Friday, July 21, 2006

It is the author's prerogative to whine on Fridays in summer.

It's a slow day (summertime Fridays historically being dead days in the publishing industry, which adjourns en masse to the Hamptons or Fire Island) and I'm feeling crabby, so I thought I'd reflect a bit on my book's shabby treatment at the hands of Amazon...thereby reverting to the conspiracy theories that alienated some readers a while back. Like I said...I'm crabby.

Though SHAM made its official bookstore debut on June 21, 2005, it had of course become available for online pre-ordering months earlier. I've talked to Amazon a number of times about their handling of me and my book; this was back when they would still talk to me (a pipeline that slammed abruptly shut last December when I began going after Dr. Phil and Love Smart in this blog). Right off the bat I was annoyed by the appearance of a highly negative "customer" review several weeks before SHAM, to my knowledge, had even shipped. If that review was based on anything at all, it would've had to be based on one of the advance "review copies" my publisher, Crown, had sent out, which were intended exclusively for use by book critics and professional columnists.* Not only were significant changes made in the final version of the book, but it's common Amazon practice to wait until a book has a chance to get into people's hands before running readers' opinions of it (good or bad). To me, that first Amazon review smacked of subterfuge--like, say, a plot from some faction of the self-help community, which was well aware that SHAM was coming. Crown made its case to Amazon and, in fairness, that review did get removed.

Of far greater concern has been the matter of the Spotlight reviews for SHAM--and this is an area where Crown and I have had very little success at getting cooperation, or even a reasonable explanation, from Amazon. At one point an Amazon rep told me they like to "rotate" the Spotlight reviews to give readers a "fair sampling" of comment on this or that new book. Oh really? In SHAM's case, I was assigned a 1-star Spotlight review by "real name" reviewer Susan Wise Bauer in early July (she wrote it on June 25), and it has remained fixed in place ever since. To date, the Bauer review has accumulated 170 out of 196 "helpful" votes. My second Spotlight review, by "Jersey Tomato," is almost as damning (two stars, plenty of rhetorical fang), has been in place uninterrupted since the second week of August, and has accumulated 80 out of 102 "helpful" votes. In the aggregate, those numbers represent a remarkable positive-feedback ratio. One has to feel that at least some potential buyers were swayed by the (apparent) strength of that criticism.

Which, I suppose, would be fine...if it was legit. In fact, those two rip-me-a-new-one reviews, with their extraordinary feedback ratings, are altogether incongruous with the general reception given SHAM. Formal reviews (The Wall Street Journal, Publisher's Weekly, Booklist) were almost uniformly glowing. Even on Amazon, the book boasts an overall reader rating of 3.5 stars. Shouldn't, then, at least one of the Spotlight reviews be positive? Especially since Amazon likes to, you know, "rotate" the reviews to reflect a "fair sampling" of customer opinion? How did two terrible reviews get anointed as Spotlights...and then win a near-total vote of confidence from Amazon readers?

On the other side of the spectrum we have the Love Smart page and its own well-documented irregularities--almost every one of which has benefited McGraw and his book. And you wonder why I'm suspicious?** And crabby?

* To be clear about this, I have no problem with paid reviewers writing reviews. That's their job, and one assumes they bring a fair amount of intelligence and discernment to the table (though not always, as the Washington Post's mistake-filled review illustrated). But it strikes me as unfair to allow supposed customers to crucify a book when--in fact--the odds that they actually read it are between slim and none.
** Needless to say, self-help books are huge money-makers for Amazon, and for publishers in general. There is, then, a strong incentive for them to not want to kill (or participate too lustily in the killing of) the golden goose. (My agent and I worried for a time that we wouldn't get any major publisher to bite on the project.) This same phenomenon also means that McGraw and his ilk have an awful lot of clout with Amazon.


Anonymous said...

Just think if Amazon was like Consumer Reports – what a different world we would live in. Besides Amazon’s low prices on some books, I still like perusing the bookstore (used or new, but I prefer used) for a special find.

Amazon takes all the fun out of that. As for the ratings, I don’t know of a person who reads them and takes the reviewer’s POV as the gospel.

How bad is bad in bookselling?

It’s slow in Indiana too…

Cosmic Connie said...

I think you're justified in feeling cranky. Shamazon...oops, I mean Amazon...isn't going to do anything to kill its biggest cash cows, and, obviously, Dr. Phil is a HUGE cash cow. In more ways than one. Oh, bad Connie.

In some ways Amazon is more forthright about its marketing tactics than, say, the large chain bookstores (which typically sell optimum display space to big-money publishers). Try being a small indie publisher or...gasp...a self-published author, and see how much primo display space you get in a typical Barnes & Noble.

Amazon, on the other hand, has various programs that publishers and authors can sign up for to improve the visibility of their books. Some are free, and others are quite affordable even to smaller publishers or individual authors. Yet there does seem to be some sneaky, behind-the-scenes stuff that Amazon, for obvious reasons, doesn't publicize.

I admit that I peruse the "customer reviews" when I'm thinking of purchasing a book or DVD or CD from Amazon. But I have learned to be very suspicious of these reviews when it comes to certain types of books. For example, a self-help/ motivational author I am thinking of almost invariably gets mostly five-star reviews. Yet many if not most of these ecstatic reviewers, whose lives have been changed so profoundly by the author's latest offering, are this person's friends and colleagues. Some are honest about it, some aren't. I also remember this same person advising clients who had published a book to persuade all of their friends to send in glowing reviews about the book to Amazon. I am sure this is just what many authors do; sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not. I also know that some get their friends and colleagues to send in snarky reviews of competing books.

Quite frankly, I wouldn't put it past the big publishers to resort to these same tactics. It's a competitive business, after all. Big money, not to mention big vacation homes in the Hamptons, are at stake.

But if indeed the tactics mentioned above are being used againt SHAM, that means someone finds you a little threatening, Steve. Whatever happened to the free exchange of ideas? Oh, wait, I forgot...nothing is free anymore.

I am sorry you're having a bad time with Amazon, but I hope your book is successful anyway and that your publisher really gets behind it with the paperback release.

Cosmic Connie said...

Rodger makes some good points about Amazon.

And speaking of reader reviews, I was just now looking on the Amazon page devoted to Dr. Phil's "Love Smart."

In a post dated July 20, 2006, a reviewer who goes by the name of "Roy McSpankindoodle," and claims to be from Atlantis, wrote:

"I personally have fallen in love with this book. Dr. Phil is a genius beyond compare. Even Oprah failed to find me the love of my life. We are now living together and have a healthy sex life.

"I never would have known that my own preteen cousin would be the perfect match for me."

Yeah, I think we definitely have to take some of these reviews with more than a grain of salt.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon, if you haven't yet seen the SHAMblog thread about "Dr. Marilyn Barry" and her reviews for Dr. Phil's "Love Smart," as well as other irregularities on the book's page--it's the topic of most archived threads between Dec. 10 and mid-February (an obsession for which I took some heat)--you should check it out. It's a textbook lesson in "the rigging and manipulation of Amazon customer ratings..."

Cosmic Connie said...

Good posts, Steve. I was so busy with some of the more recent posts on your blog that I had not yet explored the "Amazon papers." I think you have enough for another book here...but they probably won't carry it on Amazon, LOL.

PS -- I still love the name, "Roy McSpankindoodle!"