In the good old days, if you were curious about whether a book, a vacuum cleaner or a new brand of coffee might work for you, you’d ask your friend, neighbor, shopkeeper or mother. It’s now the era of big data so few decisions are made without some form of crowdsourcing, a term created barely a decade ago.
Of course, readers have been curious about the latest and greatest titles for years. The first US bestseller list appeared in New York in 1895 and made its way to The New York Times in 1931. When Amazon.com changed the face of bookselling in 1995, it also changed the nature and roles of bestsellers lists and reviews. In the age of Amazon, anyone can be a reviewer and there are multiple ways to slice and dice any bestseller list.
Goodreads.com is one of the earlier virtual communities for readers. Created in 2006 by descendants of the family that founded The Los Angeles Times, its goal was to encourage readers to learn about and share their passion for books. While it received some funding early on when people bought books via online links, it was primarily a means for readers to track their books and connect with others. In 2011 Goodreads began suggesting titles based upon the information each reader entered. And in 2013 the entire system was purchased by Amazon allowing them to influence and manage the largest online reader community.
For some, Goodreads is just a repository for to-be-read lists and to record completed books. They ignore the suggested titles for purchase and the reviews and lists by other Goodreads members, sometimes rating but not reviewing those read. Many are networked to their other social media contacts on Goodreads and can still influence their contacts’ reading choices via notifications of titles added to their friends to-be-read, ratings or reviews. Other people use Amazon and Goodreads reviews to dictate their reading choices. I’m not sold.
So getting down to business, it’s time to judge for yourself:
- Grade inflation – On both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com reviewers see the average rating before clicking in to make a rating. Can people justify rating a book they finished a 1 or 2? While 3 is the statistical average, it is the rare title with any measure of popularity that has an average below 3. All ratings are whole numbers and each person’s perception of the scale is subjective. Does the fact that there are 5,000 reviews of 4 or better really tell you more than if there were 500? Remember, Amazon sells to hundreds of millions of people.
- Even a 4.5 rated title may not be for you – It is vital to remember that those interested in rating a book usually come from those interested in the genre or theme. Often the classification (fiction=>historical fiction=>WWII) will provide ample hints, but not all the time. Whether it is based on a publisher’s information or a scanning algorithm, mistakes happen. And then there is the author/publisher that believes the title is genre/audience crossing when it’s not.
- Small sample – There are several reasons for very few ratings or reviews. It may be just published or pre-publication, from a small press or self-published, esoteric in theme, out-of-print or published prior to the advent of Amazon/Goodreads reviews. As a reader, you must carefully read almost all the reviews to tease out how any comments jive with the description of the book. Be aware that there are many people, myself included, that receive advance copies of books gratis in hope of a positive review. For those reviewers who are genuinely independent, reviewing a book way outside his/her wheelhouse may result in a dissonant review. The upside is these truly independent reviews is they are not biased by either the major newspaper/website reviewers or widespread public opinion. But then there is the flip side;
- Stuffing the Ballot Box – Every writer, myself included, is in search of readership. Newly published authors, particularly those who self-publish or engage services that assist individuals in publishing their work, often will ask their friends and/or family to post enthusiastic reviews. How do you spot them? Well, look for a limited number (50 or so) written in a short period of time (maybe 3 months) of approximately the same length, commenting not only on the topic but on the insight of the author, and often with almost a unanimous 5-star rating. Amazon has made great inroads in reducing pay-for-rating services where someone would be hired to rate a book or other product in exchange for money. Also be aware that those who operated self-published and/or vanity presses are individuals that may also rate a title highly. Clearly, even if the review is heartfelt there is a conflict of interest the reader cannot know.
Finally, my take: I’ve always tilted at windmills and backed the underdog. My preference is to go to trusted sources (newspaper and selected web reviewers), people I know and to independent booksellers, wherever I can find them. Matching readers and titles requires listening, capturing the essence of a title, and a bit of magic.
Goodreads and Amazon have developed algorithms based on what you may have looked at or bought and popular items. But those algorithms don’t know if the search was for my use or as a gift for someone with dissimilar tastes. It doesn’t know which much-loved books are sitting on my shelf or which ones have been abandoned, those I bought on my travels, was given or received through my “bookie” activities.
In the last month, I restarted posting some ratings on Goodreads, but only from the “In the Nutshell” section of my reviews or for titles I’ve chosen not to review here. If I wish to be part of a larger community, I am obligated to participate in it, even if on a limited basis. I am encouraged that independent bookstores and print books are making a comeback. And I hope we continue to share the books we like, analyze why we disliked others and discuss the ones that make us think.