Writing and Reading Amazon Book Reviews

Photo by Ivars Utināns on Unsplash

An acquaintance recently told me that she might be able to help me do an author talk at the Thurber House in Columbus. The humorist James Thurber’s former home is now a literary center, with workshops, tours, and classes related to all manner of writing. Looking to break out of my Northeast Ohio bailiwick, I was also excited because I am a James Thurber fan from way back. One of my fondest reading memories is My Life and Hard Times. (I probably wouldn’t react the same way now, but in high school I laughed until I cried.)

After this kind acquaintance asked her friends at the Thurber House about booking me, she found that they no longer run a program dedicated to Ohio writers, and, more importantly, they seek out bigger game, more successful writers than me. She wrote, “You may need a bit more promotion of your book (more reviews, shown on Amazon).” A Grandmother’s ABC Book had been out only a week or two at that point, and there were no Amazon reviews.

Nobody needs to tell me that I’m not well known, but that Amazon comment is telling. A book title on Amazon with no reviews (and ABC is still without them) looks pretty forlorn. In order to acquire them, many writers and publishers send advance copies to prolific, highly rated Amazon reviewers ahead of publication, so that reviews are ready to post when the book comes out. That’s too much work for a small publisher like mine, and so, for past books, I have solicited reviews from friends, but also strangers. I searched around the Amazon site for reviewers, contacted them, and asked them to review my book (a process now underway for the ABC book). The reviewers get nothing but the glory and a free book. The writer takes a chance on some so-so reviews, but getting that space filled under your book title is the goal. The same process is more or less true of Goodreads.

This puts me in a bind. I want to support local independent bookstores, not Jeff Bezos’s lifestyle. Therefore, I discourage readers from buying on Amazon (though I believe the occasional desperate last-minute purchase is forgivable). Order from your bookstore instead. Also, Bookshop.org provides an online avenue to support your favorite bookstore.

At the same time, I know that many readers perusing Amazon make judgments about books. I don’t want my books to look sad there. So, I’m in the weird position of asking readers to write Amazon reviews but not to buy books there. Booksellers have told me that some “customers” browse their stores, jotting down titles to purchase on Amazon when they get home. Don’t do that. Browse Amazon, including reviews, to collect titles of interest, and then call or visit your local bookstore to order them.

I probably wouldn’t have been invited to speak at the Thurber House anyway, because they, understandably, want more prominent writers. I can’t help but note, however, that the Amazon deficiency factored in to the decision.

The bottom line. Post reviews on Amazon, if you can in good conscience, especially for small books with a small following. (John Grisham does not need your support.) Do the same on Goodreads. Your local writers and poets (Yes! Review poetry!) will thank you.

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