For the past two weeks I’ve been subscribed to BookBub, a free service that delivers daily deals on digital books for the Kindle and Nook on Amazon. I’ve been enjoying the service so far.
One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not sure if this is by design, or if it’s just the way it works out – is that most, if not all, of the books I’ve found on the service have been self-published books. The vast majority is self-published young adult urban fantasy written in the first person, with lots of angels, fae, hunky vampires, and time travelers. A lot of these books have been available for free, so I’ve downloaded a few of them just to check them out. I love to read, and reading other people’s writing is fun and frequently fascinating.
I should preface this next part by saying that I have great respect for people who write, self-publish, and market their own books. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel, and then to share and market your work online takes dedication, not to mention guts. I should also mention that I realize that I’m not the world’s greatest writer, so I’m certainly not trying to get across that I’m a better writer than anybody else. Finally, I should mention that some self-published books are fantastic. I’m not out to bash all self-published books, or self-publishing in general… I’m simply pointing out the trend I’ve noticed in some self-published material.
So with that out of the way, I will tell you that I’ve some of the self-published books that I’ve found on Amazon have been complete crap.
This post is not about those terrible books, however… it’s about the reviews for those books. I’ve noticed that a lot of these books tend to get their fair share of five-star reviews, even if by reading the preview alone you can quickly discover the terrible writing and stilted dialog. What is even more interesting is that the high number of five-star reviews is often accompanied by a high number of one-star reviews.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
A typical book’s reviews
First, here’s what I’d consider a “normal” distribution of reviews for a book on Amazon. This is the graphic novel for Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. It isn’t unanimously loved, but the distribution of ratings seems to follow what I would consider a typical pattern.
A self published book’s reviews
Meanwhile, here is a book I started reading that, to be honest, I found awful, and couldn’t finish. The book did not have proper flow, the dialog read like it was written by a third grader, and the pages were riddled with grammatical errors. I won’t tell you which or whose book this was, because the point of this post isn’t to bash any particular individual’s hard work, but here are the reviews:
Notice the major difference between these two sets of reviews. The self-published book’s reviews do not follow what I would consider a typical distribution. There are a number of people who adored the book, and also a number of people who detested it. What is interesting is that the two books have approximately the same average review score (4.0 compared to 3.8), but looking at the distribution of reviews, it’s not hard to figure out which one is the self-published book.
So why is this the case? I have two theories:
Friends of the author are writing the reviews
I think it makes a lot of sense that friends and family of the self-published author are writing many of the reviews that you’re seeing on the book’s page. And to be honest, I don’t feel that this is a deceptive or unfair practice – at least to a point. The author of this book has worked hard to create his or her personal masterpiece, and naturally his or her friends and relatives are proud and supportive of their loved one’s chef-d’oeuvre. They want to support the author however they can, and the most obvious way to do that is to buy a copy of the book and give it a five-star review. Perhaps it’s somewhat misleading, but such practice keeps friendships intact, and if it isn’t overdone I’d hope that the reviews would eventually even out over time. I think it’s most evident when books are first released online.
You can often tell when a five-star review comes from a friend or family member because it will read like an advertisement for the book. While a normal review might read:
“I thought this book was pretty good. I enjoyed the story, and the characters were believable. I liked Captain Spaceheart, though sometimes he was a bit of a jerk. I really enjoyed the action scenes where he fought the Ok’Bok (the aliens), though I felt the ending could have been better.”
A review might instead read:
“Terror in the Heavens!!! Captain Spaceheart and his valiant band of space marines must forage deep into the heart of enemy territory to fight the ruthless and deadly green-skinned Ok’Bok aliens in this stunning premier novel. Will he emerge victorious, or will the Ok’Bok turn him into space goo? Read this book and find out!”
Even books that many people seem to love – the books in the Harry Potter series, for example – don’t have reviews like this.
There’s also the notion that authors themselves are creating Amazon accounts to review their own books. Sometimes you’ll see glowing reviews from reviewers who have only ever reviewed one single book… this one. What’s funny about this is that in another review for the same book, you’ll see a one-star review from someone who said, “this is my first review… I normally don’t write book reviews, but this book was so terrible and all the five-star reviews were so misleading, I felt I had to let the truth be known!”
Naturally, while I think writing reviews for your friends and family is okay, writing your own stellar reviews is certainly not okay.
People don’t notice that a book is crap
I’ve read plenty of book reviews where the review itself is poorly written. This is frequently the case with young adult books. This doesn’t prove anything of course, but it does make me wonder if the people who are reading these terribly written books and giving them five-star reviews don’t realize that the books are terrible… that is to say that they actually are enjoying the books and giving them the reviews they feel they deserve.
The thought-provoking thing about this is that, in a publishing landscape where many people feel that the aim is to write polished, high-quality books featuring proper grammar and sentence structure, in some cases these things may not be all that important. If you’re writing a vampire novel for 12-year-old girls, for example, it may not be worth the time and effort to go back and perfect it – just get it out there, then go and write five sequels. If you’ve got the right mix of quirky protagonist, brooding love interest, and a healthy dose of teen angst, you may have a winner on your hands even if your writing is the pits.
Maybe I should go write a book…