Brilliant or foolhardy? My campaign to collect one star Amazon reviews

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Some of you kind folks have sent concerned emails over the holidays about the Amazon listing for my book, Everyday Bicycling. Thank you. Here’s the background.

A spate of one star reviews of the book started to crop up over the weekend (along with a smattering of some 2 through 5 star ones), and their numbers have kept growing.

The reviews are often quite negative. “This book might as well have a picture of Mao burning a bra on the cover, instead of a bicycle,” rants one reviewer. “This book totally advocates a totally unrealistic and totally dangerous lifestyle,” spews another.

This is truly the stuff that Amazon reviews are made of! But as you scroll through them, you may start to realize the pitch is a little off. The last quotation, for instance, was punctuated by a giddy, out-of-character “Totally.” Other reviews are straight-up send-ups of the format. One reviewer complains, “I only want to ride every other day. I bought this book and read every other page: FAIL!” The reviewer continues, “Also, the author’s name is blue, but the cover is green : hello!”

Others stray further into the realm of the absurd. One reviewer complains that the book gave her painful paper cuts when she used it as a saddle cover. Another is put out that the book was not able to help her teach her dog to ride a bicycle. Yet another felt ripped off because the book itself wasn’t a very good bicycle.

Ah, my friends. Thank you. I haven’t laughed so much all year.

See, I asked for this. Not just figuratively, by writing a comprehensive manual to trading in your minivan for a bicycle — but literally, soliciting these tongue-in-cheek reviews using social media and email. And I got what I asked for… and then some.

What kind of author *asks* for one star reviews of her book, you might wonder? Especially when her existing reviews are all unalloyed raves? Good question. Here’s my best shot at a condensed answer.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last couple years reading about the emerging new landscape of publishing, which is increasingly loomed over by Amazon. It’s clear that in the mysterious world of Amazon algorithms, a whole lot of positive reviews are helpful in getting your book up to the top of their rankings and in front of the eyeballs of hundreds of thousands of random strangers. High rankings is the online equivalent of getting your book placed in a bookstore endcap. Unlike chain bookstores, the publicity Amazon offers you is nominally free, but in reality, as with all Amazon services, you need to hustle for it, and hard — sending as many sales and views as possible to your Amazon listings. People invest a lot of time, product, and cold hard cash into this game, even going so far as to pay tens of thousands of dollars for services that provide bulk reviews.

Getting highly ranked on Amazon has never been in my marketing plan, despite the enticing metrics and astronomical success stories. It’s a gamble, and I’d prefer the safer, steadier route of making direct connections with readers through my own site and my publisher’s.

But then last Sunday I read that big front page New York Times article about how Amazon reviews work (or don’t), and I got an idea. The kind of idea that I couldn’t stop giggling about.

Because obviously, yes, the game is stacked (albeit decreasingly towards people who pay for reviews and increasingly towards Amazon’s own authors). But you, my friends and readers, are funny. And smart. And you love to poke fun at things that thoroughly deserve it, like anti-bicycling grinchery and online publishing chicanery. So, I figured, why not give you the permission and a platform?

That’s right — I am asking you to reverse-astroturf my book by leaving binder-style, Bic for Her-style, Three Wolf Moon-style reviews. Why? Because it’s funny. Also, to throw a wrench into the rankings system and poke fun at the way Amazon tries to fool people into thinking it’s looking out for the underdog rather than making a bid to replace Big Publishing with even more comprehensive market domination. And, to be fully transparent, because this stunt plays into my existing, tried-and-true marketing strategy of earning regular old publicity through more traditional means.

This game is certainly entertaining, but will it backfire? That’s the question from concerned friends and strangers alike. Will it reduce sales from people who are only skimming through listings and see that my book has an average of two stars? Will it erode the original cause of getting information about bicycling into the hands of people who need it? Maybe. It does make me a little nervous. The risks are real — this book’s success is not hugely invested in Amazon, but a sizable chunk of sales are certainly coming from that quarter, and I imagine that many folks find the book there who might not come across it otherwise.

Checking my sales rankings this morning, though, I see my numbers have improved considerably since last week. So maybe I am onto something despite myself.

If this is going to work, though, and we’re going to rip up a corner of the astroturf and free what’s underneath, we need to go big. Will you join in the fun? [Note: I don’t mind five star reviews either. Or even earnest ones. ;) ]

Postscript: The bra burning Mao review is from a friend and former roommate, whose dry humor exemplifies what we’re going for here. Her review (and the “green cover” one inspired Joe to create a new cover for the next edition. Someday, I may stop laughing. But today is not that day.

Post-postscript: If buying things from the big A isn’t your jam, please consider ordering your copy of Everyday Bicycling directly from me (along with a bunch of other amazing books I carry … most of which are not widely available by other means).