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Why Indie Authors Need to Understand the Subculture of Amazon Reviewers

ALLi blog editor Debbie Young pitches into the online review debate and introduces a self-published author who has spent five years exploring the Amazon review subculture from within.

Cover of Theo Rogers' book

Telling it how it is

Like any indie author, a great review makes my day and a duff one deflates me in a flash. Knowing how good a review can make me feel, I try to post reviews, on Amazon UK at least,  of every book I read. A natural optimist, I concentrate on a book’s good points and no more than hint at the bad. If the flaws in a book outweigh the fabulous, I don’t review it. 

I don’t just review books to be kind to authors: I do it because examining other authors’ work will ultimately make me a better writer.  Perversely, the sockpuppet scandal made me all the more determined to have my say.

As to my own work, I’m not shy of asking for reviews from people I know in person. What I don’t have the nerve to do is to seek the opinions of Amazon’s “top reviewers” – though I’ve heard of many authors who do, in a quest to boost their own discoverability.

My Pollyanna nature compels me to assume that most of these top reviewers will be benign, helpful readers with a genuine love of books – but how can we know which ones?  And even if we muster up our courage to make an approach, how do we keep on the right side of them? Oh, those sockpuppets haunt us still!

How to Get to Grips with Top Reviewers

I was therefore very interested to hear about a new book that promised to reveal the mysteries behind the faceless “top reviewers” and explain “the Amazon reviewers’ subculture”. There’s a subculture? Gosh! Who knew? Apparently there are reviewers’ forums on which reviewers talk amongst themselves about the authors who await their verdict. It’s a scary thought.

Cartoon of the author Theo Rogers

Putting a face on the Amazon top reviewer: Theo Rogers

When the book’s author, Theo Rogers, first offered me a free review copy, I was loathe to accept, brainwashed into distrusting someone who introduced himself as an Amazon reviewer. Like a CAPTCHA quiz, I checked whether he was really human with a barrage of personal questions. His courteous, considered answer was a pleasant surprise.

Theo Rogers turned out to be an affable Masters degree student who has spent much of the last seven years in bed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Like James Stewart’s character in the classic Hitchcock film, Rear Window, he’s spent much of that time people-watching, via the internet, on Amazon.

“I’ve spent literally thousands of hours talking to other Amazon reviewers, and I’ve spotted truly spectacular disasters that indie authors and other would-be sellers created for themselves by saying and doing all the wrong things!” he told me.

Exploring the Amazon Subculture

“The single biggest thing that most of your members probably aren’t aware of is that there’s a definite reviewer subculture on Amazon. [Er, guilty!] It has its own very definite ideas about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, especially on the part of authors. For the most part, that’s what my book is all about: teaching authors how to approach Amazon reviewers in a way that the reviewers themselves will consider appropriate, and which will result in positive rather than negative attention.

“As with most subcultures, the insiders tend to believe that their codes of behaviour are obvious, natural, and just common sense. By contrast, the outsiders (especially those who have run foul of the subculture) tend to see them as a wholly arbitrary set of standards that amount to little more than a pretext for bullying. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Once you’ve watched how things unfold for a while, the rules do make sense. But they are a step beyond just common sense. And strangers to this strange land aren’t going to be able to just intuit them.”

Fellow-Feeling

This all made sense to me. And then I discovered another winning nugget of personal information about Theo Rogers: he is self-published. And he’s no one-book wonder, either. When his health is restored and he’s finished his degree, he plans to publish more books, both non-fiction (already written) and novels (still in his head). So he’s really just one of us: a self-published author on a mission to get great reviews. In fact, I’m rather hoping he’ll decide to join ALLi. I think we’d rather get along.

