Friday, August 28, 2015

Yo, Bezos! You're losing money!


When a book shopper on Amazon sees a book with a rating of one or two stars, they move on. Isn't this statistically true? The rating system was developed to help shoppers sort through millions of books. As a result, shoppers ignore books with low ratings. It saves them time. Consider the case where a noteworthy reviewer, Booklist for example, gives a book a favorable review and a customer gives a rating of one star to the same book. Does the shopper see the number of stars Booklist gave the book? Of course not; that review is just a block of text under Literary Reviews. The shopper sees the one-star rating in the search results and never clicks on the book and never sees the favorable review. How can you account for the weight given a customer review over a literary review? The result of the shopper not seeing the favorable review is a lost sale. As the number of indie authors grows, this situation would be expected to multiply, with the paradigm shift in the publishing industry leading more strong authors to bypass agents and publishers. The number of lost sales will increase.

The five-star rating system is a one-size-fits-all solution to sifting through millions of items on Amazon. When an established company markets, say, a kitchen appliance that they cut corners on in development and manufacture, it's good that the rating system exists so that customers can let others know of their experience with the shoddy appliance. In cases involving big, rich manufacturers, the rating system works pretty well. The same rating system should be applied to self-published authors? Literature should be judged with the same scale as appliances? In the arts, an artist doesn't create a product with a specified function. The range of opinions on any created item—a book, a print, a piece of original music—can be incredibly wide. The opinion of a person who hates, say, Pollack and Warhol prints should be given extra weight because he's a customer? We've all decided that both artists are fairly important figures in the history of art. We've agreed that the opinion of a person who hates their work, although individually valid, is not characteristic of the consensus. In Amazon's rating system, there's no accommodation for the wide range of opinions regarding created items. Some people hate what other people love. With the weight given the number of stars in Amazon's search engine for self-published books and appliances alike, the haters will always trump the lovers because low ratings will push items far down enough in search results that the lovers won't even see the items they would otherwise purchase.

I don't think you've understood yet how wanting to "let truth loose" by giving customers a neg/pos rating system in actuality throttles the truth in some categories on Amazon. Generally, when a person trashes an indie book with a one-star review, that person is trying to steer potential customers away from that book. The person may resent the author for writing a book he disliked and doesn't want to see the author succeed with book sales. That legitimately could be called censorship. That person is trying to ban that book from the libraries of potential readers. He's attempting to toss that book onto a fire so others won't be able to read it. This lets truth loose? With mainstream novels, the individual negative review doesn't have much effect when the total number of reviews is in the thousands. With a self-published book from a new author, a negative review buries that book in the search results.

As an example, my own book, Secreta Corporis, received a very favorable, almost glowing, review from author Michael Nava, whom the New York Times called a "brilliant storyteller" and "one of our best." In his review of my book, he called it "marvelously erudite" and "a rich and detailed landscape" and wrote "I highly recommend it." The full review is on the book's product page. Contrast that review with the customer reviews, and one wonders if four of the five customers were reviewing the same book as Nava. Search results make no mention of Nava's review, but the average of two and a half stars from five customers is quite prominent. Would you be led to check out that book if you didn't know anything about Nava's review?

I've noticed that some websites don't display customer reviews until the item has received a certain number of them. There are other solutions, and I hope you will consider them. How many books has Nava sold? I think it's safe to say that a good number of his readers would also be readers of my book because of his recommendation and because the books share character situations and tone. But those purchases have never been made. And this is just one example. How many other books/CDs/apps are there in a similar situation? That's more than a few lost sales.

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