How Fake Reviews Hurt Everyone

by Jami Gold on September 25, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Close up of fake fruit and text:

I had the idea for this post over a month ago after seeing a Slate article about the “epidemic” of niceness in online book culture. Their point boiled down to whether all the friendliness on social media made people feel they couldn’t say bad things about books.

I was going to write about how, yes, I think that is the case. We form our cliques, our tribes, our indie groups, and we want to be supportive of each other.

Positive or Negative, Fake Is Fake

In those groups, I’ve seen all kinds of questionable behavior where authors think they’ll get a pass because they’re all “friends.” And it’s true. We don’t want to be disliked, so we’re less likely to call people out when they’re a member of our group. Genuine support is wonderful, but the push for quid pro quo reviews and superficial likes and votes dilutes the usefulness of review sites for readers.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen plenty of people (authors and non-authors) behaving badly with false accusations, voting down good reviews, voting up their diatribes, and mean-spirited tagging and shelving. That concerns me for the same issue as above—it dilutes the usefulness of the sites for readers.

The Extent of Fake Reviews

Unfortunately, my original thoughts for this post are now woefully naïve, as the past month has revealed that some well known authors have paid for positive reviews. In addition, authors, reviewers with agendas (on both the positive and negative side of things), and their supporters have all been found guilty of creating false online identities to “sock puppet” their views and add to the impression of a crowd of support.

It’s gotten so prevalent that some authors have decided to sign a pledge to not use sock puppets. And I have to wonder, is it really that bad that we have to specify that policy? Wouldn’t that be the default? But then, yes, I am a Pollyanna sometimes. *smile*

Are All Fake Reviews Bad?

Barry Eisler brought up some concerns with the pledge, and Joe Konrath has compared the pledge to a witch hunt. Joe then stirred up his own trouble by insisting that one-star reviews aren’t that bad.

I understand his point—to a point. Some fake reviews can be humorous and not destructive. I tweeted a link a few weeks ago to the Amazon UK reviews for a “BIC for Her” pen, and I laughed at many of the fake reviews Joe posted to Amazon:

“Fresh Whole Rabbit: 5 stars, ‘Pays for itself’—’I bought two, left them alone in the refrigerator for a week, and now I have thirty-eight.'”

I also understand his concern that to weed through fake reviews (whether one or five stars), someone would have to police which reviews are legitimate or have other value.

Honest Is Different From Vindictive

However, an honest one-star review is different from a vindictive one-star review and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. So I disagree with Joe’s statement of:

“[W]hat [Ellory] did wasn’t any different than what millions of other one star reviewers did and continue to do.”

Yes, they both have an agenda: to reduce sales. But one focuses on what the reviewer believes is best for the reader (“Save your money and don’t buy this piece of crap.”) and one has what’s best for the reviewer in mind (“If you like xyz type stories, buy such-and-such book instead of this piece of crap.”).

How Should We React to Fake Reviews?

Joe Konrath would have us take a very laid back approach to all these agenda-pushing techniques of fake reviews and sock puppets:

“Fake reviews, like sock puppets and trolling and flame wars, will always be part of the Internet and are no big deal.”

No big deal? Acceptance that something exists and can’t be completely and permanently eliminated is very different from calling it “no big deal.” Bullies have always existed, yet we still try to stop them. Similarly, we call out trolls for what they are. Silence can be condoning.

So while I understand his concern about policing, I have no problem with those who call out fake reviews (positive or negative) and sock puppets. Some people who might be tempted to use those techniques could be dissuaded by the threat of being found out. Social peer pressure has been used to keep people in line for eons.

Fake Reviews Break Trust with the Reader

But let’s backtrack to Joe’s argument about how fake reviews don’t hurt anyone:

“Show me [how] one star reviews harm authors. Hint: Amazon allows one star reviews.”

Just because something is allowed doesn’t mean it can’t cause damage. Vindictive one-star reviews can convince a reader not to buy a book that they might otherwise purchase (and enjoy). Along the same lines, fake five-star reviews (which aren’t obviously intended for humor only) can convince readers to buy a piece-of-crap book, and then those burned readers will be less likely to believe reviews next time.

Various sites have cropped up that claim to showcase vetted good self-published books simply because too many people no longer trust Amazon or Goodreads reviews. And since a major part of the purpose of Goodreads is helping readers sift through the chaff, the inability to trust Goodreads reviews hurts their identity as a company.

The real damage, however, is to the reader. Those who check Amazon and Goodreads reviews for insight into which books they’d enjoy. Those who look to reviews for believability of characters, storytelling, and plot. Those who depend on reviews to point out any hot-button issues they want to avoid.

