Online book reviews are really social media comments

I’ve always had the impression that online ‘book reviews’ are a vital commodity on which to sell books.

Wright_Books2I have heard that sales algorithms are driven, in part, by those reviews – and certainly if the book’s discovered they can help the would-be reader decide whether to buy the book or not.

The thing is that, to me, they aren’t really reviews – not in the discursive essay sense of traditional print media reviews. What online ‘reviews’ really are is a ‘comment’, in the same style as any comment on social media – and, often, about the same length.

Like social media comments, online book reviews vary widely. Some are lengthy and erudite and, indeed, meet the discursive nature of the traditional review. Others are brief, to the point. And some express a personal impression or thought on reading the book.

Often the commenter expresses a personal opinion – which is fine. But then they also adjust the star rating to suit. On that sort of system, one person’s single-star book could well be somebody else’s five-star. It’s all valid information, but it needs to be understood in that context.

Personally – as someone who’s been writing the trad-style review for years – I’d prefer to see the online bookstore reviews re-named ‘comments’, as a more accurate term.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


4 thoughts on “Online book reviews are really social media comments

  1. That is a very good point. I have to admit that a lot of my “reviews” of books on Amazon really are just comments. What I liked, what I didn’t like, how it made me feel, etc. Which certainly isn’t the in-depth discussion of character arcs and the usage of metaphors and symbolism they made us practice in high school English class. That being said, a “comment” can be just as useful to a potential reader as a review. I think Amazon’s on the right track with their “X out of X readers found this review helpful” thing — but they need to take it a step further and actually gray out the reviews that are clearly biased / attacks on the author / incoherent nonsense. As for separating comments out from actual reviews … it would certainly be nice to see, although I don’t think it will happen in the near future.

    1. I agree. And as you say, comments are useful for revealing how an individual received a book – the thing being to separate those from more abstract commentary. On the biased review note, I did hear about some academics in the UK who decided to gang up on a colleague and bag his book on Amazon. Apparently they felt quite ashamed afterwards, but it didn’t reduce the intent or the damage. I think Amazon have processes to get rid of deliberately malicious comments of that nature.

  2. Excellent point, and quite true. What appears on Amazon exists on a spectrum with quasi-reviews on one end and malicious attacks on the other. The vast majority exist in the middle: comments, plot rehashes, etc.. There should be a way to differentiate, but I don’t know how they’d do it without creating qualified reviewers. One indicator is the number of comments, for that reveals how much enthusiasm the book inspired, for better or worse. I like to start with the 3-4 star reviews because they’re often more balanced (not always). As you say, the star system is subjective. Some will never part with a 5-star rating while others will declare a terrible book 5 stars, “The best they’ve ever read.” H’m, sounds like a relative. 🙂

  3. I totally agree. Real literary reviews are entirely different from customer product reviews. The comments about books you see on Amazon have more in common with those made about coffee makers, lawn mowers and socks. The word “review” seems to be firmly fixed in the public mind, however, so I doubt it will change. Given how few readers leave reviews (or comments), we readers are happy to get them, however short and superficial (as long as they’re positive, anyway).

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