This isn’t the right place to post my review of Theo’s book. If you want my opinion, you’ll find it on Amazon UK easily enough. (I just can’t stop myself from writing book reviews – I’m Amazon UK reviewer number 2,919, I’ll have you know!) All I want to do is to offer up the heartening discovery that there IS more method than what sometimes seems like sheer madness in the world of Amazon reviews. You can find out more about the Amazon reviewer subculture by infiltrating it yourself, if you like, or you might just decide to read Theo’s’ book. After you’ve checked out its reviews on Amazon, of course…

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37 Responses to Why Indie Authors Need to Understand the Subculture of Amazon Reviewers

  1. tambah follower March 30, 2014 at 8:37 am #

    Thanks for the marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and may come back from now on.
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  2. Shaun Ivory December 2, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Well, this has all been a revelation to me. As a green rube of almost 80 winters I am asking myself, “Should I enter such troublesome waters?” Some of it sounds positively(!) life-shortening, as one who cares about books and the reading thereof. For evil to flourish, etc. There are some bad seeds about and this milieu seems to just naturally provide nourishment for them. A bit like taking potshots at unarmed people from an impregnable defence. I’m glad there are so many ‘commenters’ out there ready to spring to the ramparts(Is this purple prose? Maybe mauvish?) and I only wish I had the time left to see how it all will end, because I think it could be a long battle. As for myself and possible bad reviews, I’ve had and read them all over the years and content myself with the knowledge that none of my friends read books anyway. So I won’t be telling them about the bad ones, just the good ones! Stick it out, Theo, your heart’s in the right place and that’s the main thing.

  3. Gerard Thomas November 5, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Wow Debbie you did a great job. I was amazed to read this although looking forward to Roger’s book no doubt that Top Amazon Reviewers are the best reviewers online.

  4. wordwan September 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    I spent a little time on Amazon trying to figure out their processes. I’m not really impressed with what I saw.

    I can appreciate someone’s need to figure out processes on Amazon. My best advice? Go on the forums and read what the reviewers and other people say.

    You’ll figure it out quickly enough.

    That is, unless, all you really wish to do is buy books on how to write. *grin* Which, on Amazon, is an industry, in itself.

    Heather

  5. Theo Rogers September 26, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    I don’t want to represent myself as any kind of moral authority, or push my own beliefs on anyone else. That’s not what I’m here for.

    I have met reviewers on Amazon who only post positive reviews. However, it is important to be aware that they only constitute a fairly small minority.

    The majority of serious Amazon reviewers I’ve encountered believe that reviews aren’t written for the benefit of authors, but for the benefit of customers. With this as their starting point, they generally feel that honesty is the necessary virtue here, not kindness.

    Most reviewers I’ve encountered would also agree that once you start selling your work FOR MONEY, it’s no longer reasonable to expect your feelings to be among the reviewer’s chief concerns. Once you start trying to separate other people from their cash, it’s time for honest appraisal and plain speaking.

    Again, I’m not here trying to push my own beliefs on anyone. But I am trying to make it clear how Amazon reviewers tend to think.

    • Tahlia Newland October 23, 2013 at 8:18 am #

      That’s excellent news and is just how the Awesome Indies reviewers feel as well.

  6. David LaRoche September 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    There is substantial inference above that “slamming” a book is bad manners, and if a reviewer thinks a book sub par, no review is appropriate. I disagree. As a reader (buyer) of books I want an honest review, good or bad. As a writer, I want to know my faults as well as my skills.

    Granted, there are dishonest reviews – some from people who prefer writing reviews to a more challenging authorship – a slog more about them than the book. As a buyer of books, however, I can weed through that and am able to find the honest reflections that lead me to order and read.

    I have yet to put a book up, several in the making, but when I do, I want both good and bad – opinion that’s honest. I don’t want a good reviewer to hold back because they’re avoiding the negative. Let me hear so that I can correct.

    • Debbie Young September 24, 2013 at 8:53 am #

      I know many reviewers feel the same as you do on this point, David. I won’t write a dishonest one, and will hint at problems but in a kindly way (e.g. “the story line was strong enough so that the odd typo didn’t put me off”) but I won’t write a dreadful one either – but if I have negative points to make that I think the author can learn from, I will always try to contact them via another route such as a private email or a private message sent via their website (relatively easy to do as most authors have websites these days). Even though that message won’t be visible to the public, I’ll still try to be as supportive and diplomatic as I can – my message is more likely to be taken on board if it’s presented in a kind manner. I think to back to how I felt at school if a teacher criticised my work – I’d be much more comfortable and open to change if we spoke privately or if I saw a comment for my eyes only on an essay rather than to be told where I’d gone wrong in front of the whole class. But I guess we all have to do what feels comfortable and right to us as individuals – there are no absoloute rights or wrongs, that’s for sure!

