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How To Write An Amazon Review

by Frank on September 17th, 2011

Why Write An Amazon Review?

I never wrote a book review on Amazon until my novel Final Mercy came out and started attracting reviews of its own.  The many five-star ones made me feel very good indeed, but the one three-star ranking cut me deeper than I expected  – and twice, because it not only dragged down the book’s review ranking overall, but went on to appear in another online review site where it was the only review that appeared. All the five-star reviews were absent.  Amazon readers might love my book, but no potential readers on the other site knew. Moreover the three-star reviewer was actually rather positive: she said she had quite liked the book, but sadly was put off by my use of the “F” word in a few instances.  But who reads three-star reviews in depth?

My gloom was brightened by a friend who pointed out to me that a Kindle edition of the King James Bible got 54 one-stars, and the complete works of Shakespeare (the Oxford Edition!) got 58. Clearly my humble tale was being better received by the reading public than those poorly edited potboilers!
Yet both experiences got me thinking about Amazon reviews in general.  Yes, good reviews please, and bad ones hurt. But do they really matter?

Reviews Matter

Indeed they do. We are awash in books. Over 50,000 new titles appear every year, and more and more are self-published or published by small presses.  More than ever readers need help separating the wheat from the chaff.  We can provide that help by writing brief reviews.

When we do, we benefit as well.  It’s like Starbucks.  If you find a really good Starbucks and tell your friends, they go there, and the business thrives.  If you don’t tell them, the business goes out of business and you don’t have a good Starbucks to go to anymore.   Tell people about a fine book and a fine writer, and you may be more likely to have more fine books from that writer.

Another reason?  Networking.  Reviews, like blog entries, are a part of social media.  Reviewers interact with writers and readers and other reviewers.  Your mystery review may lead to friendships with other mystery fans.  Your sci-fi review may get you a thank-you email from the author.   Your review of a gardening book may get you an invitation to speak at the gardening club.

Then there’s self-promotion.  If you’re a writer yourself, is there a better way of getting known by your target audience than by reviewing the books they know and may love?  Is there a finer way of garnering insight into your genre than reviewing the best examples of it, and telling others about it?

One reason more:  there’s a direct relation between the number of positive ratings a book gets and the number of sales it gets.  That’s important not because of the money it puts into the author’s pocket – which is important too, particularly for struggling authors.  It’s important because the more sales, the wider the notice Amazon gives the book.  As sales mount, the more and more the book appears in recommendations, on sidebars, in promotional emails, and so on.  More people see it, hear about it, notice it, and notice the author.

How To Write An Amazon Review

For one thing, you need an Amazon account, so sign up for one first.  You don’t have to actually have bought the book you’re reviewing from Amazon.  You may have bought the book from a brick-and-mortar store and read it a while ago.  It’s still fair game.

Go to amazon.com and enter the title of the book you read into Search.  Click the version you want to review (hardcover, DVD, audiobook, whatever) and the page that comes up will supply the information about that particular book.  Look and you’ll see a link that say “132 Customer Reviews” (or however many there have been).  Click the link.  It will take you to the Customer Reviews page and right under that phrase you’ll see another link that says:  Create An Online Review.

Click that and you’ll go to a page that asks for your email address and your password.  If you already have an account, log in.  If not, check “No, I Am A New Customer” and that will take you to a page where you can set up a free account, sign in again, and return to the review page.  Start reviewing.

That’s the simple part.  The hard part is getting it written.  There are many how-to-write books out there but I’d like to offer some simple tips given to me by my friend, the poet, editor and excellent reviewer himself, David Pascal.  David’s tips:

Draft First, Polish Later

Good writing often starts with pieces of not-so-good, not-terribly-coherent writing.  Once you’ve got them down on paper, you can rearrange things and clean them up.  But you can’t improve something that isn’t there in the first place.  Putting something down – anything – is rule number one.

Write down what you’d say about the book if asked in person.  Amazon reviews aren’t massive think pieces.  They simply describe the book a bit and tell people whether you recommend the book and why.  So imagine yourself at a coffee shop reading the book in question.  A friend comes up and says, “Hey, what are you reading, what’s it about?”  What would you say to them?  Write it down.  “Do you like it?”  Well, sure.  You wouldn’t be sitting there reading it otherwise.  Write down what you would have said in response.  “Would you recommend it?”  Again, just write down what you’d likely say.  There’s your review.  Or at least the beginnings of a reasonable first draft.

