Harriet Klausner: the publishing industry’s secret weapon?

“This is an exhilarating outer space opera that never slows down especially during the latter quarter of the action-packed story line,” the book review states. “That climax is one of the longest most exciting cat and mouse chase scenes in recent years.”

The review is of Ragamuffin, a speculative fiction novel by Tobias Buckell published by Tor Books. The writer of the review is Harriet Klausner, Amazon’s most prolific customer reviewer.

Klausner has written over 12,000 reviews since she first started posting them in 2000. That’s an average of more than four books a day, seven days a week.

Soon after her review was posted, Buckell noticed several responses to it in the comments section. “HK neglects to tell prospective readers about the Afro-Caribbean dialogue in this novel, the fact that it contains characters from the author’s previous novel, ‘Crystal Rain’ and so many other important elements that I would urge prospective readers to look elsewhere for a review of this book,” one commenter wrote. “Harriet practically never gives anything but 5 stars. Her ratings are not differentiated, therefore pretty useless,” said another. “The incoherence of this review is astounding,” a third added.

These responses are part of a larger backlash against Klausner, a mixture of conspiracy theories, skepticism and ridicule. The most tame of these criticisms simply point out that she rarely includes anything in her plot summary that isn’t on the back cover, indicating she hasn’t actually read the book. Others say that her sentences often suffer from grammatical quicksand, tripping over themselves and in need of editing. The most radical members of the backlash offer theories that she either works for Amazon or the publishing industry, astroturfing the customer reviews section to promote sales. Nearly all express annoyance at her tendency to only give four and five star ratings.
harriet klausner
(Harriet Klausner)
“You know, I think if she did post more negative reviews she would have more credibility as maybe a freakish speed reader,” Buckell said. “I think everyone tends to dismiss her as a result of the relentless positivity, and she’s become a bit of a joke in the industry (particularly among authors). Many readers seem to be picking up on her reviews and are using Amazon’s rating system to rate her reviews as unhelpful.”

As for Klausner’s review of his own novel, the author noted that there wasn’t much in the plot summary that didn’t appear on either the back cover or the publisher’s press release. The only part that sheds any evidence that she actually read the book exists in the last line, which notes a plot point not publicized in the promotional text.

But despite these shortcomings, there have been reports that major publishers send advance review copies to Klausner by the truck load. She’s been quoted at saying that she receives an average of 50 free books a week in the mail. This has raised questions about not only her ability to sell books, but the promotional power of Amazon customer reviews in general.

Richard Eoin Nash is the editorial director of Soft Skull Press, a medium-sized publisher that prints about 30 titles a year. I asked him if he would ever consider sending Klausner a review copy.

“I’ll be candid, we don’t if for no other reason than that we’ve no idea how to send her books!” Nash said. ” But it is quite possible we would in principle.”

Soft Skull has its own version of Klausner. It’s an Amazon customer reviewer named Kevin Killian, who focuses on books that would fit into Soft Skull’s niche.

“We send to him as often as we can remember which isn’t often enough,” Nash said. “But those folks, their activity is likely not restricted to Amazon—the kinds of folks we want to reach blog, do an occasional Amazon review, do an occasional print review and are ‘influencers’ either in person or online.”

The barrier for sending out advance review copies can be low depending on the case. The cheapest would be about five dollars if the book is thin and sent by regular mail. At most, it could cost as much as $25 if it’s a heavy hardback and sent Fedex. And it’s absolutely free if the publisher can get the reviewer to accept a digital download of the book.

With the dozens of review copies sent to Klausner every week, publishers are seemingly trying to bypass the traditional book review system. Before customer reviews were possible, outlets like Publishers Weekly and Booklist were sometimes the only coverage a book received if it wasn’t picked up by a major paper. Some of the reviewers from these publications have expressed dismay at the prevalence of the customer review.

“There’s been a lot of teeth-gnashing among professional book reviewers about the rise of citizen reviewers,” said Keir Graff, the online editor for Booklist. “I’m not too troubled by the trend, however. Amazon book reviews are just another version of the ‘rate it’ function found on sites selling other products…Booklist and other professional reviews still run above the customer reviews, and I believe that most Web users are savvy enough to know the difference between the two.”

Graff has worked at Booklist since 2001 and has been senior editor of its online site for a few years. To him, customer reviews serve a different function, focusing on other facets than professional reviews. A reviewer for, say, Publisher’s Weekly, usually adheres to a strict criteria of analyzing a book when writing his or her critique. Customers have much more flexibility.

As for Klausner’s writing, Graff hasn’t been impressed so far.

“I haven’t read a review of hers that I found useful or thought-provoking,” he said. “I think her industriousness is an entertaining phenomenon, but she’s perhaps a better example of compulsive behavior than genuine book reviewing. Perhaps she’s trying to set an unbreakable world record for the greatest number of books reviewed–but she’d probably enjoy herself a bit more if she slowed down and focused on the words on the page, not the number of books she’s reviewed.”

Of course Klausner has reviewed one of Graff’s own books, so he might be biased. For his book, Cold Lessons, the reviewer gave him four out of five stars, and Graff had to read the review several times to even understand what it meant, the language was so confusing.

Sample sentence from the review: “”He begins to investigate the drug cartel preying on the local students over the objection of his travel writer wife of over three decades Lolita, but soon finds himself wondering if the red pen is mightier than the sword, make those guns.”

But like the Soft Skull editor, Graff agreed that the barrier for sending a review copy to her is so low that it’s worth a try.

“With so many books vying for so little review space, a Harriet Klausner review may be the only coverage some books get,” he said. “So if you operate on the assumption that anything is better than nothing, I guess it’s worth a review copy. The fact that her reviews seem to be uniformly positive is probably a factor, too. And a blank page on Amazon looks pretty lonely. Having one of her reviews there is proof–or is it?–that at least one person’s read the book.”

Of all the people I interviewed, Jenny Davidson seemed the least skeptical of Klausner’s reviewing abilities. Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature for Columbia University and is the author of The Explosionist, a novel forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books.

To her, Klausner pays adequate service to genre fiction, which in its more pulpy versions can be easy and quick to digest.

“I’m a bit of an obsessive reader myself–I read fast, and I read a lot–and I would say that when I read the kind of paranormal romance, say, that Harriet Klausner is fond of, it would probably take me less than an hour and a half,” Davidson said. “I try not to do this too often, it’s the novel-reading equivalent of binge-drinking, but I have certainly had quite a few days in my life where I read five novels straight through, all in a row; usually crime fiction. So my take is that she’s sincere but misguided, not deliberately fraudulent.”

The author finds Klausner’s reviews often humorous and doubts that it has much effect in who buys a particular novel. She dismissed the various conspiracy theories about her working for the publishing industry as “farfetched.” At best, Davidson considers the reviewer’s power as neutral, unlikely to hurt or help a book’s sales.

Graff, the Booklist editor, seemed to reach the same conclusion.

“I don’t believe that one person could read that many books in any manner that I would recognize as ‘reading,’ but only she knows the truth,” he said. “I will say that in her review of Cold Lessons, she did include some details that weren’t in the publisher’s synopsis–although, perhaps predictably, she got the tone wrong.”