Friday, June 22, 2012

On being slightly more helpful than unhelpful: An Amazon reviews update

So, it's been just a little over a month since the post in which I listed my stats for my reviews on Amazon. Since some people seem to find stats interesting (I do myself) I decided I'd follow up and let y'all know how things look now.

I currently have 42 out of 77 helpful votes, which puts my "helpful" percentage at about 55 %. This is about two percentage points higher than it was a month ago, when I had 29/54 helpful votes. So, that means either that people find my reviews very mediocre, and so I'm getting a score right in the middle, or that my reviews are polarizing, and that there's a very slim majority who like my reviews, and a very large minority who kind of want to kick my butt. But I'm growing more helpful with time, which is a good thing, right?

On an even more positive note, my review for Harry Potter gained one positive vote! 1 out of 9 people found that review helpful, which puts those who think the review was a bit of a waste at only about 90 %. I'm working my way up, baby!

So, let me just be clear that I'm in no way offended by a poor percentage on Amazon, or generally by people who disagree with me. I just think it's kind of interesting to follow the stats, and consider what that means about the people who come across my reviews, and what that might say about the larger population. Also, I especially enjoy detailed criticisms of my reviews, as those really get me thinking about whether I can justify them, or whether I need to revise them. Thanks to all of you who offer qualifications to some of my more outlandish assertions!

Anyway, here are the stats as they stand now. The title links to the review on this blog. The "votes" link goes to its page on Amazon, where you can sometimes find entertaining and disgruntled comments:

Eragon: 2/2 helpful votes

Moby Dick: 1/1 helpful votes

Twilight: 3/4 helpful votes

The Hunger Games: 5/7 helpful votes

Wizard's First Rule: 12/17 helpful votes

Ender's Game: 2/3 helpful votes

Red Mars: 2/3 helpful votes

A Game of Thrones: 6/10 helpful votes

The Fellowship of the Ring: 3/7 helpful votes

The Eye of the World: 3/8 helpful votes

The Graveyard Book: 1/3 helpful votes

The Road: 1/3 helpful votes

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 1/9 helpful votes

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: No votes yet

Heavy Time and Hellburner (Also printed together as Devil to the Belt): No votes yet

Night Watch: No votes yet

The Sword of Shannara: No votes yet

The Once and Future King: No votes yet

The Mote in God's Eye: No votes yet

In addition to my faintly increasing helpfulness, you may be interested to know that my post on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die is almost twice as visited as any other review. Other posts rounding out my top 5 popular posts are: The Hunger Games, On offending fans and being wrong, A Game of Thrones, and Ender's Game.


  1. I haven't had a chance to go back and really look at your reviews with any depth, but you're probably running into the same kind of thing as I am. Basically, your reviews are too detailed and in-depth for the average person. It kind of scares people and shows them how shallowly they look at things. Most people respond only at the level of "did I like this?" There is rarely a question of whether it's also good. They think that if they liked it it must mean it is good, so it's rather daunting to someone to see you break it down and show that, maybe, it actually wasn't good, because, if they liked it, it makes them feel inferior. They just don't realize that it's okay to sometimes like things even when they're bad.

    However, I do think you were probably a little hard on poor Potter.

    1. Yeah, I agree generally, and especially about Harry Potter. Thing is, I haven't read the rest of the series, and I fully believe that watching the kids grow up is something's just not all there in just the first book. So, I guess I need to read the rest of the series, and update the review when I get a chance.

      There's also the issue that I like a good debate, and one way to start that is to take a really strong stand and dare others to prove you wrong. Sometimes that means going a little further than a novel actually warrants, I must concede.

    2. I kind of got that, but that's not exactly fair to the book, then, is it? :P
      Also, it ruins your objectivity.

      I haven't read any of the Potter books in quite a while, but I remember being immediately drawn into the book, finding the writing clever and witty (something usually lacking in, well, everything), and the characters realistic (being out of their depth and knowing it (as opposed to, say, Percy Jackson, which is all about the swagger despite being out of his depth)). But this isn't a defense of Potter, because it's just been too long. Really, all of this is to say that you have to be as objective as you can when you're dealing with anything beyond how much you actually enjoyed the book. Any book.

    3. Yeah, wherever Harry Potter really deserves to be, Percy Jackson deserves to be about two points lower, I think.

    4. I'd put Percy way below 2 points behind it. On a 1-10 scale with 4-6 being the average range, I wouldn't put Jackson above a 4. Potter would be an 8 or 9.

