The Ugly Truth About Consumer Book Reviews: Part One

by Terri Giuliano Long

Love it or hate it, this is an exciting time in the publishing world. Technological advances have made the long, arduous process of publishing a book cheap, easy and fast—giving voice to millions of new authors and providing readers with a richer, more interesting selection of books.

That’s the good news. The challenge is, with so many new choices, how do readers determine which titles to pick?

With indie books, it can be especially hard. Only a handful of indie authors have been around long enough to have an identifiable “brand” (think James Patterson or Nora Roberts). To buy a book by an unfamiliar author, even if it costs only 99¢, readers must take a chance. This perception of risk is amplified by the stigma still associated with self-publishing. Complicating matters, traditional media rarely (if ever), review indie books, forcing readers to rely on consumer reviews—putting disproportionate authority into the hands of consumer reviewers.

Why is this bad? While the majority of consumer reviews are genuine and well-intended, anyone who has visited a review site like Trip Advisor or Yelp knows that they can also be unreliable and— sometimes—downright dishonest. Some reviewers will lower a restaurant’s rating because their server happened to be in a bad mood. Others fake their own glowing reviews or post reviews intended to damage a competitor’s reputation. One popular up-and-coming restaurant received caustic reviews on Yelp—posted, it turned out, by a restaurant owner down the street, infuriated because he thought the new guy was “stealing” his business.

With the industry in tumult, publishing has become a free-for-all, akin to the Wild West. Eventually, a new hierarchy will emerge and rules will be set in place. In the meantime, the rules are ambiguous and loosely enforced. In a highly competitive environment, uncertainty and lax regulation offer people plenty of incentive to game the system.

In his controversial book “The Day the Kindle Died“, which Amazon has since removed from their site, Thomas Hertog claimed that, by using a few simple tricks, he’d gotten his book onto Amazon’s bestseller list. [NOTE: While Amazon’s first reaction was to take down his book, they returned it to the shelf a few days later after pressure from media outlets about censorship. Hertog added: “the book is not a ‘how to’ game Amazon story.  It’s about my frustration as an author and what appears to be Amazon’s disregard for accurate information on their bestseller lists and in the recommendations that Amazon makes to other customers based upon purchase history.”]

In an article titled “Amazon Kindle’s Best Seller Ranking Is Bogus,” Nick Farrell writes: “Over five months all he [Hertog] had to do was buy and download his book to his Kindle 173 times. He has also written 42 customer reviews that he voted on a hundred and eight times to raise the ranking on Amazon’s bestseller list and recommendation lists.” Manipulation like this skews perceptions and muddies waters.

Equally disturbing are reviews posted solely to serve an agenda. As with any revolution, the rise of indie-publishing has upset the balance of power. Some people find this troubling. In one unsettling case, an indie book received a 1-star rating on Goodreads—a week before the book was published. The “reviewer,” it turned out, had rated hundreds of books, according every indie title—and only indie titles—a single star. Blanket reviews violate Goodreads’ Terms of Service policy. After the author complained, Goodreads, to its credit, removed the review.

Readers have every right to express negative feelings about a book. Sincere reviews, positive and negative, ought to be encouraged—and honored. But disingenuous reviews hurt everyone. Host sites exacerbate the problem by allowing anonymous posts and encouraging the use of pen names, providing a safe haven for their reviewers. This blanket of anonymity engenders discussion, which is good. But anonymity combined with lenient rules rewards dishonesty. Essentially, an author can stack his reviews. Similarly, a disgruntled reader, an envious competitor, or a staunch protector of the old guard can post a scathing 1-star review, even if false—without being held accountable.

Part of the reason the hinky review practice flourishes is because social media sites and online retailers operate under a business model that relies on traffic. If moderators aggressively scrutinized or censored reviews, they’d risk alienating people, reducing the very traffic that keeps the sites in business. Many sites do post and uphold Terms of Service policies but typically, only egregious violations—e.g.: reviews that veer off-topic, contain foul language or attack an author directly—are removed. Unless site users complain, these policies are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Retailer sites have different issues. Reviewers can post a review, and then return a day or two later and post the same review again. On Amazon, when customers open a new account, they’re required to make a purchase and then wait two days before posting a review. This limits the reviews to the number of credit cards the reviewer holds, and cuts down on fraud. Some sites don’t bother to set limits and do minimal monitoring; on those sites, anything goes.

