The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës[/amazon_link]. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

Monstrous Vermin

Sterility

I hate pests. Up until yesterday or the day before, I followed someone on Twitter who made book recommendations and linked to items for sale on Amazon. I have nothing against being an Amazon affiliate, obviously, as I am one myself. What does bother me is when folks use any sort of hard sell, pressure, or guilt as tactics to convince you to buy through their affiliate links. A simple link that announces you’re an Amazon affiliate and thanks you for buying books through your site is absolutely fine, and I might even be encouraged to help you out. A direct message sent to all your followers encouraging people to buy through your site and guilting said followers by mentioning selling through Amazon is a part time job for you, well, that’s just wrong. Times are hard, and I don’t begrudge folks trying to earn a buck, but it’s not the first time this person has used this tactic, and frankly the value of the book recommendations isn’t worth it to me. If I buy anything through an affiliate, it should be because I want to, and perhaps because they’ve made it easy for me. One thing you’ll never have to worry about me doing is pressuring or guilting anyone into buying books I link to through my Amazon affiliate code. I do, of course, thank you if you do. It helps keep me in books. But it’s just wrong for anyone to send a message to all their followers or all the folks in their email address book or Facebook friends asking that folks buy through you. Don’t you think? Or am I just touchy?

photo credit: Furryscaly

Urban Posters 2

It looks like UrbanPosters.com shipped my order today, almost exactly three months after I ordered it.  I still have not received feedback regarding the lateness or the multiple e-mails, or the BBB complaint, and I suppose I don’t expect to now, as they will feel they fulfilled their end of the bargain.  I am not satisfied, however, and will still not order from them again.  Three months for posters they said they had in stock is ridiculous.  Amazon does better with out of print materials than that!

Crossposted at huffenglish.com, the Pensieve, and Our Family History.

UrbanPosters.com

Consider this post a public service announcement.

Back in mid-August, I ordered two posters from the website poster outfitter UrbanPosters.com. September came and went, and they had not arrived. Furthermore, the company did not respond to numerous e-mails regarding my order. I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but the company has yet to respond to that complaint as well. I’m out about $27, which is not a lot, but much more disturbing to me than the fact that I lost money is the fact that the company ignored repeated requests and a BBB complaint. I have rarely received such shoddy customer service anywhere. I would urge you strongly not to do business with this company and to spread the word around.

Crossposted at huffenglish.com, the Pensieve, and Our Family History.

[tags]urbanposters.com, bbb, better business bureau, customer service[/tags]

Gray Hair

I was innocently surfing the Internet and came across this article from More, a magazine for women over 40. You might remember the famous picture they published of Jamie Lee Curtis sans makeup and glamor.

Jamie Lee Curtis in More magazine

Anyway, the article discusses the writer’s perceptions of how she is treated differently when she has gray hair. Some of her observations include:

I’ve spent 20 minutes trying to talk myself into leaving my friend Amy’s apartment wearing this wig. Said wig is actually quite fetching, much more so than my own baby-fine mop. Sure, it draws attention to certain lines around my mouth I wasn’t aware I had, but I’m shocked to report that I actually like the way I look.

Well, quel surprise. Gray hair can actually look good. She was also surprised to be ogled by some construction workers:

The closer I get, the less they hammer — they’ve noticed me. Could they be less subtle with their let’s-go-to-the-nearest-cheap-motel stares?… What normally seems like harassment suddenly feels more like an affirmation. If it’s possible, I think I just enjoyed being ogled.

Oh no she didn’t. Did she just say that women with gray hair must feel affirmed — “I’m still beautiful, even if I look old!” — if they are ogled by construction workers? As if we are desperate for attention we never get? Let me tell you ladies, my experience has been that both men and women like my hair.

Next, she talks about working out at a fitness club:

People are checking each other out right and left, but no one even looks at me. I guess it’s true that women become invisible after a certain age. But, contrary to what I expected, being ignored doesn’t bother me. For the first time in months, I’m actually paying attention to my workout instead of worrying that my fellow gym-goers are fixating on my back fat.

It’s the same argument as “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” I am wondering how much of this is her perception and how much is reality. How much does she get ogled — or does she think she usually gets ogled — when her hair is its “natural” blond?

Her sense of shock only deepens when she describes flirting in a bar. I want to smack her and say, “duh.” One of the men she talks to perfectly encapsulates my attitude about my hair: “I liked that you didn’t feel like you had to change your hair. It’s cool when a woman is brave enough to be herself.”

