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The great Amazon reviews drought

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Image of 5 product ratingsIt has seemed to me lately that I'm getting far fewer reviews on Amazon than I used to, considering the number of units I sell. The thought has been nagging at me for some time, and I'm not alone — others seem to be observing the same thing and speculating about causes.

So — you know me. Time to actually crunch a few numbers and try to see if it's true and, if so, why I think it might be happening.

I started running Amazon AMS ads about 15 months ago, and my units sold have shot up gratifyingly. But not my reviews. My ratings are stable and the reviews I get are much the same as they've always been, but there are just fewer of them than I would expect.

First steps — collect the data

I've been meaning to copy my reviews off the retailer sites, especially Amazon, lest they vanish in one of the periodic Amazon purges. So far I've been lucky and haven't lost any, but that can change. It's useful to have them available, not just for ratings on the retail sites, but also as sources of blurb and other publicity text from real readers.

I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

I set up a spreadsheet like the one I use for tracking unit sales to track reviews: month/year, source, rating, product, retailer, headline, review text, etc. Then it was off to the races with pivot tables.

Do I have enough data?

I don't make any big push for reviews, just a modest suggestion in the backmatter of the books. I don't have a ton of reviews, but they do keep coming in (slowly), so I'm going to assume there are enough for some valid conclusions. In any case, I don't have any special marketing that might confuse results.

Next — connect the review data to the units sold data

I put a worksheet up with one pivot table for the reviews-by-month, and another with the units-sold-by-month. Then I ran out the data for a comparison from the date my first book came out, in October, 2012.

A model to compare data

The question I wanted to answer was:

Has the percentage of reviews per units sold been declining lately?

Now, any measurement trial is improved if you can run more than one set of data for comparison and, as it just so happens, I have 2 completed fantasy series, each with 4 novels, the first book of which I'm been advertising on Amazon.

These series behave almost identically with regard to statistics. They get the same ratings (circa 4.5), they have the same amount of series read-thru, and they're both in the same genre. The second (wizard) is slightly more popular than the first (wild hunt) and has just about caught up — the same number of units sold for the first book of each. So this is as close to two identical test cases as one could hope for.

The rule of thumb for deciding how many reviews to expect used to be about 1-3% of units sold. It's easy enough to look at my cumulated reviews and cumulated sales to figure that out, but the question of interest is to see if that has changed over time. (Don't worry — there won't be any calculus questions on the test.)

Here's the first book of each series. They are scaled the same, and you can see that the second series doesn't start being published until after the first series was finished. AMS ads began shortly after the 2nd series was completed.

Image of review data for two booksThere are several interesting observations to be made here.

  1. (Trivial.) It takes a little while for the initial ratio of reviews to sales to settle down (jagged green line) for book 1 of a series as the next books are released soon afterwards.
  2. The red line which marks the number of reviews is on the same scale as the number of units sold, so it's difficult to see much movement. Based on the rule of thumb of 1-3%, that makes sense. The actual data has more than twice as many reviews for the first series as for the second, even though the number of units sold for the first books of these two series are almost identical. Still, you would expect the red line to at least approximate the shape of the blue line, even if 100 times smaller, but it doesn't, especially where it would be obvious — at the great run-up of the Amazon AMS ad-driven units sold.
  3. The percentage of cumulative reviews to units sold is more than twice as many for the older series.

But look at the green lines more carefully. For the older series, the percentage of cumulative reviews to cumulative units sold is almost flat from early 2014 to early 2017, essentially 3 years. For the younger series, there's a hint of something similar up to early 2017, as well.

But from early 2017 to the present, reviews are losing ground. As sales of units go up, the reviews posted do not keep pace. In fact, from that period to present, they decline by about 1 2/3 (not quite 2 times).

It becomes clear that the reason series 1 has a better percentage of cumulative reviews to units sold (a little more than 3%) is not because it's been around longer, but because it was a lot easier to get reviews before early 2017, so it starts its decline from a higher position. For series 2, the equivalent percentage is a bit less than 1.5%, because it didn't get to include earlier years.

So, I think I know “what”

I believe the apparent decline in review postings rate is real, and the two series corroborate each other well.

And I think I know “when”

There's fairly consistent evidence of a long-term (3-year) plateau followed by a hefty decline at a point that's similar for both series.

So now the question is “why?”

What started happening circa early 2017 at Amazon and has been getting worse? (Remember: I haven't lost any posted reviews, though it may be that reviews haven't reached me.)

If you think you have an answer, please reply in the comments.

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  1. Just guessing, I’d say that aggressive pushing of free books by indies everywhere is probably to blame. There are more books , and any time spent on writing a review isn’t spent on reading a new book.

    Most people have gobs of free downloads on their computers/readers/phones – and the marketing sites are pushing, pushing, pushing, so writers have to scream even louder to be heard.

    And there are fewer reviewers, overall, per book, because there are so many people writing tons of books. It’s become easier – and people like you, who care about their content, are lost in the sea of, shall we say?, lesser works.

    I belong to a couple of writers’ FB groups, and quantity, not quality, is the proclamation of the day – with a tiny bit of lip service alone given to ‘write a good book.’ And refining of the advertising copy seems to get more air time than refining the content. Maybe it’s just sour grapes on my part! They (so many of them) are reporting record profits.

