The literature revolution: How book reviews give power to the people

Hey people who love to read! I have awesome news for you. You have some real power. The world of publishing is changing and you personally have some significant ability to steer what will be available to read and what kinds of authors get to write books.

I'm serious. And I did not used to know this. I used to think that leaving a review on an item or a book on Amazon was like voting. It mattered a little tiny bit. It was a drop in the ocean type of thing. I did it occasionally because it was like a civic duty or a way to say a special "thank you" if the book was really outstanding.

I've learned. Given recent changes in the publishing industry, reviewing books - particularly on Amazon - has become serious business. And particularly if you DON'T like something, you can deliver a fairly large blow and deny an author the ability to make a living writing with a click and about 20 words. Be careful of this because you can also accidentally do this without meaning to and seriously hurt an author you like, thus denying yourself that author's books in the future. It is real power.

(If you give a negative review because of shipping service, the harm goes to the author not the shipper.)

How to read Amazon star rankings

Here is a quick rundown of the five-star book review system:

5-stars - 5-stars means the reviewer really likes the book. It really entertained them and they will probably recommend it to their friends and read more books by that author. This is pretty much the same on most sites. Some sites consider 5-star reviews more exclusive than others, but on Amazon, 5-stars are just for books you really liked. You don't have to ration them and only use them for your favorite top-ten books of all time. But they do mean you really liked the book. An author usually needs several books with at least a hundred or two hundred five star reviews before they are considered an established author and before they can make a living writing.

4-stars - 4-stars means the book was pretty good, the reviewer enjoyed it. There was maybe one or two minor issues with the book but they didn't really get in the way of a good read. Most readers, when looking at books on Amazon will consider a book if it has between a four and five-star average. If see that a book has close to a five-star average and you give it four stars, you will actually make the book look worse to future readers than it does to you at that moment. So, give four stars if you think it should not be as highly recommended as it appears but it was still reasonably good. If the book has an average below four stars, your 4-star review will make the book look better than it currently does. So, again, give it four-stars if you liked it and think it should be recommended more, even though it wasn't perfect. Four stars is basically the baseline for saying that the book was worth buying and that is how most readers interpret a 4-star average. If a book has less than a 4-star average, there will be very few sales of that book and unless the author has a lot more books or is independently wealthy, that author probably won't be writing much more. I do consider this when posting a review that will pull the book above or below the 4-star average line because that is the power of reader reviews. You have the ability to make an impact on what gets written and published.

3-stars -  Some sites, like Goodreads, still consider 3-star reviews to be a positive review and describe it as "I liked it." But on Amazon a 3-star review is a mildly negative review. It means, "This book wasn't terrible. I don't really want my money back but I wouldn't recommend it. It was just okay." Let's face it. The world is too full of great things to do, read, watch, learn and write to spend our time reading books that are "just okay." So, most readers don't consider buying books with a 3-star average. I don't buy 3-star books unless it is non-fiction about something I really want to know and there aren't any other choices. (And on the few occasions I have bought 3-star books for that sort of reason, I was usually sorry I did.) Amazon also does not recommend books with a 3-star average and if you give a book a 3-star average you are saying you don't recommend it. Use this rating for books that didn't offend you in any way but that weren't really that great. The kind of book that you could read if you really had nothing else to read on a long flight but not the type of book you would actually choose to read. 

2-stars - Two stars means the reviewer didn't like it. There is no passion in this kind of review. It is a way of saying that the book had major flaws, rampant typos, a bad or non-existent plot, nothing interesting. There is no book review site i know of where a two-star review has any positive connotations, so if you liked the book a little bit, you might consider giving it more than two stars. However, by all means, if you really were bored and wished you hadn't spent your time, let alone your money on it, give it two stars. A two-star review is low enough to seriously exert a downward pull on a book's rating and hurt an author's earnings and ability to write books in the future.

1-star - 1-star reviews can be pretty unpredictable on Amazon. Amazon means them to be for books a reviewer strongly disliked. But when I read reviews, I always start with the one-star reviews because they can tell you if there is something seriously offensive in the book or if the negative reviews come from some political group that simply dislikes the author. (I have very occasionally bought a book based on who DIDN'T like it because it was a group I disagree with and anything they disagreed with that vehemently was at least intriguing.) All too often people post one-star reviews because a book arrived late or was damaged in the mail. Others post one-star reviews because they want another book in the same genre to look better. Still others post one-star reviews because they found the book truly objectionable in some way or couldn't get past the first few chapters due to sheer boredom and horrendous prose. I personally reserve 1-star reviews for books that I really think Amazon should withdraw, books with racist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted content, books that promote stereotypes or that I think do harm. I would also give a one-star review to a book that was so badly written as to be unreadable, but I have never personally ordered or read such a book from Amazon because I carefully read reviews and descriptions before I order books, so I haven't actually used a one-star review for that.

