Can You Trust Online Reviews?

Feature by David Biddle

Why Book Bloggers Trump Paid Reviews


Creative marketing is now the issue for every author and publisher, in print or online, indie or traditional. But how do readers sift through the hundreds of thousands of new titles published each year, especially when so many now garner glowing five-star reviews?

It’s even more daunting when you realize many of the reviews online are fake.

In “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” a recent article in the New York Times, business journalist David Streitfeld reports, in gritty and hilarious detail, on Internet businesses that produce positive reviews for authors, which then end up posted on Amazon and elsewhere.

From where I sit, the online book world has alternatives to such crass and unethical hype. But as it becomes obvious that some authors are reviewing their own books under pseudonyms—a tactic known as “sock puppetry”—and others are paid to gush over everything from astrology guides to the next indie detective series, the question of who’s behind the curtain is troubling.

First, the bad news. The intense competition in e-book sales is at the root of the paid-review problem detailed by Streitfeld. In his article, which caused a big stir, he’s not talking about traditional book reviews in magazines and newspapers. His focus is entrepreneurial upstarts online who are churning out the kind of marketing blurbs familiar from book jackets—The best crime writer of his generation! Surpasses any Nobel Prize winner in the twenty-first century!—under the guise of reviews.

“Some readers were shocked that the world of online reviews was pervaded by fakery and insincerity,” Streitfeld notes in a follow-up piece about his article.

I’ve long suspected many Amazon reviews were fake; I bet most online shoppers have their own suspicions. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission now has guidelines for revealing whether a blogger or reviewer has been paid to laud any product online. Still, Streitfeld’s article challenges long-held notions about “objectivity” in book reviewing.

Take, for example, Todd Rutherford, the thirty-something entrepreneur profiled in the New York Times piece. From 2010 to 2011, during the short time Rutherford ran his website, he commissioned over 4,500 paid reviews. He claims he was just filling a niche in the new publishing frontier.

According to Streitfeld, he also was soon making $28,000 a month. To keep up with demand, Rutherford had to hire freelance writers (at $15 a review) through Craigslist. In less than a year, however, his company had folded, partly because an unhappy customer sounded off about him on several consumer websites.

Streitfeld reports that Rutherford is now selling recreational vehicles in Oklahoma City. This serial entrepreneur seems to understand that getting paid for good reviews crosses the line, but he’s still trying to find a business niche for himself that involves writers. “I was creating reviews that pointed out the positive things, not the negative things,” Streitfeld quotes him as saying. “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”

It’s easy to dismiss such a self-serving distinction, but the ethics of book reviewing have often come under fire. Book reviews have always been part of a publishing house’s publicity kit. Indeed, they’re a core tool for legitimizing any writer’s work, and reviews have now jumped beyond features in newspapers and magazines to become one of the most essential elements of Internet book commerce.

Yet, the whole idea is that online reviews are written by real readers with informed opinions. Theoretically, online reviewers should represent a broader demographic of readers than, say, the high-flying literary circles of the New York Times. But there’s still an unstated contract with the reader: My opinion is genuine and has not been bought.

In contrast, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” documents numerous examples of authors—including John Locke, the first indie writer to sell a million e-books through Amazon—who paid companies like Rutherford’s to write reviews (sometimes in the hundreds). These were then posted at Amazon and, presumably, other sites on the Internet.

What’s more, paid reviews are almost always a publicist’s dream, employing so many words like “stunning” and “classic” that such superlatives have lost their meaning.

In Streitfeld’s follow-up piece, “Reviewing the Review Story,” he discusses Amazon’s role in encouraging this false five-star universe:

Amazon may in some ways be replacing the public library, but unlike the libraries of yore, it is not a public service. It exists to sell things.

Yes. But what these New York Times articles don’t address is the growing group of voluntary book bloggers who review both indie and traditionally published books. These independently minded book lovers admirably register their opinions on Amazon, at social networks like Goodreads and LibraryThing, and on their own blogs.

