Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lost in the Amazon(.com) jungle

From an article in last Friday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer (is that paper's name screaming for an overhaul, or what?) comes this news about a study being conducted on the book reviews (ratings) on Amazon.com:

...one Dartmouth College professor believes that the Web site's millions of everyman reviews can do more than just warn you off the latest pulp fiction. Mikhail Gronas says literary theory can learn a lot from this online world.

"It's a realistic, introspective account of what's happening in readers' minds when they're reading," Gronas, who teaches Russian literature, said recently.

To quantify that process, Gronas is churning those reviews through number-crunching software, analyzing and graphing what he calls snapshots of public taste.

Hmm. Just another ivory-tower abstraction, I'm thinking.

Gronas' work might seem like just another ivory-tower abstraction, but literary researchers say Amazon.com merits closer study because the Web site is helping to break down the traditional standards of literary review. That's because Amazon.com relies on ordinary readers, moving the practice of reviewing outside conventional venues.

All right. Maybe somebody should be studying Amazon. Goodness knows Amazon is plenty inscrutable.

The data also can measure how controversial a book is (or is likely to become) by analyzing whether a book's ratings are mostly positive or negative, or split down the middle, Gronas said.

Al Franken's "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," for example, might get rave reviews from readers who share the author's left-leaning opinions, as well as harsh critiques from those at the other end of the political spectrum.

The greater the spread, the more controversial the book, Gronas said.

Let me see if I've got this straight: If a book gets a zillion wildly favorable reviews and a zillion raspberries on Amazon, that means it's controversial.

Wow. I'm so glad we have college professors to interpret these facts for us.

I don't really hold out any hope that Dr. Gronas' team is going to tell us anything new. Amazon is and has always been a mystery. Case in point: For some reason (I like to think because my writing is brilliant, but in rare momens of lucidity I realize it was almost certainly a fluke), my Finding Hope has been reviewed more times on Amazon than any novel published by Steeple Hill Books in their eight-year history.

Not that it's been reviewed a lot; just ten times. But considering that most of our books don't get reviewed at all, and that five or six Amazon reviews is wildly unusual for a Steeple Hill book, ten just doesn't make sense.

Oh, I'm not complaining. It's just a puzzle to me because I didn't salt the reviews. I have never asked anyone to post a review for me, and as far as I know, I am acquainted with only one of the reviewers. (She's the wife of one of my husband's business associates. I met her for the first time a few months after she reviewed my book.) I'm not sure where the other reviewers came from. But bless their hearts, all ten of them gave my book five out of five stars.

I appreciated that more than I can say, but even I don't think the book was that brilliant. (No, please don't rush to e-mail me; I'm not fishing for compliments here.) But I'm not one to miss a good promotional opportunity, so when I noticed that six reviews had been posted on Amazon, I started bragging about it on my website. "Read my six 'five-star' reviews!" I demanded, and provided a link to my review page at Amazon. Did that encourage the other four people to jump on the bandwagon and post five-star reviews to help good ol' Brenda out? I don't know.

I don't know anything when it comes to Amazon, and neither do you. Nail-biting authors watch their Amazon Sales Ranks rise and fall, but nobody can tell you what the numbers actually signify. I know that because I was once a crazed, newly-published author who searched high and low on the internet for a definitive explanation of ASRs. I never found one.

My traditionally-published romance author friends worry a lot about their Amazon ratings; not just the reader reviews, but the Amazon Sales Ranks. But as far as I can tell, Amazon represents only a tiny portion of our sales. According to a study commissioned by Romance Writers of America, only 4% of romance readers purchase books online. And the study didn't even differentiate between those who occasionally buy books online and those who always buy their books online. On top of that, Amazon may be the biggest, but they are by no means the only e-tailer out there. So my wild guess (which is fully as valid as anyone else's wild guess) is that if you're a traditionally-published romance author (and not yet a bestseller), less than 1% of your sales are coming through Amazon.

Oh, everyone window shops at Amazon. We rush over there to see an author's latest cover, or to check out a good (or stinky) review a friend mentioned. But most of us still do the bulk of our bookbuying at brick-and-mortar stores.

As I write this (at 10:00 on Monday night -- I'm getting a jump on tomorrow), the ASR for Finding Hope is 47,217. According to Amazon, that means out of the millions of titles listed right now, only 47,216 are selling better than mine. Which is a hoot, because my book has been out of print for well over a year now. So what do those numbers really mean? And why am I quite sure that 24 hours from now my ASR will be 593,001?

If you want to risk a confusion headache, zip over to this site, where yet another obsessive author has tried to figure out how many of his books Amazon is selling. He's got some interesting theories, but his small sampling (his "thousand data points" were all collected in a single month) isn't terribly enlightening.

We authors just live to torture ourselves with stuff like this. Thanks a million, Amazon.

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