images-2.jpegOne of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books – the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, ”2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

Editor’s note: the above is reprinted, with permission, from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog. PB


  1. There’s a much simpler method of finding a good book: the AlexLit collaborative filtering literature recommender, which I’ve mentioned here in the past. At the moment it’s running on low capacity, limited to a trial edition of a database server that can only handle five simultaneous users.

    But for those five users at a time, it still works great!

    Its founder, Dave Howell, said that one of the original goals was to provide a faster method of digging through the explosion of online literary content to find the “good stuff”. It was kind of sidelined by problems in its parent company, however.

  2. I think Rich has identified a real problem but I’m not sure his solution is workable. Let’s take as a given that we want honest and fair criticism from real readers. Is offering a store credit a good way of getting those? Or is it, instead, likely to generate bad reviews strictly created for the purpose of earning the credit? Just those reviews Rich dislikes (e.g., one star reviews in protest over something, five star reviews that simply say, ‘great’). But, you say, we’ll impose standards, not give the store credit for insufficient reviews. My answer…how are you going to do that and who is going to do it? The store has no interest in anything but positive reviews. Will they really pay for negative? Will they really devote paid employees to rate reviews? Will they risk offending paying customers by declaring their reviews to be inadequate? My experience on Amazon with review ratings suggests that this approach is also flawed. Reviews tend to be voted as ‘helpful’ if they agree with the reader’s opinion. Also, reviews of books by lesser-known authors don’t generate many ‘helpful’ votes just because nobody bothers reading the reviews.

    One way or another, though, we’ve got to find a way to get out the message that there are wonderful books being generated by small publishers. I applaud Rich in his attempts to find an answer.

    Rob Preece

  3. I read a lot of Smashwords e-books. And when I’ve finished one, I write a review. Unless, as has happened a couple of times, I got the e-book when it was free but now it’s got a price. Smashwords doesn’t allow reviews on non-free e-books from those who haven’t bought the e-book.

    Another source of reviews for some Smashwords titles is Barnes & Noble. B&N provides a comprehensive (overly complex, if you ask me) rating system with 16 aspects in addition to the overall star rating.

    Personally, I’m not finding it difficult to navigate Smashwords to find good material. First I read the synopsis and see if I’m interested. If I am, I check the ratings and reviews. If I’m still interested, I read some of the free sample. The site gives the option to show “Highest rated”, “Best sellers”, or “Most downloaded” e-books in addition to the default “Newest”, and these can be applied by book category. For example, here are the highest-rated mysteries.

  4. Hi,

    Google Reader, Facebook, YouTube are using the Like/Dislike system. Thats the best way, you can review it as well, no obligation, or even continue qualifying more options (writing,graphics,Etc) with stars. If you don’t like it don’t do anything, democratic elections, not voting is an implicit Dislike. Due to space (mobiles) one button is enough.

    In the future with billions inhabitants you cannot require to review like amazon who ask a minimum of text. I review for a song, TV, watch, hotel…

    1-star rating might require text review, most are absurd complaining.

    “reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written” might need review for refund.


  5. I’m not sure who Rich proposes to nominate to the the enforcer of all of his rules. Personally, I am not a fan of regulating everything per se. There is something to be said for ‘survival of the fittest’ and in my opinion, authors who want to ‘make money’ as opposed to just having a hobby need to treat it like a *job* and devote some of their time to marketing and promotion efforts the same as any other sales person. That’s how word of mouth starts catching on and working in their favour so they can attract legitimate and useful reviews. Yes it is drudgery for some people, takes time away from writing etc. but no proper job is ONLY fun times and tasks you enjoy. If this is a job and not a hobby, authors need to treat it thusly and work at all aspects of it.

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