From this perspective, fake, generic, or quid pro quo reviews are just as damaging to readers as anything vindictive. Perhaps more so. The favor-for-a-favor approach in our social networks drives readers to distrust all reviews.

Fake Reviews—Positive or Negative—Hurt Authors and Readers

Self-published authors depend on those reviews more than traditionally published authors, so fake reviews of all stripes hurt self-published authors the most. They need readers to believe there is a way to discover good self-published books. Even on the traditional publishing side, debut authors depend on reviews more than established authors who’ve already made a name for themselves.

Readers will be less likely to try a new-to-them author if wading through reviews to find the legitimate-seeming ones becomes too much of a hassle. So while I recognize that we can’t stop all the bad behavior, I see nothing wrong with calling out those who don’t act in readers’ best interest (as long as it doesn’t devolve into a true witch hunt).

I also think we can point out the behaviors that break trust with readers to raise awareness among authors. Maybe some authors haven’t thought through their actions to realize how it affects readers. Maybe their giddiness at their new release makes them too excited to question their actions.

Test Yourself: What Kind of Person Do You Want to Be?

One proactive thing we can do is think about where our ethical lines stand when we’re not faced with a dilemma (or that aforementioned giddiness). Joe Konrath posted an interesting “what if” morality test (scroll down to about halfway through his sidebar to get to the beginning of the test—look for the paragraph “So let’s begin.”).

His thought-provoking questions can help us decide what kind of person we want to be. Sure, we might act differently when faced with the situation for real, but if we’re consciously aware of which side of the line we want to fall on, we might have a clearer decision to make. And we might have greater awareness of how our behaviors will be seen in the cold light of logic.

Do you agree that fake reviews hurt readers and authors? Which do you think hurt the most: fake positive reviews, fake vindictive reviews, or are they about the same? What behaviors in regards to review sites do you think break trust with readers? What do you think of Joe Konrath’s morality test? Do you think being consciously aware of the type of person we want to be can help us when faced with a real dilemma?

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40 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Paul Anthony Shortt September 25, 2012 at 6:47 am

I’d far sooner have a bad, but honest, review of my book than one designed to flatter me or draw in a reader who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy it. If I can’t make it on the virtue of my own work and the word of mouth it creates, then I don’t deserve to be in the business.

A lot of things can be taken too seriously, especially on the Internet where anonymity and the safety of a keyboard and screen make people more brave and stubborn than they would otherwise be. And yes, sometimes a joke review can be funny.

But there’s a difference between joking about the idea of an airport security playset and vindictively trying to drive potential readers away from an author. We don’t live in an all or nothing world. We can have a laugh and see the funny side of things and still be respectful and honest in our professional dealings.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 8:32 am

Hi Paul,

“I’d far sooner have a bad, but honest, review of my book than one designed to flatter me or draw in a reader who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy it.”

Great point! Yes, it should be a “duh” that not everyone will enjoy our book. The best-loved books throughout the years still have their detractors, and we shouldn’t expect anything different for our own work. So fake positive reviews can pull in readers who will be disappointed, dismissive, or disgusted by what they find between the covers. Upset readers won’t help us in the long run.

“We don’t live in an all or nothing world. We can have a laugh and see the funny side of things and still be respectful and honest in our professional dealings.”

Wonderfully stated! I couldn’t word it any better. :) Thanks for the great comment!

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Jessica Schley September 25, 2012 at 7:11 am

I agree completely with the lack of trust generated by fake reviews. But I also wonder at this online culture of niceness that surrounds reviews in general. I was glad to see you point out the value of valid one-star reviews as well. There’s a book I read recently by an acquaintance from online (I don’t know her well, but we’ve emailed), and it’s really quite bad. Grammatically sound, but herky-jerky and needed another few edits. Someone wrote some troll one-star reviews, and then all the remaining (almost completely 5-star reviews) are from people who’ve reviewed only her books, or only this book.

I would like to write a reasoned two-star review, but I confess I’m a little loathe to do that to someone I know, however tangentially, even if her book is really that bad. But then I think, “Aren’t I contributing to the problem of ‘only nice reviews’ by not reviewing?”

Fact is, it’s just hard to know what to take from reviews. Some are fake, some may not be fake, but almost certainly are from the author’s bestie and therefore are unlikely to give any sort of balanced picture, some will be trolls, some will be just average joe readers (who are the people you want). Since I work in a bookstore, I’m lucky in being able to just flip through or borrow any books that strike me (including e-books, since I can read them in-store.) So I tend not to rely on reviews at all…but I think about them a lot.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 9:05 am

Hi Jessica,

I understand. I’ve found myself in that position with an acquaintance as well, and I’m guilty of remaining silent. In that case, the acquaintance’s book didn’t have positive reviews (real or fake) either, so I decided my honest review wasn’t necessary.

