The Power of Reviews

by Meredith Maslich


Amazon and are changing the nature of marketing, but specifically book marketing and distribution forever.

It was once the case, when traditional publishing ruled the world, that books without reviews by major media outlets and professional book critics were dead in the water. But that is no longer the case.

Take for example, Keith Donohue’s novel The Stolen Child. Despite being published by a major publishing house, none of the major book critics reviewed it, and it was going nowhere fast. But then some of Amazon’s top reviewers got a hold of it, and the rave reviews started to pour in. The Stolen Child quickly became an Amazon Fiction Best Seller, and reached No. 26 on the New York Time’s Bestseller list – a previously unheard of feat for a book with no major critical reviews.

Amazon was among the first to really harness the financial power that comes from “crowd-sourcing” – using the general public to provide information or guidance about what’s hot. As social networking has grown through Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and a host of other platforms, letting strangers help you make decisions – on everything from where to go on vacation to what to read while there – has become business as usual.

Product reviews on Amazon are as important in selling a product as the photos or description. A product without any reviews is almost worse off than a product with negative reviews. At least with a negative review the consumer can evaluate whether or not they agree with the reviewer’s criteria or way they used the product. But no reviews? That’s really hard to overcome, especially if the product has been on the market for more than a few weeks. It’s hard to get past the thought “If this were really a great product, someone else would have noticed it by now…”

This phenomenon is even more pronounced with books. A highly reviewed book on Amazon has increased sales not just on Amazon but on every outlet where people can buy books. An author with dozens of reviews, even if many, or even the majority are less than raving, will generally rank higher in Amazon’s search results than a book with only a handful of rave reviews. This creates a cycle were the more reviewed a book is, the more exposure (and sales) it gets, the higher it ranks in searches, and the more reviews it gets, etc. But the opposite is also true – a book with only a few reviews, or no recent reviews will sink lower and lower in the search results, getting less and less exposure, which means less chances for reviews and so on.  You would not believe how fast a book can sink into oblivion on Amazon.

Who knows how many brilliant, hilarious, inspiring, or useful books are floundering on page  7 of a search, just because its readers didn’t review the book?

And while Amazon is still the most powerful driver of book sales, it’s no longer the only game in town. (which is like Facebook for book nerds) has doubled in size in the last year and users have posted 20 million book reviews in total. Gillian Flynn’s best seller Gone Girl, has over 22K reviews on Goodreads, compared to 28 on Amazon. It can’t be a coincidence that her book is also the best seller list and getting a lot of a word of mouth traction. Would Flynn’s book have hit the bestseller list without the help of Goodreads or Amazon? Maybe. Would the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, or the Twilight series have seen such success if they had had to rely only on critical reviews and traditional publicity? Definitely not.

For a book nerd and publisher like me, this power shift toward the individual reader/buyer is a beautiful thing. It levels the playing field and gives new and independent authors a chance for success like never before, and say what you will about 50 Shades or Twilight – but they aren’t wildly popular by accident – there was a market for them, one that was probably largely ignored previously, and one that those books would never have reached if they’d come out a decade ago.

The only catch is that we all have to make sure to keep reviewing the books we read.  Whether you loved it, hated it, or were just kind of meh about it, share your thoughts. Put it on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, or even in person, if you’re into that sort of thing. Just don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, whatever you do.

You never know, yours could be the review that changes everything.



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