    5. The tricky thing with Harry Potter, to me, is deciding what to compare it to. I mean, is it written as well as Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange? I don't think so, though I agree that it is quite clever. Perhaps sometimes, though not consistently, approaching Terry Pratchett's wit. Still, that's comparing a novel very much intended for kids to novels very much intended for adults. And I'd go even further, and suggest that if some of Pratchett's and Clarke's work rates high, maybe somewhere 7-8, a "9" or a "10" I really reserve for completely stinkin' brilliant works, the kinds that can open up your mind like a universe, or that make you weep with either joy or sorrow, that change your mind about the fundamental rules of life, or that offer a perspective that's not just original, but that really PUSHES you in some valuable way. Moby-Dick and The Road do that; Pratchett and Clarke aspire to it, but I don't think reach it; and Harry Potter, I think, is somewhere below, in terms of what it offers an adult. Does that mean it's any less enjoyable to read? Not in terms of "popcorn" fun, as you described it in your latest post. But for me, as an adult, I just didn't feel like Harry Potter really stretched me (at least not in the first book). As for Percy Jackson, I'd have to read it again, though I think we can agree on not recommending it to anyone.

    6. I was underwhelmed by the first Harry Potter. The sequel only reinforced the overall experience. Watching the movies really increased my negative impression. Just not my thing.

    7. Well, one of the things that psychology is showing is that we identify with characters in books as if they are people that we actually know. That's why some adults can't get into books with kids as MCs; they can't make what is in their minds a connection with the character. For kids, Harry Potter is a great character and easy to identify with. On top of that, he's a great role model, which is another psychology is showing that we do with the characters we identify with; we try to be like them. In all of those ways, I think Harry Potter is great.

      I also try not to compare books to arrive at my judgement on them. This is impossible, I know, but I minimize it as much as possible by keeping it rather amorphous in my head. Sort of like Plato and his "ideal chair" idea. The only time I start comparing books is if I have to do some kind of top 10 list or something I have to evaluate what order to put them in.

    8. @ ^-^: (what a funny combination of wingdings, by the way) I've not watched the latest Harry Potter movies, but I've mildly enjoyed those I've seen inasmuch as they offer an enjoyable spectacle, whatever their other faults. When people first crowded to see the Lumiere Brother's "Arrival of a Train," it was for the spectacle, not for any valuable intellectual, emotional, or epiphany-inducing artistic value. Not sure I'd want to watch many of them again, though I'd like to try watching them from beginning to end, just for the special possibility of watching a bunch of actors grow up on screen.

      @ Andrew: I did LIKE Harry Potter, I just didn't LOVE it, mainly because it didn't stretch me at all, as I described. The other tricky thing about not comparing novels is that there's so much stuff out there, you can't afford to read just any old thing that you come across. You've got to compare it to something, and personally I'd want to read the best examples of a category before using up my time on lesser ones. Though it's not as witty, I thought, for instance, that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was a lot more interesting to me, even as an adult; that it pushed ideas about morality and ethics enough to make even an adult re-evaluate their positions on things.

      Another thing about comparisons is that I imagine most authors themselves are heavily comparing/borrowing/emulating other authors and themes, and it's possible to understand their work better by understanding the way they may have done those things.

    9. I only mean not comparing in terms of making reviews.

      In a review, I'm trying to weigh the book as itself not against other books.

    10. @Andrew: Yeah, that's fair. I like comparisons myself, because I like the idea of intertextuality, and that every text is really participating in being part of a larger social and literary text. But I also respect the idea that comparisons can too often lead to unfair analogies between apples and oranges.

    11. @ Andrew Leon - psychology & connecting with MC children, and not comparing books.

      I do compare books/stories. I've been reading stories since I learned how the printed word connects together to create another world. I've learned to be more discriminating in what I read. I've learned I do not appreciate turgid door stops, in whatever category - fiction, non-fiction. I've learned that thick books does not mean each word in it is worthwhile reading. As a heuristic, I've learned that if a modern story cannot be completed in one paperback that fits comfortably in my hand, I'm better off watching the movie.

      So bearing that in mind, my reply to the psychology & MC children follows.

      My perception after my HP experience: it was derivative, and my mind felt mushy, the way it was when I'd read too long into the Dragonlance serials (the first trilogy was my first of the type, the third was turning my mind to goo). (I'd read 'The Hobbit', 'Lord of the Rings' and I was desperate to read more fantasy. And my brother had it on his shelf. I was 13yo or so.)

      I would have better spend my time reading 'A Horse and his Boy' (I love the description of the food - sherbert, fresh cooked mushrooms and bacon!) or 'Prince Caspian' (mean-minded Eustace was still sympathetic) or 'Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' (Lucy was just an emotional kid); or any Dianna Wynne Jones book, especially in the Chrestomanci series. (I quite like 'A Tale of Time City' - the kids are quite real-ish; a juvenile genius, an arrogant pre-teen, a normal girl making her way in the world.)

      I quite like Pratchett's 'Maurice and his Educated Rodents', Gaiman's 'The Graveyard Book' (I liked it so much I bought it for my nephew), all Dick King Smith's books (admittedly most of his main characters are animals; I really like 'The Sheep Pig' and thought "Babe" was an interesting interpretation).