Watching this world of speed-reading, book-loving, hypercommunicative people do their thing is remarkable. Some of them pump out a dozen or more reviews a week. They don’t always assign five stars. They also emphasize that their response is personal.

For instance, BigAl’s Books & Pals offers roughly a review a day by numerous book bloggers. Here’s an excerpt from a three-star review on this site of a crime fiction book called Yellow Medicine:

The action scenes were well portrayed, although with too much gory detail for my taste. Billy and his wannabe girlfriend, Drew, were well-drawn characters. But the terrorist cell and the way they behaved…was unconvincing. A lot of time was spent inside Billy’s head, and on occasion, the author’s politics showed through a little too obviously.

This entry has also been posted on Amazon, but not all book bloggers repost their pieces or write negative reviews. Some clearly state on their websites that if they don’t like something, for whatever reason, they will just drop the book and move on.

The point is, book bloggers don’t necessarily give writers the reviews they hope for. That’s because they really are book reviewers, regardless of how professional or edited the writing is, not the paid PR hacks Streitfeld highlights.

Goodreads has even been attacked of late for its “snarky” reviews, prompting the creation of a website called Stop the GR Bullies. Many authors have criticized this site’s attempt to equate a bad book review with bullying. Yet, such handwringing about mean reviews indicates just how much five-star hype has invaded the critical landscape.

Sure, the buyer needs to beware and do his or her homework. Amazon reviews aren’t always bought and paid for (Amazon does, in fact, have an official policy against paid reviews). But if you’re worried about being scammed, track down book bloggers, as I have, at sites like The Indie Exchange, Rabid Readers Reviews, or Awesome Indies.

Because the truth is out there. Really. Let’s hear it for reviewers like Donna Brown, who wrote this two-star response on Goodreads to what she calls the “cynical approach” of John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months:

As my husband has just self-published his first novel, this seemed like a must read, but I found myself quite disappointed…. Some people will love [John Locke's] strategy and do very well from it, but for others, I suspect it would take much of the pleasure out of being a writer.


Publication Information


David Biddle is a contributing writer at Talking Writing. You'll find his digital fiction on

His new column, Talking Indie, will debut in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Talking Writing.

" I can’t think of what I’ve written as a gift exactly—it’s more a thing I’ve left for people to find in the woods. It’s like when I go out walking with my kids, and we leave a little Lego person standing on a rock or an action figure sitting in a tree." — "The Word Thieves"



As one of those writers who are still trying the traditional way to get published, (I'm in agent limbo land right now), I found this article both annoying and interesting in a bad way. As in, "why not publish my own book and get 500 of my closest Facebook friends to flood the market with stellar reviews of my prose?) I'd never go that way, of course, but the fact that people actually do this kind of thing still astounds me, even in a world where I've stopped reading most comments on news articles because the trolls have taken over everything.
Almost every book I've bought I've done so because of one or more stellar reviews (the usual sources, to which I'd add Entertainment Weekly, which has an outstanding book review section). I don't read the reviews at Amazon, but I do trust professional reviewers and the recs of friends who I know share my taste in lit.
In a world where, it seems, anything can be bought and sold, the idea that writers are paying to get good reviews strikes me as downright sad.
Thanks for this article.

What a great article, David. I have, at times, felt very disheartened. It's many months since my husband published his first book and I wrote that review and boy how my eyes have been opened since then. Am I defeated? No way. Running The Indie Exchange with Coral is great fun and very rewarding. We want to show the great side to the indie community and bring people together. Thank you so much for the shout out and for joining our group. We're thrilled to have you along with us championing the best side of indie, rather than the sneaky side. And of course, bad behaviour spreads well beyond indies but we have our hands full enough with TIE! Hooray for those great authors who do it the hard way but the right way.

Donna, I'm a firm believer that quality and commitment to excellence is the currency for success in the art world. There's always strange doings and nefarious intent, but it gets weeded out over time. So we'll see what happens with consumer reviews over the long haul. Just make sure TIE and others keep doing what they're doing. So many great people with insanely gifted minds.

