Why Amazon’s Review System Needs to Change

Posted on March 31, 2011 by


A lot of lifeblood goes into the publishing of a book, from a lot of different people. I had no idea how many until recently. Well, okay, I had some idea, but it was a little overwhelming when — through various publishing blogs — I began to really conceptualise the sheer number of people who work on a Big 6 book.

The reason Amazon’s rating system is hopelessly flawed is that any one of these people might have done a sucky job.

Okay, it’s hard to find out which exact person in marketing was responsible for the burnt-sienna sequins glued onto the dustjacket — but there are three definite parties responsible for the book:

1) the content camp: the writer, the legion of editors, the agent, the illustrator
2) presentationland: marketing, jacket design, typesetting, the dude who chooses the paper
3) delivery: distributor, shipping company

These things are fuzzy, but a few lines are clearly marked: most writers have absolutely zero (or approaching zero) influence on their own cover design. Publishers assume (quite rightly) that they’re going to sell more books if they get the cover designed by — I don’t know, just throwing ideas out here — a cover designer, and that the entire process of making the book presentable goes much, much more smoothly without the fussy parent involved.

Similarly, unless a writer is self-published, he has no say in his book’s price. I’m willing to bet even the most breathtakingly successful writers at the Big 6 don’t have a say. (Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy — time to weigh in, please.)

But, as our lovely Rejectionist has so rightly said, “People who use book reviews to complain about ebook pricing should be banned from using the internet.”


Well, firstly, ebook pricing is in a state of enormous flux these days, especially given the fact that self-published authors can charge less and make more. The price of ebooks is a topic best left discussed on a blog; an Amazon review is hardly the place to push an opinion one way or the other.

Secondly, even though all those legions played a hand in creating this book, it is the author who suffers most when a reviewer gives her book a one-star rating because of its price or its cover or the poor job the translator did. These reviews drag books down that might otherwise have been perfectly successful if not for that particular someone who wanted to, I don’t know, manufacture the cover out of rice-paper or something.

Thirdly, these kinds of reviews do the reader a great disservice. They prevent him from finding some very good books because he won’t see the reviews that say, “What an excellent plot and fab characters! I’m only giving this book one star because the shipping costs are atrocious. Otherwise it would be a five.” They force him to choose between promoting the author and warning other readers about potential downfalls. And they make him into a twit who gives a wonderful book a one-star rating because this particular edition sucks ass.

The reader, publisher, writer, and even Amazon would benefit greatly from a ratings system more sensitive than a large, smashy rock. Amazon would be able to collect better sales and customer preference data, readers would get to see how good different aspects of the book are, and writers won’t be fucked up the arse due to, e.g., a few dozen twits who decided that because an ebook is too extravagantly priced at $12.99 they would all give it 1 and 2-star ratings.

I propose a simple, 5-category ratings system:

– Value (cost vs. product)
– Content (contribution of writer/editor/illustrator)
– Edition (things done to the manuscript specific to this edition)
– Presentation (typesetting, paper quality, cover art, you get the idea)
– Packing & Shipping

That last? Terribly, terribly important. I’ve seen books get demoted like the wind when they’re systematically late to be shipped and it’s Amazon’s fault.

Anyway, something to think about.

Posted in: Books & Writing