As my posts make evident, I enjoy exploring the nuances of situations. :) And I wonder if a case could be made that not all fake Amazon accounts are equally bad or sock-puppet-ish. For example, if an author’s acquaintance created a fake account for the purpose of helping the reader by giving an honest review (and they weren’t trying to promote their own or anyone else’s work but merely trying to preserve their relationship with the author), would that still be on the same level as creating a sock puppet for the purpose of pushing a selfish agenda?

Technically, that fake account would have much in common with a sock puppet, and no doubt posting a review under a fake name is cowardly, but I could understand why someone would choose to do that. In the offline world, it’s accepted to make anonymous calls to the police to report situations where we fear the consequences.

If someone truly had only readers’ best interest in mind, would that be an acceptable use of a fake account? Some would agree and some wouldn’t, and the chance of discovery and accusations of other purposes would make it a risk. But I agree that having the best interests of readers in mind means we might have to find some way to share the bad as well as the good.

Interesting situation! My current approach of rarely giving reviews (positive or negative) probably isn’t the best way to avoid that “only say good things” concern. :) Thanks for making me think and for the comment!

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William September 25, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thank you so much for bringing this up. This is an important topic for me. (In fact, I brought the subject up in a LinkedIn discussion a week or two ago.) I review books along with Tanya, Rachel and Julie at All Things Books. None of us get paid. I’ve found to give a quality review, it takes me 4 to 5 HOURS (and I’m a fast reader) to cover an average size book and then compose a review that hopefully doesn’t suck. And sometimes I’ve been delighted with the book I get to review, and other times…
I’m only an amateur, but I try to be honest. In fact, I’m probably too critical for a reviewer. But in my defense, even when I think a book isn’t the greatest, I try to be polite. Fortunately, I haven’t had one yet that is too painful to read. In that case, I probably email the person and tell them that I “won’t be able to review that book in a positive way at all, and would they prefer that I just refrain?”
Is that being “too nice”?
I’m not a writer myself, but I’m closely associated with one (besides you, Jami :) I’d like to think that when my friend asks for reviews that other reviewers will be as courteous. (I feel I can’t review the book for ethical reasons. I’ve “recused myself” from the review:)
But it does bother me that some folks are faking it, or spending about 10 minutes per review,or paying others, or trashing others.
I did read about some people coming up with an algorithm to detect fake reviews:
http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/09/23/to-catch-a-sock-puppet.html

I know I’m rambling. I just hate to see all of my work, and Tanya’s, Rachel’s and Julie’s work so readily dismissed. Hmm.

I do think an abundance of fake reviews do hurt real authors. Fake reviews are probably fine for fake authors.
I DO try to think about the kind of person I’d LIKE to be when I’m living my life and facing decisions.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 9:43 am

Hi William,

Fantastic point! Fake reviews hurt the trust and clout of legitimate reviewers. Those who put in time and effort to read the book and write a thoughtful review end up on the same playing field as those who make stuff up or trash others for the fun of it. And that’s a shame.

As a reader, I seek out those thoughtful reviews among the list on the Amazon page, but if I don’t see one on the first page of reviews, I might assume that none has been done. Most readers won’t scroll through pages of reviews to find those extra helpful ones. Voting those helpful reviews up or marking them as “most helpful” is what those rating buttons are meant for. They’re not meant to bury the helpful reviews or create a skewed picture of the quality of a book (positive or negative).

Ooo, interesting link. Thanks for sharing! I’m not sure I believe an algorithm could detect all the different “flavors” of fake or sock puppet reviews out there, but it’s good to see that someone is trying to catch at least some of them. Thanks for another great comment!

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Jami's Tech Guy September 25, 2012 at 8:27 am

Great post Jami. With the upcoming election and the NFL debacle, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about trust.

What bothers me most about non-humorous fake reviews is that it’s indicative of the continuing undermining of trust in society. Nearly every institution in our society has lost the public’s trust. About the only institution in the US with a positive trust rating is the military. Sad. Especially considering how much trust we all need to put in each other to make it through the day.

I had hoped the new institutions (like crowd scored review sites) would utilize the “Wisdom of the Crowd” but most have fallen to the mob rule. *glares twice at Goodreads*

As to what we can do, the first thing is to not leave our own malicious fake reviews despite the occasional temptation. The next is to down vote any obviously fake reviews you see to lessen their impact. Third, press the various review sites asking them to make changes to how reviews are scored to lessen the impact of reviews from new and unproven reviewers.