For all commenters here (and readers thereof) I enter into the record this Sunday's NYTBR frontpage review by Toni Bentley. Highly recommended reading. It points to something about reviews and critics that is too rare a treat and that is "the review as sheer unadulterated critical entertainment." I won't say anymore. Ironically, I read it while watching NFL football yesterday afternoon. What a treat. Check it out: Who will buy the book?

Well, wait a mo. I'm not sure I'd relegate all professional reviewers to "just opinion." Let's at least say "informed opinion." Having written reviews for many a year and assigned them as an editor, I'd argue that the general practice is to go with reviewers who have credibility in terms of the book they're assigned to review.

Reviews are a form of opinion writing--of course--and plenty of literary reviewers have had axes to grind--but I don't think you can equate paid hype on Amazon to professional reviewing. It's not even fair to equate reviews by most book bloggers with reviews in magazines or newspapers, simply because of the amount of editing involved in professional publications. Call me a snob, but I believe editing makes most writing better, especially when it comes to opinion pieces and journalistic features.

As for the Harbach book, you know I agree with you about the amount of hype that book got, because I assigned that piece to you for TW. Your feature about "The Art of Fielding" and the hype that attended it in Vanity Fair and elsewhere was terrific--I recommend it to everyone. However, you worked with an editor at TW, and you took it through at least a couple of drafts. Just your opinion? Sure--but your feature was highly detailed, well researched, and well argued.

Lorraine, I hear you on all of this. One thing I would quibble with, though, is the idea of trusting so-called "professional reviewers." Reviews are never more than opinions by someone who read a book. Professional reviews are usually just freelanced by writers... How many writers do you know of who don't have biases growing all over their faces?

Also, I was dumbstruck last year by the number of positive, glowing, and world-class whitewash jobs done in the name of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding." It's a fun book and it deserved a thumb's up for Christmas presents and winter reading, but it did not belong on any list with the likes of Franzen, Wallace or any of the great baseball books over the ages. I'll say this now, since I'm in a comment section...I think it got the cred it got because it was about a clandestine gay love affair between a young mixed race student and a tweedy, stodgy, pseudo intellectual college president. Oy! Imagine if Harbach had made Westish College, Westish Prep?

Anyway, what I learned watching all that is that as much as I love reading reviews, reviewers are pretty much full of shit whether they know it or my suspicious opinion. I like reviews of all kinds to sort of point the finger at things, but I'll take the path of reading the first few pages and even the introductory pieces of a book as my only real guide to purchase.

Martha and David,
I should qualify my remarks, because, David, you're absolutely right. There are certain writers--I won't name them here but people who know me can guess who they are--that it doesn't matter how many glowing reviews they get from sycophantic reviewers, whose books I'm never going to read. In general, it's because I tried reading one of these "wonder" books and then found unbelievable misogyny in the pages that I couldn't continue. And it's not because I think the author was writing about a particular character's misogyny, but rather, because having read interviews with these folks, I assume their characters reflect their real views of the world. So, all the great reviews in the world will not get me to give them another chance.

I do get my knickers in a twist about how reviewers insist on calling some young male writer a "genius." I am trying to think of the last time a woman writer got called a genius, and I just can't think of one, but now I'm getting totally off topic.
But I think my point is that certain professional reviewers (i.e., writers) are often afraid to review a book badly for fear that the repercussions against their next book are too much for them to deal with. Thus, the sycophancy.

I'm a little surprised to hear both of you not thrilled with THE ART OF FIELDING. I must admit, I loved that book, so I wonder if I, too, was taken in by the willingness to turn the baseball book into something more by bringing in the gay love affair, and perhaps because I love books that have college settings. David Lodge's novels about academic life remain among my favorite. Again, recognizing my own prejudices when I judge a book review is good to point out to me.

And I must have missed your review of Harbach, which means I'm off to go find that review.

I loved The Art of Fielding, too. But then, I'm a sucker for a romantic baseball novel, and I needed one last summer.

Lorraine: in one way or another, getting your book into the hands of readers is all about marketing. Reviews have always been essential to marketing. I think paying for reviews is wrong. But I would be happy if 500 of my friends pimped my book for me on Facebook. I don't see anything wrong with that.

