Monday, October 12, 2009

Crystal Lake

Manzanar War Relocation Center

San Diego Botanical Gardens

True statement: I am a top 1000 reviewer on

I mostly review the pulp novels that I'm addicted to, so no linky link - names changed to protect the guilty and all that.

For anyone curious about how to achieve this august title, or interested in improving their own rank, I am going to share my tips and tricks.

Everything I'm about to say can be summed up in one simple sentence: The more people who see your review, the more positive votes you will get. Let's take a closer look at how to make that happen.

#1 - Be the first to review something. New products get the most traffic, which translates to more readers, which translates to more votes. But that's not all. If you get your review in first, your review will start out on the main product page. The more positive votes you get, the more likely your review is to stay on the front page - later reviews, even if they are much better than yours, will be posted straight to the "see all ## customer reviews" page. Fewer people click through, so fewer people vote. If a product is popular, that great review will be buried under newer reviews. The early lead turns into a nearly insurmountable advantage.

#2 - Leave positive reviews. This is sad but true: the bar is set much lower for positive reviews. 4 or 5 stars and a couple of sentences declaring that a book is "Wonderful! The best book I ever read! You will love it!" will probably do better than a thoughtful critical review. A really well-written positive review is ranking gold.

By contrast, negative reviews collect "unhelpful" votes no matter how great they are. Positive reviews that contain a whiff of criticism are more likely to get negative votes too. I think this is because the people most likely to visit a product page are fans, and a lot of fans don't take kindly to opposing opinions.

It's important to write negative reviews, but hard to rank with them. A negative review generally won't collect "helpful" votes unless it is well-written. The more entertaining a negative review is, the better. And the more balanced it is - acknowledging the book's positive points, or exhibiting a solid understanding of the genre in which it belongs - the better.

Beware. Amazon will knock negative reviews off of the main product page. There are rumors that Amazon will delete 1 and 2 star reviews, and whether or not this is true a 1 or 2 star review is much, much more likely to be delayed while the censors vet it or just plain rejected.

#3 - Game the system. I recently reviewed a book that had been out for only a couple of days, but long enough to collect 3-4 glowing, 5-star reviews. I knew my review would bypass the main product page completely, and since I had a few problems with the book I knew my review wouldn't get bumped up for propaganda purposes. So I tried something different.

After the main product page, the next place where a review can be featured is the "most helpful..." section at the top of the product's review page. There's a box at the top, split in half. On the left side is the "most helpful positive review" and on the right side is the "most helpful negative review." The "most helpful negative review" will generally also be the most laudatory negative review. It's usually a 3 star review, the highest rating that is categorized as negative.

The review I had written was pretty critical for a 4 star review, but pretty positive for a 3 star review. I selected 3 stars, and voila: my review was almost instantly selected as the "most helpful critical review," and was stickied on the main review page - where it wouldn't just get buried by more recent reviews.

#3 - Review popular titles. The more popular an author is, the more widely publicized the book, the more people will visit the product site, the more votes you will get. Being the first to review a best-seller is the reviewer equivalent of winning the jackpot. But it's hard, since people who have ARCs (advanced reading copies) will be posting reviews - often before the release date - and even if reviews are closed until the date of release, you can bet that several reviews will go up within the first hour. The more popular the title, the more you have to concern yourself with timing.

The opposing strategy is:

#4 - Be the only/obviously best reviewer for less popular titles. It's not as effective as #3, but it's easier and more reliable.

What to write?

A few points about what makes a good review:

To summarize or not to summarize? This might be superstition on my part, but I find books are more likely to be featured on the main page if they include at least a little plot summary.

Include detail, but don't spoil. It's bad manners to put spoilers in a review, but a good review must be specific. If I'm criticizing something, especially, I want to include an example - but I'll try to pick one from the first 50 pages of the book. I want to let the reader know that I'm choosing my example carefully, too, so they don't leave angry comments. Like so: "Silly Pulp Novel is full of plotholes you could drive a truck through, starting in Chapter 1 when..."

It helps to be authoritative... If you know a lot about the subject of the book, if you are very familiar with the author, the period, the genre, etc., and you can speak authoritatively about a book, that's a good thing.

...and friendly. Part of the reason why Amazon reviews are popular is that they're not written by professionals - it's fine to be opinionated, informal, even emotional. A good review makes you feel pallsy with the author, like you just had a nice chat.