I take a lot of what Konrath says with a boulder sized grain of salt. He’s already established and part of his brand and charm is being deliberately controversial and obnoxious. I’d bet he considers a malicious 1-star review to be a badge of honor. But a “drive-by review attack” from the bunker can do irreparable damage to the careers of newly published authors who have not yet had time to establish themselves.

If I had Hermione’s time-turner, I’d build a review site where the impact from a review was based upon the credibility of the reviewer and the reporting of bad reviews is transparent. *adds to project list*

-Jay
@jaytechdad

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 10:00 am

Hi TechGuy,

*cringes* Yes, I heard about the Monday Night Football referee issue last night. Ugly.

That’s a great point about how healthy societies are built on trust. We trust that the other cars will stop at a red light, we trust that our kids’ teachers won’t hurt them, and we trust that the waiter won’t make false charges on our credit card. Every time we get on an airplane, we trust that every manufacturer of every part, every inspection of the plane, and every pilot in the cockpit is legitimate. Corruption that allows for bribery to accept inferior parts or to look the other way for inspections or a “culture of niceness” that refrains from turning in a drunk all hurt our trust in flying at all. Society needs trust to function effectively.

Crowd sourcing definitely has its benefits, but some will always try to game the system. That’s the other side of human nature. Hopefully the technology will catch up to lessen the impact of those drawbacks. And hopefully, more people than not will realize that trustworthy reviews are more important in the long run than short-term personal gain. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover September 25, 2012 at 11:49 am

Truth and fairness are big principles with me. I looked at Konrath’s morality test, and I can honestly say I would not cut corners to get to the top. Integrity is one of those things that you, and usually you alone, know whether you have.

But these issues are why I generally get book recommendations from people I know–not Amazon or Goodreads reviews.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Hi Julie,

I also get book recommendations from those I know. But when I get notices of freebie books on Amazon, I usually check them out to support new and/or self-published authors. However, my limited time for reading means I don’t want to waste time with bad books–even if they’re free. That’s where I take reviews into account. :)

And I’m with you. When our name is our brand, we need to protect the integrity associated with our name. Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda September 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm

The term “fake reviews” confuses me. I read “fake review” and I immediately think it’s going to be a review where the reviewer quite obviously hasn’t read the book. And those are actually fairly easy to spot (just check to see if it mentions anything specific from the book in question, or does it only talk in generalities that can be culled from book blurbs and excerpts?). But from your post, I’m inclined to think it’s something different? Maybe I ought to re-read the post when paint fumes aren’t clouding my brain :) (They just painted the wall next to my cubicle and the smell hasn’t gone away.)

I remember there was a big to-do recently about bullying on a popular book site. I never noticed it, but I think that’s because personally, I rarely read reviews. I read book blurbs. If the blurb sounds intriguing, I’ll read the book. If it doesn’t hook me, I won’t read the book. Simple as that :)

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Hi Amanda,

Great question! Yes, “fake reviews” can encompass many different things. Some are obviously humorous (like what Joe Konrath wrote), but the ones I’m talking about here are either unhelpful or deceptive to the readers in some way.

Some are reviews where the person didn’t really read the book, some are generic because they’re just quid pro quo (with authors doing favors for each other), some are attacks on the author and don’t even talk about the book, some are written by the author themselves under a fake account, some are written by spouses or friends under fake accounts to hide the conflict of interest, some are written by people with grudges against the author, some are written under fake accounts to slam whomever the author sees as their competition, etc., etc. In other words, there’s no end to the ways that people make their reviews about them and not about helping the reader.

The generic ones are easy to spot because as you said, they don’t talk about anything specific in the book, and attacks are pretty obviously attacks. However, some of the other types cause problems either because a) they’re harder to spot, or b) they bury the useful reviews. Let me know if that doesn’t answer your question, and thanks for the opportunity to clarify that point!

Good point about book blurbs! That’s actually what I check first as well. I generally check book blurbs, then the reviews, and then the sample pages. Anything that really blows me away or turns me off at any of those steps can result in an immediate sale or closed tab before I finish the rest of the steps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy September 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm

The whole scandal that’s cropped up around fake reviews has made me really sad actually. When it comes to fiction, I’ve always been a sample chapter girl rather than looking at the reviews, but I depend heavily on reviews when it comes to buying a non-fiction book. (Fiction tends to be more subjective after all.)

