Digital democratization has come to the publishing world in a surprising way, if a new study is to be believed. Research from the Harvard Business School suggests that Amazon reviews from amateur critics and everyday readers is ultimately as valuable as professional critics, with some authors possibly finding themselves preferring to deal with the unprofessionals because they’ll get a fairer hearing.
The study, entitled What Makes a Critic Tick? Connected Authors and the Determinants of Book Reviews, compared “hundreds of book reviews from 40 different newspapers and magazines” with customer reviews from Amazon.com to discover whether there was an obvious difference between the two in terms of objectivity and bias. Media covered in the report ranged from mainstream outlets like Entertainment Weekly, The Onion‘s AV Club and LA Weekly to the more highbrow London Review of Books and New York Times Book Review, with the test group of books consisting of 100 non-fiction titles published between 2004 and 2007, allowing for a sizable amount of Amazon reviews to be accumulated.
The results are somewhat surprising, with Professors Loretti I. Dobrescu, Michael Luca, and Alberto Motta discovering that newspapers and magazines are not only more favorable to authors who have previously gained media attention or won awards that others, but are also 25 percent more likely to cover a book written by an author who has previously written for their own publication (The authors of the report suggest, however, that such bias may not be intentional, suggesting that the positive reviews are the result of “tastes, rather than collusion”).
Perhaps more surprisingly, professional critics and Amazon reviewers tend to have similar opinions about a book’s quality on average, with the report stating that “experts and consumers tend to agree in aggregate about the quality of a book.” That isn’t always the case, however; the report also points out that “[r]elative to consumer reviews, professional critics are less favorable to first-time authors” than Amazon.com reviewers in general.
If professional critics are more likely to be swayed by personal or professional connections to authors (Those who have previously written for a publication are stand a 5 percent better chance of getting a positive review, according to Dobrescu, Luca and Motta) and less likely to give newcomers a fair shot, the question begins to arise: What good are they at all? Well, biased or not, at least you can rest assured that professional critics actually exist. Consider the prevalence of fake reviews online, whether frauds planted to promote sales or satirical raves for worthless products. It seems that, no matter who you choose to listen to before deciding whether or not to buy something, it’s always worth leaving the final decision to your own judgment and common sense. Buyer beware, indeed.