Realizing that consumer reviews, whatever the product or service, are often unreliable, savvy readers play them down or ignore them. Jenn, a book blogger also known as The Picky Girl, says, “I don’t rely on recommendations from those types of sources because often the person just says something trivial or doesn’t give a lot of information.”

Assessing Consumer Reviews

So how can you tell if the reviews you’re reading are reliable?

Be judicious. View overly enthusiastic as well as excessively negative reviews with a skeptical eye. If a book has 30 stellar 5-star reviews, and not one lower rating, chances are good that the author rallied a team of fervent cheerleaders. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice. If friends enjoy an author’s book, why shouldn’t they be allowed to post a review? Nor does it suggest that those reviews are deceitful or fake. It may mean the book has not yet been widely read outside a close circle of family and friends.

Exceedingly cruel remarks—“a waste of time,” or “my eight-year-old could have written a better book”—or snarky comments questioning the legitimacy of awards, the integrity of the other reviewers or the authenticity of positive ratings, are sometimes motivated by an agenda. For a quick read on credibility, click the button to view the reviewer’s profile. Does she favor a particular genre? Are your tastes similar? Do you agree with her other ratings? These answers, along with the total number of reviews—does she post regularly or is this her only review?—the length of time she’s been a reviewer—three days or three years?—and the percentage of helpful votes tell a compelling story.

Books should have a mix of positive and negative reviews. Remember: most reviews are based on opinion and—if you haven’t noticed—people usually have different tastes. Notoriously bad, roundly panned books attract avid readers, while even a masterpiece like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, has garnered a smattering of negative reviews. Naomi Blackburn, founder of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, a 300+ member Goodreads group, says, “Although it might sting, they [authors] want those [negative] reviews. I am leery of books that have nothing but glowing reviews.”

Vague, unsubstantiated claims—”the worst (or best) book I’ve ever read”—are rarely helpful, because they don’t give the reader enough to go on. Look, instead, for thoughtful analysis backed by supporting detail. Lori Hettler, the “indie lovin’ mastermind” behind “The Next Best Book Blog,” says quality reviews “describe the writing style, plot lines, and characterization and back up the positive or negative comments with specific examples.”

“While a reviewer’s opinion is important,” says Jennifer, creator of the blog “Books, Personally,” “it is important that a review give some useful information about both the story and the writing style, so a reader can decide for him or herself.”

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Terri Giuliano Long is the author of the award-winning novel In Leah’s Wake. Her life outside of books is devoted to her family. In her free time, she enjoys walking, traveling, and listening to music. True to her Italian-American heritage, she’s an enthusiastic cook. In an alternate reality, she might be an international food writer. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. In Leah’s Wake is her debut novel.

  • Great post, Terri! Reviews are so crucial to indies because they tell readers if we’re any good or not, but they’re also easy to game unless they’re from a publication or book blogger. You’ve heard me say it before, but the key to indie publishing long-term is some sort of book blogging/reviewing site that helps readers sort through books and gives them opinions they can trust.

  • I think your article is brilliant. As an author, I receive so many requests to both rate books and post positive reviews for books I haven’t even read and don’t intend to read. I ignore them all. I know of authors who buy their own books, provide them to readers and pay the readers to post positive reviews. This skews the sales rankings in such an unfair artificial way, hurting legitimate authors, indie and otherwise, who write excellent books.
    I’ve uploaded some of the top ranked Amazon Indie sellers to my Kindle and found them to be so poorly written I couldn’t even get past the first few pages – yet the books might have an enormous number of 4 and 5 star reviews. What on earth am I to think about this? Am I to assume the reading public is stupid? Or has an author’s posse pushed the book up in the rankings? It’s very annoying.
    I most often find well-written negative reviews far more helpful in deciding what to buy than what I call a rah-rah yay-yay 5 star review.

