re talking about in terms of the video-game forums. Any suggestions?

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      • Anonymous

        The anonymity question is one that when I raise it in front of a room full of newspaper/TV reporters, never fails to elicit snarls & hisses. It’s the main barrier professional journalists have to increased participation/conversation with their readers (and one of the reasons for the slow demise of traditional media, BTW).

        And at the heart of it is the problem best summed up by the famous cartoon from Penny Arcade (somewhat risque):

        We’ve tried to fix it by coming up with ever-more-restrictive ways of binding our online identities to our real-world selves: 1) through registration – such as here, but easily bypassed by setting up Hotmail/Gmail/Yahoo accounts and re-registering;

        2) charging a credit card/PayPal account $.01 for registering – again, bypassed;

        3) putting a “once every 30 minutes” limit on commenting (this was at The Guardian in England) – users just started logging out & logging back in again to continue their flame wars;

        4) allowing users to vote bad users off the island – the users voted off recruited their friends & came back and voted off their enemies, thus jacking the flame wars into even higher levels of strife

        5) requiring users to register with the number of their cellphones, and then texting them the unlock code to complete the registration – at Schibsted, in Norway, the users just started buying “burner” phones to use to continue their flame wars

        6) establishing a completely separate “Fire House” section of the site for people to go to and yell at each other & not disturb the rest of the netizens. I saw this way, way back on the Mensa Forum on CompuServe (man, am I dating myself), and it worked pretty good there.

        So what the papers I’ve worked with in Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Ukraine, Ethiopia, etc., are looking at is having a two-tiered level of commenting/registration. The lower level will be open to everyone, regardless. But to get into the more exclusive level, where the conversation is (hopefully) more erudite, you have to give up ALL your data – address, phone number, mom’s name, etc. This tends to make people a little more civil, as nobody wants to go total “Flame On!” when it might cause their neighbors to start looking at them funny …

        As for the video-game comments, well, you can check out the threads on the massive World of Warcraft site –

        I learned a new word just now, by checking out to see that the link was still valid – “bumping.” It’s akin to spamming – and it’s when a poster in a forum just posts a nonsensical addition to their first post to make sure that it stays atop the discussion threads.

        Anyway, I’m sucking all the oxygen out of this thread. Nice to (virtually) meetcha.

        • Wow. I’ve seen these different practices in place but had no idea there were so many ways to get around it. I have only had Internet at home for the past (almost) two years, but I used to haunt several political forums and was fascinated by the levels of animosity within them.

          The cartoon is dead on, though. It’s a horrible combination, and often I curse when I accidentally scroll down enough to see the comments on an article. Seriously. My blood pressure does funny things, and I turn ten shades of red. Not good.

          From some of the examples you cite, it really blows me away how incredibly forceful and determined such commenters are. Who has that kind of time? Logging on and off cell phones. Creating new accounts. I will definitely check out the link you provide.

          Oh – and never apologize for this type of discourse. It’s why I blog. Otherwise, I’d read books and keep it to myself. πŸ™‚ Nice to meet you as well.

          • Anonymous

            “Whenever I’m feeling too good about humanity, that the world is a just & decent place, and that people are basically good … I cure myself of that delusion by going to YouTube and reading the comment threads.”

            I always get a laugh when I say this, because, unfortunately, it’s true. Years ago, Dooce told me that the only way she could deal with the haters & trolls was to print out their more awful, lacerating comments on paper, put them down in her driveway, and run them over repeatedly with her car.

            For good & ill, commenting on things we read online is a powerful impulse (see what we’re doing here, for example). If this is what our users/fans/customers want, then it behooves us to figure out a way to make it work.

            And now, back to finishing up the two chapters I was supposed to get in to the editor today (yeek!).

  • I will buy a book : 1. family or friend said is good 2. my local bookstore, Laguna Beach Books has a handwritten paper review in the stack says is good or great 3. friend on twitter asks me to read (even if they don’t expound on the virtues I’ll purchase) 4. whim purchase on cover or description. Rarely/never read the reviews on amazon or goodreads or other sites, just no time. Books are inexpensive and I purchase paper or ecopies in stacks

    • Caroline – what a great bookstore! Unfortunately, we only have two big box stores – Barnes and Noble and Books A Million. Believe me, it’s better than nothing, but there is not the same level of depth, community, and interest because of no local.

      Your number 4 is a big one for me, too.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • Terri Giuliano Long


    Most of my points come from my conversations with you and the other bloggers. Your insights helped me focus my thoughts and provide a balanced perspective. I’m grateful for that.

