Making the most of lousy book reviews on Amazon

By Grant Jacobs 26/07/2010

Here I join in with Jennifer Ouellette in ranting about lousy book reviews on Amazon (or the like), and add a consolation for writers that some of us put them to positive use.

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouelette reviews samples of the worst reviews of some recent popular science books at Amazon and concludes that

The lesson to be gleaned from all this, for all those who’ve written books, or are contemplating doing so, is this: just as you can never really believe your own publicity, so, too, you should never take what reviewers – especially of the anonymous variety on Amazon – say to heart.

So true.

newton and the counterfeiter

I’d like to add a consolation thought for writers (and publishers) that not all is lost.

Some of us put those terrible reviews to positive use, using the reviewer’s errors figure out what the book is not.

This might seem dead obvious, and in some ways it is, but there is a slight bit of subtlety here.

A ‘classic’ mistake I’ve seen (year after year…) is buyers of, say, computer programming literature who have bought a reference book thinking it to be a textbook then score the book poorly complaining that the reference book didn’t teach the subject, it ‘only’ provided the material in drier form to be looked up if you already knew the basics.

Of course: that’s what computer reference books are for.*

If you’re looking for a reference – you already know the know the overall concepts of the subject and you want a source book for the specifics of how to use each method – the negative review positively confirms the specific nature of the book.

In a similar way, computer programming books choose to target those already familiar with programming or those starting out; their needs are very different.

Galileo’s Daughter

Some of the reviews Ouellette holds up as examples make this ’I bought the wrong kind of book’ error too. Her complaints about them strike a chord.

Ouelette’s first thoughtless reviewer complains that Newton and the Counterfeiter ’was about the science behind many of his philosophical discoveries’ rather than a mystery thriller. If you’re after popular science this nicely confirms the other reviews are on target, the book is about science and you are it’s target audience.

Likewise the review she cites of Galileo’s Daughter clearly make a mistake, thinking she was buying a novel, not a biography:

The title is a total misrepresentation of the novel. It is a straight biography of Galileo and very little more.

You don’t say? Looked at positively, this makes it pretty unambiguous what the book is. It doesn’t deserve the negative review for the buyer’s error, though.

Reviews really have to be within the context of the book’s intended audience. If the reviewer screwed up and bought a book for which they were clearly not the intended audience, well gee.

the god delusion

More seriously, it really is not right for a reviewer to put down a book because the reviewer made a mistake. They can certainly draw attention to it, especially if the publisher’s material is ambiguous or misleading, but that’s not a reflection on the book itself.

Then there are those reviewers that really are arguing about a personal disbelief in the subject matter, rather than the book itself. Try Dawkins The God Delusion as an extreme example. This can extend to some academic topics that are still under debate, although less often.

Oullette offers plenty more examples of this from more recent publications. I’ll let you wander over her way to pick them up.

You really do have to feel sorry for the authors and publishers when you read some of these reviews. They really are off-base and I imagine that without a little care on the part of those buying, the negative reviews would have an impact on sales.


* Some works prefix a reference work with a high-speed introductions for experienced programmers, which I guess confuses some thinking that these introductory sections should teach beginners.

Other articles at Code for life:

Consumer brain-computer interface

Vitalism ideology in chiropractic advertising

Beyond Preaching to the Choir

Autism genetics, how do you copy?

Testing common ancestry to all modern-day life

0 Responses to “Making the most of lousy book reviews on Amazon”

  • I have to say that I have noted Amazon reviewers, who are quite often members of the general public, can’t spell properly and have appalling grammar. I would hope that most people ignore comments from people in that category….!

  • I’ve often thought it would be fun to find controversial books by searching for a bi-modal distribution of ratings on amazon. Most of the books I check out there have a positive skew (a lot of fives and a few middling marks) while a lot of popular evolution books have almost as many ones a fives but hardly any in the middle.

    I do realise i define “fun” in a slightly unique way

  • Hi Anna,

    I know what you mean!

    A general point in all of this that I should have mentioned in hindsight was the that flawed reviews essentially make a mockery of the star rating, the overall score they assign. The reviews themselves aren’t completely worthless (some are very useful), but you need to manually screen out those you don’t think are worthy of being there at all!

  • Hi David,

    (Second try: WP threw me out again, sigh.)

    I was going to mention bimodal distributions myself in fact! Although I wasn’t thinking of a survey so much as Dawkins’ book.

    It would be a fun way to find controversial books.

    Now if we could write some code to scrap the scores off the web pages (in principle not that hard to do, unless they have something in the server blocking robots, etc.) and put together a dataset to study… I’d be thinking of a wider survey though, they’d be other interesting questions to explore too 🙂

  • Galileo’s Daughter a ‘straight biography of Galileo & very litle more’? I would say the ‘reviewer’ didn’t read much of the book!

  • Ed Yong tweeted to the effect that “The one-star review for @iansample’s book on Amazon is hilarious. Unhelpful certainly but funny ;-)”

    Sample’s book is titled: Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle

    The review, by ‘Grumpy’ reads, in it’s entirety:

    “I was extremely upset and disappointed by this book.

    It is not “massive” at all.

    It is the same size as a normal book.

    I have sent it back.”

    When I have time to kill I might start a post on unbelievably stupid reviews on Amazon. You’re welcome to offer your favourites 🙂