Writers, the reviews are in! We hope…

I was thrilled to find the complete works of Louisa May Alcott on Kindle today. It contained every single thing she wrote professionally, complete with notes and original illustrations, for $2.99. While I checked out the product information to make sure it was what it said it was, my eyes strayed to the reviews. And there, at the top, was a reader who “took away a star” because the collection included stories the person didn’t want to read.

Ouch. Tough crowd out there.

Louisa May Alcott is NOT thinking here "Geez, someone just dunned me a star on Amazon for putting too much stuff in my complete works collection."
Louisa May Alcott is NOT thinking here “Geez, someone just dunned me a star on Amazon for putting too much stuff in my complete works collection.”

Louisa May Alcott doesn’t need the stars. Even if she hadn’t been dead for more than 125 years, she’s got pretty solid cred and her books are sellers.

But for those of us writing in the 21st century, stuff like that may seem like a major blow. Writers are dependent in many ways on Amazon, whether they’re self-published or published by the biggest house out there. And that means what happens with our books on Amazon is the subject of a lot of attention and talk — including the reviews, what they mean and what impact they have on everything from how the book is promoted on Amazon to the book sales and author rankings.

Some authors got all worked up last month when Amazon announced it was cracking down on incentivized reviews for products sold on the site. Those are reviews in exchange for a product — be it a book, a vacuum cleaner or anything else.

I’m not sure why writers would get so upset if they’re doing things the way they’re supposed to. Many writers and publishers give away books in exchange for an honest review, and that’s not what Amazon is focusing on. As far as I’m concerned, that exchange is no different from sending a free book to a reviewer at a newspaper, magazine, website or blog. The writer and publisher are rolling the dice that the reviewer will like the book.

Still, Amazon now weights its star rankings toward verified purchases, and that doesn’t include free books. (Newer reviews and whether other readers found the review helpful also add weight to the star ranking).

I’m not aware of many traditionally published writers who try to play games with the Amazon algorithm. Those of us with traditional publishers don’t control how our books are presented on the page and our publishers play by the rules. I don’t try to delve too deeply into it, because it makes my head hurt. “Algorithm” is not a word I use very frequently, nor is it a concept I want to spend any time thinking about.

I know there are writers who get their “friends and family” to all write reviews, but I think that’s a fairly obvious ploy that most readers can see through. I’m thrilled when someone I don’t know reviews one of my books — not only because it means a total stranger read my book and liked it, but because it adds legitimacy to my feedback. Reviews with criticisms? Bring them on, if they’re sincere. It means you read the book and cared enough about what you read to feel something about it.

I once submitted a story to a self-publishing site, just for kicks, and charged 99 cents for it. One of the reviewers gave me one star and the review said, “This was okay for the price.” That’s the entire review, right there. At first I thought, “why did this guy even bother?” But then it occurred to me that I must have pissed someone off enough that they want to submarine me with a one-star damning-with-faint-praise review. Next to the couple other reviews, all which had four or five stars, it looked a little silly and ended up not bothering me at all.

Here’s how I feel about it all: As far as pure marketing to readers who are looking for a good book to read, nothing helps like a sincere, positive review. When someone compliments one of my books, I often urge them to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I find many people are shy about it. “Don’t worry,” I tell them. “Just say what you told me.”

The bottom line is that I’d like people to read my books. If they like them enough, I hope they tell others. Any writer who takes what he or she is doing seriously would say the same.

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EVENT: Maureen and fellow Maine Crime Writer Jen Blood will be at the Belgrade Lakes annual holiday fair, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, December 3, at the Belgrade Community Center for All Seasons. Books for signing and sale. Stop by and say hi and get some Christmas shopping done!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Both books are also available in digital audio through Audible and iTunes. 

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