I have never attributed rudeness on the part of any store employee to my gray hair, before, either. In fact, I can’t really remember feeling rejected by store employees because of my hair. I wonder how much of this article is based on experiences the author had because she wanted to have them. What I mean is that her slights may be perceived because she wanted to prove the thesis that she would be considered less attractive by men and ignored by everyone else because of her gray hair.

It might just be my own prejudice, but I like her better in the gray wig. It goes well with her complexion. What bothers me most, I think, is the persistent condescending tone. She keeps referring to herself as looking “older,” and while she thinks she is being positive, it’s really like one of those backhanded compliments — “Wow, that dress doesn’t make you look as fat as the other one.” Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But what she didn’t address is the fact that there are a number of young women, like me (I’m only 34), who are genetically disposed to prematurely gray hair and choose not to dye it. I wonder why it is that she assumes that a relatively young woman wouldn’t be gray — or that she wouldn’t color her hair.

I should probably add that my hair is almost precisely as gray as her wig. This is the best recent picture I have of my hair. I look mad because I was late to my eye doctor appointment, which was subsequently cancelled, and I was kicking myself. For cripes’ sake, Dylan had broken my glasses and I couldn’t see. I had a new camera phone, and I was playing with it until Steve could pick me up.

Dana's Gray Hair

I like my hair, so I guess that’s why I was miffed by the suggestion that there is something wrong with gray hair.

Armchair Psychoanalysis

I classified this as a rant, but as rants go, it’s not really that vehement. It’s more like old Andy Rooney’s, “You know what I don’t like?” Armchair psychoanalysis. I have been given a couple of doses of it recently by people who don’t know me all that well, nor do they know much about the situation they seek to advise me about. Even more interesting, however, has been the wealth of opinion on the subject of mandatory reporting of abuse over at Steve’s site. Heck, I understand what they’re trying to say, but most of them were looking at what they thought was best instead of what was actually legal. Sometimes, indeed, those two things aren’t the same. In this case, I’m not convinced that’s true, however. I just find it a bit alarming that so many people seem to think they have the ability to psychoanalyze others to the degree that they do. I suppose a site like Steve’s invites it. I guess I don’t wax controversial too much over here, and that’s fine with me.

Truth be told, my husband is one of the worst as far as armchair psychoanalysis goes. I think he’s aware of it, and I think he actually enjoys it. I don’t think it even bothers him so much when someone else does it to him. However, I admit to becoming if not angry, then certainly peeved when some schmoe who doesn’t know his or her ass from her armpit tells me what’s wrong with me and how I can fix it. There was a famous rabbi once who said, “physican, heal thyself.” If it’s annoying coming from Steve, then you can bet it’s incredibly irritating coming from a stranger. Especially a stranger who appears to be mentally unbalanced in his or her own right. I think the best thing a friend can do when someone close to them is going through something painful is to be there and listen. On the other hand, I think if you don’t really know the person all that well, perhaps you ought to bite your tongue — there are just so many layers to people, and you probably don’t have all the facts. No matter how much you think you know or want to help, you just wind up being a nuisance — sort of this “I know what your problem is, here’s what you need to do.” If done in the wrong way, I think it can be harmful, and I shouldn’t wonder if real mental health officials don’t get extremely upset over this issue.

Update: My fault for not being clear, but I had reasons. If you think this applies to you, ask me first before you assume.

Sticker Shock

I know I’ve just never mentioned in this blog how I hate cars. </sarcasm>.

Anyway, my car is in the shop. The most pressing thing I need to fix, the head gaskets, will run me $1900. When I can afford it, I also need to fix a leak in the power steering column ($960), the leaking oil pan ($640), and the brakes, which are wearing, but not worn yet ($165). My dad says he can fix the battery cable ($260). In all, I was quoted $3925 worth of repairs.

Ayup. I got that laying around in my sock drawer. Anyway, my dad was good enough to loan me $1000, so I can use the other $1000 that I can afford to put in myself to at least get thing one fixed. I was assured that the other stuff, while necessary to fix, can wait and the car will still go.

I really, really, really hate cars.

My great-great-grandparents spent $20 on a buggy in the 1890’s. Grandma Stella would probably go apoplectic with shock if she knew how much money her great-great-granddaughter would spend on her various and sundry automobile problems over the last five years.

BookSlut

You know, I have decided not to read Blog of a Bookslut anymore. I have enjoyed some of the witticisms and interesting comments of Michael and Jessa, but I’m just damned sick of their book snobbery:

This column by Brian Hennigan makes me want to either move to Scotland or marry Brian Hennigan.

