Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

(A podcast of this can be downloaded here.)

The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

The Future of Paper

The Observer has an interesting piece on the future of the book. For some the future of the book is electronic:

[Bloomsbury chairman Nigel] Newton is certain that ‘within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.’ That prediction makes a lot of sense. E-books will not replace the old format any more than the motorcar replaced the bicycle, or typewriters the pen.

This 50–50 division may occur largely between genre, where electronic books are largely used by reference and technical publishers. Meanwhile to survive the ordinary book trade will turn to

‘on-demand printing’, in which on-demand printers, installed in bookshops and service stations, will enable the reader to access a publisher’s backlist and make a high-speed print-out of a single copy of a book.

Print on demand already exists, of course: Many of the books you order from Amazon are printed in response to orders. But not by the bookseller: that technology has still to come. But I remember how as a bookseller in the early 1980s we dreamed of that world. If smaller bookshops were able to do that they may yet stand a chance against the big guys. Imagine knowing that any bookshop you walk into, however small, could zip off a copy of some obscure, out-of-print tome while you wait? Bookshops would suddenly become more like a Kinkos or a Post Office: A place where anything can be done. (But then again, the technology to do this in music already exists, so why hasn’t HMV and Tower Records made it possible to burn a CD on demand?)

This all said, the book is not dead yet:

There is every reason to want to see the printed word enhanced by something more in tune with current information technology, but until the geeky entrepreneurs of MIT, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest can come up with something that looks like a book, feels like a book and behaves like a book, those who handle such items every day, and marvel over the magical integration of print, paper and binding, will probably continue to read and enjoy books much as Caxton and Gutenberg did.

The point really is that the book is not just a sentimental throwback to a happier time, but a superb piece of technology that maximises all those things we digital generation hold dear: great screen and easy to read in poor light conditions, indefinite battery life; light and highly portable; cheap; won’t break in water (just put on heater to dry); easy to navigate through content (just flip pages); nice to hold.

The other point worth making is that e-paper is much more likely to catch on in other areas before it catches on with books. Newspapers, magazines, journals, reports and exhibition flyers are much better suited to this kind of technology, because they need to be read while mobile (the newspaper on the train); they have no emotional hold on the user (a book is usually kept; a magazine is thrown away. The user therefore handles a book better and preserves its condition). Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.

In the case of flyers and reports, the ability to share and broadcast the content is an important part of the process. E-paper would be great at this, since it would be no harder (or easier, for that matter) than beaming what’s on your e-paper to someone else’s. Indeed, wherever reading is not a solitary activity, e-paper makes sense: bring an agenda into a meeting and fire it around the room by Bluetooth to other attendees (rather than printing out copies and stapling them, or demanding bring their laptops). Instead of walking around exhibitions weighed down with brochures and flyers, attendees could carry around one e-paper and receive blasts from each booth they are interested in.

I don’t think publishers need to worry that much. But elsewhere e-paper is long overdue.

Getting Communal With Books

It’s always hard to explain to people why sharing stuff online is so powerful. For one thing it’s getting easier, with etc. But the real power is in being able to harness the wisdom of others in finding stuff. Simply put, it’s the online equivalent of asking among your most knowledgeable acquaintances for helping in finding things — from a good barber to a good book, a good CD to a good funeral home. Anyone who has read The Tipping Point will know the importance of mavens (or was it connectors?) so it’s not rocket science that this is an amazing use of the Internet’s leverage. Why some people remain hostile to it baffles me.

Anyway, here’s another great communal sharing thing, written up well by Jim Regan: Do your own LibraryThing |

Book clubs and English classes notwithstanding, reading tends to be a predominantly solitary pastime, and truth be told, not many of us have ever considered listing the contents of our ‘personal libraries’ for either our own or anybody else’s entertainment. But the Internet keeps finding new ways of changing our habits, and LibraryThing appears poised to turn the cataloging of books into a form of communal recreation.

Definitely worth a read.

Amazon, eBay And The New Liquidity

I bought a second-hand book off Amazon the other day and was boasting about it to a friend. He wasn’t impressed. “We never buy anything new anymore,” he said. Clothes? Thrift shops. Toys? Yard sales. Books, CDs and whatnot? Amazon or eBay. Only food seemed to be something he bought new, and even then I got the impression he was mulling other options on that. All this made me wonder: Has the Internet pushed us into a new phase, where possessions aren’t possessions anymore, but stuff we have until someone comes along with an offer decent enough for us to sell?

Amazon, for example, lists all the books and stuff you’ve bought (scary, sometimes, seeing your literary life flash before you on the screen) and makes it very, very easy for you to list them for sale. So why not? If you set a price that you’re comfortable with, why not see if someone wants to buy? Why not list everything we own online, set a price for each and just see what happens?

Of course some of us want to keep things like books forever, but if this whole process makes goods more liquid, you can always buy back again what you sell later. Maybe people on eBay do this already: Not necessarily needing, or wanting to sell, but if the price is right, why not? I really, really like my new Rockport shoes, but maybe someone might be willing to pay more for them than I reckon they’re worth. Welcome to the New Liquidity.

What Are Plogs, And Should We Care?

