A Review Too Deep? Debbie Bennett

Ah – that thorny old subject of book reviews. Our own Ali Bacon recently covered this topic, but I’d like to embellish that post, if I may, with some new information.

I saw this link on a facebook post the other day. This shows a new type of review procedure that Amazon is apparently trialling. Now us Brits are often last in line for anything new on Amazon, but asking around, I found that it’s not the rumour-factory working overtime and people are indeed being presented with this new-style option when leaving a book review on Amazon.com.

So this is a whole new can of worms. Readers are being asked, for example to rate the sexual content of a book:

Seems fair enough, doesn't it? You can let potential readers know whether the book contains sex or not - warn people in advance. And No sexual content seems straightforward enough, I agree. But what is the difference between Some and Explicit? Erotica is expected to have heavy sex scenes, so would a weak erotica novel therefore just be classed as Some sexual content? And what if there's a steamy sex scene in chapter one, and then nothing else? Say it's Explicit and you will annoy readers who are expecting it to be explicit throughout; say it's Some and you will annoy readers who are expecting a more-or-less clean read.

It's the same with the Violence category. You can't please all of the people all of the time, and should we even be trying as we are bound to get it wrong. My idea of graphic is probably very different from yours.

And what about the Narration category? As writers, we get this totally. But will a reader understand? Or maybe that is what the I don't know choice is for!

There's a school of thought that says this new review procedure is not for readers at all - that it's simply a means to build more tightly-focused customer data and therefore offer the reader a better list of books they might like to read. Maybe it's never destined to be seen on-screen. But if this is so then how will that work? Let's say I'm looking for a thriller with no sex and no violence (there must be some, right?). I've read this book and it has too much sex and violence for me, so I mark it up accordingly. But how does Amazon know that I'm looking for less sex and violence? The questions merely ask about this book - not it's suitability for my requirements. So even though I'm looking for something light and gentle, will Amazon keep recommending hardcore crime to me?

Let's put this into practice. I've just had a play on Amazon.com, leaving a review for a book I've recently read: Lisa Hinsley's Stolen.

Author's writing: Great. No issues there. Lisa's a talented author and I've read several of her books. She's also a lovely lady.

Is there violence? Now here's the question. What do you define as violence? Without wanting to introduce spoilers, there are one or two scenes that could possibly be described as violent, but then that depends on your tolerance level and what you consider to be violent. But it's not a sweet romance, so I'll have to say Some violence. Other people might say No violence. And what about psychological violence? Or am I just reading too much into this, now? :-)

Is there sexual content? Probably less contentious than violence. It's not romance, so I'd have to say No sexual content. Even though there is - a bit. But not enough to be Some ...

How is the story narrated? First person, though the options are rather ambiguous and some stories could fall into more than one. 

And that's all I get. No plot or mood questions. Next is the star rating and the box to write my text in, which I shall go away and do right now.

So what do we reckon? A new review system. Will these answers be seen by customers or just used to stoke the fires of Amazon's algorithms? Watch this space.



Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post. I am watching with interest how all of this will pan out
Mari Biella said…
Interesting post, Debbie. It will be interesting to see what happens next. The Amazon execs are clever and, I'm pretty sure, are constantly looking for ways to improve their algorithms and the extent to which they can tailor their service to individual readers. I'm unconvinced by these new developments, though: as you say, your answers to these questions would depend on your own tastes and tolerance levels, and might be completely useless as a guide for someone else.
Lydia Bennet said…
Thank you Debbie for alerting us to this new Amazon idea and all its drawbacks. They may be beta testing it and that may feed back some problems with it they can iron out. The attempts by amazon to please both readers ie customers who buy stuff, and authors ie customers of KDP who are also readers who buy stuff, will be an ongoing series of fits and starts. It's all new territory. Certainly in crime fiction you'd expect violence ie murder, but whether you get the details or not makes a big difference to how much readers enjoy it. but the main thing about the new system is it's taking away an advantage of the written review where a reader can say more about the levels and types of sex or violence - people might just look at these ratings and miss some very good books they'd really enjoy.
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Debbie, and your apparently gentle queries about the overlapping values and the subtle range of perceptions readers bring to the text highlight the absurdity of trying to categorise them. For a while we've had to accept the tyranny of the lowest common denominator; now even that's being lowered.

And, having reviewed Stolen myself, i agree with your analysis of the difficulties in trying to make it fit within these arbitrary tags,
Nick Green said…
Coming soon: Amazon Fine Art Auction.
I will bid on a painting:
* in oils on canvas
* between four and six square foot
* predominantly green in colour
* with secondary colours including yellow and orange
* but no purple
* 4 on the realistic scale (where 0 is Rothko and 10 is a photo)

Yep, that could work.
I was reading about this on the Passive Voice. A bit alarming. The consensus on there was that it was Amazon using readers to fine tune their search algorithms and if it didn't work - or didn't work efficiently - they would jettison it pretty quickly. I suppose the thing about big data is that what a single reader says won't make any difference, but if several thousand readers judge something to have explicit sexual content, they aren't going to bother marketing it to a Clean Reader devotee. Maybe it will stop some of those 'I gave this four stars because of the profanity' reviews!
Jan Needle said…
get rid of the filth, i say. it'll soon be good friday!

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