How important are reviews? It seems in the 21st century they are the way most small businesses are validated. The only experience of reviews that I have is via book reviews and even that is limited but how reliable is the review system?
It’s inevitable that if you have a small customer base your reviews aren’t going to be plentiful but does a wide customer base guarantee more reviews? It seems the answer to this is yes and no. If you Google big companies they seem to have less reviews than small independent companies and the same is true of writers. For example I wanted to buy a copy of a play by Sam Shepard and when I went to Amazon was stunned to see it had only one 2 star review. We are talking about arguably one of the greatest living American playwrights here and yet if you Google any writer of commercial, disposable fiction you can find anywhere up to several hundred 5 star reviews. I’m in no way trying to detract from the pleasure derived from reading light hearted romance or vampire books but there does seem to be a bit of a discrepancy here.
Does this discrepancy invalidate the review system then? I don’t know. Before I wrote my own novels I never reviewed anything. In fact, up until that point I had no idea that the world of reviews even existed. If I wanted to buy a book I would just go to my local book shop and buy one. The advent of self publishing however has blown the market wide open and lots of novels are now only available online, which is the home of the review. I would imagine that most reviews are readers’ natural responses to the books they’ve read. It would seem though that this may not always be the case.
Self publishing a book is about so much more than writing and lots of effort goes into garnering a readership and reviews and as the world of self publishing has blossomed so too have blog sites dedicated to reviewing books. Most of these sites are great, set up by book lovers who offer honest reviews. However, alongside these sites are other reviewers who have set up businesses where they review books in exchange for a fee. Likewise there are companies who employ people to write reviews for small businesses despite never having used their services. The world of reviewing like most things is vulnerable to corruption.
Having said that I have found that I really like reviewing books. I feel in no way qualified to set myself up as an expert critic but enjoy offering my opinion on what I’ve read. It’s a bit like being back at school doing English Lit – I mean when as an adult do you ever get to write your response to ideas or writing techniques anymore? Review writing clearly feeds my inner swot.
Even with the best of intentions though reviewing is a thorny business. I personally don’t like the idea of marking someone’s work out of 5 and would far rather simply express my own response. After all, who is to say my response will be the same as someone else’s and reducing a review to a score just seems so definite. I struggled for days recently over a book I didn’t feel connected to because it wasn’t my kind of thing despite the fact that it was well written, brave and original. Do your score on your own feelings towards a book or how another potential reader might enjoy it. There’s no way of knowing and if readers look at the score rather than the review then they are missing all of the nuances a reviewer may want to express.
So what’s the point of this rambling post I hear you ask? In all honesty, I don’t know. I was provoked into thinking about reviews by two things. One was my surprise at Sam Shepard’s lack of them and the other was a small plumbing company who my mother paid to install a bathroom after reading glowing review after review about them online. The truth turned out to be a little bit different and we’ve since learnt that none of the reviews are genuine and there are lots of dissatisfied customers trying to get their money back.
The power of the review then can be a mighty thing. In the age of the internet it has replaced the old recommendation system of word of mouth. This need not be a bad thing but how can we check the authenticity of reviewers and how can we take seriously a system where a reader scores To Catch a Texas Cowboy 5 stars but Jane Eyre 1.