    • You make excellent points, Julia. I agree with you–a balanced review with points supported by specific detail is the most helpful. Thanks so much for your insights.

  • Hi Terri, I found this post via Molly Greene’s website. I think there will always be individuals that will figure out how to game the system. The best way to avoid them is to follow some of the advice you outline regarding reviews. But I think you should not rely on reviews only. One should also visit the author’s website, sample some of the author’s free documents, and check out the author’s social media sites. All these will give you a “feeling” of whether the author is playing games with his/her readers.

    • Those are terrific suggestions, Phantomimic! You are absolutely right. An author’s other writings reveal a lot about his or her philosophies, sensibilities, and writing style. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • This is a great article, and one that I believe has been sorely needed for quite some time now. Thank you, Terri, for being brave enough to post it for us and to point out a very real problem that has been developing in the indie author community.

    Julia, I loved your reference to “rah-rah yay-yay 5 star reviews.” That is the perfect term for them!

    Emlyn

    • Thank you so much, Emlyn. I’m grateful to Amy Edelman and IndieReader for giving me their support and this opportunity to open the discussion.

      • Amy Edelman

        And we thank YOU for writing the wonderful post!

  • Thank you so much, Jennie. I could not agree more. We’re beginning to see that with informative, professional sites like IndieReader and talented book bloggers like Lori, Jenn, and Jennifer, mentioned in this article, and others. They are a tremendous asset to the industry.

  • Sherry Gloag

    Thanks for a very informative post.

  • Thank you for this, Terri. It really gave me that little boost I needed. You see, I recently got involved in reviewing books when Emlyn asked me to review FARSIGHTED. I’m glad I loved it and could give it a glowing review. But what would have happened if I had hated it? I don’t think I could have lied and given it a good review…and therein is, well was, my dilemma. Before I purchase a book I read every review – the good, the bad and the ugly…and it irks me when I pay for something that is nothing like the reviews…I also hate a review that gives the ending away, but I digress. I take reviewing a book rather seriously. Thanks to you, Terri, I now know that I can be honest without being hurtful.

    PS It also helps that Emlyn picks good books to review for NPs blog tours. I’m really getting the knack of reviewing and truly do enjoy it…especially now that the pressure’s off a bit! 😉

    PSS I just started IN LEAH’s WAKE last night…I look forward to reviewing it…I hope I can do it justice.

    • Thank you so much for your comments and kind words, Kevin! Thoughtful reviewers provide a valuable service and really do make a difference. I’m glad you’re enjoying the process!

  • Wow…talk about hitting a nail on the head! Nice article Terri, and spot on. I’ve been reading to help me with my writing so I don’t pay attention to reviews because I look at each book to read as “research”, and whether it’s good or bad I’ll learn something. I am constantly amazed when I reach the end of a particularly dull or otherwise crappy book and read so many glowing reviews about it. Brilliant? Must read? Best book there’s ever been?? What??? One I had to quit reading after about a third of the way – I just couldn’t plod through it. At least they are tax deductible or, better yet, library loans.

    When a book is bad (in my opinion), I tend to look at the existing negative reviews and see if there’s really anything I can add. The book may have been a disappointment and waste of money, but as a writer I still understand the amount of work that went into it. Unless the book was literally thrown together, I don’t feel compelled to tear it apart.

    On the other hand, when a book stands out in a good way I’ll let the author know. It’s a great feeling when someone else’s work inspires me with enough positive energy to write a review!

    Anyway, thanks for the article!

    • Thank you so much, Richard! I appreciate your kind words. Like you, I read for both enjoyment and instruction. While certainly no one should feel compelled to write positive reviews, I do feel that positive energy–thoughtfulness and consideration for others–creates a better community for everyone, readers and writers.

  • Good article. I’ve actually gone straight to the source at Goodreads and complained over their review process. Goodreads carries a lot of clout with chronic readers, but their process for rating and reviews stinks. I know authors in a certain genres who have been bullied by disgruntled readers posting one-star ratings on all of an author’s books to bring down the rating, without leaving one word as to why. One person had rated over 2,000 books in a matter of one week! Ridiculous. Other users target self-published authors and pop them with one stars while giving traditional published authors five in the same genre – no reason why.

