Reviews

I’m having to deal with reviews these days – folks who opine about a piece of writing. In my case, that usually means a novel. New writers are often interested in reviews. I am.

There are two models of review. The ‘wise man’ model, where the reviewer is someone expert and/or well informed, and the ‘mob’ model, where the reviewer is a ‘normal’ person, often a customer. In the ‘mob’ model, the individual ratings are aggregated and offered collectively as the ‘views of buyers’.

When they communicate reviews, marketers like to use stars. In the wise man model, three stars means the wise man thought the work was average, or decent, or okay. Not bad, not great. In the mob model, three stars is usually an arithmetic average – you give one star for ‘hated it,’ five stars for ‘loved it more than I love my dog,’ then you average the numbers. The average summarizes, but does not describe, the variety of scores given by members of the mob.

Which one is better? That’s a good question. To answer it, let’s drill down into the market for literature, all of it fiction, all of it fabricated, none of it true (at this point, some of you might ask, does that include journalism? No it does not, and that’s not funny. Focus, people).

Now, the market for literature is incredibly fragmented. If fifty people read a book, they’ll have 50 different reactions. So in practice everybody selects from a miniscule subset of books which they usually like. They find authors they like, then they buy everything bearing the name of that author. They’d buy a paper bag with the author’s name on it (an unexploited marketing opportunity). Or they might buy according to genre; they might choose books from romance, or a small slice of that, from sci-fi, or a small slice of that, and so on and so forth.

So what can they do with a review? Well, maybe they know they share the views of a wise man. If the wise man likes a book, they will like the book. In that model, a few people follow the wise man; everyone else ignores him since he doesn’t reflect their views. In other words, if literature is fragmented, then as a result, the market for wise men will be equally fragmented.

As a corollary, if half of the readers are crazy, then half of the wise men will be equally and similarly crazy. In economics, we call that ‘derived demand’ (more or less).

Now, of what use is the mob model? Well, if the marketer only reports the average score, then the mob model is of little use. You don’t think so? Let’s ponder … Suppose a novel got an average score of three out of five. Is it a good novel? We don’t know. If everyone rated it with a three, then everyone thought it was average. In that case, you have to call it ‘average’.

But what if nobody thought it was average? What if half of the readers gave it a ‘one’, and that other half gave it a ‘five’? The average is still three, but in that case, the novel is a mega-hit. It’s going to be out there in leather binding, gold embossed pages, ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks, in each of seventy different languages. They’ll make movies out of it. The writer will be dating Beautiful People and driving a Ferrari or a gold-plated pickup truck. When they die, they can arrange to be buried in a crypt the size of the Astrodome. In Texas.

Same number, hugely different result.

Let’s keep drilling. In the USA, there might be a hundred million people who occasionally buy novels. That’s a guess, but probably not a bad one in a country with a population of 330 million. In that case, if a million people buy a novel, that is one out of every hundred readers. That doesn’t seem much.

But that novel would be a huge hit. Almost nobody sells a million copies of a novel, certainly not a recently published novel. That’s JK Rowling stuff. In that event, for every individual who is interested enough to buy the novel, there are ninety nine people who are not – they are indifferent or they dislike or even hate the novel, sight unseen.

Conclusion? A novelist does not need to be popular in order to be successful. What is necessary is that their ‘net public affection’ must be greater than zero. For everyone who hates you, there needs to be somebody who loves you. If everyone hates you, you’re in trouble.

It’s rather like life. For some, it is life.

So, let’s loop back to the point. What possible use could a reader have for a review, if the review does not describe the quality or popularity of the book? I can think of one – a person with time constraints, who might begrudge the several hours needed to read a novel, would find Cliff Notes useful. So if the reviewer simply summarizes the contents of the novel, spoils the plot and the ending, removes all surprise, a lot of people might find that useful.  They could talk about the novel with friends without having to spend the time reading it.

Uh, is it just me, or did all the fun just float out of the room?

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