Archive for August, 2014

The awful truth about online customer reviews

August 25th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The notion of posting online customer reviews of products and
services — such as is done on Angie’s List and Amazon — has some
troubling flaws.

I will focus here on Amazon since I have never used Angie’s
list … and as an author, I have a lot of exposure to the reviews
posted on Amazon.

The first problem is what book marketing guru John Kremer,
author of the classic “1,001 Ways to Market Your Book,” calls
“agenda-driven reviews.”

One example is when I am looking at the page on Amazon for some
marketing guru’s new book and I see immediately two dozen
five-star reviews and nothing lower.

I can’t help notice that virtually all the reviewers are the
author’s friends, associates, joint venture partners, and
affiliates.

The reviewers’ agenda is clear: to help the author hype his
book. The motive? To have the author reciprocate and do the same
for them.

The opposite situation is when the reviewer clearly has a grudge
either against the author or his philosophy or ideas — and posts
a one-star review for what any sensible person would agree is a
solid, good book on the topic.

The second problem with the Amazon review system is that,
incredibly, I have seen a number of reviews where the reviewer
says she has not read the book yet but will get to it soon — and
amazingly, Amazon has let the review stand.

Can you imagine a book reviewer for the New York Times Book
Review writing in his review that he has not yet read the book
in question?

The third problem, which brings up a broader issue I will
address in a minute, is reviews written by reviewers who are
unqualified to evaluate the book in question. A related problem
is when the reviewer’s comments are just plain stupid or
trivial.

I subscribe to the New York Review of books, and if they are
running a review of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln, the
reviewer they hire will most certainly be a historian or
presidential biographer or Lincoln scholar.

But on Amazon, you can post a review of a book on woodworking
even if you have never in your life driven a nail into a 2X4.

And in your Amazon review, you can blatantly say things that are
wrong, because Amazon doesn’t seem to check it or prevent it
from being published.

As for stupid or trivial comments: one of my books got a
one-star review because the reader did not like the paper it was
printed on.

The reason I like traditional print media like newspapers,
magazines, and published books is that the authors and their
writings are vetted by editors and publishers.

A columnist for PC Magazine once wisely observed: “The worst
thing about the Internet is that anyone and everyone can publish
anything to it.”

The Internet in general and social media in particular
encourages the belief that everyone is entitled to their
opinion. And it has given those people a vehicle for easily
publishing those views, no matter how wrong or inane.

Writer Harlan Ellison correctly states: “Everyone is not
entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to their informed
opinion.”

“Informed opinion” means you have some experience, knowledge,
qualifications, or credentials in the subject you are writing
about.

For instance, is it OK for me to write a negative review of a
book on home schooling if I have never tried the author’s
methods or worse, never home-schooled my kids — or even worse,
don’t even have kids? I think not. But I can do it on Amazon all
day long. And so can you and everyone else reading this e-mail.

If the NY Times Book Review hired me to review a book on home
schooling, you can bet I would have to be a parent and probably
a pediatrician or parenting writer to get the gig.

Another example: I once was hired to write a direct mail package
being mailed to engineers selling them a membership in a
professional society.

The client gave it to a dozen people to review. Many of them
suggested changes that made no sense to me, mainly based on the
fact that they did not understand some of the technical topics
discussed in the letter — for instance, why chemical engineers
want to increase process yields.

It turned out that none of the reviewers was an engineer. As
such, I considered their opinion as to what would or would not
engage engineers to be extremely uninformed.

The only one involved in the creation of the DM package who was
in fact an engineer was the copywriter — me.

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Everybody writes … but should they?

August 13th, 2014 by Bob Bly

My colleague Michael Stelzner recently did a podcast with a woman, AH, who wrote a forthcoming book called “Everyone Writes.”

AH is right: everyone writes. But I have always wondered whether everyone should write. And I have come to believe that they should not.

Reason: In the good old days, just because you wrote something didn’t mean it would be published. In fact, likely, it would not.

To get published, you had to convince a publishing house to buy your book – or a newspaper or magazine editor to print your article or your letter-to-the-editor … and most people were not able to do this easily. So what got published was vetted by professionals – and the quality reflected that editorial guidance.

But today, in the digital era, anything that anyone writes can be and often is instantly published to the Internet where theoretically millions of people can read it – and at least a few people, if only just your Facebook friends, almost certainly will.

Some people see this “everyone writes (and publishes)” phenomenon as a wonderfully liberating new age in human communication.

To me, it is the end of western civilization as we know it – and the death of literacy – and the heralding of an unceasing age of what I call endless “content pollution.”

Content pollution is everyone publishing every thought they have, and almost everything that happens to them, without the benefit of an editor or publisher to filter what goes out into the ether.

The job of the editor is quality control for written communication. Without editors, which the Internet has largely removed from the equation, the quality of published writing has fallen to a new low – not an easy accomplishment.

Example: Facebook posts featuring a picture of what the person has just eaten for breakfast. The amazing thing is that some readers actually seem interested!

The ease of publishing blogs, online newsletters, online articles, posts, and the like has caused amateur writing to flourish. And that’s bad news for professionals: it’s difficult to command a living wage for something thousands or even millions of people are happy to do for free, even if you are ostensibly better at it.

People ask me why I take the old-school stance of preferring traditional book publishing with NYC publishers to self-publishing on Amazon with Kindle.

The main reason is this: with traditional book publishing, you know that at least one person – the editor at the publishing house – thought highly enough of the work to pay for it. That’s a quality control self-publishing is sadly lacking.

Normally at this point in my essay I suggest solutions or give tips for profiting from the situation.

But I don’t really have a solution to content pollution. People feel compelled to express their thoughts, and thanks to the Internet, can do so at any time and are assured of at least some readers taking note.

There is nothing I can do to change the human compulsion to write and publish. I just wish more people who feel this compulsion would produce content at a higher level – that is, writing actually worth reading — and filter what they put on the web.

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Is writing this book a waste of time?

August 6th, 2014 by Bob Bly

Anne Fernald, an English professor at Fordham, has spent 10 years — that’s right, a full decade — working on a scholarly edition of the Virginia Woolf novel “Mrs. Dalloway” … and she’s not even done yet.

Mind you, she’s not writing a novel. Virginia Wolf wrote it in 1925. All she is doing is annotating it with footnotes.

When I read about this in the 3/31/14 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, I had 2 immediate reactions.

First, 10 years to annotate an already written book? Seriously?

And second, who on the planet aside from a few scholars and Woolfaholics would read what sounds to be a really boring book like that?

I ask because there is a broader question: With so many books on just about every conceivable topic under the sun already out, should you and I even bother to write yet another book on one of these subjects?

For instance, it almost causes me physical pain when someone sends me a new marketing book with a request to review … because I know without looking that, with rare exception, it’s just the same old thing already done to the death in hundreds of other books.

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