Amazon and One Star Reviews

July 2, 2016

This morning I received my monthly Prime email outlining the free Kindle First books available for July. Kindle First is an extremely powerful program that allows Prime users to get a free book released by an Amazon imprint for free ahead of its scheduled release. Generally speaking, every single Kindle First book goes on to end up as a best-seller on Amazon. This morning, however, something caught my eye. A one star review on the book The Daughter of Union County by Francine Thomas Howard.  It was the only review so far posted on the book, and I am sure it will have a significant impact on that book’s future. I’d like to discuss that here and a wider view of one star reviews for readers.

First of all, every book receives a one star review, from The Bible to Shakespeare. So receiving a one star review is to be expected. I’ve received a number of them myself. I tend to glance at them, see if there is anything I can learn from them, and move on. However, and this is what brings us back to Ms. Howard. You see, all one star reviews are not created equal. One star reviews that occur early in a book’s life are much worse than those that occur later in the book’s life. Let me use The Daughter of Union County as an example.

Take a look at the book after you click on the link that is in an email that went out to every single Amazon Prime user. What is their first impression of Ms. Howard’s book going to be?

The Daughter of Union County

Well, there are a lot of nice things about this book’s presentation, from the cover to the blurb, but you just can’t get past that average rating of one star. It’s what caught my eye, and I guarantee you it caught a lot of people’s eyes. Would this affect people’s perception of the book? Well, look at the initial comments on the review:

The Daughter of Union County review comments

There are a couple of things of note here. One is that the reviewer didn’t finish the book. This generally is looked on poorly by the review community, but in this case the comments applaud the reviewer. In fact, the very top comment says this:

I expect folks who believe in the utter sanctity of finishing a book no matter how awful it is will jump me for the DNF. But honestly, you can tell a steak is rancid after a single bite, yes?

Another thing to notice is the general consensus of “Thank you for saving me time from reading this awful book.” That’s a huge indicator of the impact this review has had. People see the one star. Look at the review, and this book that they were initially interested in gets passed over. Again, one stars happen all the time, but this one star review was particularly devastating in that it is the first one, and it set a negative and, thus far, unopposed tone. So if this one star review happened in September, it would have possibly had an effect, but it wouldn’t have had nearly as big an impact as it is having now.

Now there will undoubtedly be a number of positive reviews that come in for this book, but there’s another element of this being the first review that will have long-lasting consequences: The number of people that have upvoted this review as helpful. At the time I’m writing this, that number is 247.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 1.08.27 PM

What does that mean? Well, it means that for a very long time, perhaps always, this review will be at the top of the product listing on Amazon as the “most helpful” review. I assure you that the single worst thing that can happen to you on an Amazon product page is to have the most helpful top review be a one star. It will hurt this book for the rest of its life.

In summary, this single one star review most likely has had a huge negative impact on those browsing the book during its initial Amazon promotional push, and it will have a huge negative impact on the book in the long term because as a well-written and helpful review, it was voted up early into the “most helpful” review slot that will be difficult to overcome.

There are other areas where an early one star review can hurt a book. When applying to promotional sites like Bookbub that don’t require a minimum number of reviews, an early one star will eliminate them as a possibility until your average review increases significantly, which can take quite a while after a one star. Also, if you advertise your book in places like Amazon, where the average star rating is attached to the ad, a 1 star rating will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your advertising.

Note that I am most decidedly not saying that this review was bad in any sense. In fact, I found it both well-written and helpful. In many ways, it is the kind of review you hope to see as you are browsing a product page.

Which brings me to the goals that reviewers have and their decision to leave one star reviews. I think one star reviews are important, and I would feel someone odd if my books didn’t receive them. Books that evoke both love and hate are the best kind of books in my opinion. They evoke passion. However, I sincerely don’t think that most reviewers want to destroy a book or materially hurt its opportunity to find an audience, even if that audience doesn’t include the reviewer. Perhaps I’m wrong, and perhaps reviewers want to hurt books that they don’t like, but as an author I hope that isn’t true. Helpful, yes. Destructive, no.

So I want to go back to what I said earlier about timing. A one star review can be not just helpful but damaging if it is one of the first two or three reviews. Perhaps I am out-of-bounds and perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I would humbly request reviewers that plan on posting a one star review to first allow one of two things to happen: Let time go on or let more reviews be posted.

In the first instance, you provide the book the opportunity to find its real audience. You, as one star reviewer, know that isn’t you. So allow the book to find those readers and reviewers who may like or even love it. If the book is released on the first, maybe plan on leaving your review on the fifteenth. If by then the book has no reviews, then you know that the audience hasn’t yet been found, and your review, while damaging, isn’t a major cause for the book’s poor start.

In the second instance, you wait until five or more reviews have been posted. Maybe they’re all five star ratings. Maybe they’re all one star ratings like yours. Maybe they’re a mixture. The important thing is that your purely negative view of the book, which may not be the majority view, hasn’t gotten in the way of that majority in discovering the book.

Finally, I will say this: Reviewers are critical and important to us writers. I would never tell a reviewer not to post a one star review. I’ve truly cherished some of my one star reviews for what they have taught me. So please review books, and review them honestly, including the moments when you feel you need to provide a one star review. However, also be aware of your power as a reviewer and the impact of that power on real people. In that sense, deciding on when to leave your review can be the difference between you sharing an opinion and destroying a book’s future.

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