Book Critics v/s Compulsive Readers
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.