From a writer’s perspective rather than a reader’s perspective, though, when something like this happens, it makes it more difficult for all of us. Not only will people soon begin not to trust reviews, but on a larger scale, it makes writers look bad. A lot of us already face enough opposition from those who don’t understand what we’re doing or why. The last thing we need is bad press making writers as a group look dishonest.

I know that a person’s individual character will always win out, and so I cling to the hope that people who know me will know that I try my best to live with integrity, but still, stigma is stigma, and once it starts, it takes on a life of its own. Just look at lawyers. People continue to make lawyer jokes regardless of the number of honest, ethical, generous, good-hearted lawyers in the world.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Hi Marcy,

Exactly. We don’t need writers–as a group–looking petty and egotistical either, and those are just some of the other impressions these behaviors create. Writers are already facing a lack of respect in regards to the pirate, all-content-wants-to-be-free movement, and we don’t need to deal with even less respect because of bad behavior. Thanks for the comment!

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angel September 25, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I find this topic pretty interesting. Like someone said above, it’s pretty easy to spot a fake bad review, almost as much as it is to spot a fake good review. Too little information vs. too much gushing. Something always is a little off.

I have a confession though. I tend to not read reviews for books that I am reading or plan to read. I’m admittedly influenced by information I read and also I don’t like spoilers.

I also generally do not like a book 100%. It’s just kind of my nature. I’m aware of this and try to rate books accordingly (by rounding up some.) The funny thing though, is one thing I do AFTER I read a book is then I go on Amazon or Goodreads to read reviews. I skip the five stars and go down to the one or two stars. That is where I look to see if I’m the only one who had problems. If the reviews point out things I had problems with then I can tell it’s a pretty real review. If it’s just hatery and filled with nonsense, then you can see it’s about other things.

I think I’m probably not the only one who has a system for handling reviews for books I want to read. Personally, one of my books on amazon has two trollish one-star reviews. They are from people who I know online who intentionally were making an effort to do my book sales harm, and you can tell immediately they haven’t read the book. Honestly, I find those reviews kind of funny and expect others can tell they are made out of spitefulness and not out of real thought.

If they can’t then that’s okay, I don’t know if I want those readers anyway.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Hi angel,

Ooo, I know what you mean about wanting to avoid spoilers. I’m a militant spoiler-avoider as well. :)

So you’re right that I often skim reviews to get the gist of their impression without picking up specific plot points. It helps that my to-be-read pile is so huge that by the time I get around to reading said book, I’d probably have forgotten any of those details anyway. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Crystal Lee September 25, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Jami,
I had a similar post on my blog on this same topic. It’s a moral dilemma that indied authors especially have to deal with. And what do we do when we see maybe other authors we are friends with doing this? It’s hard to feel like my books might suffer if I don’t like and tag swap with other authors and swap reviews, but I want to be honest and fair. In the beginning, I didn’t know any better and slipped some.

Now, I tell everybody, friends and family, I’d rather they didn’t review my books when they read them, even if they loved it. Not because I don’t want good reviews, but I want to make it on my own credibility. It means more when a stranger says they loved it because they don’t have an agenda. That happened to me today. I got my first review (I was excited it was a 5 star review) by a person I don’t really know in real life. The only conversation I had with her was when she emailed because she had a Nook and I only sold my book on Amazon with KDP. So I emailed her the book for free in a format she could read it in. She was excited to read it (it’s a genre she likes) and she truly enjoyed it. It was so great to have honest feedback for somebody in the audience it’s intended for.

I’m rambling now… but I wanted to say thank you for bringing this topic to light more. I really struggle with it at times; not because I’m tempted to give in, but because I have author friends that I’d love to see succeed but if they’re writing is lacking in skills or I think it’s not a good story, I simply can’t lie and give a fake review. And I read Joe’s post as well. I am meaner than he is–I wouldn’t give a 5 star review for my mom if I didn’t like it or if it wasn’t done well. I’d just try to help her improve it, and not put up a review at all. How would that look anyway if somebody figured out I was her daughter? I know I absolutely hate feeling tricked or dupped. I wouldn’t want do that to anybody. This is why I wish my family and friends would listen to me and not read my stuff when they don’t like romance books and then refrain from reviewing and blowing sunshine up my rear. I don’t need an ego stroke. It’s unnecessary. And this recently happened to me. A family member reviewed my book. They don’t like the genre I write in, and I knew this. Thankfully their review was honest though. Mostly I felt bad for them suffering through it when I’d rather they didn’t. Their time is valuable. I hate dragging through a book that I feel obligated to read. I never want to do that to others.

Okay, tripped off my soap box because it was real frothy, slippery and soapy, and skinned my knees. At least they’re disinfected though, right?