    I told Goodreads the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Users are able to post questions for individuals to answer before they accept friend requests. Why can’t an author have that ability to post three questions about the interior of their book before someone can post a review or rating? Makes sense to me. Weeds the abusers out of the mix. At least on Amazon, it’s a verified reader purchase, though some will post reviews there if purchasing the product elsewhere.

    As far as professional reviews, I’d like to say I’m for them. However, my first book was reviewed by two professional romance sites. After I read each of them, I shook my head wondering if they read the same book. Every point was an exact opposite of the other. So who is right? What review do you trust? It’s a broken system, as far as I’m concerned, at every end.

  • Thank you so much for your comments, Vicki. I’m glad you liked the post. I agree with you – the system needs to be fixed. Currently, the sites are the real winners: allowing people to post comments and reviews under the shield of anonymity drives traffic. I read recently that newspapers, in an effort to lessen the hostility and flaming on discussion boards, are considering (or moving to) a two-tiered system with anonymous comments in one section and those who post under real names – verified real names linked to an account, as opposed to”real” pen names – in another. A similar system for consumer reviews would, in my view, go along way toward solving the problems you describe.

  • Great story…however with the Amazon posting, a commentor is only required to make a single purchase and that allows them to post anytime thereafter. I know this because I went about trying to publicize my book the incorrect way by integrating the particulars of my book into the reviewer’s comments..which I might add the forum didn’t like very much. The story makes some excellent points and it is a travesty that these things can ocurr but until some rules are enforced what is the alternative?

  • Thank you for this article. I believe readers do sift through the cheerleading and bashing reviews on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My sales tell me they do. However, I agree with Vicki’s idea for Goodreads. Too often I’ve seen indies suffer from a strain of pettiness that exists there. Unfortunately for Goodreads, that diminishes its credibility and in time, will lead to it being abandoned.

  • I have also noticed this on Amazon while searching for new authors and books and it is sad. In fact there are times when i will pass on purchasing the book, just because there are 10 reviews all from the same city and state as the author and basically they are all worded the same. I know it’s hard to promote your book and get it sold, but there are other ways to do it. Great post today Terri, thanks for sharing!

  • Thank you for this. Reviews, good and bad, should be honored and encouraged no matter what. But it is sadly so often the case, particularly with indie-authors and newbies, that a few bad and hurtful reviews that are anything but constructive can really hurt a writing career.

    When purchasing a book based on review or ranking I think it’s important for the reader to realize that rank changes every second. And reviews are to be taken rather lightly. It’s all subjective and everyone has different tastes. If a 2 star review says, “My 8 year old could have done a better job,” how serious can you take this 2 star? Much less this review? If a 2 star has constructive criticism and relative points in terms of writing style, structure, character development, etc, then I often pay attention to those reviews. Same goes for a 5 star review with a “best book ever” note. Can’t really pay attention to that. 5 star with a clear critique is worth my time. One thing goes for me, I never allow 20 or 30% of my purchasing decision weigh on the reviews and ratings and ranking. For me it’s all in the sample– not the reviews, even the blurb or the cover. If I’m not sold in the sample, I won’t buy it.

    Being a discerning reader, as well as reviewer, is the name of the game. Thank you for sharing, again!

  • As a Philadelphia playwright in the 1980s and 90s, I coordinated a playwriting group where writers provided honest feedback to other writers. Their plays were then presented to audiences who, at the end of a reading, provided honest feedback. Of course, it was difficult for writers to listen to the “negative” (but constructive) comments. Today, social media offers a plethora of opportunities for feedback from a variety of reviewers. This can be good and bad and almost impossible to get a grasp on. And while I welcome feedback from readers because it’s important if I want to grow as a writer, I’m also aware of its effect on sales of the book. But for self publishing to earn respect, it has to be willing to accept honest feedback. I know, in the end, that a book can be re-edited and re-vamped and perhaps pulled from a sell site until it’s truly ready.