    Part Two, which will appear in IndieReader next week, focuses on indie review sites and book bloggers. Ultimately, I’m suggesting, as you point out, that people follow book bloggers and compare other reviews to those. With the piece appearing in two parts, that point gets lost.

    I agree with you about marketing. Part of the problem is that the rules, both in indie publishing and on the Internet, are still being sorted out. Discussions like this will – I hope – further the process.

    Thank you so for sharing the post with your readers.

    All the best,


    • Terri –

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m so glad you are opening this up for a broader look because it is a big problem. I think a lot of the HuffPo commenters talking about “this is too obvious” really don’t understand that they aren’t the intended audience. There ARE so many reviews like the ones you mention, so obviously people are reading them.

      It’s a really interesting discussion in terms of monitoring and moderation of reviews/comments.

      Can’t wait to see the next part because I’m curious to see how you framed it. There has been such an evolution of reviewing, and I’m really pleased to be part of it.


  • Anonymous

    The main thing I like GoodReads and LibraryThing reviews for is that, if used carefully, they can help me decide whether to read a book I’m on the fence about. Oddly enough, it’s the negative reviews I find most helpful, and I’ll sometimes specifically look for those. If I see a lot of common threads in the complaints, and all those complaints touch on something that bothers me, I might decide to give a book a miss. Or if the complaints are about something that doesn’t bother me, I’ll keep it on my list. Also, if I’m thinking of giving up on a book, a quick skim through the reviews on a site like that will help me see whether a book turns around. But I find the average star rating to be pretty much useless because it’s so easily skewed.

    As far as actually *discovering* new books to read, I vastly prefer blogs to these social reading sites. I also get ideas from some of the professional reviews I read and listen to.

    • Teresa – In general, I find well-articulated negative reviews to be extremely helpful. Reading tastes vary wildly, and often I have go-to bloggers who will dislike something I know I would probably really enjoy.

      I will say, though, that I haven’t used GoodReads much. I first found Shelfari several years ago, and I think it’s that alone that keeps me there. I like the interface and the bookshelf. I don’t really go there to socialize as I have the blogs and Twitter for that. If I didn’t blog, I might use it much more.

      I think you’re a fan of the NYT, correct? I know a lot of people enjoy those reviews. Honestly, I don’t often read professional reviews these days, simply because I have so much else to do. Bloglovin’ (my feed reader) makes it much easier for me to keep up with blogs, so blog reviews it is!

      • I too prefer Shelfari, I don’t use it as a social forum, merely for cataloguing my physical library, so I can keep track of my books.

        When it comes to professional reviews, I like to read The Guardian (UK). They have some really well-written and thoughtful reviews. I usually like to read them after I have read and reviewed a book to avoid getting unduly influenced.

        • Yep – that’s exactly what I do.

          I find a Guardian review every once in a while when someone tweets a link. I’m a lazy Internet user. πŸ˜‰

  • Read the article at HuffPo, then read yours here. Both articles are very insightful. I agree that the current publishing climate, with authors have to carry so much of the marketing load, has created a free for all.

    I do rely on customer reviews sometimes, especially when purchasing an ebook. But I read through several, disregarding those that are too fluffy or too fussy. Well thought out reviews are extremely helpful.

    As a writer, I agree that there needs to be a discussion about ethics when it comes to marketing and self promotion. But then again, I think there could be a discussion about ethics in every arena of our world today.


    • Aren’t you spot on there? Yes, ethics seem to have flown out the window. Obviously, I’m not naive enough to believe this is a recent problem. Every technological shift bumps up against these issues. However, I think the changes in publishing have come at an extremely fast pace. I’m more in tune to it simply because of my experiences in the book blogging world. The everyday reader could probably care less. But that is sort of the point. We absorb it whether or not we are aware of it.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. I love having everyone weigh in.

  • Brunt3

    The only ethics I’ve seen commonly accepted (in chat, comments, etc.) since the long gone days of The Well are that most everyone feels ALL CAPS is shouting and that it’s perfectly fine to not respond to emails (even from friends one actually has face time with!), questions or comments. Log on anywhere and expect ethics to play a part in my experience and feel it is incredibly naive to think “the market and moving on from growing pains” will work it out.

    • You’re so right. I think these are pretty standard etiquette rules.

      Ethics is a whole other area, and yes, it is naive to believe the complexities will straighten themselves out.

