Before I started this ‘blog, most of my writing on the internet was concentrated in a Beatles forum I help run and, more recently, on amazon.co.uk, the online retailer. Of course, the internet is a fantastic outlet for a frustrated writer like me, to help get my work “out there”. Before my online days, I was pretty much forced to write my articles, then stand at the front of London buses loudly reading them out until the driver threw me off. I used to write about music, most of the time, sharing my passion or passionate dislike for various songs and albums on internet forums and then enjoying the resulting debate. This led to me deciding to write reviews for amazon.co.uk, which meant a much wider audience. I allowed myself to believe that if I got my writing into the gaze of thousands of people, there would be a chance that someone would spot my potential and snap me up as a professional music reviewer for a respected music magazine. Thing is, when I started to read the work of lots of other writers, it made me realise that there were literally hundreds of brilliant and passionate writers out there, all working for nothing. My expectations of getting any kind of recognition (or paid work) pretty much nose-dived at that point and, since then, have been more than happy to know that I’m writing for the fun of it.
After I’d been writing reviews for amazon for a year or so, I got invited to join their Vine programme, which is where they send you free stuff which you’re then obliged to review. Some people have been the recipients of things like digital cameras and music players, whereas the last couple of things I’ve reviewed for them have been baby wipes and an iPod travel charging kit, so it’s not all glitz and glamour. How, for example, do you review a product like baby wipes with any kind of passion or enthusiasm? I started with;
“Having just had a box of 567 baby wipes delivered, I’m obviously delighted that the whole family can stop showering and give ourselves the daily once over with these handy little things. We’ll probably save a fortune on water bills (we’re metered… have you seen the price of water these days?) and is infinitely better than our current standby which is a toilet roll and some washing up liquid.”
Then I went on to talk about the more sensible characteristics of said baby wipes. Because I felt slightly obliged, seeing as I’d got a whole box of them for free. I’ve also reviewed free copies of quite a few books, many of which were very enjoyable, a piece of music recording software, which proved ineffective for my needs, as well as an indie CD, which I thought was almost entirely dreadful.
You can’t really choose what you get sent to review, though. If you could, then I’d be deciding to review some really nice laptops and 50 inch LCD televisions, as well as other expensive electrical goods. What actually happens, is that, once a month, amazon will e-mail you a short list of items offered to you, most of which will be books by authors you’ve never heard of, from which you can select two items. Of course, I’m not turning my nose up at free books, because I’ve read some real pieces of brilliance that I would otherwise never have picked up thanks to the Vine programme, but you need to put some serious time into reading an entire novel and books are a lot more difficult to surmise and review than other forms of entertainment. As you need to review 75% of the products amazon have sent you before they’ll send you anything else, it means that your turnover of reviews will be quite slow. Therefore, books tend to be the least sought after items on by the community of Vine reviewers.
One thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years, is that lukewarm reviews get the worst responses. There’s a button after each review which asks the customer if they found the review “helpful”, with a choice of either yes or no. The more “yes” clicks the reviewer gets, the higher up in the reviewer ranking he or she climbs. Completely enthusiastic and positive responses, as well as scathing, damning reviews tend to get plenty of “helpful” votes, mainly because people who are familiar with the products are voting on whether they agree with you or not. If I was a complete cynic, I could easily write reviews for products I don’t care about based on whether I was looking for good feedback from the amazon customers, but what I’d rather do is give my honest opinion about something. Otherwise, there’s just no point in writing at all.
Believe it or not, there used to be cases of reviewers targeting each other with negative “unhelpful” votes, in order to damage their ranking or to knock their review from the top of the product page (the review with the top customer rating gets pole position). This practise was actually a huge problem and the Vine forums were full of angry reviewers accusing each other of voting against them. Amazon have, thankfully, got round this problem by writing a program into their system which recognises multiple votes across different products. However, this also means that if your friends and family want to support your efforts, their multiple votes will also be wiped off. Seems a bit harsh, but it makes it an even playing field and it means that you really are being appraised by the public as a whole. I do want to emphasise, however, that the majority of reviewers on amazon seem to enjoy being part of a reviewing community and are supportive of their fellow writers, so don’t feel as if you’re stepping into a lion’s den if you fancy having a go at reviewing yourself. The general public are far more scary… there are some really interesting people out there!
If you like, you can check out my reviews here. Especially if you’re in the market for a shoe rack. Oh, and some fantastic music, of course – the whole reason I started writing reviews in the first place.