Thanks again for bringing this topic up. It’s important.

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Jami Gold September 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Hi Crystal,

Yes, if we “like” only books we genuinely like, does that mean we won’t be supported as well when it’s our turn? Or would our stinginess translate into our positive reviews meaning more and being more appreciated? That’s not something I can predict. :)

Thanks for letting me know about your post on the moral dilemma of marketing. I’m linking to it here because I think it’s good to expand this conversation and to see how others handle situations.

And I agree completely with you about not needing an ego stroke. This is why I secretly love it when my beta readers rip my work to shreds. :) I’d rather have honest than fake sunshine any day.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment! *hands you a smiley face bandage* LOL!

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Fiona Ingram September 26, 2012 at 3:30 am

I was horrified to discover the extent of the Fake Review Scam and one wonders how ethics and a sense of truth and dignity managed to disappear from the world of writing. Bad reviews: I read a dreadful review of a book series I enjoyed (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency). It did not put me off reading more from this writer, Alexander McCall Smith. I already knew he could produce a great book. The bad review was just someone’s opinion. I think this scam has shaken up the industry and made writers examine their consciences – always a good thing. I think reviewers will also be keen to demonstrate their bona fides and that should make for clarity all round. On the lighter side, please read reviews for How to Avoid Huge Ships, where most of the reviews are fake (readers disguising themselves as various sizes of sailing vessels) and even the one-star comments are funny.
http://www.amazon.com/Avoid-Huge-Ships-John-Trimmer/dp/0870334336/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1348654757&sr=1-1&keywords=How+to+avoid+large+ships

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 8:33 am

Hi Fiona,

Yes, dignity is a great word to bring to the discussion as well. We genre-folk joke about how literary fiction can be hoity-toity, but the reality is that we often do see the pursuit of writing as being something akin to a “higher calling” (compared to other jobs), even if that higher calling is just the nagging of our muse that we can’t ignore. Lying and fraud for the purposes of sales brings writing down to a crasser level. I know perfectly well that writing and publishing is a business and that money drives the industry, but I can still choose to not be crass about it. :)

Oh yes, I’ve seen some of those fake reviews! That type of humorous review is almost like a meme–which gives the product more attention than it would have had otherwise. Is that a point in the “not all fake reviews are bad” column? ;) Good point and thanks for the comment!

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Janet Johnson September 26, 2012 at 7:26 am

You bring up a lot of great points. I agree with you that just because this stuff exists, doesn’t mean we should accept it. Like Julie Glover said above, integrity is far more important than getting to the top. That said, this is all part of why I don’t go to review sites for recommendations. I use trusted friends. :)

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 8:36 am

Hi Janet,

Yes, I do that as well, but I’m still a sucker for a freebie. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson September 26, 2012 at 9:19 am

I wrote a post on my distaste of this practice. Even had a best selling author respond in support of the practice. But in the end, it seems that reviews are only really important to the author & that most readers give very little credence to reviews & rarely buy according to such reviews. Funny how that works.

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 10:21 am

Hi Nancy,

Holy cow! I just read your post about this and I can’t believe that one author had the nerve to basically say: Yeah, so if no one is reading the reviews anyway that makes my cheating a non-issue. *boggles*

I’m with you–it’s because of questionable practices like this that people don’t trust reviews. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil September 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

Wow, I’m probably even more Pollyanna-ish than you. I had no idea this problem existed. My opinion is this: I don’t think fake ANYTHING is good. Thanks so much for enlightening me.

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

Hi Julie,

LOL! Why do fake body parts come to mind with this issue now? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins September 26, 2012 at 11:18 am

From my experience, I can only say this-

I’ve never written many reviews because I’m not comfortable being a “critic” however amateurish or professionally you wish to define it.

But in the few I do write here and there, if I loved the book, I say so, and for a book I didn’t love, but also didn’t hate, I usually just keep it to myself, or tell someone I trust to keep it private.

What gets me the most angry about this whole thing is the actions of a few jerks makes it that much harder for people of integrity to be heard.

I only started doing reviews on Amazon of books I’d read, and for what its worth, I can promise if I give a book 5 stars, or whatever rating system means I liked/loved, it DESERVES it, in my humble opinion.

I know Crystal’s dilemma well. I have a writer friend who’s really been there for me. It still honors and humbly surprises me she likes the books I write when what she writes is vastly different.

She’s making her mark in paranormal, something I personally have gotten tired of as a reader, and prefer not to write in that Russian Roulette of a genre right now.

