Paid Book Reviews?

by Steve Laube

You may have read or heard of the NY Times article where an author admitted to using a now-defunct service that wrote positive online reviews for a fee. Unfortunately I was not surprised. There have been many attempts to game the system over the years.

One man bought thousands of his books in various locations to launch it onto the NY Times bestseller list (Read a report about it here). And here is a link to a recent article which helps authors strategize how to get on the Amazon.com bestseller list. I remember back when I ran a bookstore a well-known author refused to let our store run an event’s booktable because we did not report our sales to the New York Times.

Having a system to create fake reviews only reduces our confidence in the reviews we read online. In fact there are laws in place now whereby a reviewer must reveal whether or not they got the book for free in exchange for a review. (Here is the Federal Trade Commission guide concerning the “Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.“) Booksneeze.com is a great source for bloggers to get books in exchange for honest reviews.

I know a voracious reader who will not buy a new book unless there are 20 or more 4/5 star reviews on Amazon.com. She says that is a reasonable threshold.

There are times where I have scanned an author’s reviews and recognize a dozen of the reviewers. They are other writers within that author’s circle of friends. I’ve also noticed occasions where every reviewer is from the same town or have the same last name as the author. The purpose of an objective evaluation seems to have been defeated.

Last year I wrote a piece on “Curation” as one positive function of the traditional publishing model (letting the publisher decide what should be published and what shouldn’t). I’ve been criticized for that saying that the market is smart enough to provide its own curation or make its own choices. Point taken. But if part of the “objective” nature of the marketplace includes reviews, what happens if those reviews are fake? The whole system begins to break down.

So what do we do?
Are reviews that important?
What if your book is reviewed negatively by one person but received accolades from everyone else?
Do we stop asking friends to help with reviews?
Do we just “hope for the best”?
If others are gaming the system, why can’t you?

13 Responses to Paid Book Reviews?

  1. Avatar
    Robin Patchen September 3, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Great post and great questions.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask friends to write reviews. My first book comes out this December, and I intend to ask for reviews. I may even qualify it with a simple, “If you like it…” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. At least I hope there isn’t. 🙂

    Long before I was writing, I heard that sometimes publishers or authors would buy thousands of their own books to propel them to the bestseller lists. At least with Amazon tracking such things, that’s not possible anymore (at least not through Amazon.) So this kind of cheating the system dates back further than e-books.

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    Emily Rachelle September 3, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    As a reader, I like to read the most critical review I can find before buying. It usually boosts my opinion, actually.

    As a writer, I have no books out yet, but I plan to self-pub on Amazon sometime in the future. I plan to ask friends to review the book, but not family, because I know from experience my friends will be honest but my family’s too biased. I also plan to ask several bloggers I know to review the book, because they too can be trusted to give their honest opinion.

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    Nancy B. Kennedy September 3, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Another way to spot a suspect review, at least on Amazon, is to click on “See all my reviews.” If a reviewer has just one review to his or her name, you can bet it’s a friend or relative of the writer. You can also push bad reviews down on Amazon by clicking the “not helpful” button of the reviews you don’t like, and clicking the helpful button on those you want to move up on the page. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) This tactic can be abused, though, as can any system, and you have to resist the temptation to click from motives other than honesty and helpfulness. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and accept the negative review. I just consider reviews as a form of editorial direction and consider whether there is anything I can learn from them and apply to my writing in the future.

  4. Avatar
    Iola September 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Steve says “I know a voracious reader who will not buy a new book unless there are 20 or more 4/5 star reviews on Amazon.com. She says that is a reasonable threshold.”

    Unfortunately, this reader is most likely to be gamed, as the fake reviews are almost certainly 4/5 star reviews. The best example of this is a book called The Hacker Hunter, which had almost 350 5-star reviews on Amazon, and a handful of 1-stars. A whole discussion started up, voting the 5-star reviews as unhelpful and reporting them for abuse (as they were all two-line reviews from new reviewers). Amazon investigated and deleted almost all the 5-star reviews – we think they were all from the same IP address (indicating they were all from the same person – the author).