Now, here's the reason I am saying all this. 1-star reviews can seriously hurt an author. If a book only has a few reviews, even one 1-star review will bring down the book's rating by a significant degree. This is a good thing in reality. I have rated a certain children's book that had racist content in it (not of the Mark Twain educational variety but seriously racist) with one star and it significantly changed the position of the book on Amazon. That's power. You can flag things that are problematic with this kind of review and it will really matter. On the other hand, be mindful that writers are people. They often support families. Giving a 1-star review can seriously impact the financial life of a family. Unless the writer is personally shipping you the book, you should think twice about giving a one-star review for a damaged book. Any writer worth their salt will help you get recompense from the shipping company if you write to the author personally (see their Amazon author page). It is very rarely the writer's fault if there is a problem with delivery and if the writer is independent and has options they will change their delivery system if a few people contact them with problems. But if an independent writer gets a few one-star reviews on Amazon, that person will probably no longer be a writer. This system is unforgiving and bad reviews last forever. The fact that you write in your review that the problem is with the delivery and not with the book itself does not really matter because the Amazon system runs mostly on the numbers.

Today is a world where consumers have real power. Use it consciously because it is YOUR power. 

This description of ratings was necessary because there are a lot of people who aren't as used to the online world as others. And different sites have different feelings about different ratings. On Goodreads a three-star review is mildly positive or neutral. On Amazon it is at least mildly negative and will hurt the author in the pocketbook. This isn't just my view. Read Anne R. Allen's blog entry on this if you want to know more about ratings. 

Why you should write reviews for any author you hope will write more

The first part of this post gives you the real dirt on the power of negative reviews. But what about the power of positive reviews? 

Unfortunately for authors, while it only takes a few negative reviews to seriously hurt an author, it takes a lot more positive reviews to give a writer a good chance on Amazon. It takes at least 50 good reviews (mostly 5-stars and a few 4-stars) before the Amazon system will start recommending a book to other readers who have enjoyed similar books. Because that recommendation system is one of the primary ways that unknown authors become known, sell books and thus can afford to continue to write, it is also serious beeswax.

New writers start with no reviews and being the first reviewer is a bit intimidating. I've done it. I know. So a lot of books go a long time with no reviews, even when some people are buying them and enjoying them. Even though statistics say that only about 1 percent of readers leave reviews, moderately successful books usually have at least a couple hundred reviews. The media and the better book promoters won't look at a book until it has a few hundred good reviews, no matter how good the book is. I've heard readers say, "Oh, I just loved that book. It's a new author. I hope he writes more but everything has already been said in the reviews." Reviewing isn't about saying something new. It is like voting and it really does influence what kinds of books will be available in the future. 

New authors simply have to pay their dues and slog in the trenches, trying to hand sell their first few thousand books and asking very sweetly for reviews from readers who want to see more of their work. Unless an author is picked up by one of the big publishing companies that essentially buy reviews or commission them from their media subsidiaries (and that is increasingly rare with new authors), it is a long hard struggle to get those requisite few-hundred positive reviews and a handful of bad reviews can derail the whole process and put the book at the bottom of the Amazon pile of a million-odd books. 

That is why reviews are important. I used to feel like reviews were sort of a civic duty, like voting. That still stands, except much more so. It would be like voting in a system where I felt like my vote really counted. I now know that if I read a book and like it, I can have a real impact on the chances the author has to write more. I recently ran across a little book by an unknown author. I read it and liked the story okay. But more than that the style was fresh and there was real heart and emotion in it. There were a couple technical issues. The author was independent and not wealthy at all and obviously didn't have a lot of support or the ability to hire expensive editors. (EVERY author needs editors. Please don't believe that a "good writer" ought to write without typos. All writers commit typos and they are much easier for readers to see than for the writer. It is virtually impossible to polish 80,000 words or more to technical perfection even with several editors working on it.) Anyway, I saw that the book had only a few reviews and an 3-something average. I really wanted to see more work by this author because I liked the voice, even with the technical issues. I gave the book a five-star review and it made a big difference. That's power! The author went from having very little chance of getting more readers to being in a category with a fighting chance, due to my review. 

Since then, I have seen that there are a lot of new independent writers climbing the long hill toward being established authors. And if I read them, I get to choose which ones I help to the top. And it doesn't take much. Those long rambling reviews that rehash the plot may be fun to write (and they may seriously help the author's self-esteem if they are nice). But what really matters in terms of an author's career are numbers, how many reviews with how many stars. You don't have to write more than 20 words to make a real difference.