I can’t comment on the quality of her book right now as it’s not out until next year, and she hasn’t shared it with me in a beta-reader type situation, and that’s partly because I struggle with critiquing others (While some writers think it easier to review writing that’s not theirs, I don’t…), but also because unlike much of the world, I’m kind of burnt out of the paranormal thing.

But there are ways we can support our close writer friends without compromising our integrity if what they’re writing is something we don’t want to read.

We can spread the word with other writers we know who write and/or read what in that person’s genre, and they can give the relevant and honest review we may not be able to.

I’ve done that a couple times and worked out okay for all involved.

Also, as a friend of mine keeps trying to remind me, things can change over time. I may not love paranormal now, but I might later, and than I can give my writer friend’s paranormal book a fair review without bias or (hidden) prejudice.

That’s already happened to me (As a reader) in regards to memoir.

As much as I don’t want to write a memoir (Despite some writer friends strongly suggesting me to) I did read my first one this year, or rather, I’m still reading it because for me at least, the more emotionally draining a book is, the slower I read it, otherwise I give myself nightmares and have panic attacks at the most inopportune times.

The memoir craze may have died down from what it was a few years back, but that’s how long it took before I was ready to READ them now, never mind write them.

I try to remember that we all come to books in different ways and different reasons, and that also plays a part in this.

I agree we can put too much stock in reviews in general, but I think we have to remember that writers at different stages need different things.

As far as how reviews effect me, I don’t rely on them as my absolute deciding factor in genres I write, but they can be helpful to me at times.

It’s rare, but occasionally some reviews have gotten me to read books I’d otherwise not touch, and loved them, that’s how I came to books like The Thirteenth Tale or The Elegance of The Hedgehog, which those who know me would be surprised I even finished, let alone liked.

I have trouble with books that tug too hard on dark subjects and extremely snarky narrators, but these books gave me a Linus-style security blanket of sorts to hold onto. For The Thirteenth Tale, it was the stellar prose and love of books that kept me from being too despondent as the plot took its many dark turns.

For Elegance of the Hedgehog, the characterization and the willingness on my part to not let the somber attitudes of the dual narrators of this story blind me to the frustratingly honest yet real aspects to human nature. But unlike The Thirteenth Tale, this is NOT a book I can go back to over and over, but I still recognize the merit in it.

Jami, I get what you mean about always wanting the truth from you beta-readers, but I do think there’s a difference between honesty and subjectivity disguised as honesty, and I think that’s where some of the misconceptions about reviews in general come from.

I don’t want false praise anymore than you or Crystal do. But when we start confusing objectivity with subjectivity, that’s how things get ugly, whatever the reason. I’ve sadly been there, and lost me a lot of trust and support of writers I knew, though in my case it had nothing to do with reviews, fake or otherwise.

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 11:58 am

Hi Tauren,

Yes, good point! For most books, I don’t love them or hate them either, so that’s probably the biggest reason I don’t write many reviews. I just don’t feel strongly enough about them to spend the time on a review. The few reviews I’ve done have been genuine, and I’ve revealed if I know the author because I don’t want to mislead anyone.

“[T]here are ways we can support our close writer friends without compromising our integrity if what they’re writing is something we don’t want to read. We can spread the word with other writers we know who write and/or read what in that person’s genre, and they can give the relevant and honest review we may not be able to.”

Fantastic point! Yes, we can support our writer friends in ways that don’t compromise our integrity. I’ve tweeted links about book releases of my friends because even if I have no intention of reading it (not my genre or whatever), the book might be just what one of my followers has been in the mood for. I’ve also spread the word about books and authors to family and friends in real life if I know something is up their alley.

I understand what you mean about honesty vs. subjectivity disguised as honesty. Before I return my beta reading comments, I try to reword my thoughts as suggestions or opinions–pointing out that it is very subjective. If I state a rule or absolute, I often try to include a link as a reference, etc. I’m sure some people still get upset by the comments I make, but I try to avoid that. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins September 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Holy cow! I’d heard about fake reviews and a bit about authors paying for reviews, but I hadn’t had the chance to dive into yet. *adds this to ever-growing to-do list* Thank you for always informing us of what’s going on in the publishing world, Jami! (PS: I’m a bit of a Pollyanna too :) )

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Jami Gold September 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Hi Melinda,

Honestly, other than being aware of the tactics (so we can watch out for those fake reviews and not be swayed) and knowing where we fall on the ethical issues, I’m not sure if we need to spend more time pouring over the details of this black eye on publishing integrity. :) Some like checking out the scene of an accident though, so I provide the links to more information. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa October 2, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Hi Jami,

I really like your post about fake reviews. One thing I thought about was those pulled to publish fanfiction stories how they use the readers of the fanfic to post 5 star reviews on Amazon for those fanfics? Doesn’t it feel like they cheated the buyers?

