The first Amazon rating (or what the book isn’t)

Amazon screenshot

It’s a moment every debut writer waits for: that first reader review on Amazon. The point when an ordinary person, somewhere out there in the world responds to your work.

For me, that moment came yesterday afternoon. I’d clicked onto my book as I do most days (all right, every day at the moment) to see how it was performing and found that Reading the World had scored its first rating: one star.

Anxiously, I flicked down to the write-up. Had the reader thought the writing was bad? Did they hate my ideas?

No – at least they didn’t say so. As it turned out, the one-star rating was down to the fact that the book wasn’t what the reader expected. They had been hoping for an account of the 196 books I read in 2012 and because the book didn’t conform to their expectations they had marked it down.

The Amazon reviewer isn’t the first person to have expected Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer to be a blow-by-blow description of my year of reading the world. In fact, when I first got the book deal back in 2012, I assumed that that was the form the narrative would take. I even wrote a first draft to that effect, weaving in a lot of material from my online reviews and roughly following the chronology of the year.

Then (with the help of my editors at Harvill Secker) I realised two things. The first was that anyone who wanted a story-by-story rundown of my literary quest didn’t need to go to the bother of buying a book: that material was already online for free. Anyone who went to the list and clicked on a country name could find my account of what I read for that particular nation. It seemed rather limited to package all that openly available material up and expect people to pay for it.

The second realisation was that the 196 books I read that year (well, 197, counting Kurdistan) were sort of beside the point. They were my solutions to the challenge at a particular time and place, but someone else reading the world would find and pick very different things – as the ever-growing selection of recommended titles on the list demonstrates.

I had never set out to source the definitive work for each country (given that I’ve only read one book from many nations, I’m certainly not qualified to do that). Instead, I was interested in exploring and seeing what I could find.

What intrigued me most, I discovered, was not the specific choices, but how they changed my thinking and the big ideas they brought up along the way. I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest.

To this end, I decided to structure the book around these ideas. I would refer to many of the texts I read during 2012, but I would also bring in lots of other stories and research too. And I would weave in some of my own experiences as a reader throughout my life.

I hope it makes for a more substantial and longer-lived work than a simple collection of stitched-together reviews would do (it certainly required me to think a lot more deeply than the initial project). But that’s for readers like you to decide.

For now though – until a hopefully more enthusiastic rating appears – I’m perversely enjoying the distinction of my book having the worst-possible average rating on the world’s biggest bookselling website. That’s surely got to be an achievement in its own right?

33 responses

    • Thanks my dear! I wouldn’t normally mention it, but as I’ve met several people who assumed that the book would be a collation of the blog posts, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about how the book is different. And a definite authorial milestone!

  1. I’ve banned myself from reading reviews of my book (The Divorce Diet, she said with great subtlety and not a hint of self-promotion) on Amazon and Goodreads. They’re mostly good–or they were last time I checked–but the bad ones get to me. Not because they’re bad, but because so many of them are bad for bad reasons. I can accept–and if I’m lucky even learn from–a good bad review, by which I mean one that really addresses the book’s weaknesses. But reviews that say it’s not good because it’s not what I expected, or because the narrator’s older (or younger, whatever-er) than I am, or because the central character’s flawed–that eats at me. I’m not going to try to explain that–I can’t entirely, even to myself–but life looks better and the sky looks bluer when I don’t click on either site.

    Enjoy your moment. Ignore the carping.

  2. Thanks. What you actually did makes your book seem more interesting than what I and your “first reader” expected. I have also discovered some bigger themes in what I have learned and am curious if they resemble yours.

  3. Dear Ms Morgan,

    After reading this, I pre-ordered the Kindle edition in the US. Looking forward to April 27 and reading of your altered and expanded perspectives. I have to warn you though, I could ruin your current rating on Amazon!

    Thank you also for the country list. I have consulted it often and read several of your finds.

    Best of luck!

    Susana Sanders Bisbee, Arizona USA


  4. I loved discovering that you had a book coming out called ‘Reading the World’ – my kind of title if ever there was one. I had probably (unthinkingly) assumed it would be a bit like your Reading the World blog experience. But now I’ve read this summary of what it’s really all about, I want to read it even more than I did before. Must get my hands on a copy. Can’t wait to read it.

  5. The synopsis on Amazon doesn’t really help though. I could see that a reader might expect something completely different. From that, to be honest, I would have expected maybe a combination of a selection of reviews (possibly revised from their original form) and further reflections – not just the latter.

    <anyone who wanted a story-by-story rundown of my literary quest didn’t need to go to the bother of buying a book: that material was already online for free

    True, but there are plenty of people who never or rarely read blogs and many who just still want a physical book! I'm happy with reading digitally, but I'd prefer to download a complete book digitally to read whenever I want (not just when connected to the internet) rather than reading individual blog posts. It's a matter of convenience and sort "having" an item. (Maybe you could make a downloadable version of all your reviews?)

    Perhaps the synopsis could be improved?