I personally like to see good, thought-provoking books. I like books with great adventure that don't use gratuitous violence for cheap thrills, that reflect real emotions and show characters as real people. I want to see more books about minority cultures that we don't know enough about. I want to see more books that go beyond formulaic fiction. And we are going to see all those things much more in the future than we do now because "I am not the only one"  as John Lennon said. We the people may not have all the power in today's world, but I am seriously excited about the fact that we do have the power when it comes to book publishing at the moment. It is possible that some monolithic corporations will be able to get things back under their control eventually, but for now this is a place where alternatives actually get to take off.

So, think about what kinds of books you like and join this quiet, beautiful, literary revolution. Write reviews and you just wait and see. You will get more of what you like and less of the stuff you have always been annoyed by in the media and mass-market books. 

Why all the controversy then?

Now I'm getting to a part of this issue that most readers don't see. Underneath all the talk about the power of reviews there is a raging controversy going on among authors - about whether authors should request reviews and who should and shouldn't write books. Weighing in on a controversial topic that has the potential to destroy one's chances of being able to write for a living is a dangerous game. But I like to live dangerously... and this issue is really bugging me. 

It is currently fashionable among more established authors to make a lot of noise about how new authors shouldn't review other new authors. I have run across several prominent blogs accusing authors who review fellow authors of running "review cartels." The idea is that a theoretical group of authors gets together and agrees to give each other all five-star reviews, regardless of how bad their books are. Hey, it could happen. I certainly haven't met any authors who seem like they'd participate in such a thing but you can always find crooked people. And yet, this is only likely to generate a handful of reviews. And remember, a book needs a few hundred good reviews and very few bad reviews to really allow an author to make a living at writing. 

The reason there is a controversy is that reviews are supposed to be for readers. This is how readers get to find out if they should spend their hard-earned money and often even-harder-earned time on a particular book. It is also, as I described above, part of a very real democratic process that can help people shape our culture in wonderful ways. If someone hijacks this in an attempt to get an unfair advantage and trick readers into buying something that isn't well-written, that undermines a system that has a lot of potential for good. 

But here's the rub. It is extremely difficult for a new and unknown author to get those crucial first 50 reviews that launch an author career. The authors who are most vocal about deriding other authors for reviewing each other are often fairly well established, don't particularly want all the new-author competition and say they got their first reviews from friends and family. How nice for them. I'm glad they have supportive friends and family willing to give them a chance to make a career of writing. I will be grateful to the first readers who posted reviews of my books forever. No matter how many reviews I get in the years to come, those first ones will always carry the most weight because, frankly, none of the other readers ever would have come without those first reviews. 

But let's be honest, I'm not a socialite. I don't have 50 friends who both have Amazon accounts or have the time to read my books soon. Half of my friends don't speak English because I live in the Czech Republic but I write in English. And many of my friends are swamped and have been meaning to read my books but seriously work 12-hour days and simply never get to read for pleasure. We're working-class mostly.  So, if I could only rely on my friends to get those initial reviews (so that other readers could have a chance to see that my books exist) then I wouldn't stand a chance.

Perhaps some new and unknown authors do have that many friends. Maybe they write well and all their friends review their books honestly and glowingly. Perhaps they don't write so well and all their friends review their books glowingly anyway. But this goes back to the purpose of the review system. I want to read books that are well-written, interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining. I do not want to ONLY read books by people who are socially popular, even if those books are good. I also want to read GOOD books by people who are introverts and only have three good close friends (and one of them is a grandmother who barely has electricity let alone an Amazon account). How does an author like that get 50 reviews?

Well, one way authors do it today is by signing up for what is called Read-for-Review programs. You can find these programs on sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. They are basically places where authors offer to let random people read their book for free in exchange for an honest review. There is a sort of honor code. If you get a free copy, you are supposed to try to review the book within about two weeks. Authors are really really really not allowed to pressure reviewers to give good reviews just because they received a free copy. (And authors are banned from such sites if people report that they pressure reviewers.) Many people on these sites refuse to give one- and two-star reviews and simply refrain from reviewing if they really don't like the book because they don't want to actively hurt an author who is simply struggling to make something coherent and still developing as a writer. But that isn't necessary. It's just the policy of some reviewers. 

Read-for-Review programs are a good way to get free books but you have to choose carefully because anyone can put their book in the program and some of them really are from writers who still need a lot of practice. The reviewers on these sites are generally not there for the freebies. They are there because they care about books and writers and the future of literature. These are mostly people who are there generously offering their time to review books by unknown authors so that the rest of the world can have a better chance of getting to read only the good stuff. About half of the reviewers on these places (in my experience, not a statistical survey) are also authors.

Now, the controversy arises when there are claims that there is pressure from authors for reviewers on these Read-for-Review sites to give only good reviews. And specifically for authors to give other authors only good reviews (or else someone might give them a bad review, whether they deserve it or not). This then makes those reviews less valuable in helping other readers figure out which books are worth investing time and money in. And that is why some authors have taken to vehemently demanding that authors stop reviewing other authors. 