    My personal view is not to pay for a book from an unknown author unless it has at least one 1/2 star review – because those are more likely to be reviews from real readers, and will tell me what is wrong with the book.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish September 4, 2012 at 4:26 am #

      I think it is the fact that readers put a threshold on how many reviews a book should have that encourages authors to “game” the system. There are a lot of good books out there that have very few, if any reviews.

    • Avatar
      Peter DeHaan September 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

      Iola, this is a great idea.

      However, I write reviews for the fun of it and if I don’t like a book, I don’t bother to review it. That means my reviews are always three or better.

  5. Avatar
    Connie Almony September 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    I must admit I’ve been leery of reviews for a number of years now for many of the reasons you site above. I’ve even seen word for word duplicates on a given book, but from a different town. Between that and the fact that my taste and the reviewer’s may be very different, I am less likely to rely on the number of stars alone. If I use a review at all, it will be based on the content of that review. Does the reviewer value what I value in an author or story? Do they mention comparisons to novels I like? Do they seem enthusiastic about the characters or are they just typing in “Great Book?” And still, now that I buy books mostly on Kindle, I evaluate the book based on whether the back cover speaks of a story that interests me, and a first chapter that reads in a way that engages me. The review is only a small part of what causes me to buy a book.

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    Lisa Marie September 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Good questions, Mr. Laube. What can we do? The genie has been let out of the bottle. Paid book review sites probably won’t go anywhere anytime soon, and the revelation that a Kindle Millionaire like John Locke has used one is added incentive for scurrilous self-published writers to game the system in the same way. I suspect that they will, too.

    That is, until/unless Amazon acts hastily to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.

    I am quite saddened that this “news” is just reaching the forefront; as a freelance writer of five + years, I knew of this practice (and others similar to it) and assumed that everyone else did, including the press. I’ve never written paid reviews, but for a lot of hungry freelancers, this put food on the table.

    The ghostwriting industry (for fiction) is exploding. In the future, I do hope that publishers — as well as agents — will really do their homework before offering to sign a successful self-published writer.

  7. Avatar
    Timothy Fish September 4, 2012 at 4:48 am #

    As I said elsewhere concerning this issue, paid reviews have been around for a long time. You mentioned BookSneeze, which is just another form of a paid review. And while Thomas Nelson doesn’t require members to write a favorable review, the system is set up in such a way that the books will tend to get favorable reviews. Where do we draw the line? How is that okay, but it isn’t okay for an author to pay a company for reviews? Or what about authors giving away signed copies of their books to people who will write about the book on their blog? How is that okay?

    There are plenty of things that go on in the publishing industry that give readers a false impression. The question is, are we willing to apply the same standard to the rest of the publishing industry that is being applied to this issue of paid reviews?

    • Avatar
      Nikole Hahn April 29, 2013 at 9:16 am #

      I review for booksneeze and it’s never obligated me to write a favorable review.

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    Dana McNeely September 8, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    When I read reviews, I look for what the reader liked or didn’t like about the book. More than the number of stars, that helps me understand if I’ll be intrigued by it or not. I look for good writing, memorable characters, and an unusual premise in the books I spend my time reading. Books that are un-put-downable.

  9. Avatar
    Nikole Hahn April 29, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    I feel the same way. I am a reader first and our budget is spaghetti-thin. So when I buy a book, that’s money I can’t spend on something else. It breaks my heart the way some writers treat readers like another way to make money even when that writers work is sub-par or they are, as Donald Maass said in his book, The Fire in Fiction, glory-seekers.

  10. Avatar
    John C June 16, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    As long as the reviewers are not required to post glowing reviews, paid book reviews are ok and I have used them in the past. Most authors are willing to give away a book in exchange for an honest reaction to their written work. There is rarely any review that is unsolicited at major review outfits. You either know someone or your publisher does to get you the review. This is something not available for indie authors and paid reviews is one way to get an honest feedback for their book.

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