Thursday, 3 March 2011

Reviews: the dark side

Just a short rant on the subject of reviews again. I was interested in a new book by a Scottish writer that has barely been out for a couple of days and I took a look to see how it was doing on Amazon, as one does when one should be writing.

It was performing pretty well for a debut novelist, which is encouraging for everyone. But I was surprised to see that barely a day after it was out it already had three reviews, all of them five stars, all of them raving about the book and the writer, and all of them written on the same day. The opening lines read:

A page turner from the very beginning.
It made me sit up right from the start.
I was gripped from the start.

The first was by someone who had only ever written a single review, which is always a bit suspicious, but it was the second and third that really got my hackles up. The second reviewer had written seven reviews. Every single one of them was five stars, with not a single flaw to be found in any of the books, and even more incredibly every single book had been published by the same Scottish publishing house. Lo and behold, the third reviewer had written thirteen five star reviews for books by the same publisher as reviewer two.

I think we get the picture. What really annoys me is that I suspect this is a very good novel, by someone who will be a very good author, but I'll never know because I'd never buy a book that seems to be being 'promoted' by something that's the publishing equivalent of a Nigerian inheritance scam. It demeans the writer and it demeans her work and most of all it demeans the people who log on to Amazon expecting to see an honest assessment of the product.

They're our readers and our customers and they deserve better.


Gregory House said...

Unfortunately Doug this style of review is becoming very common and I suppose it is the ‘publishers’ answer to inclusion of digital media in their promotions scheme. As such they wouldn’t see it as deceptive or damaging the quality of the author’s work or reputation. However the other significant fact that it immediately gives away is that the ‘publishing house’ is staffed by incompetents who haven’t got a clue. So in a challenging and changing world of electronic books and world wide access these are not the people I would trust with my work. If I was the author I would be asking serious questions about the ‘damaging publicity’ aspects of fraud.

Companion Wulf said...

Totally agree there! Unfortunately, I've seen this same practice - especially at Amazon - so many times. Some publishers do indulge in this kind of aggrandisement, not always to benefit the authors.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Caligula", by the way, and am waiting to read "Claudius" now too!

Doug said...

Thanks for that Wulf, I hope you enjoy Claudius too. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive, it just seems as if they're treating people like mugs

Guy Saville said...

Interesting blog, Doug, and since I’ve just been published and am getting my first reviews on Amazon a subject close to my heart.

Yes, I’ve always been deeply suspicious of books that have a string of 5-star reviews within 24 hours of publication – in fact so much so that although I encouraged people to review my book I told them to wait at least a week! Then as it happened, someone (who as far as I’m aware I don’t know) reviewed the book with nine hours of it coming out – and gave it the full five.

Something else I’m always dubious about are people who have written only one review – and it’s 5-star. But yet again, my own experience clouds the matter. As alluded to above I’ve done a lot of promotional work in getting people to review the book on Amazon, including making up hundreds of postcards to go into the books encouraging them to do so. It seems to be working – but the unforeseen side to this is that quite a few people are making the effort to write a review for the first time (which could potentially look inauthentic).

So far we’ve only spoke about puff reviews. I’ve also had a pointlessly malicious one too – someone who has posted multiple reviews (on Amazon and elsewhere) but a) did so within a few days of the book coming out b) did so in such a way it suggests they haven’t even read the book – ie it’s so general it could apply to any book. Interestingly, everything that makes initial 5-star reviews seem suspicious is true of the instant 1-star too. It appears very soon after publication and from someone with no (or in this case, just one recent) reviews.

I suppose the only true test is lots of reviews, over a lengthy period – that should cut out all the suspicion. A perfect example is your CALIGULA: 26 reviews over 2 ½ years. I think from that a reader can get an honest assessment. It would certainly be enough to make me buy it (if I hadn't already!).

Gabriele C. said...

I buy most books through because I can get a lot of English ones free of shipping, but I don't bother to read the reviews. There are review blogs and discussion forums that do a much better I wouldn't take the publisher's behaviour out on the author who can't do anything about it.

Mary Schneider said...

Hi Doug,

Here's a report about a respected historian who had to pay costs as the result of a libel case involving two fake reviews he wrote on Amazon:

Other authors and/or publishers might also be writing negative reviews about books from rival publishers.

Doug said...

It's definitely happening, Mary. I have a friend who checked out some really nasty reviews of his books and followed a trail via savagings of other authors and it eventually led him to a very successful author in the same genre. He's considering suing.

Andrea said...

A little harsh on the debut author, Doug! Personally, I'm not overly alarmed by bogus reviews - good or bad. Rather like airbrushing, I think people are savvy enough to read between the lines (or none lines) these days. has an interesting programme whereby review copies are supplied free to regular reviewers, thus you get a more honest evaluation of your book/s! Not always pretty! The same with websites such as Good Reads and Library Thing. Now, go on... give this new author a go... we all deserve the chance to make our dreams come true. Andrea xx

Crystal Mary said...

Hello, Australia calling.
The world is full of cheats..
I have written a book and given it in for consideration???
After going to a writers conferance and hearing all you have to do yourslf to promote your book, I have lost some interest. I was told that if your book was published and sold for say $20 then you would receive $2. So really how is it worth it?? You have to sell millions to do any good. Anyhow beyond that, I got a lot of joy out of writing it, so that was my reward.

Doug said...

You're probably right Andrea, the thing that annoyed me most was how blatant it was. Anything that gets you wound up is a good subject for a blog, though!

Mary, these days there are lots of great opportunities to publish your work for yourself as an e-book, you'll get more backing from a mainstream publisher, but it's proven that if an e-book is well-priced, properly edited and has a professional, eye catching cover, it will sell and make you money. It takes time, effort and a small investment, but it could be worth it. This blog gives you an idea how and what the potential is