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STYLE & CULTURE

Everyone is a critic

Customer reviews on Amazon and other websites can seriously affect book sales, and don't publishers know it.

March 24, 2004|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

In the courtship of Rebecca Johnson -- who's No. 4 on Amazon.com's list of top customer book reviewers -- publishers and authors are told up front how to land a spot on her dance card: Don't send novels or unpublished manuscripts, and please no books that include violence, nudity or swearing.

Not if you want to bedazzle Johnson, who gets 40 to 60 free books a month, along with checklists from publishers asking her to mark the upcoming titles she's interested in receiving at no charge. Play along, and your shot at a rave review is far better than it would be with professional critics.

No one is saying that the Harold Blooms and Dale Pecks and other literati should be looking over their shoulders, but professional critics are no longer the only game in town. These days, as the Internet continues to reshape our notion of community, amateur critics are posting reviews across the cultural spectrum -- from film to books and more -- on discussion boards, blogs and other sites.

"It's all part of this culture we're now seeing where, 'My opinion is just as valid as the guys at the L.A. Times,' " said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It may not be as informed or educated and is maybe wrongheaded, but there's no question that a reader has as much right to publish their own opinion."

Everyday readers also have a shot at building a potentially huge following of their own. On a mega-site like Amazon, where amateur reviews are packaged with bells and whistles, the collective voice of the consumer sometimes is powerful enough to help sales soar or sputter. In fact, the opinions of people such as Johnson on Amazon and other sites are cutting into territory that once was the province of mainstream critics alone.

Johnson, 36, is a freelance writer from Yakima, Wash., with a master's in education. She is known for her relentlessly sunny reviews and once even provided a blurb on a book jacket; she'll send a book back to a publisher rather than write a bad review. In the realm of criticism, there's room for both Amazon reviewers, who weigh in with impunity, and the somber voices of professional critics, Johnson said.

"I tend to be able to analyze books really efficiently. Authors say I'm insightful and I have a gift for extracting the essence of a book," she said. "I feel like I'm part of the reviewing community."

Amazon readers provide early and almost instant signs of breakout success; writers tend to obsessively check up on their reviews and ranking. Publishers also can be swayed to change their books based on the reviews, an Amazon spokeswoman said. For instance, a computer book publisher might decide to add a chapter on a particular feature of a software in a book's revised edition based on the feedback.

Quirky small-press books, ones that rarely get any media attention, have a chance on Amazon, where readers love to hunt for and pluck out overlooked page-turners. In 1999, writer M.J. Rose landed a contract with Pocket Books after the publishing industry noticed the reader buzz on her self-published novel, "Lip Service."

And Amazon readers loved the offbeat, tender sensibility of Danny Gregory's "Everyday Matters," an illustrated memoir (Princeton Architectural Press). The raves from customers, as well as blog readers, "definitely affected sales" following the book's release in January, said Katharine Myers, the press' spokeswoman.

By the same token, first-time novelist Allison Burnett watched his book ranking plummet last year after Amazon readers suddenly began panning "Christopher." Until then, the book consistently had received five-star ratings, the highest rank, and good press. Burnett, like many authors, regularly was checking his rankings and reviews. He began to notice a pattern in the anonymous, negative postings, which often used the same words or phrases. After complaining to Amazon about what appeared to be a coordinated attack, the posts were removed. But sales never fully recovered.

Flame campaigns notwithstanding, reader reviews on Amazon are "so much purer," said Caroline Leavitt, a book columnist for the Boston Globe. "They're really from the heart. It'll be, 'Oh, I stayed up all night,' or 'This is a piece of garbage.' It's a true response."

Leavitt, author of eight novels, including "Girls in Trouble," takes in both professional and amateur criticism. "I absolutely want and prize and love and revere every single media review I get, but if I got 50 reviews from major newspapers and one review from Amazon, I still would feel a little weird: 'What's going on? Why aren't people responding?' "

The site's customer feedback is taken so seriously by readers, writers and publishers that a recent glitch on the company's Canadian website triggered a backlash against the entire reviewing system and made headlines around the world. (The site accidentally revealed the names of anonymous reviewers who, in some cases, raved about their own book or a friend's.)

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