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Trusting Book Reviews

I mostly obtain tech books through Amazon - since the cuut backs at where I work this hhas been through my own $$$.

I am mad at the number of dud books I have purchased - despite the favorable reviews on Amazon. I also now look at the sales rank - if it is < 10 000, then I make a purchase. But this is still producing some duds - too many for my own $$$.

I try to track down the books at B&N to have a preview but their selections are not always as comprehensive as Amazon.

Surely Amazon must start retweaking its review section to prevent the skwing of reviews - it is a major pain to send books back to them.

Ram Dass
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I agree.

After reading 100+ reviews on a book on marketing I realized that nearly all of them were variations on the same theme:

This book is highly usable / I put it into action right away / I never knew how military brainwashing techniques could be used in advertising / I saw an immediate increase in responses to my ads.

I would say 100 of the reviews were those sentances with different phrasing. The remaining 5 or so were negative reviews that said the book was stupid.

It was about then I realized that the author probably wrote all the reviews himself.
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I reviewed a number of books published by O'Reilly. I usually focus on what is good and not and posted in my user group. I usually spend hours on the web to find good books to purchase, it's not easy to select best titles.

Evgeny Gesin /
Sunday, February 08, 2004

It is pretty difficult. I read *all* the reviews each time, paying particular attention to specific praise, and to specific criticism. Even a little *intelligent* criticism about a book is often key. Most people seem to want to give a generic good or bad review, but fortunately  those reviews don't have any depth and can be eliminated.

I also read sample chapters and check for reviews on other sites. I'd say about 40% of the books I get now using this method are really good ones, and 10% more at least worth keeping, and the other half I don't bother finishing.

This system is better than my old one where only 3 in 10 or thereabouts was really good or worth keeping.

Dennis Atkins
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I'm afraid you can't really trust strangers to review books for you.

The three techniques that work best for me: ask friends, and trust publishers. A few publishers basically only put out great books. O'Reilly is one mentioned earlier; another is Addison-Wesley. And finally (and obviously), trust authors you already know are good writers.

I'm getting out the habit of reading books, though. I've found that by keying into a select few blogs, I can find much of the information I need anyway. I'm rarely after an introductory text any more, so it's always the esoteric things (that nobody's written about) that I'm trying to find out.

Brad Wilson (
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Strange, I've always felt I've learned more - both in depth, and new things I never would've known about otherwise from books.

Besides, what else am I going to do during my hour commute on the train?
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Since I've been out of work for the past six months and taken to drinking heavily during the day, I find that the quality of the book reviews I write has gone down.  I used to atleast read the books before reviewing them, but now I usally base my reviews on what other reviewers have said and whether or not the cover of the book commands my attention.  A good rule of thumb is to ignore the reviews I, and people like me, write.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

I ignore generic comments expressing like or dislike for the book, and look for specific examples of why the reviewer thought the book was good or bad.  I've found that about 3 in 5 books I buy are good.

I also look for used books on eBay which makes the risk of buying a bad book less hurtful.

T. Norman
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I second T. Norman's advice about used books. I've gotten some used books through Amazon that seemed new and still had the CD. $15 instead of $50.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

by ebay, do you mean I used to get a lot of books through Half, though typically I purchase through Barnes & Noble because of their generous return policy.
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Hmmm... could it really be true that there were some hidden costs to abandoning our real bookstores in favor of the immediate dollar-saving gratification of buying online?  And now the few remaining bookstores in your town don't carry a broad selection for you to examine?

Damn, what next?  You gonna tell us that shopping at WalMart had unseen consequences for our communities?

Stop. Stop.  This can't be true.

Sunday, February 08, 2004
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I wait until somebody I trust recommends a book, then I read all the bad reviews it gets on amazon to see if it's something I want to bother with. 

Sunday, February 08, 2004

A potentially un-ethical solution would be to read it first. I have found that most tech books in my domain are available as e-books orpdfs online somewhere, usually IRC. This is obviously illegal, but perhaps the justification could be the same as software piracies' purported claims? Try before you buy?

I have checked the contents of several tech books this way. If they are good, I buy them. If they aren't, I delete them and stop wasting my time. Is this too immoral to consider? Or maybe this is the way that things *should* work? Hmmm...