Thank you for letting me comment on your blog

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Jami Gold October 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Hi Vanessa,

I guess that depends on the definition of cheating. :) Were they reviewing the actual book? Yes. Were they reviewing a book they got for free (because it was fanfic when they read it), might have had a hand in developing (by being beta readers), and have a personal connection to the author (some level of friendship, even if just one-way)? Yes.

When I know an author, I reveal that in my review because I want to be upfront about those connections. So if these readers didn’t reveal their connections to the author or the fanfic version of the story, then they’re withholding information from readers who might weigh the review differently if they knew of the potential for bias.

So those reviews could certainly be misleading, depending on how upfront they were with the background information. Some would call that cheating and some wouldn’t. Personally, I say just reveal the connection and then it’s not an issue. :) Thanks for the comment!

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b October 19, 2012 at 9:04 am

I never trust someone who leaves a 5 star review. I just don’t. I’ve gotten to the point on Goodreads and Amazon where I discount 1 and 5 start reviews. I just don’t read them because for the most part they are skewed by the author’s haters or their friends. 5 or 1 star reviews should be sloughed off. I tend to go straight for the 2 and 3 star reviews where people are honest—at least for the most part. They tend to say what they liked about the book and what they didn’t. It then gives me something to think about to make up my own mind.

As for the 4 star review? I’m finding them questionable these days as well. The author’s friends have caught on to the 5 star curse so they leave 4 stars reviews to make the review seem more plausible. However you can still feel the weight of their personal association with the author, which is why I’m starting not to trust 4 star reviews either.

It’s such a shame, because when you do find that rare gem of a book where a 5 star review is deserved, it will never be considered an honest 5 star review.

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Jami Gold October 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Hi b,

Exactly. All this has created an environment where the real ratings aren’t trust, and that’s a true shame. Thanks for the comment!

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james April 10, 2013 at 8:52 am

The problem is, Amazon is removing perfectly legitimate 5-star reviews that it has judged to be fraudulent (without any sort of trial or evidence) and allowing clearly fraudulent 1-star reviews (from competitors, malicious genre haters, etc.) to remain. 1-star reviews do hurt sales because they lower an author’s overall rating. Lower sales create a downhill cycle of diminishing returns.

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Jami Gold April 10, 2013 at 9:01 am

Hi James,

I agree–Amazon’s uneven enforcement isn’t helping the issue. I worry about what their recent acquisition of Goodreads will bode for those reviews. Thanks for the comment!

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Armando June 20, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Hi. I know its been months since this piece was published, but nevertheless I wanted to offer my two cents on the matter.

Sure, I peruse Amazon and Goodreads reviews to see if a book (novel, guide, etc) its worth my time and money. But I soon noticed that 5-star and 1-star reviews tended not to be trustworthy. What I do then is read the reviews that stand in middle ground (2, 3 and 4) wich I believe are more of an honest and objetive nature than the ones that stand on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

In my humble opinion, to know if a review is wortwhile it must point out the good, the bad and the not-so-good-yet-still-not-bad of the object in question. Why? Because, then I believe the person that wrote the review put some thought into it, actually read the thing and is trying to remain impartial for the purposes of letting the public (instead of telling them what to do) to decide wether or not buy the book.

Sure, 5 star reviews MAY be honest, but maybe they are not. Same with the 1 star reviews. Its sad, though, that not everybody follows some sort of approach when reading reviews. I for one go looking for different reviews before deciding, perusing google and other websites. And then I COULD still be tricked into buying something bad or not buying something good. But then I would be vocal (not actually posting my opinion in a blog or similar, yet) and let other people know if I found the book worthwhile, having read it myself.

Honestly, its saddens me that some people use Amazon and Goodreads to inflate the importance of a work or to sabotage it. Nevertheless I am offering my take on the matter in the hopes that someone finds it useful.

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Jami Gold June 20, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Hi Armando,

All comments show up equally to me, no matter how old the post, so no worries. :)

I’m with you in that I often check the middle-of-the-road reviews. Rather than blanket statements of “I loved it” or “I hated it,” those 2-4 star reviews generally have insights of “I liked this, but I didn’t like that,” which I find far more helpful.

I love what you said about reviews being for the purpose of letting the public decide whether or not to buy the book. Yes, that’s so much more useful than gushing or hating on a book. And while I understand the entertainment factor of some reviews (such as the How to Avoid Big Ships one on Amazon or the gif reviews on Goodreads), those really aren’t useful. Thanks for the comment!

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