I understand the concern. It isn't non-existent but it is far smaller than it is made out to be. I have so far gained a few reviews on my books from Read-for-Review sites. As far as I know the only reviews on Amazon that I have that are not five-star reviews come from fellow authors from Read-for-Review sites. All my reviews from general readers are 5-star reviews. (Readers apparently like my books and, of course, I'm glad and very grateful.) My experience is not that authors are more generous with their good reviews. My experience is the opposite. I have so far been lucky enough to avoid those certain poisonous individuals who actually go around giving bad reviews to books that seem to be in competition with theirs. But I have received some critical reviews from other authors. Whereas my few general readers have been wildly enthusiastic about The Soul and the Seed and The Fear and the Solace, the first and second books in my series, my fellow authors have picky professional things to say. And that is only natural. They really know something about writing.

Sometimes a fellow author reviewed my book even though it wasn't their favorite genre and even though they say it was a great read, they give it fewer stars because I wrote in the wrong genre for them. Or some of them say they like series that end each book with a nice wrapped up conclusion rather than a continuing story. This is an issue of taste. Some readers like "episodic" series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, that make it appear that the protagonist has achieved their goals at the end of each book, only to throw more problems at them in the very beginning of the next book. Other readers prefer "classic" series like The Lord of the Rings or The Outlander Series that keep a cohesive story going over multiple books. I happen to be the latter type of reader. (Harry Potter was really good but I just really loved Rowling's writing. I didn't love the episodic nature of the series. The Hunger Games seriously tanked for me after the first book, largely for this reason.)  

And so I'm also a classic series type of writer. General readers mostly review based on "feeling." If they loved the book and didn't want to put it down to go work, bed or something else, then they give it 5-stars, period. No quibbling. But writers... Well, it's our profession. We know all mechanics, the other things the author could have done but didn't and so forth. As a result, authors are usually tough reviewers.

I have tried to wean myself off of being so ultra critical, since I found out just how many 5-star reviews it takes before an author can make enough money to get time to write more books. Part of my personal review policy is that I try to review books based on how I think they would appeal to readers of their genre. If I'm reading out of my primary genres that means that I will sometimes be more generous with the stars than my own personal inclination suggests because I don't want to deprive readers of, say, hard science fiction of a read they'll love, even if I may not love it. If the book is well-written and as technically good as any other well-known hard science fiction I've read (and I have read a few), then I'll even give it five stars, based on its technical qualities rather than my enjoyment of the book. That's just my policy.

But many authors have a harsher policy than mine. They are very critical of other authors and demand impossibly high standards when compared with what the star rankings actually mean to average readers. I often read three-star reviews by authors on other books that are essentially positive reviews. They liked the book. It had no technical problems. It is good enough to be traditionally published but they weren't amazed by it. It didn't personally change their life, so it only gets three stars. That is their choice, but I feel that makes authors a particularly critical bunch of reviewers on average. 

Lets face it. A book on Amazon needs hundreds of 5-star reviews to allow the author to make a living writing. I read comments by authors all the time saying they reserve 5-star reviews for books that "change their life" or books they "will read many times over again." If all or most Amazon reviewers had that policy, what would happen? How many books truly changed your life? How many do you read over and over again? And do you think those are the only authors who should be able to make a living writing? 

I personally want to see greater variety than just Julia Scheeres, Ann Pettitt, Dianna Gabaldon, Barbara Kingsolver and the estates of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan (to name the handful of authors I tend to read over and over again). I love the authors I love but even they get old after awhile. I do want to see more good work by good authors and I even think that authors that don't write in my genre should be able to make a living, if their work is of professional quality and appeals to readers of their genre. So, I am going to give lots of authors who I like 5-star reviews because I know that that is the ONLY way that they will ever be able to write more books. And I have the power to influence that.

I have to conclude that the idea that authors are rampantly reviewing other authors with undeserved 5-star reviews in order to get 5-star reviews in return is somewhat of an urban legend. It probably happens with small groups of close friends but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as often as those who like to fret about it make out. And even when it does happen, it isn't likely to matter enough to make or break the review system. One 1-star review effectively negates five 5-star reviews from a financial perspective because it brings the average down to 4-stars which is the bare minimum for most buyers. So, if an author somehow gets ten other authors to review their book with five stars (good luck trying to find ten who will really do it) and the book is really awful, how many angry readers is it really going to take to make those ten fake reviews irrelevant? Not very many.

And given my experience, I would discourage any new author from trying such a strategy for strategic as well as moral reasons. In my experience seeking out other authors to give you reviews is a good way to get MORE critical reviews of your books than you will get from general readers, not less critical. If you desperately need to get a reasonable number of reviews, which you do in the beginning, then I do recommend going to Goodreads and LibraryThing and other Read-for-Review sites and entering the fray there with a lot of other authors. But don't expect a bunch of 5-star reviews because that isn't what happens in those places.


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.