Bad News Customer Reviews

What use are Amazon customer reviews, or indeed the user reviews on any website? During Amazon’s first decade the company employed a team of freelance writers to review books, videos and DVDs. I was one of them. Crucially, our opinions remained our own. But we worked to guidelines which included being factually accurate, not committing libel and avoiding spoilers. Then Amazon introduced customer reviews, and the result is now a caveat emptor free-for-all.

While many customer reviews are excellent, Amazon imposes no quality control – some reviews are no worse than ill-informed and amateurish –  and no warning that one might at any time come across a massive spoilers. Amazon long ago gave-up proofreading customer reviews, and some Amazon users have no consideration for the reader or creative artist, and no idea of civilised reviewing etiquette.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears

I have just finished reading the novel Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears. This is an exceptionally long, intricately plotted historical thriller / mystery. It’s not perfect, but it is an extremely enjoyable and intelligent piece of work. Unfortunately, with 450 pages to go I decided to see what Amazon’s customers made of it. I happened to read a short ‘review’ by someone who admitted they had not read the whole book (they awarded it one star and described it as ’a waste of money’), but felt it their right to explain the central mystery of the entire narrative. Something the author chose to keep secret until almost the last page. It is a testament to Iain Pear’s skill that I remained engrossed despite knowing where the story was heading.

Not content with attempting to spoil the novel for the reader, the ‘reviewer’, hiding behind a pseudonym, also casually libeled Mr Pears, stating without evidence that he ‘must have stolen this idea for a book from some movie or book from the 1940’s or ’50’s’. I would like to see that stand-up in court.

So faced with the contemptible and unacceptable I have decided to stop looking at customer reviews before reading or watching any work of fiction. Meanwhile with some reservations I’d recommend Stone’s Fall. Clare Clark sums up the novel well on The Guardian without spoiling anything. Read the Amazon customer reviews at your peril.

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9 thoughts on “Bad News Customer Reviews

  1. I agree that customer reviews are a mixed bag. That said, I’ve been one of the customer reviewers since 1999, so the idea that it’s only a “recent” thing to have us reviewing is inaccurate along with the idea that Amazon.com existed a decade before then. Caveat emptor is a truism for anything, including reading reviews. Amateur reviewers are the bane of Amazon.com. They review what they remember about movies rather than the current release under which their review appears. Even Amazon.com has disdain for its readers — a new title gets released on Blu ray and you find tons of reviews for all the previous issues of the movie on DVD. They don’t distinguish between releases…and dare I say “volumes” of anything that get reissued.

    • I don’t think I implied that customer reviews are a recent thing, but yes, they did run in tandem with commissioned reviews from a team of freelancers rather than be introduced after that team was disbanded. What I intended to convey, and I apologise if this didn’t come across, is that for the first decade of its existence (up to 2005) Amazon used freelance content providers. Customer reviews were a supplement to this freelance content. Then Amazon realised they didn’t need to pay for reviews when their customers would provide them for free.

      And yes, DVD / Blu-ray reviews appearing under the wrong edition of the product is a disgrace, but I don’t expect Amazon to ever fix it. Partly, as you say, this is down to customers writing on the wrong page, but Amazon have a lot to answer for in the way they mass post reviews of previous editions on the page for the latest release…

