Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fake reviews: A reflection

I'm sitting at the computer looking up random things on Amazon, idly searching for something new to add my TBR shelves. That's when I spy it: a rather cute sounding urban fantasy/chick lit read. It has excellent ratings and a lot of them. The reviews are so glowing that my mouse is almost halfway up the screen to add it to my checkout box or wish list before the little alarm bells start going off. I look a little further into all of those glowing reviews, only to discover that a good many of them are either by people who have only reviewed the author's stuff, have only reviewed this one book, or have a history of only reviewing indie books that looks sneakingly similar to a review swap. The mouse scrolls back down, the book's credibility now shattered. Maybe the author really is that good and I try to make a note of their name, but I know that I'll probably never check them out. The damage has already been done.

If you've been on Amazon then you know what type of scenario I'm describing. Over the last few years there's been an explosion of self-published authors that have hundreds upon hundreds of positive reviews that all sing the book's praises and call it "the best thing ever". But how many of these are really all that genuine? Exactly how many are from "real" readers and how many are from the author themselves, their friends/family members, or from authors trading positive reviews?

When I would initially find these types of books with hundreds of dubious reviews, I'd assume that they were real. After all, who has the time to painstakingly post that many reviews under different names? Then I discovered Robert Stanek, the infamous author who is fairly well known for his rampant sockpuppeting of his own books. There are people who are willing to post that many reviews in the hopes of getting bigger attention. So at that point I figured "Hey, I'll just look for the verified badge. That means that they're legit, right?" Not so much. In what was probably an attempt to curb sockpuppets and trolling, Amazon requires that you make a purchase before posting a review. You're just as likely to find a false reviewer with a verified badge on a product because hey, if you're going to have to buy something then why not your own product? It goes up in the ratings AND you get to post a review praising your work.

So how do you tell if they're real or not? Honestly... you can't. Seeing a reviewer that has only reviewed Jane Doe's work is pretty suspicious, but that's not a guarantee that this is just Jane reviewing for herself. It could be that the author I looked at earlier has a wide fanbase that just happens to only have reviewed their stuff. But then it could also be exactly the type of situation it appears to be.

The thing is, fake reviewing only gets you so far and gets you noticed so much. You might get up in the higher rankings, but if your book is mediocre then you can only go so far before the publishers shrug and move on and the potential readers start eyeing your book with suspicion. After all, if tons of positive reviews was all that it took to get a publishing contract then Stanek would be writing for all of the publishing houses out there. All I can hope is that eventually this trend of fake reviewing eventually dies out because sometimes it tends to backfire on the author because you get people like me, that assume that you're faking your own reviews and pass over your work to read the next author on Amazon.

Further reading:

*A description of the whole Robert Stanek thing


  1. But how many people are that critical?

    Once a writer clears the 20 review hurdle and gets into the "People who liked this" combine, then their page views skyrocket. And while some will be critical thinkers of a book they wander into, how many won't?

    The truth of it is that there are just SOOOO many books and no way to curate good "to read" lists. It used to be a matter of getting the shelf at a book store so someone would mention you, but now it's matter of getting mentioned on the right blog, or getting linked to the right books on Amazon. As long as we have online rankings we're going to have people gaming them.

  2. You'd be surprised how many people are getting pretty skeptical of sky-high rating amounts for self-published and indie books. I know it's a frequent topic of discussion for a lot of the review threads on Amazon as well as on Goodreads.

    1. I dunno...

      I believe that true book-ies will be like food-ies and will be discerning, and critical of all those high reviews, or even the piles of 4 star reviews from one review ponies.

      But, how many users of Amazon fit into that category? It's like having a good cover, and a good blurb. We all know that neither of those make a great reading experience, but for, I think, the majority of consumers those are the kinds of things that make or break an initial choice to buy/ read. And at the end of the day there's nothing to be done about it; it's all just marketing.

      Take that episode of Mad Men where they launched the campaign to sell Jaguar cars with a few oblique pictures of the car and the tag line "At last, something beautiful you can possess". They weren't selling a car, they were selling Ana Steel (or at least the Ana Steel that EL James thought she was writing about). A true car fan knew that you always buy two Jag's (one to drive and one for parts) but a lot of people... not so much.

      I'm also just starting the teaching year and unusually jaded...

  3. I know what you mean. There are ratings and reviews of my books from people who never even read my book. I'm like, "How can you rate and review a book you never read?"

    We may never know the answer to that. Oh, wait, yes i do, it's called bullying. (I think) LOL