Let me also say that, yes, I have read a Harry Potter book. It was nice enough — for a children’s book. But at no point did I ever think that I was involved in anything other than a book for children….

Adult fiction recognises that the contemporary world is a complex, difficult place with demands on our reasoning that require careful consideration. I have nothing against Harry Potter or any of his genuinely juvenile followers — children should be bursting with juvenility — but his adult disciples are little more than cowardly escapists.

I was getting used to seeing anti-Potterisms from Jessa, but et tu, Michael? Weren’t you the guy who said,

These types of articles usually drive me crazy. It’s medical pretentious we-know-what’s-good-for-you assholes wringing their hands and asking, “How can we get America to read more William T. Vollmann?” actually give me these weird hives, and I have to get a shot. I kind of feel that if someone wants to read nothing but John Grisham novels, they should just be left the fuck alone. But Newgard is actually charming and tongue-in-cheek enough to pull this off. (Although: Anne Rice’s vampire novels are decent? Really? Ah, well, vive la difference.)

Since both of you are tearing your hair out trying to get the literary establishment to respect graphic novels, you’d think you would both be a bit more open-minded.

Standardized Testing

Please read this article about students standing up for themselves against the scourge of standardized testing in San Antonio, TX. You may either register free to view the article from mysanantonio.com or use Bug Me Not’s login “johnsmith01@msn.com,” password “orwell.”

Mia Kang is a freshman at McArthur High School, presumably in San Antonio. She makes good grades. But she thinks one test, taken on one day, does not “measure what kids really need to know, [it] measure[s] what’s easy to measure.” She added, “We should be learning concepts and skills, not just memorizing. It’s sad for kids and it’s sad for teachers too.”

Amen!

A local public school system, Gwinnett County Public Schools, requires students to take Gateway Tests in grades 4 and 7 in addition to state-mandated writing tests in grade 5, 8, and 11, and graduation tests in grade 11. Supposedly, this prevents students who have not learned certain concepts from being passed along. The only problem is that a 7th grader can fail every single subject and make a passing grade on the Gateway — and that student will pass 7th grade. In addition, the passing score hovers around 30. Where else in life is a passing score so low? I think it is ridiculous. It places undue pressure on the students to perform well on a test that is virtually meaningless and ignores the fact that the single biggest factor in a student’s success is not whether they can pass a test, but whether they can apply themselves to do the work necessary to make passing grades. It is a slap in the face to any teacher who works hard to teach a student to think, to learn concepts, only to be measured by whether or not that student can pass a test.

That great innovator of education, George W. Bush, has brought this legacy of extensive standardized testing from Texas to the nation. This is what No Child Left Behind looks like. Teachers will teach to the test, because their jobs depend on it, and students will learn what they need to know for the test and get ulcers from test anxiety.

That is, unless more students like Mia realize that some battles really might be worth fighting for.

Server Woes

I swear, one of the first things I am going to do come March is move to a new server. I don’t know why my server has to be such a pain in the ass. On the one hand, I feel I shouldn’t complain, because my server hasn’t ever been down that I know of, and they generally try to help. On the other, they upgraded to new servers without giving me a reasonable warning (my “warning” went into my junk mail folder — I didn’t get it for a few days). They told me they had configured MIME type on the server to render CSS so it would properly render CSS in browsers besides IE, but they apparently still haven’t done that, because we had problems when 1) I tried to intall MT 3.14 and noticed the user interface was whacked, and 2) Steve tried to install a new style sheet on his true crime blog. By the way, if you have this problem, a very simple line of code exists to work around it. At the beginning of your style sheet, put the following text: <?php Header (“Content-type: text/css”);?>. That will enable all the smart Firefox users to see all your pretty CSS instead of plain text. By the way: I don’t know if that messes up validation or anything — frankly, I’ve given up on trying to make sure this site validates.

So why am I complaining now? My server has Perl 5.6 instead of 5.8. I don’t have Storable perl, so I can’t use a buttload of the coolest MT Plugins. I put in a help ticket with my server host, but considering they acted like they didn’t understand what I was talking about with the MIME type, I’m not holding my breath. DreamHost gets such praise…

What do I like about my server? Unlimited bandwidth. Very, very reasonable prices. You just can’t leave those two very important variables out of the equation.

I just wish they knew what they were doing all of the time.

Shoot. I feel bad even complaining, because I know they’re not native speakers of English. I’m sure a lot of the problem is the language barrier.

I guess I’ll wait and see what happens with the perl upgrade. I’m thinking if they can’t get that figured out, then it’s adios Maxipoint.