It has five stars! It must be wonderful!

The other day there was a piece in the New York Times about writers and publishers who pay reviewers to review their books. For example, for a few hundred bucks you can arrange for a few platoons of people to log onto and say nice things about your book. This kind of salting the mine has become so common that some people who keep up with this stuff believe that maybe a third of “customer reviews” you see are completely bogus. This practice isn’t limited to books, by the way, and there are also people who bury a competitor’s products in unfavorable reviews.

This tactic is very effective because too many of us believe that those number-of-star ratings mean something. The smart money is on the notion that they mean absolutely nothing.

It isn’t that different from how some rather unsavory organizations – I’ll leave the casting to your imagination and personal biases – will plant knots of stooges in audiences arranged in such a way that no matter where an innocent dupe sits, it looks as if there are people all around him in the crowd who either noisily adore or noisily loath whatever they have been told to.

The instinct to conform kicks in for the dupe, and he figures he had better get on the bandwagon or he won’t be one of the cool kids. (You think the desire to conform isn’t powerful? Well, it seems that although in Germany in the 1930’s the Gestapo had a reputation for watching everybody, they mostly just sat by the phone and waited for perfectly normal people who wanted to show how with-the-program they were to call them and turn somebody in. Really. We are not an attractive species.)

Let’s assume it is a fair bet that whatever cumulative rating something has, and a lot of the written reviews, are worthless as guides to whether you ought to hand over cash for a book. The ideal solution is to ignore the ratings and read a few pages and see if the book appeals to you.

This may not be possible.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores are either disappearing (if you can afford it, seek out an independent bookstore and buy something!) or carry only books that potential customers already know about. This means that, even if you can get to a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you are likely to find only well-established authors who have already sold in the zillion-copy range.

I was recently in a large bookstore selling only new books. I had no trouble finding books by Stephen King and Ann Rice. I found no books on offer from some excellent, but less well-known, writers I like a great deal, not even in the “sci-fi/fantasy/horror” section. None.

There is exactly zero chance that I would have discovered those wonderful writers from browsing in that store.

Used bookstores sometimes are storehouses of wonderful older titles that someone who started reading in the last ten years has never heard of. In such places it is still possible to browse and discover wonderful things. Count yourself lucky if you live near such a resource.

If your local public library hasn’t been entirely de-funded or made over into merely an Internet access point and cheap source of old DVDs (how many books that will last for decades could you buy for the price of one computer that will be scrap in a couple of years?), try browsing there for gold.

I am old enough to remember bookstores (a few still hang on by their fingernails) run by highly literate folks who could figure out your tastes from talking to you and steer you in the direction of good stuff you had never heard of. A good librarian, if you can find one who hasn’t been laid off yet, can do the same thing.

You say software can do this? Maybe. But remember that the recommendation software you see is based on whether people who bought X also bought Y. But what if those people never heard of Z, a book they might love if somebody brought it to their attention? The software will fail to whisper, “Hey, you might like this.”

But be careful. If you read stuff no one else does, you won’t be one of the cool kids.



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