    July 20, 2018
    • I don’t find that a compelling theory given the “all at once” nature of the green lines circa early 2017. Everyone is certainly busy, but that sort of inflection point seems to me more likely to have a single cause (e.g., Amazon) rather than a mass movement relative to free time. I’m not a great believer in Amazon-led conspiracies, but a simple rules change might have a similar effect.

      I don’t have enough reviews on other retailers for a meaningful analysis.

      July 20, 2018
  2. Anna Erishkigal
    Anna Erishkigal

    Around that time, Amazon’s fraud department began arbitrarily blocking people from reviewing and removing all of their reviews, with an offensive “sorry, you violated our terms of service” message even when it was a verified purchase, the reviewer had done nothing inappropriate, and Amazon couldn’t explain why the reviewer had been blocked. Not just on books, but on EVERYTHING. Even if the buyer appealed and the reviews were reinstated, a few days later the “spiders” flagged and blocked the customer from leaving reviews again. I know a lot of people who are now like “why bother, when they’re just going to delete it?” Good old Amazon … using a black-hole sized interplanetary “planet killer” to swat a fly.

    July 20, 2018
    • This is a suggestion that this may be the visible manifestation of the general reviewer crackdown, which catches an ever-greater number of would-be reviewers in its “thou shalt not review” jail. Remember — the decline hasn’t leveled off yet for my own books, so whatever this is, it’s getting an ever-stronger impact.

      Perhaps the pool of potential reviewers is being visibly and progressively reduced, such that fewer and fewer of the strangers buying the books are any longer potential reviewers. If 3% were originally inclined to review, and half of them were blocked, I’d see 1.5% at best, and some may quit out of frustration or fear.

      If this were the actual reason (unproven) it would imply a much harsher “no reviewing” jail than I think I would have believed, so I’m still a bit skeptical that this can be the (whole) answer.

      July 20, 2018
  3. Suggestive quote: I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

    You’ve noted what I’ve noted. That there’s something about Amazon that attracts reviews more that almost any other online retailer and something about the U.S. that makes people more free with their opinion.

    The tilt toward Amazon is probably because it is the go-to place for reviews. Those who go there to see reviews are then more likely to leave reviews of their own. That makes sense. More reviews mean more reviews.

    The tilt toward the U.S. also makes sense. Historically, we have been a remarkably free country. We not only have our First Amendment, we don’t have the draconian ‘guilty until proven innocent’ libel laws of the UK and have never had state-controlled radio and TV like most European countries.

    Some have suggested that something happened at Amazon in early 2017, perhaps that the company began to get nasty and block suspicious reviews. Has any writer heard from fans saying that they reviewed a book but found it wasn’t posted? If not, then don’t blame Amazon. Yes, Amazon is run by control freaks, but that doesn’t mean every change must be blamed on them.
    No, I think you need to look elsewhere, particularly to culture and politics. Early 2017 is when Trump became president and since then the Democrats, our news media (yeah, almost the same as the Democrats) and social justice warriors have run amuck. The result has been people getting trashed for what they’ve said on social media, sometimes years in the past. And no, Trump isn’t at fault. This is the left at war with itself, with an occasional business executive caught in the crossfire (i.e. the CEO of Papa John’s).

    This isn’t the first time this happened. Wars often result in nasty attitudes toward dissent. But it is the first time the attacks have been cultural and thus broad. Think of the poor guy at Google who was fired for stating that in the workplace men and women tend to be different. He knew how to make his case scientifically. He was after all, a Harvard-education biologist. But that didn’t protect him. And note too the utter insanity of Google corporate’s attitude. On one hand, they fire someone for saying that, taken as a whole, men and women are different. On the other hand, the company is zealously promoting women over men for “diversity” sake. But diversity is simply another word for different. If women aren’t any different from men, then there’s no reason to have more of them at Google.

    It’s this madness, almost all of it flowing from a liberalism outraged and paranoid about having lost Election 2016, that’s made Americans of all sorts hunker down and become more hesitant about what they say, even about novels. Indeed, this is insane. Look at what happened to the CEO of Papa John’s. If he isn’t safe for remarks that had to be taken out of context to be portrayed as bad, then who is?

    More and more, this is getting like the Reconstruction Era South, the lingering elements I saw as a kid growing up the the segregated South. If an opinion was in any way controversial, people would hedge it by using words like “they say,” with the “they” never defined. People were afraid to speak their mind about race then. Now they’re afraid to speak their mind about a whole array of topics. After all, even claiming men and women are different or using the “n-word” in a historical context can put you out of work.

    There’s a reason people are beginning to fear speaking up or even doing Amazon reviews. And it flows from culture and politics not Amazon. For all its many faults, Amazon has actually shown the good sense to stay out of our cultural wars. As writers, we should all hope that continues.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (a modern adaptation of a 1870s bestselling novel about life in post-Civil war North Carolina)

    July 22, 2018
    • ALLi (the Alliance for Independent Authors) plans to speak with Amazon on this topic, and perhaps we can get some basic inside guidance about what we think we’re observing.

      I do suspect that discouragement is a significant factor in the decline of reviews, whether it’s discouragement from Amazon or discouragement/caution from the culture wars at large. What’s ominous is that, for my series anyway, the percentage of reviews posted to unit sold is still declining. What does “bottom” look like?

      July 22, 2018
    • Richard Bell, author of Life Seemed Good, But....
      Richard Bell, author of Life Seemed Good, But....

      I agree. Simple enough.

      September 18, 2018

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