What is a plog? Seems the term is currently being claimed by at least five groups:

It could get nasty agreeing on what a plog is. And I notice that Amazon are trademarking the term, so they’re not going to be too happy with other people stealing their name, even if they might not have been the first one there. I personally think they should win, since ‘plog’ sounds very similar to ‘plug’ which is clearly what Amazon is trying to do with their products.

Amazonian Gripe

Service at Amazon, the great online store I’ve dealt with for years, is either declining or getting selective.

A friend of mine in Indonesia placed an order on June 19, received confirmation the same day, and then…. nothing. She queried the order twice, and I’ve queried it once, without any response. The bank hasn’t received any debit request, and the order has since disappeared from her Amazon account. I’ve tried to send press queries to them, to no avail. And, no books.

Now, we’re all aware of credit card fraud, and Indonesia is a prime culprit. But whether or not Amazon believes this order to be fraudulent, there’s no excuse for not communicating with the customer, who has ordered before from Amazon and expected something better.

It was not always like this: I, who also live in Indonesia, have had no problems with Amazon, and, indeed, have always sung their praises in columns in main because of their good customer service. Once I even had an email opening with a greeting in Indonesian, from a staffer who had once lived here. This seems to be a thing of the past: There’s no email address to write to, and making an overseas call is in most cases not practical. Customer service at Amazon is no longer the personable, reassuring voice it used to be.

Now, of course, one bad apple does not a smelly barrel make. But given Amazon has not responded to my media requests, I think it’s worth pointing out this case as a worrying lesson in the different experiences online customers may get. Live in the West and you get great service; live in a place like Indonesia and you get a deafening silence.

A New Search Engine, All The Old Issues

In case you haven’t heard, Amazon has launched its own search engine, A9 and a toolbar (for now compatible only with IE) which dovetails with your Amazon account.

Supposed advantages over other search engines (here’s A9’s own list):

  • Simultaneously searches Amazon’s book store while searching the web.
  • Amazon book search results, and a history of your previous searches, are easily accessed in neat, adjustable, vertical flaps.
  • Apart from offering the usual toolbar features — blocks popups, web search, highlights word matches, information on sites visited — it also offers a couple of interesting extras, including a history of previous searches, a way to add your reviews of sites visited, a diary where you can store notes on any particular webpage you visit and view when you revisit that webpage.


  • These last two elements — review, webpage notes — remind me of long dead web annotation services like uTok, Instant Rendezvous and Third Voice. Do Amazon think that going down this road is really ‘cool’? Am I missing something or wasn’t this where Alexa was before it was bought out by, er, Amazon? Or were these guys just a tad early to the blogging revolution?
  • Toolbar isn’t stable yet. Installation was a bit wobbly on my system
  • I’m not crazy about the colour scheme, but maybe that’s just me.
  • Under the hood the search engine is Google. Why change?

And then there’s the privacy stuff? This is a tough one. The Alexa toolbar, also owned by Amazon, has had a rocky history on this issue, since it, in its own words, ”COLLECTS AND STORES INFORMATION ABOUT THE WEB PAGES YOU VIEW, THE DATA YOU ENTER IN ONLINE FORMS AND SEARCH FIELDS, AND, WITH VERSIONS 5.0 AND HIGHER, THE PRODUCTS YOU PURCHASE ONLINE WHILE USING THE TOOLBAR SERVICE.” (Their upper case, not mine.)  

In a way, if you’re a customer of Amazon it’s a bit late to start worrying about privacy. As Amazon says on its A9 privacy policy page, “You provide information when you enter search terms; download and use our toolbar; communicate with us by phone, e-mail, or otherwise; and employ our other services. As a result of those actions, you might supply us with personally identifiable information or information about things that interest you.” I’m not going to make a call on this. Bottom line: If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your browsing habits with Amazon, you can use their ‘generic’ version of A9.

Time will tell whether A9 nips at Google’s own heels. What’s clear is that with the arrival of Gmail and A9, Google and Amazon hope they will be super portals, where folk go to do everything: buy stuff, check email, search the web, fall in love, marry, and stuff.

A Way To Marry Offline And Online Shopping?

Further to my post about the perils of offline browsing and online buying, here’s a possible solution, from Wi-Fi Networking News: Software that lets PDA users check out details and reviews of a book while in the bookstore. SmartWorlds’ free software lets PDA users (customers can borrow a PDA and scanner from staff) shop and learn more about books while they’re in a bookstore: Users are connected to’s site where they can read reviews of the book, check pricing, and see other books recommended by readers.

Here’s the neat bit: In Boston, where the service is in place, the Trident bookstore is considered an affiliate of Amazon so if users of this service later buy one of the books they browsed for on Amazon, Trident earns a commission. Whether other bookstores are brave enough to do this I’m not sure, but it’s a possible answer to the problem outlined in the earlier post. The beauty of it is that the bookstores play to their strengths: a great, comfortable place to browse and hang out, and the unmistakable allure of allowing customers to have that book in their hands, right now.

News: Amazons Discovers The Perils Of Browsing

 Interesting piece on the downside of Amazon’s new book-searching feature, launched last month, which allows customers to do a full-text search on more than 120,000 books. The Register reports that it has quietly disabled printing after researchers managed to print out 108 consecutive pages from a bestselling book.
As a failed bookseller, I sympathise. It would drive me nuts when people would come into the shop, take out a pen and paper, and start taking notes from books they never bought.