Seth Godin has a post today about how Malcolm Gladwell is wrong about Chris Anderson’s book. At least, I think that’s what the post is about. As usual, Seth is speaking as a deep insider and assumes I’ve read everything “Malcolm” and “Chris” have written. I haven’t.
Anyway, Seth is responding to and offering some criticisms of Anderson’s new book – Free. In his response, Seth writes, “A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn’t it?” My goodness, NO!
One of the many reasons I do still read newspapers, albeit usually their digital versions, is to get reliable, easy to find reviews of restaurants and books. I don’t want reviews of movies because I don’t want to know too much going into the theater. Sites like Amazon and Yelp have many, many book and restaurant reviews. My problem with these reviews is the same thing Seth is pointing out – anyone can write them. Let’s face it, most people should not write book reviews. Book reviews on Amazon, much like restaurant reviews on Yelp, are often poorly written, hard to follow, irrelevant, boring, the list goes on. Reading through readers’ reviews does not save me any time when decided to buy a book, and it may not even help me make that decision.
For a rather fair example, see the reviews of Heat, a really fun book by Bill Buford. Right on the page you can compare the usefulness of a review by Anthony Bordain and those made by readers. I say the example is fair because the readers’ reviews aren’t the worst examples I could find. One of the reviews begins, “I don’t go to restaurants. I don’t watch FOOD Channel. I don’t even order take-out. I’m just a pizza and burger guy with an occasional side trip to Taco Bell for my veggies. So why was I reading this book?” Please, why am I reading this review? I read reviews in established publishing sources because I know who the writers are and have some reason to trust them. 270 readers on Amazon thought the review that started with that line, about a cooking book, was helpful. That shows me that both the reviews and the people who rate them are not to be trusted when I’m deciding how to spend my book money.
Amazon’s statistics about what people buying books I liked, like Heat, also bought are more helpful. Those stats are about user behavior though, not user contributions. Not all reviews are equal. To have more reviews is not necessarily better – it just makes finding the useful ones harder. I have in the pipeline a site that will address that problem for restaurants by aggregating reliable, professional reviews – Food Pilgrim – but for now, I’ll just avoid the reader reviews on Amazon and stick to trusting the reviewers at Salon, the NY Times, and my local library.