    I'm sure you'll get 4 and 5 stars reviews soon as well, but as 1 star reviews go, I think this isn't a bad one – it's essentially pointing out not the problems with your writing but rather, I would say, with the packaging.

    • All very good points. In fact I have asked the publisher to look at the synopsis as I think it could be more representative.

      Hmmn. This idea of doing a downloadable version of the reviews has been suggested by a few people. I wasn’t convinced at first, but perhaps I should give it some more thought…

      Insightful as ever – thank you

      • Yeah. One person doesn’t add up to much in the scheme of things. Eventually, you’ll be able to stick it to all the doubters/haters. Some of them are probably just jealous because they want to do what you did, but they keep making up excuses that “prevent” them from doing it …

  6. You live and learn.
    Those few sentences, your book description in Amazon should be viewed as a marketing tool.
    I was just called a Partisan after commenting on the 1 * review and feel quite amused by it 🙂

    • Ha! Yes indeed. And of course there will be people who don’t like the book and that’s as it should be. For me it was just a milestone in this journey that I wanted to write about, as well as a good opportunity to talk about the differences between the blog and the book, which I’d been meaning to do for a while. Thanks!

  7. As the writer of the 1* review I feel I need to put my point of view. Not having read the blog I would have been happy to read a book version of the blog posts – revised/expanded as has already been suggested in these comments.

    The title – even the sub title – suggests to me that the book is about the books read and NOT about all the material actually included in the book.

    As for people being disappointed if the book had just been the blog posts expanded and augmented with some of the material in the book – I have to disagree with that point of view I would much prefer a book in book format – even though in my case it is a Kindle edition. I don’t want to have to collate blog posts and format them into a suitable document and send them to my Kindle and I dislike reading on an ordinary computer screen.

    I have happily bought a novel last year which was available as blog posts and I shall happily buy a novel this year by the same author even though I have read all the blog posts which form the novel. I shall buy it because I want to re-read it in book format. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thinks like that.

    If you think about it from a sales perspective the publisher wants to cash in on a guaranteed audience for the book – i.e. the blog readers. It is a selling point for them.

    In just the same way reviewers must accept criticism authors must too. I have read many ‘books about books’ and have recommended many to readers who also like the genre. Unfortunately I shall not be recommending this one because it isn’t a ‘book about books’. However, that said , as no publicity is bad publicity I’m sure the online discussion will boost sales.

    • Thanks for your comment. Of course you must give the book the review you feel it deserves. Not everyone will like it and that’s as it should be. Your review has been useful in highlighting that the Amazon blurb is potentially misleading and I have asked my publisher to look at it. Thanks for that and all the best for your reading.

  8. You would never be able to please everyone:
    – if you did a collage + expansion of the blog posts, we who have followed your journey would feel misleaded. 1 star reviews would then rain on you, complaining about how you just wanted to take money out of us without producing new content.
    – if the book was more about the “backstage process” and new insights that haven´t been previously published – as it actually is –
    then new readers would feel misleaded because they wouldn´t be getting any info about the books themselves. 1 star reviews would then rain on you, complaining about how you tricked them into thinking the book was about something else.

    Well, I´m definitely part of group 1, but I think that even if I wasn´t, I´d still prefer to read about your experience than the reviews themselves – there are so many websites that already have tons of reviews! Why bother to buy a book only with reviews?

    But you now, everyone has the right to their opinions – even people who clearly have a wrong opinion 😀 (THIS IS A JOKE)

    But I do agree that a downloadable version of all your reviews would be the perfect way to wrap this journey up and please all sides!

      • You have a very diverse audience when you publish on Amazon. There are people that know your blog. Of course they expect you to not repeat yourself. But there is a much larger group of people – like me – that don’t know your blog. Today I stumpled upon it. ( I love your idea of exploring the world via books. (Though I’m a little hesitiant regarding understanding. Maybe you addressed this point. I’ll probably have a look.)

        Problem is that I might follow you from now on. But I very much doubt I find the time to read the full archive of this blog. A book would be much more convenient. Maybe you should even consider publishing a second book just containing your reviews. You wouldn’t be the first. There are a lot of people that support bloggers by buying their books even when they read all prior posts.

        To me it seems your publisher was a misguiding you. I’m not in the position to judge what you added so far. I’m sure it is great stuff. But my first idea in this situation would have been: Introduce people that don’t read blogs to the great original idea. That’s already meta. Your book seems now to be a meta-meta. To me that’s less interesting that the books you read and how you found them.

        Sorry for that know-nothing’s lengthy imposition. 🙂

  9. Pingback: How Much Can We Learn About the World Traveling by Books? | Auxiliary Memory

  10. I think your blog is fantastic and has opened up a world for me. The choice of books and the effort gone into research means I want to keep exploring.

    Regarding the one star I would file it in the same category as the comment on your books in the Guardian – that proposed an Andy McNab book about the SAS as a good introduction to Afghanistan – the point is being somewhat missed.

    Keep doing what you are doing 🙂

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