  • I want to contribute to this interesting discussion but hope my comment won’t make me sound like I’m bragging because that isn’t my intention. My situation is that so many books are sent to me for possible review that I don’t have time to go looking for books to read. I can’t even read all the ones I have.

    I prioritize based on first pages/cover/author (I don’t read dust-jacket synopses for fear of spoilers) and title recognition if I’ve heard good things about it on Twitter or Facebook. I usually only look up reviews after I’ve read or reviewed it to see what others thought of it. But I do that on blogs like yours and maybe publications like NYT and EW, not Amazon or goodreads. I don’t use Shelfari.

    • Elyse – doesn’t sound that way at all. I love that you’re weighing in.

      Honestly – what you’re saying is how I do it in terms of library finds and bookstore finds. I don’t randomly browse on the Nook because whoa – there are some crazy books out there. I do subscribe to so many book blogs that I usually hear about a book before I read it. However, I don’t go back and check the review before I write my own (though I do like to hunt them down afterward).

      If I received that many, I would certainly have a similar culling method. I think that, partially, the article/topic really doesn’t address you or me or anyone who really reads HuffPo Books regularly. I think the problem is that so many people out there are light readers or avid readers without any real Internet presence. They may use consumer reviews in ways you or I would not.

  • This is a fascinating discussion. I never solicited any reviews from friends or otherwise when I published my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter–consequently, I don’t have 300 of them. And I got one pretty bad review among mostly great ones on Amazon–but I recognized the reviewer as someone who had a serious gripe against me in high school! Pretty amazing that she took the time to take apart my book, but there you go. In general, I love the reviews on Goodreads and those posted by thoughtful book bloggers even more than I rely on NYT and Amazon. But everything is changing so fast. Who knows what lies ahead? It’s all very exciting from the perspective of both a reader and a writer.

    • Holly – don’t you hate that? It’s so odd what people feel compelled to do. On Twitter, a few other bloggers were worried that the article was complaining about star-only reviews. I explained to them, no, I do that too on Shelfari because it’s mainly a data thing for me. However, Amazon is intentionally for consumers, so it’s a bit different.

      You’re right that it is changing quickly. I think that’s why there have been so many growing pains in terms of ethics. However, like anything else, there will always be people who go their own way, regardless of right and wrong.

      So glad you dropped by!

  • I don’t mind GoodReads or Amazon reviews. They are a bit hit or miss but once in a while I do find some good stuff there.

    Of course, they don’t compare with book reviews written by bloggers whose reading tastes are similar to mine and whose opinions I trust.

    I do dislike authors promoting their books and dictating reviews personally. Very awkward and a lot of times lacking in any kind of polish or tact.

  • I use GoodReads instead of Shelfari to keep track of books I’ve read too, but I don’t find the reviews that helpful. The reason I look to Twitter and blogs for book recommendations is that I can get a sense of the person recommending the books via Twitter and a blog, but I can’t do that via Amazon or GoodReads.

    • Rebecca – Spot on. If you know a bit about the person reviewing, it definitely tends to help in being able to compare your own reading similarities/differences.

  • Ti

    I use Goodreads to keep track of things, but I don’t typically go there for reviews. I tend to add titles based on what other bloggers have said. Most of my book pics were first seen on a book blog somewhere. But, I am also partial to award lists and sites like Kirkus Reviews. Book Page tends to be dangerous for me as well.

    • I rarely go to Kirkus or Book Page, but when I do, I always find something interesting. The Millions, too, though that is more general bookish talk.

  • Very interesting. I, too, never look at the reviews on GoodReads, LibraryThing, Amazon, etc. I use GR and LT really to see how people’s tastes compare to mine. My purchases come from twitter and blog reviews for sure. And as to authors being online – I am also fine with that!

    • That seems to be the consensus among bloggers – they use GR, LT more as data or quick looks than real substance. I think I mentioned in response to another commenter that I am curious as to the level non-bloggers use these sites for recommendations. I would think they might be much more apt to look at consumer reviews if they didn’t have the sort of communication we do.

  • Becky (Page Turners)

    I couldn’t honestly say that I put too much (or any really) thought into the ethics of hobbyist blogging. It’s just a hobby to me and I don’t worry too much about what other people get up. I’ve got other things to think about that have a more immediate impact on my life.

    As for Good Reads/Amazon etc I don’t pay any attention to those. I take recommendations from friends, bloggers and I think just osmosis. You know when you know you have heard certain things about a book but you wouldn’t remember how? That happens to me a lot

    • You’re so right. I used to try and jot down who turned me onto a book, but it happens so often now, I gave up. πŸ™‚