[U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless – Jakob Neilsen, definition of the online reader in ‘Information Foraging: Why Google Makes People Leave Your Site Faster’
This is one of those areas where it’s going to take time to re-educate people. It’s like plastic bags. They’ve been telling us for years to stop using these and although I have a reusable and reasonably manly shopping bag, the number of times I walk into a shop without it is ridiculous. Okay, fair’s fair, we recycle our carrier bags, but the point I’m making is that habits are both hard to break and hard to cultivate in the first place. Some people make sweeping statements about habits:
[…] changing the habit will take 30 days, re-affirming it further for another 30 days will definitely fix it and you'll have no problem to continue from there on. [source: Secret]
but nothing is ever that simple. If you’ve been in the habit of starting the day with real coffee, with two sugars and milk then switching to decaffeinated coffee with one sweetener and no milk takes more than thirty days of forcing the stuff down your throat until you acquire a taste for it. I speak from experience but that’s how I take my coffee these days. It’s drinkable; I’ve got used to it, but I can’t say that I prefer it; I just acknowledge that it’s better for me, especially considering the number of mugs of coffees I can go through in a day.
People are lazy and thoughtless and nowhere do we see this more than online. The more things you expect a person to do the less chance they’ll do it. They expect a button or a hyperlink to be sitting on the screen exactly when they need it pointing to precisely where they want to go and if it’s not there then something shiny will catch their eye and you’ve lost your opportunity for a sale or whatever. Only it’s not really laziness and thoughtlessness is it? I wouldn’t like to be viewed as idle or inconsiderate and I don’t expect you would either but we all behave in ways that make us look that way. It’s a time thing. You have a half-hour lunch break and you decide to pop into a shop to buy a T-shirt. Do you look at the shoes and the jeans or all the other stuff? No, of course not. You stride into the shop with purpose; march straight over to the T-shirts; select one that’s to your tastes, in your size and within your price range; take it to the checkout; queue; check your watch several times; pay and leave. And how long might that take? Five minutes? Ten? Because you’ve still got to find the time to eat lunch and get back to your desk on time.
Time, that’s the problem. None of us has nearly enough. Actually that’s not true. All of us have exactly the same amount of time. The day doesn’t slip by any quicker closer to the poles than it does around the equator or anything like that. Time is not the problem. The problem is what we try to do with the time we have available to use. The average person is capable of reading and understanding between 200 and 250 words per minute. That means someone should be able to read any of my first three novels in under four hours and I suppose there will be people out there who can whoosh through a book like that but I can’t. I can’t concentrate at that level for any more than an hour, besides, I’m not a fast reader. I’ve just taken an online test and it said that my reading speed was between 150 and 200 words per minute. I sat that test about ten minutes ago and I can barely remember what it was about. I know it involved reading the inaugural address by John F Kennedy but I couldn’t have even told you the year he gave it, let alone the date. I’ve just reread it and I can tell you here and now, nothing stuck. Clearly there is reading and there is reading. I read three short essays by Gerald Murnane two night ago and I can still remember the gist of what he was talking about and that’s because I wasn’t under any pressure to read, or in any rush; I read until I felt I’d read enough and stopped; about twenty-five pages I think.
Online reading is a whole different ball game. We skim, our eyes flick over the screen, we get the idea and move on tout de suite. We don’t spend any time looking in the columns to the left or the right of what we’re reading. Occasionally something with catch our eye, something nice and shiny, and it has maybe three or four seconds to hold our attention before we’re off. But what about ebook reading? Do we read ebooks as if they were web pages or pages in a real book? Skim, skim, whoosh, whoosh.
Note to the authors of ebooks: If you want your readers to do something after they’ve read your book then tell them as soon as they’ve finished the book. That’s the beauty of an ebook, you can have a link to Amazon or Smashwords or whatever sitting there and all they have to do is click on it:
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS BOOK
PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A REVIEW.
Is that too much to ask?
Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is said to have sold some ten million books and yet there are only 3475 customer reviews in Amazon (UK and US). Of course 3475 people taking the trouble to pass a comment on your book is not to be sniffed at but it’s still only 0.035% of readers. In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries. The short initial print run was standard for first novels, and they hoped booksellers would read the book and recommend it to customers. It is nothing short of a miracle that Rowling has had the degree of success she has had. How many reviews was she ever going to get on Amazon? About a sixth of one.
If you read a good book do you owe the author anything?
When people talk about reader responsibility online they are usually acknowledging the reader’s role in the completion of a text, for example:
Have you ever reread a book and had a completely different reaction to it than you did the first time? Love turning to hate, confusion to understanding, or disappointment to heart-stopping glee? Not one word of that book changed. You did. In high school I read The Stranger and felt as if my world had been turned upside-down. In college I reread it and found the story flat and uninteresting, and walked away untouched and baffled by my younger reaction. My understanding of the world, my fears, my needs had changed, and so the story changed. The words Camus wrote remained the same; nevertheless, the story completely changed in my mind. Camus didn't do that—I did that.—Shannon Hale, ‘How to be a reader: Reader responsibility’, squeetusblog, 31 August 2008
I’m all in agreement here and I’ve experienced the same but I’m thinking more after the fact, after you’ve read the book. Is that you done your bit? Until recently I would have said it was; I’d paid my money and, to be totally honest, if I’d chosen to use the book as a doorstop no one could argue with me; in fact I have half a dozen poetry books underneath my second laptop as I write this keeping it level, some of which I have not read and likely never will. I wonder if any of the authors were I to list them (which I have no intention of doing) would be willing to send me their royalty payment so I could package the book up and post it back to them? Not me. If you want to buy my books to use as doorstops feel free.
My first novel, Living with the Truth, has seven reviews on Amazon, two in Amazon.co.uk and the rest on Amazon.com. I only knew of one of the reviewers prior to this and he’s more a friend of my wife’s than mine. Most of the others were people on review sites who, in addition to writing a review on their website, also posted something on Amazon. And I am grateful. Considering the number of sales, seven reviews is much better than 0.035% so I guess I shouldn’t whinge. I was going to whinge, if only on general principles, but I’m going to bite my tongue for the moment because I’ve only posted one review on Amazon and only because I was asked. So, it seems a bit hypocritical of me to whinge at people who’ve been kind enough to take a risk on a new name simply because they didn’t do anything to plug my book for me, not that they’ve not been rewarded with a good read, because they have.
The real question is: Do Amazon reviews make any difference? Let’s face it, the vast majority of them are just written by regular readers and they’re just offering an opinion and it would have to be a pretty bad book not to appeal to at least a handful (okay, a couple) of people out there. So, just because a book has one or two glowing reviews does that mean that it might have something going for it?
On the whole I only use the reviews in Amazon as a guide, and a very rough one at that. I’m more inclined to cut and paste the name of the author and their book into Google and see if there are any … and I use this next word with a degree of caution … real reviews out there; by that I mean reviews longer than a paragraph. I am happy with the reviews in Amazon for Living with the Truth. Some are short, others not so much. But what about someone who just stumbles upon my book as you do? Can they trust the reviews?
Let’s see. Let’s take the reviewer known as ‘kehs’ from Hertfordshire, England. They gave Living with the Truth a 5-star review. On checking I find that they have, at the time of my writing this, posted 517 reviews and here are some of their ratings:
- Miracle on Regent Street—3-stars
- Cross My Palm—3-stars
- The Borrower—5-stars
- The Weird Sisters—5-stars
- The Nightmare Thief—4-stars
- Cold Light—5-stars
- Into the Darkest Corner—5-stars
- Jasper Jones—5-stars
None of these books are known to me. Digging through I see a Dawn French novel with 5 stars, a Dick Francis with 4, a James Herbert with 2 which seems a little harsh but maybe it’s a bad book, M J Hyland rightly gets a 5 and yet 2666 by Roberto Bolaño received only 1 star with this comment:
I'm almost scared to post this review as so many people have enjoyed 2666 but as I received my copy free from Vine I feel duty bound to post my thoughts. To be completely honest I couldn't get to grips with the story. I found it too long-winded and difficult to get to into. The author's writing style didn't flow for me, either. I was so looking forward to getting stuck into this hefty book but sadly it wasn't to be. However, I seem to be in the minority as most reviews I've read for 2666 have been enthusiastic and full of praise. I think this is one book that I will come back to at a later date for another try.
