Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Reviews and Market Failures

I read this and it got me thinking. The folks there are all worth your time.

We live in a marvelously decentralized time. There is no pope or emperor telling us what we can and cannot read. Though traditional large press publication is centralized in a hand-full of giant corporate behemoths, only low-information readers confine themselves to their offerings.

Instead, we live in the golden age of indie and small-press publishing. Got a buck? Trust me. There are amazing ebooks being published right now for that price by genius authors. You just have to find them.

But, Steve--you may reply--I don't trust you. Very wise of you. I'll come back to that momentarily.

The trouble is finding these amazing works of genius. If you go to, everything is for sale. If you want some Evangelical Christian ripoff of Fifty Shades of Gray, I'll wager you can find it. (I haven't looked. I hope I lose that bet!) Amazon is also selling mystical t-shirts and groceries. So it is easy to get distracted before you can get to the good stuff.

Amazon has a good system of recommending new books that are like old books you've bought. This is helpful, but it's only a machine and state of the art machine understanding algorithms are liable to make mistakes. There are helpful blogs like Glenn Reynolds' that often provide links to books.

Thus you click on an Amazon page for a book you know nothing about by a fella you've never heard of published by an outfit that's similarly obscure. Do you click on it to buy it? It's only a buck or three. Not much risk there. But I generally get paid more than a few bucks an hour, making my reading time relatively valuable. We live in a busy time with a lot of competing demands on our time.

Once you start reading a book, you hope it doesn't suck, because it's hard to stop mid-way. I would prefer a book be really good or really bad, because if it's really good, i'll enjoy it. And if it's really bad, i want to decide that the book sucks sooner rather than later. Thus the worst books aren't 1-star or 2-star but mediocre 3-star works.

Thus I want to know a lot about the book before I make a decision to buy it or not. If this is a known author, no sweat. I have to work when I see an unknown author. I am unsatisfied with the blurbs for many books, because they're out to tease interest in the story--not give away what it's about. I'm never happy with any of the blurbs I've written for my works, so I understand when another author has the same problem. When I'm unsatisfied with the blurbs, I look at the reviews.

Reviews are a key factor in the buying decision. I asked my beta readers to write reviews, provided they be honest--even if they hated the work. And I exhort those I know best to write reviews. I know I'm imposing, and I know these reviews won't be as brutally honest as the reading public deserves.

However, others have been known to hire folks to write reviews. And there are companies that market reviews to the writer desiring reviews.

Sure, there's a lot of talking and hand-wringing about ethics and morality. Some of it may be sincere, but the problem is a basic conflict of interest. I need you to review my work. The reading public needs you to review my work. You are not a sacrificial animal and nobody can demand you work without compensation.

Sure, I'll send you a free review copy. That's compensation in part. You are spared the expense of buying the work, but you are not spared the time to read it or write the review. That's not enough.

But as long as I'm directly paying you for that time there's a conflict of interest. Honesty demands that you tell the truth in your review. And the reading public deserves to know the weaknesses of my work that you might not want to include if I were paying you.

The result is a market failure. We need someone whose interest is in honesty paying you instead of me whose interest is selling books (and honesty, too, modulo conflict of interest).

I don't have an answer here. Just an observation and some speculation.

  1. Maybe some indie readers' union could pool a few bucks to pay for reviews. This would be best, because readers' interest is in good reads.
  2. Maybe vendor(s) like, or could identify and pay reviewers for their time.
  3. Maybe the government mental health board could identify ideologically pure works and commission favorable reviews on that basis.

OK, that last bit is a bad idea, which means it will most likely happen.

Seriously, we have a market failure here. I don't have a corner on good ideas. Do any of you have any idea(s) can fix it?


  1. This is one of the main reasons I started reviewing independent published books on my site. I try and give a thought out, honest review of the books I read.

    I think reviews need to be more than just "the book was good" or "the book sucked" since those are very subjective. So many reviews are only one or two sentences saying the book was 5* but don't give me any information that help me decide if I would like it.

    I try and review books in a way that helps people decide if this book is the type of book they would like. I appreciate that you do similar when you review books here, Steve.

    1. When I learned that i want reviews, I started writing reviews for other authors. Usually here. Only once did I really get negative. I think the information the reading public needs is "would i like this book?" And the only you can get that is if someone describes the specific attributes of the work--its strengths and its weaknesses. If you looooove romances, you need to know that the love of Jayne's life is named Vera---and is a gun. So, maybe you should go on to the next work.

      Good vs bad writing is often a merely fitting vs unfitting the reader's tastes and expectation. A review should provide that info.

  2. I certainly do plenty of reviews on Amazon. It would be nice if I got paid for it. Even if only in Amazon credits.

    Tossing It Out


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