It has often been said that since the Internet there has been less of a role for the professional reviewer, and that the democratization of opinion will render elite evaluation of the arts obsolete…But real democratization hasn’t happened, and we may never see what it really looks like: The system is too manipulable. Real power, in the online reviews, is held simply by those with the greatest resources or determination.
An interesting article from the Globe & Mail last week about the importance of starred reader reviews at online booksellers like Amazon.com and Chapters/Indigo, and how easily manipulable they are for some irate reader with time and a grudge, or with authors looking to artificially inflate their rating (or combat a one-star review…)
Food for thought in the digital age. You can follow the link and I’ve posted the text below.
How a one-star review can sink a title
From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
March 11, 2009 at [5:33] PM EDT
An e-mail went around from a colleague recently: Her book has just been published, and she would like friends to write as many good reviews on Amazon as they can, to get her star-rating up.
I remember when Amazon first came along, and authors first saw with a kind of disbelief what damage to your sales could be wrought by one aggressive idiot sitting in his mom’s basement in a town you’d never heard of. That guy – and it was usually a guy; guys are angrier – that guy could decide he didn’t like your book because you made some joking reference to The Lord of the Rings that insulted his entire life, or, more likely, he simply decided he didn’t like you personally, because of what you were wearing when he saw you on that one stupid television show that only a bag would go on anyway (it’s the host of the show who bugs him really, but really, only a bag would go on the show with that uberbag).
Before Amazon changed its policy, in 2005, to limit reviews to one per book per customer, that angry guy could actually, if he was determined, affect the sales of your book. He could post a furiously insulting one-star review of your book on Amazon, and then he could post another one, and then another one, all under the same name, all to change the average star-rating. He would do the same on Chapters-Indigo. So if you already had three five-star reviews up, he could single-handedly change your average rating to three. The fact that his attacks may have been misspelled or incoherent did not weaken their weight. In a perfect democracy like Amazon’s, ability – even today, where amateur reviewers compete for greater status by posting as many reviews as they can humanly write – has nothing to do with power.
Now at first, in the nineties, most of my colleagues would have been embarrassed to say that this free-for-all disturbed them. They would have dismissed amateur book ratings on the Internet as insignificant. Surely one good review in The Globe and Mail and another one in Quill and Quire and one interview on the CBC were going to be far more influential as advertising than this nonsense from nobodies who can’t spell? And we certainly didn’t want to be known to be planting reviews from our friends with the crass and ego-driven idea of boosting the ratings, or worse, writing reviews of our own books ourselves. I remember being disgusted by the idea.
This turned out to be embarrassingly naive. It is hard to measure empirically the effect on sales of bookstores’ star ratings, but we have all started to have the feeling that the star-ratings – the first thing you see, really, when you look up a book that you are thinking of buying – are actually far more influential than the reviews written by professionals in newspapers. Everyone in the publishing industry now agrees that newspaper reviews are less influential than they have ever been. The amateur reviews are for the most part so idiotic, so ideologically driven or otherwise missing the point, that to receive a low star-rating from them – particularly if one has had excellent reviews from professionals – has started to become offensive and maddening. So, if the star-ratings are so easy to manipulate, then we had better get started manipulating them.
And so now everybody does. You can’t post multiple reviews any more (although most of the ones posted for devious purposes before 2005 are still up there, wreaking havoc), and Amazon now requires that you have made a purchase to contribute a review. But there is nothing embarrassing any more about sending out a mass e-mail – to people you know have purchased something at Amazon – asking for help. In fact, marketing consultants suggest that authors launch concerted campaigns to raise their star-ratings on book sites, by sending out review copies of their book to 300 friends and asking that they, in return, post a one-line five-star review on Amazon. You might even send out some sample lines of your glowing review yourself, to make it easier for your friends. Obviously the authors with the greatest resources available to mount such a campaign – such as the ability to hire a PR firm to do it – will be the ones with the most glowing reviews.
What this means is that the supposedly democratic reader ratings – just from normal folks – that give supposedly neutral ratings to books on large booksellers’ sites are now largely meaningless. It is impossible to tell if they are genuine or the result of marketing. (Or the opposite, a smear campaign.) It has often been said that since the Internet there has been less of a role for the professional reviewer, and that the democratization of opinion will render elite evaluation of the arts obsolete. A lot of people think this is a good thing, that public opinion is a more telling indicator of value than elite opinion is. But real democratization hasn’t happened, and we may never see what it really looks like: The system is too manipulable. Real power, in the online reviews, is held simply by those with the greatest resources or determination.
Which means that there will be jobs for professional critics, even in the digital age, for some time to come.