The Reviewing Demimonde


Slate Magazine has a really interesting article about’s Top Reviewers, written by a novelist who became suspicious of his own 5-star review.

Turns out his Amazon Top Reviewer has reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. “In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following.” But the reviewer also has detractors, who accuse him of back-scratching, being unduly influenced by publishers, and of not reading the books under review.

The novelist calculated that Harriet Klausner,’s number-one reviewer since the inception of the ranking system in 2000, “has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader.”

He also notes that “John ‘Gunny’ Matlock, ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews.”

I’m interested because my manusript was reviewed, and because I found a blog post from another Amazon reviewer who was picked to judge the early rounds of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest:

Basically Amazon threw the contest open to the first 5000 excerpted-novel entries. Then, I believe Amazon must have asked every single reviewer if he or she would like to read entries and vote — bearing in mind that a lot of people would turn down this unpaid duty.

Despite this reviewer noting that he’s “not even in the bottom tier of reviewers who get such a designation printed under their reviewer names,” he is actually involved in reading and reviewing books more than just casually.

My Amazon Top Reviewer said in part, “This is okay. It might be better than okay if I cared about golf (or to a lesser degree gambling).” Thanks for the fly-by. Sorry you’re so busy.

I imagine the same thing happening at Publishers Weekly, where they have to weigh in on 836 manuscripts before making the cut to the final 100. There can’t be 836 people that PW has at its disposal, which means reviewers have multiple manuscripts.

Not only that, only about a week passed between the first cut (from about 5,000 manuscripts to 836) and the time the Publishers Weekly reviews posted. Thus, in all likelihood, the poor PW reviewers had only a week to review multiple manuscripts and write reviews. That would be too much for even the near-mythic pace of Harriet Klausner (a review every 8 days).

And so a lot of us who are semi-finalists in the contest got hastily written reviews based on skimming the book instead of reading it.

The reviewer whose blog post I quoted above thought the contest was a great idea, and hoped Amazon would do it again. After suffering with a factually incorrect review at the top of my page, one that’s largely going to determine the fate of my manuscript in the contest, I’m not sure I agree.