  7. David James September 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Thanks, Debbie for opening up the intriguing world of reviewing on Amazon. I’ve been ‘on the game’ for a few years now and though losing ground on Amazon Us (Ranked 25,00o+ one day, 2 reviews later ranked 26,027) am making slow progress on Amazon UK. Must get a lokk at Theo Rogers’s book!

  8. Helena Mallett September 21, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    P.S. I too have M.E. … 30 years and still counting.

    • Theo Rogers September 21, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Wow… Can I ask how you manage things? Have you been able to build a life for yourself despite the illness?

      Whether CFS is the same thing as ME is an issue I don’t really have an opinion on. But I know there’s a huge range in levels of functioning between people.

      • Debbie Young September 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

        I can recommend Helena’s book too, Theo – great flash fiction, cleverly written, memorable tales. But I’d never have known from her work that she had ME. And it was a complete surprise when you told me about your health issues too. I hope that’s a comfort. And please do keep writing, both of you!

  9. Helena Mallett September 21, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    Great info! Have just downloaded the book – thanks!

  10. ABE September 20, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I bought it, and swallowed it whole: nice to learn about the whole Amazon reviewer culture in one fell swoop.

    I hope he gets better, too, but ‘When his health is restored’ may not be realistic – I’ve had the same darned thing (CFS – or ME/CFS) for 24 years, and ‘health restored’ hasn’t happened, so I’m amazed at all he gets done anyway, and wish him the best success with the books he DOES manage to write.

    Alicia

    • Theo Rogers September 20, 2013 at 6:32 am #

      Thanks, ABE!

      Yes, this year I’ve been reading more myself about how after you’ve had CFS for 4 – 5 years, dramatic improvement is rare. I suppose I’ve been coming to terms with the strong likelihood that barring some medical breakthrough, these are just the cards I’ve been dealt and I have to play them as best I can.

      I suppose it’s fortunate that I’ve always wanted to write!

  11. Dan Holloway September 19, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Sounds like a super book. I’d be fascinated to know what other reviewers make of Theo’s book – are they grateful to him for educating writers and so making reviewers’ lives easier, or do they feel exposed by it?

    I’m interested that writers would be surprised there’s a reviewing subculture – that’s the case with every product that gets reviewed, so it would be surprising if books were different.

  12. Eliza Green September 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    I reviewed Theo’s book in exchange for an honest review, but I have to admit, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Amazon Reviewers. But the subculture within the reviewing system certainly made me stop and think.
    I was also heartened to hear that they don’t give shill reviews or spam/trolls a chance to flourish. As an author, it can be hard to know what happens when a reviewer accepts a book for review. Most self publishers regard Amazon as a giant fortress with electric wiring to keep out those of us who aren’t on the list. Sure, you can publish on KDP, but understanding the nitty gritty of how a site like that works is,well, beyond most of us. I thought the book gave a really honest account of Amazon reviewers and brought me a step closer to understanding their world.

    • Debbie Young September 21, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      Well said, Eliza! It’s great to have had that fear of the unknown broken down and to feel that actually, we are all part of one big community, and, for the most part, on the same side – we all love a good book!

  13. Brent Butler September 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Theo has done a nice job of organizing and condensing discussions that occurred over a period of years into an easy to read book. Bear in mind that not all Top Reviewers take part in those discussions, but the sense of the discussions actually does contain more common sense than Debbie’s quote is giving us credit for in the blog above. 😉

    #1 Common sense – We don’t want to be spammed
    #2 Common sense – We don’t want to be scammed
    #3 Common sense – We won’t stand for being abused or harassed

    Essentially the discussions in Amazon’s Top Reviewers Forum boil down to those basic tenets, and Theo’s book gives you the elaboration of what some would-be authors do to spam and scam their potential customers. They may not always realize that’s what they are doing, but with a little explanation and thought it is clear.