Ask yourself the perennially classic “Who What Where When Why” questions.  Who wrote it?  What’s the subject and genre?  Where and when is it set?  Why do you like it?  You don’t need to elaborate on each W in massive depth.  Amazon readers are there because they want to read a good book, not a good book review.  Let them know you like the book, and what you think is good about it, and you’ve done your job.

Read Other Reviews

In particular, check out the top hundred reviewers.  Readers gave them the top hundred rank for a reason.  See how they do it, and you’ll see what readers like and expect.

Read The Book

Don’t laugh.  Everyone in the writing industry knows that some reviewers write about books they haven’t really read.  Sometimes it’s a job.  Sometimes readers review books they’ve only dipped into or skim. They haven’t really read the book, but issue public judgments on it regardless.  Why?  Who knows?  Some people spend all their time writing and commenting on blogs.  Some put their fan-fiction online.  Others like to review books.  Book reviewing is worth doing, of course.  But if you’re going to do it, do it right.  Know that book.  Give it a close reading.  You won’t regret it: giving anything you read your full attention is more interesting than half-heartedly flipping pages.

Write About The Book, Not About You

What  specifically was it about the book that you liked?  The setting? Tell us about it.   The characters?  Describe them.  The action?  Tell us what happened.   Talk about the book.  Get detailed.

Don’t Confuse Your Personal Feelings About The Book With Its Quality

Some books are like disagreeable people you meet at parties, the sort who make forceful, powerful, well-thought-out arguments in favor of positions you despise.  You may be totally right and they may not.  But whether you disagree or not, if they make their case really well, that deserves acknowledgement, and even a pat on the back, not a brick tossed at their heads.

For instance, you may not be a Catholic, but G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries are delightfully written.  You may not be an atheist, but Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is written with fire and wit.  William Buckley was a staunch conservative and wrote beautifully, John Kenneth Galbraith was a staunch liberal and wrote beautifully, and Karl Marx – well, Marx was no Charles Dickens, but his books have entered the pantheon, that’s for certain.

Whether you like such books or not isn’t the issue.  Are they well done?  Are they substantive?  Should a well-informed person be acquainted with their contents?  If so, say so.  You can certainly add that you disagree, and even add why, but remember:  the review is about the book, not about you.  Don’t call a good book bad just because you don’t like it, or a bad book good because you do like it.

Keep It Short

Amazon readers read reviews to find out about the book, not because they want to savor the literary gifts of the reviewer.  An Amazon review isn’t a literary performance by the likes of an Edmund Wilson or a W. H. Auden, valuable in and of itself.  Readers just want to know what the book’s generally about, and if someone (someone like themselves, generally) likes the book and thinks the book is worth reading.  That’s it.  Two or three paragraphs should do it – four may be stretching it.

Keeping it short doesn’t necessarily apply to Amazon Guides or to Listmanias – or to the drafting process.  If it takes you two pages of notes to produce a good half-page review, that’s fine.  But if you must write chapter-long reviews, begin a blog, and unburden yourself freely there.  Especially if you’re a writer, and inclined to go on at length, remember that you’re only writing a recommendation, not headlining the New York Times Book Review.  Think haiku, not editorial.

Write Offline And Use The Right Tools

Very rarely is good writing and reviewing done casually and off the cuff.  The best work is done offline, saved, gone over again, and then cut-and-pasted into the review section.  You don’t want to write directly online because the browser could crash and lose all your work, or Instant Messages can pop up and distract you, or you could suffer any of the thousand natural shocks that PCs are heir to.  Write offline:  you can spellcheck easier, and you’ll be far less likely to post a review you’ll regret.

Also, try to write and save your files with a simpler word processor – Wordpad, or even Notepad.  They’re free, easy to use, and if you cut and paste from the latest version of Word or other more full-featured programs, the odds are that what you paste into the review area will contain code, crunch paragraphs together, or sport other glitches.  Simple text files paste best.

