Posted by: caribbeanbookblog | May 8, 2012

Do Customer Reviews Matter?

When was the last time you enjoyed a book so much, you felt you just had to tell someone about it?

It’s only natural, and for most of us, word of mouth is the automatic way of telling others about a good read. Lately, though, have you noticed how ‘word of mouth’ has evolved from vocal recommendation to online book discussions, and even full-fledged book reviews, accessible to millions?  Not satisfied to just talk about their favourite books, readers are increasingly going online and using bookseller and social-networking sites to inform not just friends and family but anyone who cares to know about the books they love or detest.

Goodreads, Shelfari and Librarything are some of the more popular social networking sites where readers can share their passion for books, discover new ones, make recommendations to other readers and create their own virtual bookshelf and catalogues online.  BookRabbit.com is another site that is just as interactive and appealing, though perhaps not as well known. Its stated aim is to “help readers discover and champion books.”

In the realm of online bookselling, however, Amazon reigns supreme. When it comes to offering readers a platform to recommend books and give them star ratings or say what they dislike about them, Amazon has got it down to a fine art – which is not surprising. The online giant, which touts itself as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” is the largest online retailer of books.

Perhaps better than most – including publishers who use Amazon’s website and the Kindle Store to sell their titles – Amazon understands the power of customer reviews and recommendations. Not long after it launched in 1994, the company hired editors and also used some of its staff to write book and music reviews. According to PaidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen, “Amazon later made deals with book review publications like Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Library Journal and the New York Times Book Review, to copy their reviews of newly published books. Over time, the literary editors hired to write reviews in those early years have either left or moved to other positions in the company, and customers themselves have become the main source of reviews on the site – though the Editorial Reviews remain.”

Steve Weber, author of ePublish: Self-Publish Fast and Profitably for Kindle, iPhone, CreateSpace and Print on Demand says, “ Good reviews on Amazon are particularly crucial for books by new authors and for niche books, and it stands to reason that they boost sales not only at that site but everywhere people are buying books, although we don’t yet know what percentage of buyers at brick-and-mortar bookstores made their choice by reading Amazon customer reviews.”

Editor-in-Chief of Midwest Book Review, James A. Cox says book reviews posted on the Amazon.com web site “will reach a larger audience than one printed, published or posted on any other newspaper, periodical, publication, or web site.”

Out of curiosity I checked out some novels and poetry and short-story collections by Caribbean authors currently on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Nobel, to see how they have been faring with customer reviews. Proceeding from the assumption that their books would naturally appeal to readers from the Caribbean, I wanted to see if they had been receiving feedback about their work. I also wanted to see if it was possible to determine what percentage of the customer reviews, if any, had come from Caribbean readers or originated from within the Caribbean. The books cited have all received critical acclaim. Here’s a sampling of what I discovered.

Author

Title

Amazon Reviews

Barnes & Nobel Reviews

Derek Walcott Omeros (1992) 15 7
 White Egrets (2010 & 2011) 11 0
 Selected Poems (2007) 4 0
 Mark McWatt  The Journey to Le Repentir (2009) 0 0
 Suspended Sentences (2005 2 0
 Opal Palmer Adisa       Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories (2007) 0 0
 I Name me Name (2008) 0 0
 Tiphanie Yanique  How to Escape from a Leper Colony(2010) 5 0
 Earl lovelace             The Dragon can’t Dance (1988) 10 0
 Salt (2004) 3 0
 Is Just a Movie (2012) 0 0
 Merle Collins  The Ladies are Upstairs (2011) 0 0
 Lady in a Boat (2003) 0 0
 Austin Clarke  The Polished Hoe (2003) 29 0
 More: A novel (2010) 0 0
 Colin Channer  Waiting in Vain (1999) 446 4
 Satisfy My Soul (2003) 117 11
 Marlon James  Book of Night Women (2009) 69 27
 John Crow’s Devil (2010) 16 6
 Elizabeth Nunez  Boundaries (2011) 3 1
 Anna In Between (2009) 4 0
 Prospero’s Daughter (2006) 9 0

 

Of the sampling above, Colin Channer and Marlon James received the most customer reviews on both Amazon and Barnes & Nobel. With respect to B&N, much of the feedback consists of star ratings and brief comments.

Needless to say, a lack of customer reviews on Amazon and B&N is in no way a reflection of the quality of a writer’s work, nor does it suggest that they aren’t getting any sales. With regard to the books cited above, it is highly likely that the bulk of their sales are being generated at brick-and-mortar bookstores within and outside of the Caribbean, including North America and the UK. In which case, word of mouth (the old-fashioned way) would be the primary mode of reader feedback. What the paucity of reviews on Amazon does suggest (at least to me) is that this ‘word of mouth’ is not filtering through online sufficiently– and not just at Amazon.com and Barnes & Nobel. Few online booksellers, if any, attract reader comments and reviews as regularly and abundantly as Amazon, including Barnes & Nobel. Moreover, their author book pages are arguably not as dynamic or appealing as Amazon’s. Many bookseller websites are also plagued by metadata issues. Metadata is the information that the sites provide about books, including the book’s title, cover, summary, publication date, category, author, publisher and price.

CEO of AllRoamceBooks, Lori James told Smartbitchestrashybooks.com “Metadata is important to all booksellers, but it’s especially vital for a digital bookseller. We rely on it to replicate the bookstore browsing experience. When the metadata is rich and accurate, we can even improve on the brick and mortar experience in some ways …  It can help readers find books they didn’t know they wanted or needed.”

You’d be surprised at how many online bookstores (and in some cases even publishers’ websites) provide wrong or incomplete metadata – or display books without covers. This can be a pain to authors, not to mention a turn off to readers, and it can put a damper on sales.

The general consensus is that customer reviews can help to create buzz (positive or negative) and it can make a big difference in how well a book sells.  Perhaps Caribbean readers can do more to help put the spotlight on fellow Caribbean authors by posting comments and reviews of their books on Amazon and other bookseller sites, as well as sites like Goodreads and also tweet about them on Twitter – regardless of whether or not the books were purchased online.

What do you think? Should we make time to go online and give feedback about the books we’ve read, including those written by non-Caribbean authors?

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Responses

  1. As a Caribbean writer with a novel in progress, I found your article of great interest. I must admit to being guilty of not taking the time to post my comments/review of books by Caribbean authors that I have enjoyed. Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez, Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay, and Suspended Sentences by Mark McWatt come to mind. I have to change that, starting now.

    • By all means, go for it and spread the word online about the books you’ve read! Our writers sure could do with it.


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