How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.

 

First published on The Bookseller.

World Book Day talk for primary school

My name is Alex and I have the coolest job in the world (or at least, I think it is). My job is to sit down at a desk and try and think of a story that nobody else has ever thought of before. There are lots of clever people in the world so it’s difficult to think of something that no one else has thought of but it’s very very fun.

The trick is to use your imagination. I can close my eyes and travel anywhere in the world. I love learning the names of new places and imagining who lives there – my favourite place at the moment is called Saskatchewan. I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds good. And I also like imagining what it would be like to live in a different time. It seems like life would be very different for a caveman or a viking or a queen. And it would definitely be very different to live in the future as a space pirate or a robot or an alien. Whenever I meet someone new, I ask them: what’s your story?

Everyone has an interesting story to tell. If someone doesn’t seem interesting to me, it’s not because they are boring – it’s because I haven’t asked them enough questions to find out the interesting bits. Sometimes, though, people don’t want to tell you what they are thinking about – maybe they’re shy – and that’s why I like reading stories too. Because with stories, you can see into other people’s heads. I’m not saying I want to see people’s brains because that would be gross. But once someone has written a book, they can tell you what they are thinking about without making a sound, across an ocean, or across a thousand years. When I write a book, it is like a little piece of me, and when someone else reads it, it is like we are becoming friends, even though we’ve never met. And I think that makes it a pretty cool job.

Tumbleweeding

One day in early November, 2014, I arrived at a little book shop facing Notre-Dame in Paris and sheepishly explained to a staff member that a friend of a friend had said that I could perhaps sleep here, in the book shop, while I researched my new novel, Let Us Be True. I half expected them to start laughing at me, but instead, they led me to the back, up the stairs, through a little library with beaten up leather armchairs, unlocked a door to a stairway landing, unlocked another door, and led me into a little staff room. There were lockers and a bunk bed filled with backpacks; books, everywhere; a photo of Walt Whitman stuck to a mirror; the ‘tumbleweed cookbook’, a work in progress decorated with coloured-in graph paper; a cactus with sunglasses named Karl; bottles of cheap wine from Nicolas; on the window was a painted cartoon of Virginia Woolf. In this room, I was initiated into the secret world of the Tumbleweeds.

It’s actually the second shop to have the name Shakespeare & Co. The first was run by a woman called Sylvia Beach who also operated it a private lending library and was a general shoulder to cry on for pretty much the entire Lost Generation of the twenties and thirties, even undertaking to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when it proved too hot to handle in Britain and America. Her shop was closed down during the Occupation and never re-opened, but George Whitman, who owned another Left Bank book shop, got her permission to rename his own shop Shakespeare & Co after the war. Since then, first George and then his daughter (named Silvia in tribute to the first owner) have taken in vagrant writers, with only a few conditions.

First, you should read a book a day. You’re not there to smoke Gauloises, you are there to sponge from the library. You will sleep on camping mattresses among the shelves (one in the library, two next to the piano, one hidden behind a little curtain above the children’s books). In the morning, you get up, figure out the day’s shelf-stacking rota, empty the dehumidifier in the basement (no one likes rotting stock), and unshutter the shop. Boards are unboarded; shelves are wheeled out front. You may subsidise your income with money dropped in the wishing well, where a little sign says ‘feed the starving writers’. There is only limited access to the kitchen, so you’d better like cheese, meat and bread. When I was there, we were also trying to come up with puns for the café they were thinking of opening (‘Tender is the Bite’, ‘Mushroom with a View’, ‘Finnegan’s Cake’).

It was the perfect place to conduct my research: across the road was the Caveau de la Huchette, where my main character, Ralf, went to watch live jazz; down towards the Sorbonne were the roads where the fighting was most intense during the 1968 student riots; just across the bridge, on the Île de la Cité, was the square du Vert-Galant, where Ralf sat watching the Seine, shoulder to shoulder with the woman he was falling in love with. I spent the days wandering around these places, feeling as if I had climbed inside my own novel. And then in the evenings, I would chat with the other tumbleweeds that were sleeping in the book shop – we would read each other poetry, we’d talk about what made great literature, our eyes shining, inspired by the possibilities (and possibly also by the red wine). Those nights felt perfect and endless, which made it feel all the more unfair when I realised my time was already up, and I had to catch my train the next day.

The last thing you have to do before you leave is write a one-page autobiography, which everyone staying at the shop has had to do, apocryphally, for the benefit of the government, who rightly considered the shop a hotbed of radicalism. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read some of the thousands of autobiographies in the archive there, including famous guests like James Baldwin. By the time I came to write mine, I was in love with the place. ‘Some things change inevitably and others we have a duty to preserve,’ I hammered out at the battered typewriter on my last morning, in a sentimental daze, glancing up occasionally at Notre-Dame through the window. ‘It is why I came to this place and why people queue to get in, why the library is filling with pilgrims, even as I type, desperate to confirm the rumour that there is still generosity and shelter here, and that the library which exists in the heart of every book lover is real.’

 

First published on Love Books