    When an author posts promo of their book all over Amazon forums, in thread after thread, that’s spam. When they email hyperbole to everyone they can find an email address for, whether that person has any chance of being interested in their book, that is spam.

    When an author has family and friends post positive reviews of their book, most of which is against Amazon’s rules, we call those “shill reviews” because they are not the arm’s length product evaluations that Amazon and other customers seek when deciding on a product to buy. That in essence is scam.

    When a reviewer just doesn’t like a book, for any of myriad reasons (everything from “not to their taste” to “the author is illiterate”, and the author harasses the reviewer in comments under the review or elsewhere, that’s not going to win friends either.

    Theo’s book will flesh out these basic concepts.

    I’ll tell you right now that there aren’t any secret places where reviewers spend any time talking about self-published authors, or at least in any more detail than anywhere else. Most of that happens in blogs and wide open forums, such as those on Amazon’s site. And of course the largest splashes in these discussions are generally about would-be authors who know nothing about PR and irritate the world around them with angry melt-downs. That’s just common sense too.

    The most important thing for aspiring authors to know is that Theo’s advice won’t help them unless they have a good product … not just THINK they have a good product.

    I personally have read the Amazon Previews of books spammed (err promoted) in Amazon’s Top Reviewers Forum MANY times. Nine out of ten have one or more of the following problems:

    * the writer simply had insufficient education to write
    * the writing is filled with basic mistakes (purple prose, tiresome exposition, etc)
    * no editor has been involved to help shore up things like plot problems
    * no competent proofreading has been completed

    Remember that a reviewer is just a customer who writes his opinion. Our agenda is that if someone asks us to pay for a product, we expect that product to be competently and professionally presented. If it’s amateur hour, that’s what we’ll report to other customers.

    • Debbie Young September 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

      Hi Brent, and thank you so much for leaving such a long and thoughtful comment. It’s been a real education for me to read his book and your comment too. I like common sense 🙂 and it is good to have this assurance.

    • Lisa November 25, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

      Having read plenty of what I think of as “trash reviews”, I have to wonder if you’re being entirely honest or just honest about yourself and a couple handfuls of people who are like you, Brent. I’m an avid reader, and no matter whether I like or dislike or feel indifferent about a book or it’s author, I wouldn’t write a trash review. Maybe Amazon’s “Top Reviewers” are a different breed from the huge number of people who seem to write reviews simply for the joy of trashing another human being and their work. That said, I find a lot of so-called “Top Reviewer” reviews that seem to be “Top” only because they review a lot, not because they have any merit. Reviews that simply slam authors, rip apart their works and generally exist to give free rein to the base need to insult others don’t seem “professionl”, “fair-minded” or remotely valuable, yet that’s what often meets my eye. I’m not referring to critiques that point out editorial errors, lack of editorial support or proofreading errors, nor even reviews that point out a seeming lack of education or overdose of “purple”, (although these two are up for debate and, like beauty, seem to me to be “in the eye of the beholder”, not really uniform standards like grammar, spelling and general structure). I’m referring to people who just tear down an author’s character, attack morals and run rampant with insults. I’m talking about readers who read apparently for the purpose of criticizing, not critiqueing, the works of others. I’m talking about reviewers who seem to delight in being as negative and contemptuous as possible. Today’s focus on the negative, infatuation with shock, hunger for anger seems to have unleashed a whole other breed of reviewer, trollish creatures who got bored of commenting on news articles and blog spots and decided Amazon was a great new playground. They’re not professional, they’re not fair, and they’re not useful, and it could be that they are the ones giving your set a bad name. Weeding through all their poison to find your reviews is definitely what made me stop trying to read reviews at all. Back to just getting the book and deciding for myself. If you hoped to save me wasted time by alerting me to editorial and educational deficits and “purple prose”, they already wasted that same time slot by posting 5 useless and poisonous reviews to your one well-considered and professional effort. I’d rather waste my time on the first 10 pages of a poorly-written, hardly-researched novel that at least represents the author’s honest effort, regardless of how unpleasant I find it to read.