      I like childrens fiction when it is well written. 'Green Eggs and Ham' is a fine fine read. I've got two copies, so I can share the story with my 18mo and to give a nice unscrunched copy to him when he can read by himself.

      There is a story I read a long long while ago, 'The Ordinary Princess'. I'd like to get that for my princess-obsessed niece.

      I prefer to read good childrens fiction than adult stories, as I like happy endings.

    12. @ neal - my wingdings

      It cheers me up to see it. To me it represents whimsy. Also, I couldn't be "kupo" in blogspot.

    13. I forgot to mention: I quite like 'Anne of Green Gables' by L.M. Montgomery. It was an adult book when first published, but was relegated to juvenile section by the time I turned 8yo.

    14. @neal: I think those kinds of comparisons are good in that context but not in a review which is designed to tell me whether I want to read a particular book. People don't want to know how the book their trying to make a decision about relates to Dickens and Twain in the overall scheme of things. In that sense, it would be a fair comparison of my book to the Dresden books, because you can see that Butcher and I had many of the same influences, but those books are not at all like my book in the way they turned out, so it wouldn't actually help someone reading a review to know that stuff. It's all about context.
      (and I had not read a Dresden book until I was nearly finished with writing mine, so I was surprised at the common influences when I read the first one.)

      @^_^: See, I don't think a comparison between The Graveyard Book and Harry Potter is a fair comparison at all, because they are in no way the same kind of book. It doesn't matter if Graveyard is better (it's my favorite Gaiman book) if that's not the kind of book I want to read. Likewise with Narnia. If I want to read about a boy who gets to learn magic, there's not a better book that I know of than Harry Potter for that. In that sense, it was not derivative at all; a book like that hadn't been done before. Sure, it borrows elements from other stories, but even Tolkien borrowed elements from other stories (they were just much older stories). In many ways, the only real way to review a book in an Amazon type setting is to look at it from the aspect of what the author set out to do and how well the author achieved what s/he set out to do.

    15. @ Andrew Leon: I believe HP is derivative, based on my past reading experiences when I was a kid. Of the books and stories I read when I was a kid, Dianna Wynne Jones is the writer I go back to when referencing the genre of an-alternate-world-with-a-boy-who-wants-to-learn-magic-but-is-oppressed-by-his-closest-relatives.

      We have differing perspectives on what makes a story good, or worth reading. You have your opinion on a book and I have mine, and never the twain will agree.

      It is one reason why I do not discuss HP with my nephew or niece, and why I am commenting on this meta-post than on neal's HP review. I'm glad my nephew learned to like to read thick books, starting with the HP series. (He's moved onto the Wimpy Kid series.)

      I do appreciate reviews which are indepth (like neal's) which evaluates as many perspectives as available within the book.

      However as a consumer of stories and books, the way I evaluate a book is:
      a) do I want to read it? (e.g. new Pratchett books)
      b) do I want to re-read it? (e.g. "Flowers for Algernon")
      c) do I want to have it on my bookshelf? (e.g. Fujikawa's "Ten Little Babies")
      d) do I want to spend money on it? (e.g. some Asimovs)
      e) do I want to spend more money on it (i.e. buy new)? (e.g. Gaiman's "The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes")
      f) do I want to share it (i.e. have a loan-out copy)? (e.g. Serenity - not a book, but I lurve it and wanna share it)
      g) if I lost my copy, will I be bummed out (i.e. if the edition or book is no longer available to buy)? (e.g. the original UK cover of Pratchett's "Eric"; Bujold's "Memory", "The Curse of Chalion", Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog", etc.)

      That's all I have to say about HP, and book reviewing.

      fwiw, I prefer Gaiman's "Good Omens" collaboration with Pratchett, and The Sandman series "Death: The High Cost of Living", "The Wake".

  2. What Andrew said.

    I fear you are watching your Amazon reviews too closely -- after all, I would give you at least a 60% helpful rating around the house and isn't that more important? -- but if it means you're not lost in Mass Effect or the Elder Scrolls, I'll live with it.

    1. 60 %? I'm doing better than I thought.

    2. Yeah, I might have been to generous just to balance out your marginal helpfulness on Amazon. But maybe if I developed my own household scoring system you would feel equally driven to improve your rating.

  3. What you must have noticed on Amazon is the legions of fans, who watch out for unsympathetic reviews and vote them down just for being unsympathetic. I think that's what's behind the less than stellar reception of your Harry Potter review - let's face it, there are approximately 83,406 reviews of HP1 out there, the only reason for someone to be reading yours in particular is if (a) they're a fan of yours or (b) they're a more-than-normally-devoted fan of the book.

    1. I think you're probably right. I thought for a while that maybe I should just take the Harry Potter review down, but then I decided that it was kind of funny, and I enjoyed thinking about the reasons that it was received so differently than, say, my review of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule, which I HATED, but which also has its share of fans.