On Writing Critical Book Reviews at Amazon

On Writing Critical Book Reviews at Amazon

On Writing Critical Book Reviews at Amazon

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I love books. I read a lot of them, especially those on investing, finance, and economics. I could argue that the genre is tired, but there are a lot of people trying to jazz it up, sometimes with more success, and sometimes with less. Those who do it different have a strong probability of bombing it, but occasionally a new approach is brilliant.

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If you’re new to Aleph Blog, you might not know that about one in ten posts is a book review. That wasn’t what I intended when I started this project 8.6 years ago. Actually, I’m not sure what I intended, this has ended up bigger and more involved than I ever imagined.

If you have read my book reviews, you might note several things that are different:

  • I read in full almost all of the books that I review. When I don’t, I disclose it.
  • I don’t just review new books. I review older books when it makes sense to me.
  • I don’t just review books that I like, but those that I don’t like also.
  • I also try to identify who might be the right sort of person for a given book — some people don’t like math, some books are too simple, some are too hard, etc.

I usually cross-post my reviews at Amazon.com. For the types of the books that I review, I think I have a pretty good reviewer ranking at Amazon. That said, I know it would be a lot higher if I did four things.

  • Stop mixing in my own experiences or knowledge on a given topic, which sometimes is equal to that of the author, and occasionally, exceeds the knowledge of the author. Book reviews aren’t supposed to be about me. I get it, and I am trying to reduce that.
  • Review only new books, and get them done as close as possible to the release date of the book. There are many book reviews that are in my opinion lousy, but they got done first, and people voted them up, giving a review that is the equivalent of a “smiley face” button a parasitic life off of the book.
  • Write shorter reviews.
  • Stop doing critical reviews. Only post happy stuff — these authors hail from Lake Wobegon, and are all above average.

I want to amplify that last point. Books have natural defenders — certainly the author and his friends, but also if it is a book on a cultic topic, such as gold, Bitcoin, various schools of economic prejudice thought, doomsday economics, THE ONE WAY TO INVEST, etc., etc., etc., you get the mindless zombies partisans defending the cult. They will vote you down, and it doesn’t take many reviews where you have 20% helpful votes, even if it is the best critical review, before your rating sinks dramatically.

I’m not going to stop writing critical reviews. I’d rather be less popular and known, than sacrifice credibility, even if I look like a fool at times. (Yes, that is somewhat contradictory.) That’s just a price of cross-posting at Amazon, and I will keep doing it to benefit readers generally, whether they like it or not.

And Now For Something Completely Different

On an unrelated note, one interesting thing that has developed over time are all of the independent authors and small publishers sending me books in the mail. Some are preceded by an email for permission, others show up like lost puppies.

They are interesting books, and I don’t review all of them, because many of them don’t work — they are just too quirky, and probably needed a better editor, or, a publisher who would do the author a favor and tell him, “No.”

Second unrelated note: the hardest books for me are those where I know the author, and I end up not being crazy about the book. Usually, I quietly spike those reviews, and send a note to my friend/acquaintance as to why he won’t see a review out of me. I do have a heart, after all, and value my relationships more than “telling it like it is,” unless it is egregious.

All for now, as always thanks for reading.

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.
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