By Evangeline Jennings
We spend a lot of time thinking about books. About reading, writing, and publishing. What works, what doesn’t, and why? But one thing we’ve never discussed is the book reviewer. Which is strange. Amazon reviewers, in particular, are becoming increasingly controversial and important gatekeepers – most specifically for independent writers and publishers. So when I recently stumbled across one, I leapt at the chance to invite him or her – “Harkius” values anonymity – to discuss the role.
I see you have been reviewing books – and occasional other things – on Amazon since 2002. Do you review anywhere else? And why did you decide to become a reviewer?
Not really. I mainly did it on Amazon.com back in the day because it was a way to keep track of which books I read, and also to remember which books I wanted to recommend to people. Around that time, a lot of people started asking me for book recommendations – for a couple of different reasons – and Amazon.com seemed like a straightforward place to keep it. I think that my first review was for a book that annoyed the shit out of me, and so I wanted to go online to pan it. This was back in the day before such a phenomenon was so common, and trolls weren’t hiding behind every monitor. Now, of course, everything gets reviewed, good and bad, and you have to hope that you can get the signal-to-noise ratio a little higher.
And what do you get out of it?
For a long time, the only thing that I got out of it was a perverse satisfaction that, after I died, there would be some sign that I had once been alive. It was looking rather unlike I would ever become a published author – shameless self-plug alert! My book is now available on Amazon.com. As such, I needed to do SOMETHING to establish my immortality. And since Ponce De Leon never found his magic fountain, I guessed that reviewing was probably the second best way. Now, of course, I am a member of Amazon’s Vine program, and they send me nifty things all of the time. For example, I just got an ARC of Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist. The program has introduced me to several of my favorite authors, as well as providing me with a broad spectrum of items that I’ve enjoyed. And hated.
In 2003, while reviewing The Da Vinci Code you said Dan Brown was your favourite author. Do you stand by that today?
Oh god no. At the time, Dan Brown hadn’t quite exploded onto the cultural zeitgeist the way that he would about five months later. I actually picked that up that book, along with a CD, at a local shop. Amusing side note, it was actually the first purchase I ever made with a credit card. Aside aside, I have always had something of an antipathy toward things that become TOO lauded, TOO popular – Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, Twilight, etc. Perhaps I am a closet hipster, but I always feel that the combination of cultural awareness of the subtext along with the inevitable let down of the actual material causes me a form of intellectual whiplash that results in my angrily hurling a book across the room. The inevitable hype that The Da Vinci Code drew and the irritation said hype caused me, combined with the awful follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, was enough to knock him off the top spot and into the cellar.
It’s also worth noting that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was essentially just a watered down version of Foucalt’s Pendulum that was sanitized and simplified for the masses. The latter is a better book in virtually every way, even if reading it feels like being a salmon swimming upstream
I don’t know that I would say that I have a favorite author now. I do religiously read every new piece of Murakami Haruki’s that is translated into English – at least the fiction … I don’t want to hear him talk about running or jazz … I just. don’t. care – I also love Brandon Sanderson’s work. There are others that I can’t get enough of. Marcelo Figueroa’s Kamchatka was a beautiful piece. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was spectacular.
And talking of Dan Brown and That Kind Of Thing, here’s a true story. There is a book titled The Christ Conspiracy by someone called D.M. Murdock, who writes under the pen name, Acharya S. The underlying claims of The Christ Conspiracy appear to be that there was no person called Jesus and that Christianity was created by members of various secret societies, mystery schools, and religions in order to unify the Roman Empire under one state religion. Ho. Hum. In 2005, you reviewed a quite different book – The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe – for Amazon, and your views so alarmed Murdock and other members of the Christ Conspiracy Yahoo group that one member asked: “do we have any dirt on ‘em (you) like we do that dirt bag J.P. Holding?”
Were you aware of their interest?
Yeah, I saw that. That was kind of funny. That’s hardly the only online group that has decided to cast aspersions my way. Amusingly enough, they seem to have fallen apart before I found out about it.
How did you feel about it?
Well, I find it kind of sad that I am bad enough at communicating that they totally missed the point of my review. It suggests that I really do deserve a lot of the comments that I receive that my reviews suck.
Is this the sort of thing that makes you determined to protect your anonymity?
Nah. My determination to do so has completely other origins. Mainly I want to keep my online and real life identities separate. I read a story in the newspaper the other day that a guy in a bar got beaten down by three people because he, “made the bathroom smell bad”. While it’s a little easier to get ragey in real life and attack someone, there are some disturbed people out there.
