Do the Math: book reviews that numerically stagger the imagination

It almost makes me wish I’d majored in Statistics and Economics. But if anyone knew why one book sells and “better” books languish, the publishing industry wouldn’t be such a mystery. Who can explain Hugh Howey, indie author, boat captain, college dropout, out-selling the guy who was awarded an author visit to the Antarctic?

Kim Stanley Robinson has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. He was sent to the Antarctic by the U.S. National Science Foundation as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program. Maybe I look at the wrong stats when I tally the number of positive versus negative reviews at amazon, and the number of reviews an author scores, period. (Math people, help me!) But consider this breakdown of reviews given for the intrepid Antarctic award winning author of several best sellers. Overall, his ranking is AVERAGE for a novel that has been nominated for the 2013 Hugo Award. Meanwhile, a novel that is NOT nominated for the award has thousands of times as many positive amazon reviews. Never mind what may be involved in getting the coveted Hugo nomination. Look at this strictly in terms of the number of readers who took time to post reviews for a novel at amazon. Five thousand, versus five hundred or fewer, and the vast majority are positive. Mathematically, can anyone account for one author’s meteoric rise to the top of the charts alongside a similar author’s unsettling lack of NUMBERS? To wit,  the novel 2312, by the Antarctic-winning, best selling author, scored fewer than 200 reviews to Hugh Howey’s almost 5,000 reviews:

3.0 out of 5 stars (191) AVERAGE

5 star – 39
4 star – 38
3 star – 40
2 star – 40
1 star – 34

Factor in several rave reviews from high places for Kim Stanley Robinson, e.g.:

  • “2312 paints an absolutely credible and astonishingly beautiful picture of the centuries to come, of the sort of schism and war, the art and love, the industry and ethics that might emerge from humanity going to space without conquering it and without solving all its problems.” (Boingboing)
  • “Robinson’s extraordinary completeness of vision results in a magnificently realized, meticulously detailed future in which social and biological changes keep pace with technological developments.” (Publishers Weekly)
  • “Intellectually engaged and intensely humane in a way SF rarely is, exuberantly speculative in a way only the best SF can be, this is the work of a writer at or approaching the top of his game.” (Iain M. Banks)

Another Hugo nominee, Redshirts, fares a little better than 2312, with an average rating of almost 4 stars, but with fewer than 500 reviews versus almost 5,000 for the indie author who has overwhelmingly scored 5-star reviews:

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas 

3.7 out of 5 stars (493)
5 star – 163
4 star – 149
3 star – 96
2 star – 47
1 star – 38

See all 493 customer reviews

COMPARE this to the FIVE THOUSAND reviews Hugh Howey got for WOOL, and do the math, 4591 reviews out of 5675 are five-star reviews! How did an unknown indie author even get that many people to read and review his novel? Was it the “Free today” on amazon that attracted so many readers? The lower price of an ebook versus hardcover, paperback, and $10 ebooks that traditional publishers try to sell? Mathematically, this is staggering:

4.7 out of 5 stars
5 star – 4,591
4 star – 766
3 star – 184
2 star – 70
1 star – 64

See all 5,675 customer reviews for WOOL

Okay, I bought and read WOOL because it was heavily discounted ($3 for the Omnibus edition) and I had to see for myself what the fuss was all about. The writing is good. It really is. Not in the same league as the classics, not all that scientifically plausible or even all that original, but I read and enjoyed the whole story. My 4-star review at Perihelion Science Fiction e-zine (April 2013, explains why.

Next, I’ll read Redhirts and 2312, even though amazon hasn’t offered them “on sale” as part of any promotion. I’ll buy the books and read them just to see if they’re as good as Hugh Howey’s WOOL, which didn’t get nominated for the Hugo, even though it has outsold those who did get nominated.

Best-selling author Lois McMaster Bujold is on the same short list for the 2013 Hugo award with her latest novel in a series, “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” (Vorkosigan Saga), and the hardcover edition has scored just as few reviews (255 in all) as the other nominees:

5 star –  173
4 star – 61
3 star – 15
2 star – 4
1 star – 2
 Something is wrong with my math. There must be more customer reviews for paperback and e-editions that aren’t entering my equation. But no, there still aren’t anywhere near a thousand, much less FIVE THOUSAND, customer reviews for any of the 2013 Hugo nominees. Again, never mind that they’re all contending for the coveted Hugo Award; these are all well known, established, “best selling” authors, yet the number of reviews posted does not reflect this. What does it take to get readers to post reviews? Where would I find how many novels have been sold compared to have many readers took time to review what they read?

Best Novel (1113 nominating ballots cast)

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit)
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor)
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW)

If anyone can straighten out my math–balance my “checkbook”–please weigh in on this. Left to my own devices, I’m likely to mull over the statistics and conclude that Hugh Howey scored his five thousand reviews by offering his book for sale at *affordable,* reasonable, competitive prices to a new market of e-book buyers. It can’t be that his prose is that much better than the competition’s. There’s a marketing strategy here, and in the end, NUMBERS win.

I’m not asking who deserves to win the Hugo. The nominations are not awarded according to sales figures. “Members” of the various WorldCons can nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. A novelist can top every best-seller list possible, but if he is not popular among WorldCon members, it means nothing. I want to know how one author gets 5,000+ reviews at amazon, while more established (“famous”) writers earn 500 or fewer, and of those, there is no majority of 5-star reviews. Never mind who wins whatever award. Hugh Howey *wins* in terms of the sheer numbers of fans who support him. (And there’s that movie offer from Ridley Scott.)

Now, to find the formula, the equation, the key to winning thousands of readers and loyal fans…


About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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2 Responses to Do the Math: book reviews that numerically stagger the imagination

  1. Pingback: Do the Math: book reviews that numerically stagger the imagination | carolkean

  2. Very detailed post, Carol. Why, indeed …


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