The Mystery of Amazon Reviews

Book ReviewI’ve started the year with 116 reviews for Murder In Absentia (and, I think, there were about 3-4 reviews that have been removed over the years). By now, the number of reviews is up to… … 110!

This isn’t going to be a whinging post, just a reflection of what (I think) is happening, and how that changes my approach to marketing and to launching new books.

First, I want to stress that I don’t stress about it. Authors are prone to all sorts of insecurities. It’s best not to add to them, but adopt a critical view of looking at the bright side of things outside of your control.

Second, to be clear, I’ve never paid for any review. I have given e-copies for reviewers and have followed up, but: I always urged the reviewer to be honest, I’ve never exchanged reviews, and have never responded with anything but a thank-you. (Hey, I even celebrate my 1-star reviews!) So the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are legitimate and represent the varied opinions of real readers.

So why has Amazon slowly removed some of the reviews over the past few months? My guess is that they have upped the aggressiveness of the algorithm detecting fake reviews. That, in general, is a good thing. It’s possible that the deleted reviews got caught in the cross-fire: e.g. a non-verified-purchase review, or from someone who I know over social media (because, as an indie, that’s how I mostly reach potential reviewers – I don’t have a big publisher’s budget to send out hundreds of ARCs). I don’t have exact visibility about which reviews were removed, as I don’t bother archiving and keeping track of them.

While it may sting a little that honest reviews have been removed, like I said above — the process generally is a good thing. It improves the overall reliability of reviews on Amazon. My books still have an excellent average, and I’d much rather focus on the good aspects as I keep writing and working on my craft.

So how does that affect my future book launches?

First, I have a drastically diminished incentive to give out ARC/Review copies (though I still will, if anyone asks – I much prefer my books to be read, then the fractional coffee I can buy after a sale; see my opinion on piracy for that matter). But since Amazon is moving towards favouring verified-purchase reviews, I need to find alternatives.

The obvious route is doing price promotions. This should work both if you’re already established (with a few books out) or just beginning (with only one novel). Price promotions are where you temporarily reduce the price of your book, and then combine it with advertising to get people to download copies. People would then, hopefully, read, and even – gasp – leave a review.

BTW, I don’t believe that free copies (e.g. the “free days” promotions through Kindle Select) count towards verified purchase, since there is no money exchanged. Neither does Kindle Unlimited reading, and Amazon won’t count a purchase in say Amazon UK for a verified-purchase review on Amazon US. They may still track them and might not remove such reviews (I obviously don’t have the specifics of the robot’s decision process), but they’re certainly less visible than proper purchased copies reviews.

However, considering the percentages of people who leave reviews (shockingly low – more about that in a future post), that is a numbers game. You would need to do regular promotions in order to get those downloads and reviews, and this can become costly pretty quickly.

Another strategy is to build up a mailing list. This is a time-honoured tool, but might be a bit harder for beginning authors. Essentially you need to start building a mailing list before you have something to offer. This is doable with non-fiction, but a lot harder with fiction. While I had the seed for a list and launched it with In Numina, I am still not in a position to make value judgements on it. (Although, for those who wonder, between the mailing list and IO9 listing me at the top of their Most Anticipated Fantasy Books for the Fall list, the launch went smashingly well 🙂

Lastly, there is probably the main thing that all authors should be doing regardless — writing. Price promotions etc become a lot more affordable when you do it on the first in a series, and readers then buy (and occasionally review) the rest of the novels. That does require a bit of a shift in planning releases and series though. It is better to have multiple series of 3-5 books (so you don’t always promote the same tired first novel). This can be interconnected series, or just several good entry points into a longer series. If you have the patience and the financial backing, you can write say a trilogy, have it all professionally edited and produced, and then release volumes in a quick succession (say a new volume every 1-3 months). This gives you good content and excuses to keep reaching and building your mailing list, while running promotions on the first volume and getting your main returns from subsequent novels. I’m considering this approach for a new writing project, and time will tell. (I just need to get it written, before the rules of the game change again.)


I know the above isn’t really a magic wand. To my knowledge, no one (traditional or indie) has discovered the secret of best-sellers. The only constant is that in order to be successful, you need to keep writing and keep promoting, while staying ahead of changing market paradigms.

In this case, I’d say the (probably prematurely announced) death of free reviews copies is a good thing. Right after publishing MIA I spent a lot of time chasing reviews as a way to build up awareness of my novels. This got to the point where I spent more time on social media in various interactions around books than actually writing. I’ve since withdrawn from social media (and now have even less of an incentive to get back in again), and find that this does make a noticeable impact on my writing. (i.e. the increase in writing focus outweighs the decrease in potential sales & reviews.)

And this, in its core, is what it’s all about. So keep on writing! (Just plan publishing ahead a bit better, that’s all).

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It’s so very interesting.
    I only have one novella out there, with the wrong title and the wrong cover (I supsect that’s why it always gets listed in erotica, when it’s in fact a historical fantasy – but I’m working on that) and I’m still learning the ropes of inde publishing, so my experience is not very meaningful. But on one thing I had the same experience as you: I cut my time on socials and I noticed that 1. It doesn’t really affect the level of my interaction and 2. I do have a lot more time to write and read which I consider more quality time 😉

    As for reviews, I’ve come to utterly dislike Amazon. I used to reference to it for book’s reccomendation, but increasingly, I’ve noticed that reviews are seldom useful (well, at least for me). Many of them are only a few lines. The vast majority are very personal opions that it’s difficult to sort, and really many of them are clearly written by friends of the authors (when the author is indie).
    So I just stopped referring to Amazon for book’s opinion years ago.

    My main sorces for book’s recomandations are book blogs I trust, book clubs I’m part of (mostly online) and (to a point, but not heavily) Goodreads. So that’s what I’ll be focusing on when I’ll relaunch my book.
    I do have a mailing list, and I will use it. I had moderate success in getting reaction from it – I got a few reviews and quite a few ‘to-read’ on Goodreads.

    I didn’t know about the ‘death of the free copy’. Will you elaborate? I’m curious 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words 🙂
      Re your novella – definitely sounds like it needs to be relaunched, with the right cover and keywords. Setting the right reader expectation is key.

      Re reviews, when I find the 4* and 2* reviews as the most informative (see this blog post: https://egretia.com/2017/03/21/yes-where-in-i-explain-the-importance-of-reviews/). Other than that I agree that recommendation from trusted sources (aka word of mouth) is the best resource for both indie authors and readers.

      On the ‘death of the free copy’ – like I said, it is prematurely announced 🙂 Just that with Amazon ranking all non-verified reviews of lesser value (both in their averages and in how they’re displayed), there’s just less of an incentive for authors to give free copies away. Less doesn’t mean none, though. So I expect authors might get more cagey about giving away free copies. Time will tell.

      Like

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