No Spoilers

This should be obvious, but reviews that go “When I found out the killer was really the vicar, I was totally astonished!” are bad reviews.  They not only wreck the suspense for future readers, but may well get shot down by Amazon itself beforehand.  If there is a killer, or a vicar, mentioning that is fine – there are people who like reading about both.  Describing is fine.  But don’t kill the suspense.

Wait

Never publish prose hot out of the oven. After you write something you thing is presentable, give it time.  Sit on it for at least a day.  Save it to disk and let it rest.  When you come to it again typos and weak lines and overly sharp comments invisible at the time you wrote them will be glaringly obvious.  Make your corrections, and send it then.

“Do No Harm”

The physician’s motto is, “Do no harm.” The Amazon reviewer should take that to heart.  Avoid writing bad reviews.  Or even lukewarm ones.  Personally, if I can’t give a book a four- or five-star rating, I won’t post a review at all, and I think you should adopt the same policy.

“But if a book is bad, don’t I have a duty to protect others by trashing it?”  l’d put that another way:  you have a duty to help others by pointing them to good books, books that will give them good instruction and good entertainment.  You’ll do that a lot better by posting about those than by scaring readers away  from books you dislike.  After all, dumping on something bad doesn’t lead a person to anything good.  It only leads them away, not forward.  You help others best by leading them to what’s  truly valuable.

Nor is there ever any reason to be downright nasty.  Older political writers like William Buckley could not write an exclamation mark without giving it an elegant turn; newer ones from Ann Coulter to Rush Limbaugh seem incapable of saying “One plus one makes two” inoffensively. Don’t fall into the second category.  Disagreement can be thoughtful and civil.  It generally reads better when it is.

Should you never pan any book, regardless of how you feel about it?  It depends.  There are rare cases when a harsh review is justified.  If you’re a specialist of some kind, and a book is spreading information that’s really inaccurate and possibly dangerous, you may well feel an obligation to set things straight.  For instance if, as a medical doctor, I hear about a #1 bestseller telling people that healing crystals cure cancer, I may be honor bound to read the book and publicly disagree.  I’m sure there are Holocaust historians who must want to tear their hair out when they see yet another idiot volume claiming the Holocaust never happened.  Sometimes you have to deny the deniers; when enough falsehood flourishes, the entire society chokes.

But it’s not enough to just deny.  You need to do so credibly and effectively.  That’s why I prefer to leave such negative reviews to experts and specialists.  Also, such expert critique should be applied principally to non-fiction, not the arts.  Factual subjects, and can and should be disputed factually.  Fiction and poetry are expressive, subjective subjects, and bad reviews there are never called for.  What you find trite may move another to tears.  What you find heart-wrenching, another may find hilarious.  There’s no objective thumbs up or thumbs down judgment to be made, because facts are not at issue here, sensibilities are.

If you don’t like a bad book, find a better one, and point people to that one.

And if you can’t find one?  I agree with David Pascal when he says: “Why not sit down and write a better book yourself?”

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6 Comments
  1. I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’ve just started reading e-books and I will make more of an effort to leave reviews. It is better to think that your review has helped someone decide about downloading a good book, rather than putting someone off just because you don’t like it. Leave the bad ones alone, support the good!

    Pete

  2. Fabulous advice. I always try to keep my reviews positive. I figure, if I don’t like something about a book, that there is always a redeeming value within it that others may find helpful or enlightening.

  3. Interesting post, and well put. It must be frustrating to see a less than perfect review taken out of the overall, better context (although a rating of 3 is not bad, at least). In reviewing, so far I’ve tended to only include favourable reviews on my personal blog, in accordance with the ‘do no harm’ principle. But in the bigger field, especially on a consumer site such as Amazon, as a reader I find the balanced, thoughtful reviews most helpful — even if they’re critical. I may feel differently when I have a book up there; on that happy day, I may well eat these words.

    • Frank permalink

      Would have to agree, Martha. Balance is good and nothing deserves all fives.

  4. Excellent post! I did a 5-minute video on how to do an Amazon review here: http://www.dianehenders.com/reviews/, but I focused on the mechanics, not the content.

    I’m going to add a link to this post, so that readers can take advantage of your advice. The more people who take this to heart, the better. 🙂

    • Frank permalink

      Thanks so much Dianne. I just watched your video, learned and loved it! Will spread the word. Frank.

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