Book Crit­ics v/s Com­pul­sive Read­ers

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Cover Story -

Crit­ics be­lieve it’s dou­bly im­por­tant for a book re­viewer to also be a good writer. Af­ter all, a well­writ­ten re­view of a ter­ri­ble book is more help­ful than some­one’s gar­bled com­men­tary about a book that’s ac­tu­ally won­der­ful.

Or is it? Har­vard Busi­ness School com­pared the top 100 non-fic­tion re­views from 40 West­ern pub­li­ca­tions (20042007) to data from sites like Ama­zon and pub­lished the re­sults this year. It ap­peared the crit­ics and crowds con­curred. But the sub­tle dif­fer­ences were telling: Users tended to be more favourable to de­but au­thors, in­di­cat­ing that crit­ics might be close­minded. And crit­ics tended to re­spond more favourably to books by prizewin­ning au­thors – an­other sign that ex­perts are swayed by lau­rels.

Ama­zon (which op­er­ates as a mar­ket­place or a plat­form for re­tail­ers), dis­plays re­views from both lit­er­ary crit­ics and shop­pers. “Users read more than one re­view and make their de­ci­sions based on a body of re­views,” says Amit Agar­wal, vice pres­i­dent and coun­try man­ager of Ama­zon In­dia. “Fea­tures like star rat­ing [il­lus­trate] over­all cus­tomer sen­ti­ment, but the re­view text is what builds con­fi­dence in the prod­uct.” Which means again, that re­views must be well writ­ten to be of any use.

“A user re­view is usu­ally a pré­cis and a gush about how fan­tas­tic the book is or a scream about how ter­ri­ble it is,” points out In­dra­jit Hazra, au­thor and books commentator at HT. “Rarely does it say why they liked or didn’t like the book.” Here’s where crit­ics have the up­per hand. “If a re­viewer writes about how won­der­ful a novel is be­cause it, say, cap­tures the truth about father-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships or the ab­sur­di­ties of bu­reau­cratic In­dia, these may be the qual­i­ties that don’t in­ter­est you,” he says.

For pop­ulist au­thors, Hazra finds that user re­views are a “feed­back form”, a way for the au­thor to gauge cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and drive fu­ture sales. “The user re­viewer is the quan­ti­ta­tive force that many writ­ers can’t ig­nore,” he adds. “The ex­pert re­viewer is the qual­i­ta­tive force that can be a brand-mul­ti­plier. So a Chetan Bha­gat will be more con­cerned about what user re­view­ers are say­ing, while a Vikram Seth will pro­duce his fare re­gard­less. It’s a ‘vol­ume v/s value dif­fer­ence.”

WHOM TO HEED

It de­pends if you’re im­pressed by vol­ume or value. “As early as 1995 when Jeff Be­zos started Ama­zon.com , [it was a] con­scious de­ci­sion to show­case neg­a­tive re­views along­side pos­i­tive re­views,” Agar­wal says. “Many were sur­prised by this de­ci­sion to keep neg­a­tive com­ments vis­i­ble.” Praise is hard to decode, but if a per­son dis­likes a book for rea­sons you would too, they are your kind of re­viewer.

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