Phony Book Reviews and How to Avoid Them
Guest Post by Irene Watson
Authors need book reviews to sell books, and readers like book reviews that help them make informed buying decisions about what books to read. However, many fake book reviews and reviewers are out there, and when authors hire people to write reviews, not knowing the reviewer will not actually read the book, or when readers buy books based on fake reviews, the result can be displeased readers who might then be angry enough to post their own negative reviews about the book.
Print publications continue to discontinue running book reviews and are even going out of business as more and more readers turn to the Internet to get their information. In the past, advertising in print publications covered the cost of book reviews, but today, authors generally have to pay for publicity packages to receive book reviews, or give a nominal fee to compensate the reviewer for his or her time.
The result is that people can make money off writing book reviews, and some so-called reviewers are doing so without actually reading the books. Why would anyone write a fake book review? Because it takes many hours to read a book, and the more book reviews you can write, the more money you can make, so why not just save time by not reading the books and instead just write the reviews and collect the payments so you can make more money. Trust me; this situation happens all the time.
Check out the top reviewers on Amazon.com—some of them review several books a day—do you really believe they are speed-readers? In fact, I did a cursory check for August 30, 2011 and the Amazon’s top reviewer (now called Hall of Fame Reviewers) had posted 77 book reviews for that day. I suspect though she was behind in writing them, since she had only posted about two dozen in the previous week. She must have been too busy reading all those books to write about them each day. But, wait, on January 3, 2012 she posted a total of 67 reviews. The previous postings were on December 31st, 2011. Do you really think a human is able to read 67 books in a matter of two days? (And spend the time writing reviews on Amazon.com as well as her own blog and posting on other sites?)
Other reviewers do not charge for reviews but they request multiple copies of books. Why do they need multiple copies when they don’t read those books? So they can resell them online and make more money while writing fake reviews.
But won’t people catch on to these fake reviews? Yes, most people should, but not everyone does. Most of these fake reviewers consist of the so-called reviewer copying and paraphrasing what’s on the back cover and then adding some flowery caveat like “This book is a must-read for its thrilling action” or “An enjoyable and moving love story you won’t want to miss” to make it look like the reviewer actually read the book. Of course, whether the book is thrilling or enjoyable or not, the reviewer has no idea—he may not even have cracked open the book.
So how can you as an author, who wants legitimate reviews, or as a reader wanting a good book to read, actually tell if a review is legitimate? Here are five simple guidelines for spotting fake book reviews:
- Ignore reviews written by authors, their friends, and family: I cringe whenever I see a five star review written by the author; usually it’s done under the guise of the author wanting to provide readers with more information about the book, but the place for that is in the product description. Any author who gives his own book five stars is clueless about the publishing industry and what is ethical, or he’s just tactless. Sometimes a legitimate review will be written by a colleague, such as “I have known Barbara for fifteen years and I know her business advice works because….” But I’ve also seen ones that say things like, “This book is a lot of fun because it describes the places the author and I used to hang out as kids when we were growing up.” That’s great but it’s not a reason why you should read the book.
- Be skeptical of totally positive reviews. Okay, don’t be totally skeptical, but beyond the “Best book ever” and “a wonderful, compelling story” comments, look for signs that the positive review is legitimate—discussions of the characters and plot that make it clear the book was read. After all, there are good books out there that deserve positive reviews. Don’t be satisfied with “This wonderful story” but look for explanations of why the story is wonderful.
- Be skeptical of totally negative reviews. Some reviewers and customers have axes to grind. I can’t tell you how many ridiculous reviews I have seen at Amazon.com where books are given one-star because “the book never arrived.” That’s Amazon’s fault, not the author or book’s fault. At other times, a person may just not like the author so he wants to slam the book, or he may not like the subject matter, saying something like, “Homosexuality is a sin and there’s a gay couple in this book so I gave it one star” or “The main character had an abortion. That’s wrong! One star.” You may even agree with the reviewers on these issues but are these reviews really fair? Do they take into account the book’s plot, characters, structure, style, originality, or themes to provide a thorough or accurate review?
- Watch out for plot summaries. A book review is not an elementary school book report. Yes, there are lots of readers out there posting book reviews who don’t know how to write well or how to write a book review, but there are also phony reviewers who simply copy the text off the back cover that summarizes the plot to write a review. A good review will mention a detail in the plot or even quote an effective passage from the book. It will also tell you not only what happens in the book but how the reader felt (was moved) by what happened.
- If a review looks like a fake, look to see what other books the person has reviewed. Are all the person’s reviews short and glowing? It’s possible this one review could just be a badly written, fake-looking one while other reviews look well-written and are legitimate. Has the reviewer posted more than one book review today, or been posting several every day? (Seriously, how many books can a person read in a week?) And don’t be afraid to google the reviewer to see whether you can find complaints about him or her online. When I googled Amazon’s top reviewer, I found quite a few articles dating back to 2003, complaining about how she is a fake. Unbelievable, yet all these years Amazon.com lets her get away with it!
What can you do about fake reviews?
Now that you know how to spot a fake review, and even that fake reviews exist, you may feel a bit outraged—I know I do. So what can you do about such reviews? Here are a few suggestions:
- If you are an author and you get a fake review, call the reviewer on it—especially if you paid for a review. But even if the person reviews the book by his own decision, without having contact with you, if the review is fake, you can request that Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever it was posted, have it removed. Decide whether the situation is worth getting into an argument with the phony reviewer. Will the review hurt your book’s credibility? If it is negative but shows evidence that the book was not read, it might. You might also feel called upon to fight the good fight for the rest of the authors out there who could suffer as a result of the reviewer’s behavior.
- If you are a reader, check to see verification of purchase, which is a fairly new feature at Amazon and I suspect will appear in the future at other online bookstores. If the person bought the book, it’s likely he or she read it. That said, remember that reviewers generally receive complimentary copies. However, to get around this situation, I know some authors have requested reviewers purchase their books at Amazon and then the author has compensated the reviewer for the price of the book so the verified purchase notification shows up on the review.
- If you are an author or a reader, often you can vote on whether the review was helpful or not, so go ahead and click that NO button. This form of voting helps determine the placement of the review as at the top or bottom of the reviews so it is more or less likely to be seen by others. And don’t forget to vote YES for the well-written positive reviews, or even the well-written legitimate negative reviews.
Fake reviews do not help anyone except for the con-reviewers (aka shysters and scoundrels) who write them. Even glowing fake reviews hurt authors and readers by getting people to buy books that turn out to be mediocre, which only then result in readers feeling misled and hurt and more likely to write their own negative reviews. Avoid phony reviewers and you will avoid a lot of frustration.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.