In the general case, a person who attempted to read a book and failed might rate a book to warn others about their experience. You might do this with a restaurant you didn’t eat at, if you made a reservation, arrived slightly early, and were still not seated (or had been seated but not yet placed an order, or whatever) an hour after the time of the reservation. There could be any number of reasons why you were unsuccessful at eating (failed to adhere to a dress code, restaurant closed by the health department, visible rat dung etc.) and a person contemplating eating at that restaurant might want to know which of those reasons applied -- but the failure to eat a meal there is no reason why you shouldn’t post a review of your extremely negative experience.
If I were selling an historical novel about women and their intimate relationships, I’d be looking at the Romance Novel Consuming Audience and slavering. Copiously. But I’d also know better than to sell a book without an emotionally satisfying ending to this audience. There are romance novel series, but each entry has an emotionally satisfying ending -- if not an Ever After, a Consummation that was Devoutly Wished. The reviews -- positive and negative -- of the book Rich Adin uses as his example are generally quite clear that an HEA is not something that the book will provide, yet it attracted a Romance Novel Consuming Audience that expected on. The product was not described correctly. Usually, books like this come with warning labels (“tearjerker” and “anguish” and “stark” being just a few examples of words that could have provided adequate warning). If the ride doesn’t say there are strobe lights and someone has a seizure, they’re going to be pissed and tell all of their neuro-diverse friends.
Here are a few examples of the negatives reviews of _Sentence to Marriage_. A two star review by reading mom says “I wish someone would have mentioned how the sadness just keeps going on.” She notes that it is well-written, the characters are well developed and the story probably accurate to history but objects to the overall length, and “thought the details of minor events went on too long with not contributing to the story line”. A one star review by chris83 says, “Sentence of marriage should have been titled sentence of agony. This book was not a romance.” And there are many, many more in which the fact it is NOT a romance and does not have an HEA and is incredibly depressing are the primary features of the review. These reviewers are emphatic that they wished they’d given up sooner and gone on to read something else -- exactly the kind of information this kind of reader needs and Amazon.com would want them to have, and which should have been provided in the Book Description.
I want to thank Rich Adin for correctly spelling the idiom in this sentence: “As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed.” I disagree, however, with his assessment of the problem. While it would be nice if all reviews were connected to identities that we could track (might help with the sock puppet problem) and thus attach reputations to, Adin has significantly misunderstood the tradeoffs involved in providing product reviews on e-commerce websites.
Amazon.com has been providing reader reviews since the first few months that it was open (I don’t actually know if they were part of the initial web site rollout). The reviews were a very simple feature to implement from a coding perspective and inexpensive in terms of computing resources required to include in a detail page. The decision to have little or no security, checking, review, etc. of reviews was made at a high level at the beginning and only modified over time in the face of overwhelming need because reviews: are cheap for the site to provide only as long as there is no (later, little) QA on the reviews; make the site attractive to non-customers who then become customers; make the site sticky to customers who then buy more; provide a barrier to entry to competitors whose volume of reviews is necessarily smaller.
Adin’s proposal (no anonymous reviews) would violate several of these. Mandatory identity checking in particular would reduce the volume of reviews for a host of reasons, one of which is particularly salient in light of the recent problem some reviewers at goodreads have been experiencing: harassment of people who provide negative reviews. In any event, Amazon.com has no motivation to take on the problem Adin has with the review, particularly as long as so many customers are finding the negative reviews so helpful. Amazon.com wants people to buy the kind of books they’ll want to buy more of -- not the kind of books that will make them want to take a break from reading for a long while because it was unexpectedly harrowing. Adin may want people to be challenged by their reading. I don’t think Amazon.com cares.
The person who is using reviews for their ostensible purpose -- separating the wheat from the chaff, as Rich Adin biblically put it -- does have a responsibility to use those reviews appropriately. The comments thread in response to Adin’s post make it quite clear that most people have known all along that Reviews Need Translation. As fjtorres put it, “Part of being an educated consumer is knowing how to parse and deconstruct reviews.” Using the universal experience of movie review translation, fjtorres adds: “I no more accept an annointed expert’s opinion as gospel truth than I accepted it from a clueless nobody, yet both serve a purpose.”
image by cnewtoncom