The Meaning of Amazon Customer Reviews: How Many Stars?

Books splayed openA while ago, a friend called to ask if I would write an Amazon customer review of her new book.

“Can there be any doubt in your mind?” I was the first reader for many of her short stories. I was happy to write the review.

But then it turned out her (small) publisher was also on the line, and I had no idea why.  Good God!  Was this a legal arrangement?

I gave her book a five-star review.  All of her friends did.  I don’t think anyone else ever found out about the book.

Such is the fate of small-press books.

Tonight I idly wondered how the classics are faring in customer reviews.  Tolstoy gets four out of five stars for Anna Karenina.  Charlotte Bronte gets four stars for Villette.

Tough reviewers!

Then I looked up 20 of my favorite contemporary writers, 10 women and 10 men.  Ann Beattie got an average of 2.5 stars for her gorgeous experimental novel, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life.

The 10 women I looked up fare on the average slightly better than the 10 men.  The women’s average star rating is 3.74.  The men’s average is 3.66

Sherman Alexie and Alice Hoffman have the highest ratings:  4.3 stars.

Not a big enough sample, though, is it?

Eighteen out of the 20 on my list are fiction, because this reflects my personal reading habits.  I would give five stars to every one of these books.

Here are my (unprofessional) stats.  (Any errors are due to my calculator.:))

10 Contemporary Women’s Books (in alphabetical order)

Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, 2.5 stars
Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby, 3.4 stars
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, 4.2 stars
Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, 4.3 stars
A. M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, 3.7
Michelle Huneven’s Off Course, 4.1 stars
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Lovesong for India, 4.2 stars
Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, 3.3 stars
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, 4.1 stars
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, 3.6 stars

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10 Contemporary Men’s Books (in alphabetical order)

Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy, 4.3 stars
Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, 3.4 stars
Jim Crace’s Harvest, 4.1 stars
Clyde Edgerton’s Night Train, 3.6 stars
Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time,  2.8 stars
Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, 4.1 stars
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, 4.2 stars
Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, 3.5 stars
D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice, 2.8 stars
Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances, 3.9 stars

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I am so accustomed to reading between the lines of EVERYTHING, reviews, articles, blogs, you name it, that a few pages of the sample influences me more than any opinions.

There are some very thoughtful reviews, as well as cranky ones, and I love the idea of consumers saying what they want to say.

But there are problems, of course:  trolls, “sock puppets” (writers under other names raving about their own books and attacking other people’s), and, though I’m not sure if this is still the rule, writers are or were forbidden to comment on other writers in their genre.

And the star ratings can be a bit disconcerting. I never think star ratings are quite fair.   It’s a shock to see an award winner, Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, with a 2.8.

Better to read the text of the consumer reviews than look at the stars.

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Amazon Customer Reviews: How Many Stars?

  1. Yes, there are trolls – so I always try to read a variety of reviews to get a kind of balance. Having said that, I’ve found myself agreeing with negative reviewers in a number of cases where a book has been lauded – it can be reassuring to find you’re not the only one who doesn’t ‘get’ a book!

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  2. I think you are reading them aright. The surface text is only one small part of the reason they are there, and it’s controlled by other reasons than liking the book. After all, you wrote your Amazon review upon being asked; the publisher was there to let you know he’d be watching.

    While men get much of the prestige, more women read novels and they buy them in greater numbers and they do like women’s novels in great numbers. So your impression that women writers’ friends and associates who wrote these reviews are more favorable even if not born out by the numbers of stars is probably correct. I’m not surprised Zoo-time got such a low-rating. A coterie of people give out each prize and the people giving it out liked the book which made fun of high-minded books. The person reading the book and reviewing has no such motive. Zoo-time sounded to me like crude jocularity.

    My experience of these reviews is they distort the text — only hint at what is most interesting about them. The determined careerist (wants to get herself in print as writing reviews) or friend-associate will write what they think will please the majority of readers — rather like pretending the book is a film. In short they are subject to analogous pressures to academic reviewers and paid reviewers on magazines.

    There are reviewers who review for real — in the popular or public media they are people who are stars in their own right (Hilary Mantel) or somehow have gained high respect for the tremendously intelligent insights (James Wood is such a person). There the difficulty was getting into the right magazine and having a friend who was willing to give you sufficient space and placement which was noticeable.

    This is an important topic.

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  3. Karen, I have read some very carefully-written and interesting reviews at Amazon, both positive and negative. It is nice to have a chance to see what people think. I do find it appalling, however, when somebody is there just to be malicious, or is a bad reader. You have to laugh when Charlotte Bronte and Tolstoy get 4 stars, i.e., a B!

    Ellen, the star system is strange. People skip to the number of stars, as I must confess I sometimes do with movie reviews, and that doesn’t work at all well with books. I take books much more seriously. Some Amazon reviewers are very good. I don’t keep up with the Amazon reviews, but I do occasionally see someone writing the equivalent of a published review. But some of the reviews are utterly vicious. Yes, I’m sure there’s a gender divide, though I don’t know enough about it, and certainly can’t tell with 20 writers.

    I very much liked Zoo Time! It was controversial, but I thought it very, very funny, a satire of the publishing system. It won the P. G. Wodehouse Award for humor.

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