Monday, March 8, 2021

Bad Reviews

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Hey, kids! Schedules don't always pan out so I'll be taking over for Katrina this week. Don't worry, she'll be back to take my usual slot next Monday.

When my third novel was released, I included this paragraph on the last page:

"Thank you for reading BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS. Whether you liked it or not I hope you’ll take a moment to leave a review on Amazon. Reviews are vitally important to me as an author both to help me market my book and to improve my writing in the future. Thank you!"

As an author, I choose all of my words very deliberately. And for this carefully constructed call-to-action, meant to be charming and reasonable rather than desperate and mercenary, I took extra care. So when I said “whether you liked it or not I hope you’ll…leave a review” I meant it. I want bad reviews.

People don’t believe me. It’s not surprising. It sounds coy, or even like feigned humility. “Oh, yeah, just be honest, tell me if you hated it” sounds like someone begging to have their feelings spared. But for an author, bad reviews aren’t just helpful and necessary, they’re absolutely vital.

To illustrate why, let me tell you a story.

For her birthday a few years ago my sister asked for a yoga mat. I can honestly say I wasn’t even 100% clear what differentiated a yoga mat from any other kind of mat, but I figured many people much dumber than me have successfully bought yoga mats in the past, so surely I could handle this simple task.

My first decision was not to go to the store, because if I went to the store for the purpose of purchasing a yoga mat, you can be damn sure I was leaving that store with one, regardless of quality. And the odds were that with a brick-and-mortar store there was probably only going to be one type of yoga mat.

So, instead, I sat down at my computer and went to my online store of choice (hint: Amazon) and typed in some key words (hint: “yoga mat.”) As they are wont to do, a number of choices populated my screen. As (presumably) every yoga mat in the world now stood before me, I decided to whittle down my choices by price. There were yoga mats available in the $500-$1000 range (presumably hand woven by the Dalai Lama himself) but most of them were more in the $20-$40 range, so that’s where I focused my search.

Next I looked at which were the best reviewed. I picked a $35 yoga mat (well within my price range) that had 500 or so reviews. About 290 were 5-star, so this was a well-reviewed yoga mat indeed. Then I did what everyone in this situation does: I immediately clicked on the 15 or so 1-star reviews to see what the complaints were.

It was from the 1-star reviews that I learned that people complained that the mat didn’t roll up easily, didn’t have handles, didn’t come with a storage bag, and the material was easily worn through with their knees. Armed with this new knowledge of what was important in selecting a yoga mat, I checked the reviews for a few other mats and finally made my decision.

For those of you just dying to know how this story pans out, I picked a $30ish dollar yoga mat with a handle (since my sister lives in the city and presumably walks to the gym) and in gray (since it’s a fairly neutral color.) What I just did there, you see, was I ran an algorithm. It was a very simply algorithm, and one based on almost zero data, but nevertheless I took some input on what I was looking for and came up with a solution.

Amazon runs billions of algorithms a day with obscene amounts of data drawn directly from millions of real shoppers. Its purpose is to keep suggesting stuff to keep you shopping. So since it knows that I’ve bought “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” it’s going to go right ahead and suggest “Day of the Dead” almost every time I log in. And once in a while it’ll suggest yoga pants since I bought that mat for my sister that one time. (Hey, it’s just a shopping program, not fucking Skynet, you know.)

Which leads me into the rather grayish area of Thing Authors Aren’t Supposed to Talk About™. Namely: bad reviews. I, like every reasonable, non-masochistic artist, hate reading that my work sucks. For those of you who aren’t artists, imagine someone told you that one of your kids suck. Or your work. Publicly. Where everyone can see it. Forever.

So, I would never say that I enjoy bad reviews. However, I do need bad reviews.

The Amazon algorithms function (sort of) like a person. Imagine if you clicked on a yoga mat with 500 reviews, and they were all 5-star. Even if they were all worded differently and they all highlighted different things, you would immediately suspect shenanigans. Honestly, you’d probably be right. Either the yoga mat was:

a) reviewed by nothing but the family members and friends of the yoga mat people, or

b) the yoga mat people paid for reviews

Either way, you’re not getting a realistic analysis of this mat. There are always going to be outliers, so even on some universally beloved product you’re going to have one-stars just from haters, trolls, and kooks. I mean, hell, the U.S. congress has an 11% approval rating. So if congress was a product with a hundred reviews, 11 would be 5-stars.

The Amazon algorithms “know” this, or anyway account for it in some kind of complex mathematical mambo. When they come across something that looks fudged, they just toss it out. Bad reviews, you see, lend strength and credence to the good reviews. Bad reviews suggest that this product really has been broadly used by the public, and the ratings are in: kooks, cranks, trolls, hippie star children, and all. Universal good reviews suggest shenanigans.

A lot of book reviewers have a policy of not posting 2-stars and below without the author’s permission. Some reviewers simply won’t do it, regardless of permission. I’ve begged and pleaded in the past with reviewers to please, please, please post their bad reviews of my books. And they’ve just refused.

I understand why. There are so many horror stories of authors behaving badly (just google "Kathleen Hale" or "Richard Brittain" if you don't believe me) which could be grist for a whole other blog post. Reviewers don’t want to be stalked, attacked, down-voted, harassed, or just otherwise treated poorly for posting honest reviews. So a lot of them just say, “Fuck that noise.” Which means a lot of our discourse in the book community is limited to:

a) praise, and

b) silence

Praise and silence is not helpful. It’s not helpful to me as an author trying to improve through constructive criticism. And it’s not helpful to me as a small businessman trying to sell my product. Amazon just frankly won’t suggest my books to people without bad reviews because they don’t consider products without them legitimate.

And, of course, there’s no real way that I can convince a reviewer that I want a bad review and I’m not a masochist or a nut or an author behaving badly. Except, of course, with a rather lengthy essay like this, but short of sending this essay to every reader and reviewer on the planet (hint hint) let me just suggest two broad courses of action:

AUTHORS: Shut up. Seriously. Just…shut the fuck up. Remember, when somebody writes you a bad review, they’re doing you a favor. When somebody writes you any review they’re doing you a favor. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to complain, complain. If you want to cut yourself…well, I wouldn’t recommend that, even jokingly. But however you deal with the grief of seeing your book panned, do it in private. And in public be gracious, and thank your readers and reviewers so they finally start to get the idea that even bad reviews are a favor. I might caveat this by saying you should probably thank your bad reviewers privately rather than in a public forum, since it could easily be misconstrued as sarcasm.

REVIEWERS: Don’t shut up. Post every review, as long as it’s honest. Don’t allow a few assholes to bully you. One thing you’ll gain is integrity, and no one can bully your integrity away. Bystanders recognize real integrity. If you want to keep your policy about not posting two-stars and below, genuinely contact the authors, and mention that bad reviews add credence to their good reviews, and positively influence their Amazon algorithms. They may not even be aware of this.

Well, that’s my essay on bad reviews. Did I nail it? Bolo it? Let me know what you think in the comments.

No comments:

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs