MaxBarry.com
this space for rent

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 04
May
2004

Lost in the Amazon

Writing The average rating of any book on Amazon.com is four stars. No matter how brilliant or terrible: four stars. The only exceptions are:

  • If the book is brand new, its rating is five stars because the only reviews have been secretly written by the author.
  • If the book is widely unknown, it has four and a half stars because the only people who have bothered to post reviews are devoted fans.
  • If the book gets lots of publicity and everyone says it’s great, it gets three and a half stars because people complain it’s overhyped.

Before the UK launch of Jennifer Government, I had a chat over lunch with my British editor about the despicable things publishers do. It was a long and wide-ranging discussion, as you can imagine. But the part that’s relevant here is that he said, “It seems that if you post a truly awful review on Amazon, a completely over-the-top bashing, it’ll generate four or five very positive reviews in response.” Then he added, “Not that we would do that,” which was just as well, because I was getting nervous about their marketing plan. But he’s right: Amazon is not so much a collection of reader reviews as a forum for people to argue about books.

I find it tough to read Amazon’s user reviews of my own novels, partly because they can be incredibly scathing and partly because many are written by obvious lunatics and their fevered scratchings bear little resemblance to English. Bada-boom! Oh yeah, that felt good. Anyway, bad user reviews range from the vicious (“Much better than William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition! But that’s not saying much”) to the really vicious (“If you must read this book, do some good and support your local library. Sales will only encourage mediocrity”). It’s difficult to restrain the urge to track these people down, follow them to their work, and stand behind them all day yelling, “Hey, everyone! Carl’s doing a crappy job! His work is lazy and uninspired, and if you ask me, he should be unemployed! Frankly, even I could flip burgers better!” But that would be churlish.

Even the good user reviews can be a little frustrating. Take this review of Jennifer Government from hutsutraw in New Jersey:

This book has a lot of characters, blazing story - you really have to focus on what is going on where and with who. It is a fast paced, entertaining story. The only fault I have with this book is the lack of character description. Other than that, it’s definatly worth reading.

Great! Me, I dislike physical description (but that’s a subject for another blog), but I understand that not everybody feels that way. Thanks, hutsutraw. Only… wait a minute… what’s the rating? Three frickin’ stars! Three! Because I didn’t tell you what color shirt everyone was wearing? I get three out of five for writing a novel that is allegedly flawless in every way except that!?

I tell you, it’s not good for the blood pressure. I’m not one of those writers who refuses to read reviews of his stuff, but I can definitely see where they’re coming from. Matthew Reilly, an Aussie author, once told me, “If you believe good reviews, you have to believe bad ones, too.” My view is a little different. It seems to me that people who write good reviews about my books are intelligent, discerning, witty, and extremely good-looking. Bad reviews, on the other hand, are written by escaped asylum patients. I know, what are the odds? But experience really does seem to bear this out.

P.S. Humble apologies to everyone on the mailing list who got two copies of my latest few posts. I think the problem has been fixed now.

Comments

This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Galen (#1516)

Location: In a land far, far away, sometimes referred to as college.
Quote: ""It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious. " - Oscar Wilde"
Posted: 3363 days ago

"Me, I dislike physical description [...]"

Finally, someone else! I've gotten in trouble in more writing workshops than I can count for crossing out that one paragraph in which the author shows that they have not truly created their character, but rather saw someone on television they decided to write a story about. Do we really need to know what the character sees when they look in the mirror?

Comments are now closed for this post.

Built on Blosxom