  2. As I actually wrote Stone’s Fall, perhaps I may be permitted a comment here? It is true that many of the reviewers reamrks are a little, shall we say, disappointing, if not outright rude. It is always a bit of a nuisance if you get one star for a book simply because it has been damaged in the post, or to have comments written by people who haven’t actually read (or in some cases, even started) the book.
    But — that’s life, and in fact not that much different to many a newspaper review I have had in my time; less so for Stone, but several proper published reviews or my earlier book Fingerpost were clearly written by people who hadn’t bothered to read it. Spoilers perhaps are more of a nusance to other readers than to me – I know the ending anyway, so I don’t pay much attention to them, except when the reviewer is deliberately trying to ruin it for other people. That doesn’t happen to often, though; letting slip parts of the plot are generally due to over-exuberance, rather than deliberate malice.
    And, in return, occasionally, I get the most wonderful comments. Not just from people who like the book (although that, of course, is pleasant) but also from people who have profoundly disliked it. Every now and then you get a remark, or a long comment which can only come because the writer has seriously engaged with what I was doing; who was touched, moved, or annoyed by what I have done. Often enough, someone has written why they don’t like a book of mine, and I find myself nodding and saying – yes, you may be right there…
    Such reviews mean that somewhere out there – in the mid-west, south, north east, wherever, someone has sat down with my book, read it and as a result has thought and pondered, then taken the time and trouble to reply. I am grateful to them whatever their opinion, because it is proof positive of reaching out and touching someone. Writers don’t get that very often: normally readers are at a great distance, filtered through layers of agents and editors and reviewers; it is easy to forget, in fact, you you even have any.
    Such moments are pure gold – it is one of the things that makes it worth while. So, I forgive the occasional irritation, and the passing sourpuss, and check up every now and then (too often is bad for you) to see if anyone has come up with something new to say. Often enough they have.
    Glad you liked it. As you say, it is not perfect; far from it. But what is, eh?

    — Iain Pears.

    • Dear Iain,

      I am delighted you have found my post and chose to comment. I’m also a bit surprised as I tried to find a website for you and found you don’t appear to have one, so rather imaged you don’t spend much time online or take much notice of what goes on. I thought such might be deliberate policy so as not to get distracted from your writing, which must require considerable degrees of concentration. The internet can’t help with staying focused. I know it doesn’t help me keep on target with my writing goals.

      The one star reviews relating to slow or inaccurate delivery of items is something Amazon filtered out in the days when they employed people to proofread customer comments. They really should devise some system of removing themDear Iain,

      I am delighted you have found my post and chose to comment. I’m happily surprised as I tried to find a website for you and it seems you don’t have one, so I imaged you don’t spend much time online. I thought that might be deliberate policy so as not to get distracted from your writing.

      The one star reviews relating to slow or inaccurate delivery of items is something Amazon filtered out in the days when they employed people to proofread customer comments. They really should devise some system of removing them now. Likewise, reviews which, out of malice or over-exuberance give away too much. Amazon provide the playground. They really should employ some monitors!

      As both a reader and reviewer, sometimes professional, sometimes for the love of it, I’ve been frustrated to come across professional reviews which, as you say, have obviously been written by someone who hasn’t bothered to read the book. That is completely unacceptable. At least one virtue of amateur reviewers is that they do, generally, read the book. Some customer reviews are marvellously insightful. I’ve read many a customer comment on Amazon and thought that the author really should be getting paid.

      My problem with customer reviews is that as a reader it is dangerous to look in advance, because one never knows when too much may be revealed. (Of course reviews of things like electrical products can be invaluable, the very detail which can spoil a book being just the sort of thing one wants when choosing which new television to buy.) And not reading reviews in advance does negate their value and undermine Amazon’s purpose in introducing them.

      But what I do find is customer reviews offer all sorts of pleasures after the event, from those which are genuinely perceptive and informed, to those so ludicrous as to be entertaining. Getting the opposing view – the one star reviews for the things one loved, or the five star raves for those one intensely disliked – can be revelatory.

      Anyway, yes I enjoyed Stone’s Fall very much. I am always intrigued by stories with unusual structures and with under-informed or otherwise unreliable narrators. I just don’t want to say more here because the things I would really like to talk about would involve giving away far too much…

  3. I agree, it’s a shame that there isn’t some sort of proofing on Amazon now. The review should really be about the book and not the fact it got damaged in the post. I’ve had a couple like this from Amazon which is annoying but they have changed them quickly without issue. But that one star review can really affect the average, especially if there are only a few reviews in total, giving a skewed result of what people think of the actual book.

    Like many situations where one can remain anonymous, there are those who seem to enjoy just being vindictive, and not adding anything intelligent or useful, which is a shame, but I don’t see any sign of it changing any time soon, I’m sorry to say.

    I review books for a small press magazine and always do my best to try and find any good points in order to make it a more balanced review. Just slating something isn’t helpful – and neither is giving away the story, which is a selfish and annoying thing to do.

    Interesting post, thanks!

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