It's important to note that while you can strategize to get your review onto the main page, its placement there is not set in stone. Reviews that get lots of positive votes will move up to the main product page, displacing what's already there, and I've seen my own reviews get preference over unranked reviewer submissions when there were no votes involved.

My personal suspicion is that there is some real human involvement in review placement - I've seen reviews move on or off the main page for reasons database technology alone can't explain. My further suspicion, for which I have no evidence at all, is that Amazon is fairly responsive to author/agent/publisher requests - "Please feature this review, please don't feature that one." With 10%+ of all books being sold via, it would be very frustrating for the publishers not to have any control over what appears on the product page - and that would be a fair compromise.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

for funsies

I found this at the top of Panorama Hill, north of Mammoth. Just to clarify: that means I found it at the end of a trail, in the middle of nowhere. It was stuck in a bush.

It's on a plastic card - the back of it, as you can almost see, is a realty sign - because the author wanted it to last through the harsh, backcountry weather. Full of foresight, this fella.

This one made me laugh because of the weird quotation marks around the trout's thought bubble. Why is only "Thanks" in quotes? Why put quotes inside of a thought bubble at all? Why put only half of a thought in quotes? Is it insincere? Is it more sincere?

Bike Night & Bible Study. Only in Orange County:

A Good Idea

A trio of deviled eggs, served as an appetizer at a gourmet diner style restaurant, where each deviled egg was infused with a different flavor (I'm thinking something like truffles, hot pepper, anchovies, capers, etc...)

Would be a humorous nod to those trios of creme brulee that were everywhere for a while.

Fountain Pens

I just discovered d*i*y planner. It's a great site devoted to organization, writ large, and more particularly to organizational planners, notebooks, books and such. It's got me all excited planning out the perfect 2010 organizer. Which, naturally, had me fiddling around with all of my fountain pens and fountain pen ink.

My favorite source for fountain pen info, which pens are good/popular and where to buy them, is the Fountain Pen Network.

My favorite fountain pen is my Pelikan m150:

It's not a very expensive pen - about $50 - and it writes beautifully. Which is to say: it starts writing the second I put the nib to paper, the line it produces is even and fine, I can write for a month or more on a single fill of ink, it doesn't skip or bleed.

It's the kind of pen that will convince you that fountain pens are not only prettier but more practical than disposable pens.

The only "bad" think about the Pelikan m150 is that it only takes bottled ink - no cartridges. The more I use fountain pens, the clearer it is to me that this is the way to go (because you have to draw the ink up through the nib, it's not dry when you start writing; there's more volume in the barrel for ink than in a cartridge, so fewer refills), but when I was starting out I preferred cartridges.

My favorite pen that takes cartridges? The Namiki Vanishing Point:

It's got a retractable point, it produces a very fine and precise line, it's reliable and attractive. It only takes Namiki cartridges, which aren't hard to find, but does restrict the colors of ink available.

The best part about using a fountain pen is the incredible variety of inks. I like to use unusual colors - J. Herbin's Poussiere de Lune is one of my favorites - the delicacy of the color is impossible to find in any disposable pen, anywhere, let alone the wonderful shading.

But since most people tend to black and blue for professional writing, there are literally hundreds of different shades of black and blue ink. This review of Diamine inks - just one brand, and a very good one - samples fourteen blues and three blacks. The color might be lighter or darker, more or less solid.

Noodler's, one of the best ink companies out there, makes "bulletproof" inks - inks that are not only waterproof but resist UV light, UV light wands, bleaches, alcohols, solvents, petrochemicals, oven cleaners, carpet cleaners, and carpet stain lifters. They've just come out with a new line of forgery-proof inks, whatever that means.

And there are great in-between choices for people who want to write in a color that's dark and serious, but not necessarily black or blue - like Private Reserve Avacado [sic], pictured to the right, or Black Cherry.

If you write often, and get hand cramps, fountain pens are the way to go. Unlike with ball point pens, you don't have to press the nib into paper to make the ink flow. It's a lighter and less muscular way to write.

The truth is, anything you can do with regular pens you can do better with fountain pens. And while it's an expensive hobby if you want to buy lots of fancy pens, it can be very economical too. If you settle on a single low-to-mid range pen ($5-$50), and bottled Noodler's, fountain pens are cheaper than gel pens, and competitive with ball points. Of course, it takes a fair bit of willpower not to be seduced by the lure of pretty pens.