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.

En Bref – an interview with Shakespeare & Co

Shakespeare & Co: Welcome to the first installment of En Bref, a new series we’re launching especially for Le Blog, featuring mini bookish interviews with authors we love—and have managed to persuade to answer our questions!

Who is your favourite novelist of all time?

George Orwell. His books have such a sense of purpose and he refuses to hide behind style—something you only have the confidence to do if you are a true craftsman.

What is your favourite sentence from any book ever?

If it were now to die,
’twere now to be most happy, for I fear
my soul hath her content so absolute
that not another comfort like to this
succeeds in unknown fate.

Othello (Act 2, Scene 1)

What is your favourite comfort read?

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Underlying its funny, bonkers plot there’s something intensely melancholy: at its heart are characters with a simple desire to be loved and understood in a world of malevolent bureaucracy. Which is pretty much how I feel when queueing at the bank.

If you could require the leader of your country to read one book, what would it be?

Collapse by Jared Diamond. It calmly and carefully shows how societies fail or succeed based on how well they manage their ecological resources. Basically, throughout history, whenever a society puts too much strain on its environment, everyone dies. So…

What is next on your to read pile?

I have about ten half-read books to finish first! After How to be Both by Ali Smith and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, I’m going to read The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and The Honours by Tim Clare.

First published on Le Blog of Shakespeare & Co

Agent Hunter Q&A

This is a Q&A I did with Agent Hunter, run by the Writers’ Workshop to help aspiring writers find the right agent and get tips on the publishing process.


Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.

I love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series – they’re so quick and cunning, and she evokes her landscape with spare but telling detail, whether they’re in the French countryside or on the Italian coast. She also carries the plot with a tight cast of just three or four main characters and a couple to support. It’s masterful. I also love Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series (the original three, not that godawful Hannibal Rising). Harris pulls you along with great twists and a worthy adversary, but you learn about memory palaces and harpsichords along the way, which is somehow just really cool. It sounds as if I only read books about psychopaths, but I’d rather say I’m compelled by characters who operate with impunity.


Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!

This is tough. I got into publishing because I love literature and so it would be a tempting cop-out to say ‘books that are just really good.’ Why do I read a book when I could be seeing my friends or watching TV? I think really good books speak to us about what it means to be human beyond the everyday – to live, to grow up, to love, to fail, to die. Novels can be about anything on the surface but I think ultimately they need to address those universal concerns, which the best writers do: George Saunders, George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Julian Barnes, David Foster Wallace. I don’t think writing needs to be ‘difficult’ to be good. J K Rowling, David Nicholls and Mark Haddon write very different books but they make you invest deeply in their characters, and you have to keep turning pages to find out if they’re going to be okay.


Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?

I guess this isn’t my natural core of interests, but I do like high concepts and speculative fiction. I’d have loved to see a book like The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, about the day the Earth’s rotation mysteriously slowed down (though I thought the idea was better than the execution). Or Under the Skin by Michel Faber, which gets weirder and weirder but in a way that somehow feels very organic – an extension of the world that I know.


Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?

I think good non-fiction should strive to improve our understanding of the world around us. It’s a wide brief, and I am as interested in biography (Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère) as in books about economics (Ha Joon Chang) or science (Philip Ball, Jared Diamond, Jim al-Khalili). I particularly love reading accessible books by academics about their field, or by journalists who are investigating an untold story. My current list encompasses hard science, social history, true crime, current affairs and memoir.


Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?

I would say I’m not the right person for royal or military history – those books are published so often and so well that it would be hard to make a lasting contribution.


Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?

At the moment I have more non-fiction than fiction, but I am building my list, and the difference is that with fiction I am looking for authors who I can back for their whole writing careers, whereas with non-fiction it may be that someone only has one book they want to write – a true story they’ve found or an account of a long research project. Finding novelists is harder, but when you love their writing it will hopefully last a long time – I’m proud to be working on the third novel by my first client, Lisa O’Donnell, at the moment.


Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?

I want something to happen. Too often writers see the opening as a period of grace where they need to get all the boring backstory and set up out the way. Kurt Vonnegut said you should ‘start as close to the end as possible.’ If you know about the main character’s family going back four generations, I’m pleased for you – you’ve done your research. But are you telling me because it’s really part of the story, or to prove something else? Imagine someone has picked up your book in a shop (a shop full of books) and has allocated about five seconds to glance at the first page to see if it looks interesting.


Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?

I did this year. I represent Nick Louth, a thriller writer who self-published on the Kindle Direct Platform. He had sold around 50,000 copies in one month (he’s now sold five times that number), and we decided to work together on a traditional UK publication. His book will come out in 2015 with Sphere (part of Little, Brown), and will be published separately in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and, oddly, Serbian.


Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?

Editing is not a compromise. Editing is saving you embarrassment when the critics get hold of it. Editing is your kind old teacher quietly mentioning that your flies are undone before any of your classmates has noticed.


Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?

I should say straight off the bat that these are not necessarily my favourite writers. But which writers would really ‘bring the party’? Milton, for instance, is one of the greatest writers in the English language but also a bit of a killjoy.

I would invite Hemingway, for his anecdotes and his general drinking stamina; Tolstoy, for his sheer barefooted craziness; Angela Carter, who I think would somehow keep the night on track while giving as good as she got. Plus, I would pay a lot of money to see her and Hemingway arguing. The conversation would teeter on the absolute brink of madness and genius.