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September 25, 2012

How Fake Reviews Hurt Everyone

Close up of fake fruit and text: "Reviews: Are They Real or Fake?"

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 on "How Fake Reviews Hurt Everyone"

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Paul Anthony Shortt

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.

Jessica Schley
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… Read more »
William
William
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… Read more »
Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)
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… Read more »
Julie Glover

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.

Amanda

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 🙂

Marcy Kennedy

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.

angel
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… Read more »
Crystal Lee
Crystal Lee
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… Read more »
Fiona Ingram

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

Janet Johnson

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. 🙂

Nancy S. Thompson

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.

Julie Musil

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.

Taurean Watkins
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… Read more »
Melinda Collins

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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[…] Gold has words of wisdom, as always: How Fake Reviews Hurt Everyone. She later tweeted a link to a blog post by Holly Lisle and how it hurt […]

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[…] How Fake Reviews Hurt Everyone by Jami Gold. And yes, recent events and Konrath are in Jami’s post – highly recommended read. […]

Vanessa
Vanessa

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

b
b

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.

james
james

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.

Armando
Armando
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… Read more »
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