Goddess of the Harry Potter Universe, J.K. Rowling, released her new book to instant global stardom, but if eager fans rush to Amazon to see if Rowling still has her literary magic, they will be dreadfully disappointed: most reviews aren’t about the book. “I have no official review for this book as I have yet to read it. However, I just downloaded it to my kindle and the font is tiny,” wrote one two-star reviewer. Ordinarily, technical complaints of a popular-enough book would get drowned out by actual opinions, but its started a civil war even among those who had genuine opinions about the book “Even if this book wasn’t that great I would still give it five stars to make up for those ridiculous price reviews,” writes another. With professional reviewers showing widely different opinions on the book, Amazon could have let the world know how readers like themselves felt. But democracy failed today.
Research on the Amazon customer opinion has found the democratization of book reviews has helped overcome serious limitations of stodgy, professional reviews. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found, Professional book reviewers suffer from unintentional bias: novice authors get slammed while successful authors, who often have a relationship to the publication, get much nicer treatment. “Reviewers may not always have the incentive to provide objective reviews,” explain the researchers.
Very rarely does a book with such media gravity come along to make book reviewers the subject of front page Google News, creating unavoidable complications for professional reviewers who have their reputation to think about in addition to the book’s quality. The New York Times review, which has been quoted in probably +1,000 outlets this morning, said Rowling’s new book “is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull.”
The Guardian was far more upbeat: “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny.”
As I rushed to Amazon to see how readers more like me (i.e. without an English degree and a closet full of turtlenecks) felt about one of my favorite new authors, I hit a brick wall of disappointment. Users complaining about price, and others rushing to defend Rowling against them, overwhelmed legitimate reviews.
Barnes & Noble was even worse. At the time of this post, near every single review was about the inability to change the tablet font sizes. Nearly all of the positive reviewer (5 stars) hadn’t even read the book yet: “OMG!!!!!!! SHE’S WRITTING ANOTHER BOOK!!!! AHHHH!!! I CAN’T WAIT TILL SEPTEMBER 27TH WHEN IT COMES OUT!!! WHOOHOO!!!!!! \(^?^)/”
Democracy has always been a struggle between collective enlightenment and mob rule. Today, J.K. Rowling and her fans have been run over by a thrifty, font-obsessed stampede.