Also, there’s an inherent dichotomy in reviewing. In order to be maximally honest, you need to be able to remain anonymous, lest you really need to consider the feelings of the creators of what you review. Unfortunately, true anonymity dumps you into the same Anonymous bin as everyone else, and the signal-to-noise ratio becomes so low as to be worthless. The only real solution is to use a name, but not your real name. Even then, it doesn’t always work. For example, there are other people running around on the internet using my name.
The Christ Conspiracy dirt-digging approach seems a little extreme, but what about other authors and publishers – do they ever respond to your reviews?
Yeah. Alexander Hemon, a winner of the MacArthur “genius award”, got annoyed enough at my review of his soporific novel-cum-autobiography that he took me to task about it in the comments section of the review. Either him or someone pretending to be him.
On another occasion, there’s also John Warner, who wrote The Funny Man, which I also panned. He “interviewed” himself as a form of publicity for his book and wrote:
What did people say about The Funny Man in its original, hardcover/digital incarnation?
Someone named “Harkius” on Amazon said, “The plot is weak. The characters are wholly unlikeable.”
What else did Harkius say?
“I get annoyed every time I see it on my bookshelf.”
How do you feel about that?
I’m excited that I wrote a book that wound up on someone’s bookshelf, someone who also gave 1-star to Hari Kunzru, and 4 stars to the Braun Silk-Epil 5280 Epilator.
You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Harkius, haven’t you?
Does it show?
So, I guess you’d say that, yes, some people including authors have noticed. Recently, though, I started critiquing books for authors who are interested in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award, and those authors have been uniformly appreciative of my comments. I’m practically making a little cottage industry out of it.
People are paying you to critique their work?
They are. Typically, I have been reviewing ~5000 word excerpts, but I am considering branching out into larger pieces – for appropriate fees. I’ve no idea whether they’re people still in (the competition), people out, or next year’s participants. I don’t ask, because it’s generally unnecessary to know in order to give advice. I think that it is especially helpful for them because I’ve actually been one of the reviewers for ABNA before, in addition to having read a few thousand books – spanning most genres.
Thus far, people have taken their critiques remarkably well, and I’ve been pleased with my ability to help them. As far as the standard, I’d say that the average piece I’ve gotten is probably a significant step closer to being ready for publication than the ABNA excerpts that I officially reviewed a few years ago, but I’ve heard mumblings that the submissions have been improving. I haven’t gotten anything that I would say is ready for publication yet. But that’s a pretty high bar, since I see a lot of published books that I would say aren’t ready either. One of the pieces of advice that I always give people is to consider every single word that they write, especially any verb, adjective, or noun. Is it precisely the best word? What are the nuances? Have you sat down with a thesaurus and a dictionary, looking up the definitions of every single synonym? If you haven’t, I’ll probably have suggestions. And I am fairly liberal about making suggestions about word usage and other mechanics, in addition to the nuances of character and plot that I get from the small samples that I’ve taken so far. But generally, they’ve been pretty good. I’m always looking for more customers, though!
Interesting. Now back to reviewing. How has your reviewing style developed?
I write a fair number of reviews. In the beginning, I wrote mostly about the impressions that I already had. That still happens when I review things that aren’t books. And some bad genre books that I can’t bring myself to review in depth. Most books, though, get a review that is based on what I perceive to be the most important elements of literature. That seems to work well, although my average review is probably > 1500 words in length, so is probably longer than Michio Kakutani’s weekly article for the New York Times.
How do you approach a new book?
Generally, I walk. Sometimes, if it is a book that I really, really want to read, I might run. But I usually walk.
What do you look for?
Pages. Text. Pictures if I’m lucky.
No, wait. In order to be enjoyable, a book has to do at least one thing really well and not tremendously suck at the others. For example, Wuthering Heights did setting really well. But the characters were so unrealistic that it became a bit boring and the plot was banal. Ergo, I didn’t like it. If characters are the thing, the plot can’t be insipid. If the plot is driving it, the characters should at least not be caricatures. It’s not that tricky, but apparently a lot of people can’t get it right. I write a lot of 1, 2, and 3 star reviews.
Do you feel an obligation to the author?
Not at all. If you can’t take the criticism, don’t publish the book. I don’t care if you won a Nobel prize. If I don’t like your book, I am going to say so.
To the reader?
Absolutely. In order for reviews to have any meaning, any merit, you have to keep in mind that you’re writing it for someone else as much or more than you’re writing it for yourself. So, what would YOU want to know if you were going to drop a twenty to pick this book up?
How do you decide what to review?
