What is a star?
Stars don’t twinkle at night or inspire thoughts about the universe. They sit in a row of five, all identical except for one crucial difference: some are golden, full, aglow with praise; others are blank, colourless and cold. A star, to the indie writer, is either a heart-warming beacon of joy or an icy abyss of despair.
I never used to bother with stars. In fact until recently, I never bothered with Amazon. I bought books from Waterstones and if I enjoyed them, I told my friends, most of whom did likewise. We thus engaged in WOM – marketer speak for Word Of Mouth. Then I wrote One Green Bottle, available only on Amazon, and it was like being back in primary school, collecting stars. Except the school stars, bright and beautiful as they were, didn’t make or break you. If you missed out one day, you’d get one sooner or later, and in any case, an absence of stars wasn’t going to spoil Cops’n’Robbers.
Nor did the stars in school equate to marks. But they do on Amazon, where the prospective reader automatically does the conversion: = 10/10 (brilliant), = 2/10 (dismal). If you look at the scales made explicit by some book reviewers, they all express a similar judgement. Just one example, from stella-exlibris.com: 5 = Novellus Perfectus! (Brilliant books, a MUST! Loved these!); 1 = Novellus Horrendus! (Awful, I wish I hadn’t wasted time reading these!). Which is fine of course, except that stars are like teachers’ marks – not primary school now but Upper Sixth, where things get serious. When French pupils’ philosophy papers were distributed to several different teachers in an experiment, marks were found to vary from 2 to 16 out of 20. Book ratings are even more subjective, as everyone brings their own criteria to the table. As I write, out of 645 ratings (with reviews) for The Miniaturist, for example, 407 are 4 or 5-star; but 96 are 1 or 2-star. Such a disparity is far from uncommon.
Does any of this matter? Do readers pay any attention to stars? Apparently, yes – at least the ones who shop on Amazon do. In their investigation into the effect of star ratings, Chevalier & Mayzlin (2006) found that “an increase in the average star rating on Amazon over time results in higher relative sales of the book.” But they also found that “one-star reviews have a greater impact than five-star reviews on the same site.” This is because “the relatively rare one-star reviews carry a lot of weight with consumers.” Refining the analysis through a study of over 4000 books on Amazon, Hu, Koh and Reddy (2013) found that “ratings do not have a significant direct impact on sales but have an indirect impact through sentiments.” The “sentiments” here are those expressed in reviews, and the study suggests that customers first use ratings to select potential items to buy, then reviews to decide whether to actually buy or not. The authors also found that “contrary to what one would expect, strong sentiments are not as impactful as moderate sentiments. […] It appears that high numerical ratings and strong sentiments are being discounted. Customers […] doubt that the extremely positive sentiments are from real respondents, but may be promotional reviews posted by companies or authors.” Further proof there, if any were needed, that the main effect of hyperbole is to turn people off.
So ignoring the hyperbolic stars which I couldn’t resist, don’t forget you can claim a free copy of OGB in return for an honest Amazon review. Just click below!
Chevalier, J. A., & Mayzlin, D. (2006). The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews. Journal of marketing research, 43(3), 345-354.
Hu, N., Koh, N. S., & Reddy, S. K. (2014). Ratings lead you to the product, reviews help you clinch it? The mediating role of online review sentiments on product sales. Decision Support Systems, 57, 42-53.