Harriet Klausner, a one woman content-mill!

By Razib Khan | June 13, 2011 2:14 pm

On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews. The other day I stumbled upon a really strange positive review of the awful fantasist David Bilsborough. It was confusing to me to see 4 out of 5 stars for this author, but the “review” was even more perplexing:

In the tunnels under the mountains of Eotunlandt, Nibulus leads the Questor survivors of the battles as they struggle to reach the surface where they expect their enemies the Thieves will attack them en masse. Instead when they finally reach the outside, no one eerily awaits to ambush them.

This is a direct sequel to The Wanderer’s Tale that takes time to get started as the various key players and their allies are established for new readers. Once the action accelerates there is no slowing down as this military fantasy goes into hyperspeed with confrontations seemingly everywhere. With all the various armies at war and new leaders and heroes emerging, A FIRE IN THE NORTH still pares down to the destined Wanderer. He remains the only one who can save an apathetic prosperous world from the malevolent Drauglir and the wicked necromancer Scathur as The Annals of Lindormyn move forward.

This wasn’t really a review, but more like a repackaging of what you might be able to glean from the jacket. It reminded me of the kind of prose that content-mills produce! Then I recalled this profile in Time from 2006 of the Amazon reviewer, Harriet Klausner:

Without the web, Harriet Klausner would be just an ordinary human being with an extraordinary talent. Instead she is one of the world’s most prolific and influential book reviewers. At 54, Klausner, a former librarian from Georgia, has posted more book reviews on Amazon.com than any other user—12,896, as of this writing, almost twice as many as her nearest competitor. That’s a book a day for 35 years.

Klausner isn’t paid to do this. She’s just, as she puts it, “a freaky kind of speed-reader.” In elementary school, her teacher was shocked when Klausner handed in a 31⁄2-hour reading-comprehension test in less than an hour. Now she goes through four to six books a day. “It’s incomprehensible to me that most people read only one book a week,” she says. “I don’t understand how anyone can read that slow.”

Publishers treat Klausner as a pro, sending her free books—50 a week—in hopes of getting her attention. Like any other good critic, Klausner has her share of enemies. “Harriet, please get a life,” someone begged her on a message board, “and leave us poor Amazon customers alone.”

Some have pointed out that even assuming she reads as fast as she claims the math has a hard time adding up. Additionally, Klausner’s reviews aren’t of a very high quality (they aren’t selected as “helpful”), adding very little value to what the publishers and Library Journal give you. You can look at Amazon’s top reviewers. Klausner has nearly 25,000 reviews and 95,000 helpful votes. Someone who goes by “Chandler” has fewer than 500 reviews and 28,000 helpful votes!

I have see no big reason for why Klausner is doing what she’s doing. She gets free books, and I assume she gets paid to review in some venues. And there’s always the cachet of being Amazon’s #1 reviewer. But in hindsight it looks like Klausner was ahead of her time, and prefigured the rise of quantity-over-quality content mills.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books
  • Miley Cyrax

    “On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews.”

    When I consider purchasing a product, I look for well-written negative reviews. I read something somewhere (damn, can’t remember where) that suggested a lot of people do this, as it’s a sort of a risk-averse, maximin strategy.

  • dave chamberlin

    That is a clever trick reading highly rated negative reviews, it sounds like a very efficient way of getting right at the salesmen in the scholar, I’ll remember it.

  • http://twitter.com/easement1 Rich

    Miley, I’ve seen something like this recommended as well; specifically, to look for the 3-star comment with the most ‘helpful’ votes. Theoretically indicates someone who took the time to comment, but is not biased by an over-emotional up or down response. Seems rational, though if you only ever read 3-star reviews… well, everything’s just average. Who can make a decision?!

  • Zombie

    I wonder if this is some form of OCD.

  • Andrew

    This article http://www.slate.com/id/2293544/ suggests that people are more likely to buy a product with a well-written negative review than one with a poorly written positive review.

    This author posts his one-star reviews at his blog http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2008/04/we_get_reviews.html

  • pconroy

    @Zombie,

    No doubt it is OCD all right!

    In terms of reading, I’m a moderately slow reader, and it takes me about 2 mins per page, I knew a girl who was hyperlexic – like Klausner – and she would read 5-7 pages a minute, or about 10-14 times faster than me. However her recollection of the content was sketchy the next day, whereas mine was sharp. So in a sense hyperlexia and/or speed-reading is sort of like skimming the text in some way – as although comprehension seems to be fine, memory seems to be impaired by it.

  • Domino

    If Klausner gets free books, and sells them for around $5 each, then she has made $125,000. That’s quite a nice sum for an ex-librarian.

    Of course she doesn’t read the books.

  • Douglas Knight

    Evidence for Domino’s theory is this comment at the skeptical post razib linked, claiming that the #6 reviewer (in 2007) was selling books on amazon, labeled as received from the distributor and never read.

  • Douglas Knight

    Actually, that #6 reviewer was reviewing technical books, much more valuable (though illiquid) things to resell than HK’s. Domino’s suggestion of $125k is spread out over 5 years. Since the books are new, they’re probably going for more than $5, though.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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