For a long time, I decided to review EVERY book I read. Then I read a few classics with hundreds of reviews, and I started to question the purpose. Then I got invited to the Amazon Vine program, where people are selected to receive items gratis, but are required to review 80% of them. Shortly afterward, I stopped reviewing quite everything I read.
Now, I only don’t review books that are a) not for the Vine program and either b) classics, c) something I’ve already read in the past, or d) something that I don’t think deserves a review. Like a lot of genre fiction or mass market paper backs.
How has reviewing affected your reading? Do you ever read purely for pleasure?
Until a book gets bad, I always read purely for pleasure. Except stuff I have to read for work. That stuff usually works better than Nyquil. Sometimes I decide to read a work document while I brush my teeth before bed. I woke up on the bathroom floor once, cold, neck cramped, hugging porcelain. It wasn’t pretty.
I know you have also published a collection of stories yourself. How would you review your own work?
Ooooh, that’s going to leave a bruise. Harshly. I’m actually going to take that bad boy down, because it’s really not very good. Those stories were written over a decade ago, mostly, and they need SUBSTANTIAL reworking. Of the four stories, I absolutely loathe one. Another I just didn’t get right. One is good. The other needs reworking in it’s current four. I’d give it two stars.
Has time spent reviewing other books taught you more about writing? Have you written anything else?
It has taught me a great deal about writing. Hopefully that will be more apparent in my next work. Oh, how coincidental, you asked about that as well. I am working on two different things. First, I am going to rework the fourth story from Unhappy Endings. I believe that, with some strong changes, I will be able to make some hay in next year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.
On another front, I am working, slowly, on a story about a man who loses both of his loves. There’s an angle to it that is like nothing I’ve ever read before. If I write it right, I should make enough people angry that anonymity will have been a good idea.
Tell us about the Amazon Vine dealio?
Essentially, some number of people are chosen by Amazon to become Vine Voices. The selection criteria are mysterious. Once chosen, we receive free items each month that we choose, and the only requirement is that we review at least 80% of what we choose. Occasionally, there are indications that excessively negative reviews will not be posted, or that an item or two, if chosen, MUST be reviewed. But it’s generally not too corrupt.
Is it focused on mainstream products? Do you ever, for example, see independently published or self-published books through that channel?
I should couch everything that I say about Amazon Vine with the following disclosure:
Most of what we discuss on the Vine message boards comes in the form of speculation based on what we’ve observed. None of it has been officially confirmed or denied by Amazon.com.
That said, we think that it is likely that it costs a fair amount for items to be offered in the Vine program in addition to providing the items and paying for the shipping. In other words, Amazon serves as an agent connecting reviewers and manufacturers, and doesn’t ever seem to officially take possession of the items that we review – although they are sent to us by Amazon on behalf of the manufacturers. What this means, effectively, is that it is hugely expensive to get an item on Vine. Or, at least, from the perspective of an independent, self-publisher.
There are occasionally small press books offered, including a selection of Harvard Business books. But I’ve never seen truly independently published or self-published books offered through Vine. That said, a great many of us receive daily emails offering us the opportunity to receive free copies of their books in exchange for a review. My sincerest advice to anyone doing that is not to bulk email. Not only can we tell pretty easily, but we also have threads on our message board dedicated to sharing these emails, so that people can find out whether they were actually targeted or not.
We interrupt this program to bring you an update! This interview is reported as it happened. However, three days after the interview, I was contacted by Harkius with an update on the Amazon Vine program. Before we get on with the “fun” part of the interview, here is the up-to-date skinny:
Historically, the Amazon Vine program worked as I previously described. In early April, however, they changed the program. Instead of having a 20% cushion of items that we select that we don’t need to review, Vine members are now required to review 100% of their items. Moreover, the reviews must be provided within 30 days.
The consequences of this should be immediately obvious.
First, there will be a lot of Vine members who choose the path of least resistance, and write poor reviews that are temporary. This has been something that I and other Vine members have fought against in the past. People often write, “Well, I didn’t really fully experience this product, but I had to write a review, so I will come back and edit this later.” That happened when we didn’t even have a time line, just because people were being greedy. Now, with a time restriction, I expect that this will become quite commonplace.
Second, more reviews will follow that are the result of little experience with the item, or even no experience with it. For example, unscrupulous neighbors and shipping company employees occasionally abscond with items. The Vine program items taken in this fashion are essentially never replaced. But, it requires special effort to get them removed from your list. So, a lot of people will probably write reviews saying, “This never arrived. As such, I can’t really review it. But I have to write twenty words, so I wrote this.” As Amazon has recently clarified that, apparently, it is not necessary to actually READ a book to review it, I guess that these reviews are at least consistent with their intentions. As bafflingly stupid as that is, it at least seems something that they’re willing to accept.
