Cream of the reviewing crop
With e-commerce platforms ranking their customer reviewers, both publishers and authors are turning to them to drive book sales. But how effective is this voice?
Twelve years ago, long before he became a bestseller novelist, Ashwin Sanghi was just another writer, struggling to get his books read. Fully aware that space in newsprint would be hard to come by, the self-published author turned to e-commerce platform, Amazon.com. "I would look for people, who had reviewed certain kinds of books [same genre as his], and reach out to them, asking if I could send them a copy, and if they'd mind reviewing it for me," he recalls. "Obviously, there were no guarantees in terms of whether it would be a good or bad review, but the initial traction that I got was primarily on account of the fact that I could reach out to these reviewers. It was of tremendous value, because it enabled me to sell somewhere between 500 and 1,000 copies," adds Sanghi. Soon after, he was signed by publishing house, Westland, and the rest was history.
Not too long back, author Karan Bajaj, who wrote the bestselling novel Keep Off The Grass, had also blogged about how "150+ genuine reviews of the book on your Amazon page on Day 1 of launch" is what actually helps drive book sales. With Amazon and other e-commerce platforms ranking these reviewers—some are even being showered "hall of fame" accolades—the publishing world now has new friends in the industry. And, they all mean business.
From passion to profession
At 21, Pune-based Ronak Rajkumar Shah, an engineer who designs trains, is better known for what he reads, than what he is learning to fashion with his engineering degree. With a books podcast, an active review blog and an Amazon ranking of #231—he is among the "Top 500 product reviewers" in the country—Shah, in the short span of eight months, has become a known face in publishing circles. "Even as a child, I was always passionate about reading books. While in college, I decided to start a blog, where I did book reviews. Somewhere around that time, a publisher approached me, asking if I would like to review books for them. I agreed, and started actively posting on social media, too."
At the time, Shah had still not joined the Amazon review club. "Neither was I aware about the rankings," he says. But when Aditya Nighhot, author of Until Love Sets Us Apart, approached him, asking if he could review his book for him on Amazon, Shah decided to give it a shot. Nighot himself appears to be quite popular in the online review circles—his book, when compared to Amitav Ghosh's new title Gun Island that has 21 reviews, has 240+ reviews. Shah started out at rank seven lakh last year, and in just a few months, climbed up ranks to join the cream of the reader review community. "I had to approach my reviews differently, to get noticed," he says. "I started focusing more on the story, investing at least three to four paragraphs on it. I also realised that the earlier you post the review, the more likely both, readers and publishers would notice it. A good time is just before the launch of the book." Shah has even signed up with publishing houses, to get hold of pre-release copies. "I have started charging for the reviews [on my blog], as everyone is benefitting from them. But, the publishers have to agree to my terms and conditions, as not all books are worth writing about," he says, adding that he makes enough to buy himself a basic smartphone each month.
Chennai-based Varun S, who goes by the name Shan online, and is ranked #52 on Amazon, has had a more organic rise to the top. With 1,260 reviews, and 2,350 votes from customers, Varun, who works for a financial service firm, says that it's just his persistence and passion for reviewing that has seen him through. "I have been reviewing since 2014, but after my ranking went up two years ago, authors started noticing me and reaching out." Varun doesn't have a set number of books that he reviews each month. "There are months when I review 10 books, and if I am busy, I don't talk about a single book," says Varun. While he also runs a books' blog, he doesn't charge for his reviews. "I don't believe in doing this commercially. The problem is that if you charge, you are obliged to do a good review," he says, adding that it would defeat the purpose of what he had set out to do.
'Too much noise'
Sanghi feels that reviewers on e-commerce platforms, "are an essential part of the ecosystem." "Having said that, any system which is critical, is unfortunately also capable of being gamed. But, in the recent years, there has been much stronger vigilance by these platforms to make sure that the reviews that are coming in are genuine. That must happen, to take the reviews seriously," he says.
But, he says that unlike when he started out, it's more difficult for debut authors to get themselves noticed by readers, because "the noise is tremendous". "While the overall numbers on Amazon are huge, that is so, because they have millions of books. It's the sheer number of titles, driving that sales. But, they all sell very little. So today, only established authors tend to benefit from this."
While Sanghi does reach out to readers who take the effort to write to him, he says that it's very difficult "to look at e-commerce reviews and then actually weave it into your feedback loop". Due to the sheer volume, they are very difficult to monitor. "If you were to do so, you'd be doing pretty much nothing else."
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