Evil Programmer?
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I usually just restrict myself to recomendations from JoS. I've had great success with this :)

Mike Swieton
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Some techniques:

0. Do not be afraid to ignore many reviews *completely*. If you read a review and it's obvious that the reviewer is an idiot, or hasn't read the book, or has needs or interests utterly different from yours, then you have to act like it simply didn't exist. You will find that a substantial fraction of reviews are worthless, so ignore the averages.

1. Read reviews to find out concrete facts about the book. "Some random person on Amazon rated it 3/5" is not a concrete fact.

2. Ignore reviews that gush or rage. They tend to be written by idiots. If you can tell that the reviewer is not an idiot, that's different.

3. Look out for reviews by people whose taste you know. You're unlikely to find many of those at Amazon, but there are a number of individuals' book review sites out there...

4. When reading a review, try to work out what sort of person the reviewer is; ignore reviews where you can't tell at all (they are generally too vague) and ones where you can tell that the reviewer is very different from you.

5. When at all possible, read some of the book first. (I'm fortunate: I have access to a good university library, though it doesn't have anything like all the books I'm interested in.)

6. Don't buy things on impulse. Stick them in a list (I have about 300 items in my wishlist, which I maintain purely for my own use) and reconsider when you're about to buy.

(My personal success rate for recent Amazon purchases is about 80% good : 20% OK : 0% bad.)

Gareth McCaughan
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I've seen quite a lot of well written reviews on Amazon.  I have never been dissatisfied with any purchase from there that 1) had a 4-5 star rating; 2) had been rated by at least 15 people; 3) at least a couple of the reviewers gave concrete reasons why they liked the book.

Another good source for books reviews is the ACCU book review section:

Sunday, February 08, 2004

The best way to get book reviews is to find people who don't make money only for good reviews.  Just as stock analysts make 90% of their recommendations to "buy" becasuse that generates commissions for their company, you can't trust reviews on Amazon because they are only useful as long as they generate revenues for Amazon (see for an allegation).  Note that even Joel's reviews are suspect because Amazon gives him a few cents for each person that buys based on his reference.  Given the traffic that JoS gets, I'm sure that adds up to a lot of cents.

Of course, just because Joel gets money from the recommendations doesn't mean that his recommendations are bad, just that you have to take them with an extra grain of salt.  Remember who's getting paid and why and your life will go a lot more smoothly.

Foolish Jordan
Sunday, February 08, 2004

I've heard from a former employee at that Amazon edits book reviews in order to make the books sound better. Whether or not this is actually true, I don't know - but the idea that they might do so certainly makes me pay a lot more attention to specifics in reviews.

In particular, I seek out the more negative reviews of books in order to find a different perspective. I find this is a quick way to weed out the marketing and other "soft skills" books that are all fluff (and there's a LOT of those out there).

Monday, February 09, 2004

On the thread about CS education someone said that
you should work for yourself, and I can add that one of the
benefits of that is that you could set budget for books on
your own.

So, spending around $1500 on books a year gives you
the freedom to skip reviews and buy them because
they have Win32, Larry Ellison, Netscape, Chasm, Microsoft,
Apple, Intel or something similar in the title or because of
the author (Giuliani, Mitnick, ...).

Or I may like the cover or back-cover. Or I can read a single
sentence on the Internet forum about certain title and write
it down (Show-Stopper!).

And the point is, of the twenty to thirty books that I've
bought last year, I would buy all of them again! Except
maybe both Win NT API Superbible and then few weeks
later Win 2000 API Superbible. And certainly not Hillary
Clinton's autobiography. That was a mistake.

Monday, February 09, 2004

VPC: I assume that means that you can buy every book you like the sound of for a total of about $1500/year. If I bought every book I liked the sound of, I'd be spending more like $7500/year on books :-). So a $1500/year budget isn't the answer to everyone's book-buying problems!

Gareth McCaughan
Monday, February 09, 2004

Yes. Seems like you are on Amazon or in real bookstores
more often than I am ;) Not to mention that you seem to
have much broader interests than me.

Having budget of 1500 a year is not an answer for all.
Setting that budget on your own could be.

Monday, February 09, 2004

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