Third, the most useful of the more common reviews we’re likely to see (as sad as that is), are those that consist of, “I wasn’t able to finish this book. I didn’t like it, but I have to review everything that I get, so I wrote this.” Some people, the really good ones, will explain why they couldn’t. But I guess that a lot of people will simply say that the book is awful and that no one should read it. And those are likely to be, as I said, the most helpful of the increasingly common reviews due to this change.
The most obvious response is that people should only choose things that they WANT to review. The problem is that people have little information about what they’re choosing, and they often don’t have much chance to do research, or the item will be taken before they can get to it – there is a limited, but shared, pool of items that manufacturers provide to Amazon. A frighteningly high number of people will leap before they look, and then write reviews that are bad, for at least the three reasons that I’ve already listed.
In essence, human nature and the new program dictates are going to conspire to render the greater part of Vine program reviews as even worse than their critics have said that they’ve been all along. I wouldn’t be surprised to see further changes come down the road, requiring all reviews to include at least some positive statement about the product, regardless of the review rating.
This is bad for the manufacturers, since a significant number of reviews will be poor, and they will reflect badly on the product. Also, many people who would have simply not reviewed the item will do so, and will give it a bad rating, dragging the item’s overall rating down. This is clearly undesirable for the manufacturer. Moreover, they will be a complete waste of the item itself. Some loss is to be expected in promotional items, but to send them out and get a bad review in return – or even a poorly written one – would feel like cutting a hole in your own arm because someone tells you that it will help … and then being forced to pour lemon juice into the cut, because “that will help, too”.
Surprisingly, it’s also bad for Amazon. I fundamentally believe that a fair proportion of their business is derived from the tremendous number of reviews on their website. With that information being provided on the same page where you make your purchase, it makes it more likely for people to make purchases at Amazon than at a local brick and mortar store, since they can see the reviews and immediately make their purchase. But if you undermine that reviewing process and fill it with garbage, people will stop taking Vine reviews seriously. Amazon already saw that their review credibility was suffering, which was why they instituted the Amazon Verified Purchase system. While Vine reviews are considered by many to be meaningless, the rank and file purchaser on Amazon will consider them to be higher quality…at least until they find an increasing number that are garbage. Then they’ll start to wonder about the quality of the program and Amazon’s ability to choose Vine members.
Initially, the Vine program proceeds might swell, increasing profits from a program that has, essentially, been all win. But in the end, these changes might kill the goose that was laying golden eggs. If manufacturers see their products end up in inept hands, being the star of bad or meaningless reviews, they’ll back out of the program. And then all of the proceeds will disappear. As will many disgruntled Vine members. I, for one, know that this weakened my brand loyalty substantially.
And Amazon has said “it is not necessary to actually READ a book to review it“? Seriously?
Surprisingly, Amazon says it is completely legitimate to do this (Review books on Amazon before you read them). “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review,” Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said. “Some people write reviews on why they decided not to buy, or write a review as a gift giver rather than the product owner.”
So there you have it. The latest goings-on at Amazon. As of today. And the interesting factoid that “fake” and “supportive” reviews by family members and friends are perfectly acceptable to Amazon if they happen to be for a product that Amazon has published itself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
And now a short musical interlude before we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Three authors you’d love to sit down to tea with?
Isn’t that four? Recommend five books to our readers
Ooooh…That’s tough. Instead, I will recommend four books…that are fiction and four that aren’t.
Kraken by China Mieville
Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Nonzero by Robert Wright
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
You’re going to spend a year in solitary confinement. You can take one song, one book, and one movie. What do you take and how long will you last before you go completely insane?
Isn’t that just a clever way of asking me what my favorite book, song, and movie are?
Yes. And no. Perhaps your favourites would drive you crazy if they were all you had.
And why would I have a dvd player, a stereo, and a lamp?
Because we run a very enlightened gulag. Pussy Riot should be so lucky.
One Song: Nothing Else Matters by Metallica.
One Movie: GATTACA
One Book: –
I would last around…364 days.
Unfortunately, the Pankhearst Penitentiary operates a blanket ban on power ballads, so here’s a good song instead.
You inherit five million dollars the same day aliens land on the earth and say they’re going to blow it up in two days. What do you do?
Ask them if five million dollars is a large enough bribe to save my spouse. If that didn’t work, I would buy five million dollars worth of …
Were those deliberate omissions – the missing book and five million dollars worth of blank?
Yep, they certainly were
Curious. Here’s another good song.