Have we read enough? Can we trust when he or she (I have no idea of their gender) gave my book 5 stars? Well, I’m not going to argue but who has the time to investigate every reviewer like this? Amazon has created a badge system to help us identify the reviewers credentials and review-worthiness but let’s go back to our opening quote: [U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless. I’m honing in on the ‘lazy’ here, of course. Or if not lazy per se, at least time-strapped. I don’t have the time to investigate the reviewers. Mostly I accept them based on how intelligent they sound, how much they write and how many typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors pepper that review. And I make that assessment in seconds.
I might not post reviews on Amazon but I do, eventually, on Goodreads; I usually do a mass-post every few months. Not sure how effective that is but I do it. And that really is the question here: How effective is anything we do online? I get sent books from publishers to review. One of those is Alma Books. A while ago I asked Elisabetta Minervini, the nice lady who sends me these books, how much effect online reviews had on their sales and also how critical it was that I post my reviews as close to the publication date it was and the answer to both questions was she didn’t know. I think a lot of publishers are the same; they think that they need online reviews but don’t know how to measure their success. They don’t hurt, but I’d like to know whether they make back the money even on the review copies they send out. I got two in the post this morning, both hardbacks in a big padded envelope that cost £5.66 to mail. And how many of these books don’t even get reviewed?
Should I be posting short reviews on Amazon in addition to the full reviews I’m writing on my blog? Would it make any difference? Very few people are going to stumble over Pietro Grossi’s novel The Break by clicking aimlessly around Amazon; they’re going to read a review like mine and then go to Amazon to buy, so what does it matter if I post there or not? I clicked on one of the links in the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section, the one that led to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I then looked at what books were listed in that page’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section. Needless to say the Pietro Grossi novel was not there, in fact what was there were books that I had been looking at myself only a day or two earlier: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson which I had already bought for my wife. Now all the rest I might be willing to accept, but not the Sarah Winman; that seems so out of place in this list and the only reason I can see why it would be there is that Amazon bunged it in knowing I’d expressed an interest and it was just chancing its arm.
So here’s the thing, if you’ve read one of my books and maybe haven’t reviewed it online or, even if you have, unless you’re one of the seven mentioned above who are exempt, maybe you might think about rattling down a few lines and adding an appropriate star rating which does not have to be a 5—honestly. (Much as I can’t stand them I know they’re a necessary evil.) Or perhaps you might want to do a Listmania® list and include one or two of my books. Or do a review on Goodreads if you happen to be a member, or anywhere else you can think to spread the word. I hate to ask—no, seriously, I really hate to ask—but this seems to be the way: don’t ask, don’t get.
Bottom line though: is there any point to any of this? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does know. But it can’t hurt. As for whether you owe me, no—no you don’t. But this is bigger than me. The fact is these days if you want to spread the joy you need to talk to the right people online. You might not know them personally but you might be friends with people who just happen to be friends of some other people who happen to be friends of friends of those people. That’s how it goes. When I’ve enjoyed a good book or a film or heard a song that’s made my hairs stand on end I want to tell people about it but here’s where the “selfish, lazy, and ruthless” quote comes in; unless it’s convenient for us, we don’t do it; we don’t go out of our way to do it; if we happen to think of it we might mention it but usually we forget. My daughter will ask, “Have you guys been watching anything good on TV?” and we’ll think and then say, “Oh, yes, have you seen (Wilfred was the last thing)?” And we’ll tell her about it, enthuse a bit and then the conversation will drift off onto some other subject; the bird will start chattering or something. The odds are she still won’t watch it. Not because she’s selfish, lazy, or ruthless but quite simply because there’s so much going on in her life that by the time she gets her coat on, gives me my hugs and kisses, gets in her car and drives homes she will have completely forgotten about it and be more concerned with what’s she’s going to fix her husband for his supper or making sure the cat receives all the attention he demands or checking to see if she has clean clothes for the morning and remembered to hand in her latest essay or, or, or…