  14. Amira Makansi September 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Great post, thanks so much for sharing. I will definitely be checking out Mr. Rogers’ book, and trying to get in touch with that particularly interesting subculture!

    • Debbie Young September 20, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      Thanks, Amira – I think there’ll be quite a lot of us heading over in that direction! I’ll be interested to know what you think of it!

  15. Theo Rogers September 18, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    Just thought I’d stop by and say “Hi”. And thank you to Debbie for mentioning my book, and to the rest of you for leaving such nice comments! 🙂

    • Debbie Young September 20, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      It was a pleasure, Theo – and you really practised what you preach, as it was also a pleasure to get such a courteous and patient initial approach from you about the possibility of reviewing it!

  16. Randy Kraft September 18, 2013 at 1:58 am #

    This was eye-opening to me and I’m an Amazon reviewer, altho I haven’t reviewed that often. And I’ve never been invited into a private chat. I review only books I like because the reason I review is to recommend books. Good writing is too hard – I would never trash another book just because it wasn’t to my liking or my taste. Very interesting indeed, thanks.

    • Debbie Young September 20, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      Thanks, Randy. I’d never noticed the reviewer forums either and was pleasantly surprised to realise they’re not private. Mind you, there are so many items on the Amazon menu on the “Your Account” page and I must admit I’ve never looked at most of them – only those I actually need at any given moment! Maybe I need to trawl through them all – I might find other good things there!

    • A.C.Flory September 21, 2013 at 4:49 am #

      Same here Randy. I tend to only review those books that trigger the light bulb reflex in my head – life is too short to struggle with a constructive way of saying someone’s life work sucks. Most of us are indies and know how much effort went into that prose. That said, if I do review a novel I do try to be objective about my subjective reactions. lol

  17. Christine Nolfi September 18, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Debbie, I’m stunned to learn there’s a reviewer subculture at Amazon. Hearing about Theo’s health challenges gives the Amazon Top Reviewer mystery a human face I hadn’t expected, and I had no idea top reviewers chat in private groups.

    Many thanks for the wonderful article.

    • Iola September 19, 2013 at 6:32 am #

      The Top Reviewer Forum (and genre forums/fora) aren’t private groups: any Amazon account holder can join the discussions. Conversations are wide and varied, and sometimes we even talk about books. You’ll find us at http://www.amazon.com/forum/kindle?_encoding=UTF8&ref_=sv_kstore_7

      • Debbie Young September 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

        Thanks for the link, Iola, that’s really helpful. I’m sure lots of our readers will be dashing over to join you there! 🙂

    • Debbie Young September 20, 2013 at 8:45 am #

      It’s a pleasure, Christine. I was stunned too when I first heard about it – though after some of the other comments left, I feel a little foolish now not to have known this before! Great to have it all in the open and accessible all – things can’t get much fairer than that!

  18. Diane Capri September 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    Nice piece, Debbie. It’s good to see the man behind the book.

    My initial reaction to Theo’s premise (i.e. there is an Amazon reviewer subculture) was, “Who knew?” After I read his book, I was impressed with the dedication of these reviewers who post hundreds of reviews a year — without any compensation beyond personal satisfaction. Amazing!

    There was a time when I wrote book reviews for a large metropolitan daily newspaper. While my compensation didn’t qualify me for the Forbes list of top earners, I was paid to read (which I love and would do anyway) and review books. I was a published fiction and non-fiction author by that time (mystery/thrillers) and was sometimes in the awkward position of reviewing books by my friends and colleagues. No anonymity allowed. Which meant objectivity was essential. And it made me value objectivity in other reviewers as well.

    I’m pleased to learn that there is a reviewer culture at Amazon and those reviewers strive to behave professionally. Kudos all around.

    • Debbie Young September 20, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      Gosh, being paid to read books – what a great job! I agree, it is wonderful to see how many very active reviewers there are out there who are so generous with their time and thoughts, especially after many authors in particular were put off reviewing after the big sockpuppet scandal last year. Thanks for your kind comments.

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