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TorgoX (1933)


"Il est beau comme la retractilité des serres des oiseaux rapaces [...] et surtout, comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un parapluie !" -- Lautréamont

Journal of TorgoX (1933)

Sunday March 31, 2002
12:31 AM

Field guide to Amazonia

[ #3878 ]
Dear Log,

Writing Amazon reviews used to be real fun, until Amazon went and added those "Was this review helpful?" buttons, and rating you as a reviewer based on that. Then it got all politicky and strategic and stuff.

On the one hand, sure, why not, asking people whether they found a review useful sounds fine. On the other hand, a lot of people think that "Was this review helpful [in telling you what you needed to know to buy this book]?" actually means "Do you agree with everything this guy said?". So people who've read the book go and vote down anyone whose reviews say anything they disagree with.

Example: I read a book called A Dream Deferred : The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America by Shelby Steele, and wrote a review of how the author seemed to have some interesting ideas, but simply didn't support them; instead he just vented about ancillary things like how daringly unfashionable his ideas are, how everyone who disagrees with him secretly knows he's right, etc. And, I continued, this means the book is badly written, because just about anyone could have done better at filling the same number of pages on this subject (race in America); how that makes its poor writing aggrivating to read, and generally not worth the bother, so don't buy that book.

Well, the peanut gallery was merciless. Apparently, for every person who read my review and thought "good, now I know the book is a bother to read, and I'll find something else better!", there were two more people waiting to freak out that I was ATTACKING THAT NICE BLACK MAN'S BRILLIANT IDEAS (which I actually never took issue with -- just his apparent lack of any editing). So the negative votes poured in, and even some hate email. Joy.

So here, in short, is my plan for how to be a highly-rated Amazon reviewer:

  • Do not review anything that has more than seven reviews already.
  • You can make an exception if the previous reviews are all short and stupid. ("I dont liek this book it is fll of typos and when you run the programs nothing ahppens whats wrong!??!!11"). In that case, you can take at most two sentences in your review to say something like "And contrary to what some of the other reviews here have said, there aren't actually any significant typos in the text." Any more than that and the review ends up being about other reviews instead of about the book itself.
  • Don't bother reviewing anything controversial, partly because those things have a dozen reviews already, and partly because they're not reviews, they're rant contests where people vote eachother down because the Voices In Their Head tell them to.
  • In fact, try to review things that have no reviews at all.
  • Say things like "You should read this book if...", or even "What this book /isn't/ about is... , even tho you might expect it to be about that; and if you want that, then go look at this other book too/instead...". Maybe throw in a "and if you like this book, then you'll also like..."
  • Try especially to review things that have no metadata (Amazon Editor's descriptions, Kirkus reviews, etc.) of what it's about. In those cases, be sure to give the simple facts that the Amazon metadata should have described: what the book is about, what sections are in it, how long each is, what the target audience is. (Or for CDs, a track list, and maybe year of release.) People will find this very helpful, and vote you up.
  • Try to characterize the people that should read this book, beyond just the intended audience that the author had in mind. Example: "This book is about CGI, but it also ends up teaching you some nice useful basic stuff about databases along the way!"
  • Be sure that you're answering the question "What was the author trying to do?" and not just "What did I assume he was going to do, just from reading the title?" If there is a notable divergence between what the author was trying to do, and what you could reasonably infer from the book jacket that he would be trying to do, then you can mention that; it doesn't make it a bad book if the cover blurbs are a bit misleading, but you do get to say something like "By the way, this book isn't useful unless you already know XYZ; if you don't know XYZ, read Schmo's /Learning XYZ/ first, and then this book."

Incidentally, if you were to read my reviews and vote up the ones you liked (the voting buttons appear not on that page, but on the pages you get at by selecting each title), I would be much obliged.

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