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.

The Danger of “Oh, that will be easy”

June 24, 2016

I’m working on Thursday, which is my re-imagining of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and it strikes me that my goal when I started–to write a swashbuckling thriller that basically just copies Chesterton and paints on a new setting and updates the prose–seemed quite simple. I was hoping to get the book done in a month. But I just can’t seem to do that. The setting kept changing, and the more I looked at updating the book, the more I realized how formidable the job would be.

It turns out I needed to not just update the prose, but I had to change scenes, delete scenes, add scenes, and rework the nature of some of the characters. However, the biggest challenge has been taking the old style of lots of philosophical exposition and turning it into in-scene action.

In short, this project turned from a fun and short side project into an involved and lengthy one. I’m quite proud of it. It very much captures the spirit of Chesterton’s original, while being a pretty engaging and fun cyberpunk thriller. I can’t wait to share it with you.

A New Look And More

June 23, 2016

J.kerr mug with glasses b+w_thumbnailAfter a lot of thought, I’ve decided to simplify my website and be more active with my blog. My blog will be mostly casual updates and thoughts on a variety of things, some of them related to my fiction and others not at all.

While I will definitely provide updates on the blog, I won’t be highlighting them as big news headlines or leaving announcements in a special box. My goal is to make this kind of a casual place to hang out, share some thoughts, and listen to your comments if you have any.

If you would like to have the latest news about my upcoming releases, including sneak previews of the next Tommy Black and Guildmaster Thief books, then I recommend you sign up for my newsletter (and get a free book in the process). I include plenty of unique things there that you won’t find here, including amusing stories, free gifts, and, as I noted, sneak previews.

Thanks for reading!


Updating The Man Who Was Thursday

February 1, 2016

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, my current project is to re-imagine G.K. Chesterton’s extraordinary novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. I first read this book right after I graduated from college and completely fell in love with it. It’s a novel about detectives, anarchists, and secret societies. It has one of the all-time great plot twists, too.

Unfortunately, the writing in the book, as much as I love it, is somewhat dated. The background is also dated, as well. As I’ve thought about the book through the years I’ve kept thinking that a modern day version of the book would be so much fun to read, and as happens with writers, when you want to read something that hasn’t been written, you decide to just write it yourself.

So I’m writing The Man Who Was Thursday with a decidedly modern twist. I’ll be sticking as closely to the core plot as possible, but you can expect a lot of changes. Gabriel Syme is now Gabby Syme. The setting in early 1900s London is now a virtual world superimposed on the physical world. In fact, think of the book as The Man Who Was Thursday as seen through the prism of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I’m excited about the book. It’s one of the great pleasures as a writer that you get to write the books that you’ve always wanted to read. This is a good example.

Upcoming Projects

January 31, 2016

The last four weeks have been busy ones for me. I released both Blood on the Bridge and the Guildmaster Thief Omnibus in late December and book 2 in the Tommy Black series, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, on January 5. I have lots of things planned for the Spring, so let me update you on my next few projects.

Next up is a novel that re-imagines G.K. Chesterton’s classic thriller The Man Who Was Thursday in a video game universe like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The title will be Thursday, and I anticipate a release date in February for this.

After Thursday, I’ll work on book five in the Guildmaster Thief series. Entitled The Usual Suspects, the book focuses on a new plot by Ralan’s brother Larsen to become Ness’ sole ruler. We also get further glimpses of what Maela discovered in Blood on the Bridge. I anticipate this book will also be released in February.

Heading into March I’ll be working on a short story for The Gaming Chronicles anthology, and then another stand-alone novel. This one about gene-splicing and augmented humans.

Hanging Out With the Storymen!

January 30, 2016

I had a great time with the Storymen guys this month. The Storymen podcast is fantastic in its really vibrant appreciation for great storytelling, and its appreciation for the craft of writing (while keeping it very relatable for regular readers). In this episode we talk a lot about storytelling, but we also talk about Van Halen, Kaiser Soze, and a lot of other great things. Here’s the link.