I’ve been an avid Amazon shopper since the mid-90s. It started with books, but as we moved into the 21st century it’s come to where I now buy everything from groceries to musical instruments from this Seattle-based behemoth. From the start, one of the biggest differentiating features Amazon offered was its user reviews. I have found those reviews absolutely invaluable in making informed purchasing decisions, and I’m not aware of any other online retailer with a more comprehensive or helpful body of user reviews.
I like to think of myself as a give-something-back guy (in addition to being ruggedly handsome, of course), so I’ve made an effort to post reviews of products about which I had passionate opinions – either positive or negative. The vast majority of reviews I’ve posted have been positive, because I want to champion products that I think more people should be aware of. But over the years I’ll admit there have been a handful of products I’ve felt the need to publicly slam. Today’s post is about one such slamming.
Half a dozen years ago (which sounds nowhere as cool as “four score and seven years ago,” but I wasn’t around back then, and neither was Amazon; nor were Presidents tweeting about women’s clothing lines – but I digress…), I became aware of a new book that was making a lot of waves. It approached a popular topic by using an extended metaphor in what appeared to be a very clever way. Most of its reviews were positive, and I was intrigued enough to want to read it. So, being a lifelong cheapskate, I did what I usually do when I am interested in a book by an author whose work I’ve never read: I looked for it at my public library. They had it, I checked it out, and we were off to the races.
The book started strong. Really strong. I was digging it, and loving the metaphoric architecture the author had created. (And, truth be told, starting to feel the pangs of envy I inevitably experience whenever I encounter a writer who seems to have more game than me.)
But then something happened. The book started to fall apart. The story became tedious and petty, the architecture more and more contrived and gimmicky (which I wasn’t sure was actually a word, but my spellchecker isn’t raising any eyebrows over it. If spellcheckers have eyebrows, that is. Which would mean they’d also need to have eyes. Possibly even noses, for sniffing out grammatical stinkiness – a word over which my spellchecker *did* raise an eyebrow. But I digress again…).
In short, the book turned into a major disappointment. Yet it was selling like hotcakes, with mostly positive reviews. So I did what I felt needed to be done, out of my duty to the clientele of the store from which I buy all my books (and all my ukulele strings, and all my smoked oysters, and all my toothpaste, and, and, and…) – I logged into Amazon and reviewed the book, sharing my candid opinion of the author’s work.
More succinctly, I trashed it.
To be fair, I did point out the book’s positive attributes, and lauded the author’s undeniable talent. But I pulled no punches in systematically identifying all the flaws I perceived in the book, and let people know why I could not recommend it.
And then I went on about my life.
Fast forward a few months, to a time when something pretty unusual happened: my debut novel was published. A small press had bought my book, and after what seemed like an eternity, the thing finally went up for sale. Which meant my book was now available on Amazon.
Here’s the thing
There’s something you may or may not know about Amazon reviews. When a product has multiple reviews, usually the one that is shown first is the one that has been deemed most useful by other Amazon users, as determined by the voting function Amazon provides. What often happens is that one of the very first reviews the product receives will end up getting the most “useful” votes, simply because it has been seen more often than other reviews that were posted later. But sometimes another review will manage to catch more readers’ eyes, and that review might end up in the lead-off position.
You may see where I’m going with this.
Let’s fast forward again to the present day. We’ve got a new President who is likely to restrict his next Executive Order to 140 characters, Prince and Mary Tyler Moore are dead but Keith Richards is alive, and I happened to think of that book I trashed so many years ago. So I looked for it on Amazon…
…and saw that my review was the first one listed. Apparently more than 70 people have found my review useful, so now the very first thing you see under this book’s description is a pretty well-written (if I say so myself) treatise on why you shouldn’t buy the thing.
Seeing that has caused me some seriously mixed feelings. I mean, when I posted that review, I was still unpublished. Since then, I’ve learned firsthand what it feels like to see a big stinky review of something it took me freaking YEARS to write, and to have no control over whether other people see that big stinky review, too.
With that in mind, now that I’m a published author I’ve stopped posting any negative book reviews. If I love a book, I’ll review it. If I hate it, I bite my lip and keep mum. Fueling that approach is the fact that since I became published, my circle of author friends and acquaintances has continued to expand. Although I don’t know this author, from checking around on Facebook, I’ve figured out that I know other authors who do.
Actually, *here* is the thing
Given how fortunate I am to be a published author, and even more fortunate to know so many other much better writers than me, I’m torn over whether I should take that review down. Always one to be analytical, I’ve broken it down to some pros and cons.
PROS for deleting the review:
- As a fellow author, it’s the nice thing to do – and after all, shouldn’t we all support each other?
- Over the years I’ve made it a point to devote a lot of time and effort to helping and supporting other writers, and have been vocal in exhorting other writers to do the same. So publicly criticizing a fellow writer – even one I don’t know, who writes in a completely different genre – seems both ungracious and counter to my stated objective.
- The reality is that Amazon reviews matter, and knowing that if this author ever looks on their Amazon page for that book, they’ll see my big stinky review, first and foremost.
- I don’t know the author, but I have some author friends who do, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may eventually meet. If that happens, I would definitely feel awkward about what I posted. Note: my Amazon reviews are posted anonymously, so the author wouldn’t be aware that I was the BSRW (Big Stinky Review Writer.)
- I didn’t actually buy the book. I read the whole thing, but it was a copy borrowed from the library. So do I have a right to influence the buying decisions of others when I myself have not purchased the book?
CONS for deleting the review:
- I still stand by my review. It’s an honest assessment, and I still don’t like what the author did – it generated a very negative emotional response, leaving me frustrated and even a little angry toward the author. That’s why I felt strongly enough to post the review in the first place.
- People really did find my review helpful. I may have saved a lot of people from wasting money on a book they wouldn’t enjoy. As an avid (okay, addicted) Amazon shopper, I’ve posted more than 50 reviews over the years, and only two have generated large numbers of “helpful” votes – and this is one of them. So I’d be deleting what other consumers have found to be the second most useful review I’ve written.
- Many of the other negative reviews slam the book for not being what they had expected. So my review might help set expectations.
- It’s not just a hit piece. I also called out the author’s skill, and described how the book first grabbed, then disappointed me.
- I’m a writer, dammit, and I don’t like having something I wrote taken away from me – even if I’m the one taking it away.
One last point, from which I draw some consolation: I don’t think my review hurt the author’s career. The book became a national bestseller, and the author continues to publish articles – and, interestingly enough, reviews – in some top-tier magazines and newspapers.
So I’m going to put this in YOUR hands. I invite you to use the poll below to tell me what to do, and I will abide by your decision without argument. But in exchange, I hope you will share your rationale for your vote in the Comments section.
So what’s it gonna be?
Should my review stay or should it go? Why or why not? Should writers post negative reviews of other writers’ work? If we are published writers (or aspiring to be), should we review other writers at all? After you take the poll, please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!