I also see nothing wrong with self-publishing and trying to get my 500 friends to help me sell. In today's crazy publishing world in which all but a few writers are required to do their own marketing, a writer may stand a better chance of making a little money by going it alone... long as there's professional editing involved. I am with you, Martha. I've been playing editor for several years, and even the best writers I work with--an a work with a few really good ones--need an editor. (Since I'm a very part-time unpaid editor, lot of them need more editing than I can give them. That is my shame.)

Sycophancy in the literary world? Do tell! Seriously, you're both right about the bias that creeps into "real" reviewers' work. But I still stand by the editing that goes into such reviews in magazines and newspapers. It's also why I liked William Giraldi's thrashing review a few weeks back, even though it caused a ruckus for being so mean. See my TW opinion piece about that, "William Giraldi, Literary Bad Boy."

And do check out "Harbach and the Hard Sell," David's piece from earlier this year:

David, I visited your blog and read your piece on reviews. Interesting idea to give stars to books as, for example, Netflix does to movies. While I agree with you about most writers published by established houses not making royalties in addition to a book advance, I'll add that the subrights sale also may be a source of income (I made a downpayment on a house with a subrights sale). But a huge majority of authors cannot, of course, support ourselves with books alone.

Ken, I think there are market segments that we need to take into account in the book world that just weren't there five years ago. Some of us love to read book reviews and have for-like-ever. I love The Millions and MediaBistro among many, and, of course the main mags like Harpers and The New Yorker and The Atlantic (and, of course, NYRB and NTYBR).

But I have friends who only read what's at Amazon. They also love low priced books and Free Stuff.

I started paying attention to reviews there once I began publishing. It's actually quite instructive and kind of a hoot to peruse what folks are saying. Trashing Gatsby and praising 50 Shades is hilarious, but also teaches a lot if you are willing to give readers their due. (You can get lost in that little exercise, though).

I kept thinking about these issues and wrote off the cuff at my blog earlier today if you're interested. Sort of trying to go beyond the straight and narrow crassness of paid reviews. I mean, no writer would plop down a hundred bucks easily without thinking that through. So what the heck is going on in someone's head to do that? See comment #4 above as the link there.

And, Ellen, I admire your gumption getting that blurb. And I agree with you if you are pointing to the idea that Amazon reviews in some ways are like book blurbs. If you check out my blog thoughts, you'll see I have a variation of that notion.

I have had great luck in joining a Facebook book club where I was one of the first members. We would recommend books, and begin spontaneous book discussions of the latest. I learned to figure out whose opinion among my friends were similar to mine in what we liked in books, and whose tastes were decidely different.
This summer, I went to bat for Gillian Flynn, recommending that folks read GONE GIRL, but that they then go read her first two books. I think a lot of folks did that, because the book wound up at the top of the NYT bestseller list. Yes. There were reviews, but not as many as you would think. I think it was a case of friends saying,
"You've got to read this book."
If my book(s) ever get published, I would hope that word-of-mouth does more to sell my books than reviews in the review world. It's still a limited audience for something like the NYTBR (and David--you're going to love what Martha and I wrote for this week on this past issue), but word-of-mouth, it seems to me, is a far more powerful thing.

Ken, your interesting post triggered the thought that blurbs on book covers are like mini-reviews, often by a famous person the writer knows. Despite that connection, blurbs sell books. I got a blurb on one of my books because when I was visiting a friend, I rode in the elevator with a Famous Person who lived there. I gave his address to my publisher, and the celebrity provided a nice blurb. All very chancey.

Lorraine, I've had the same experience you describe. I trust word-of-mouth reviews from like-minded friends more than anything else these days when choosing the next book I'll read.

Interesting and useful info. Even if I don't buy at, I check a book's worst reviews there. Some are by malcontents who never like anything, but often they are by disappointed readers and zero in on a book's weanesses.

Nice piece, David. One thing I wonder is, who reads Amazon reviews, and how deep do they go? For the most part, I find them poorly written and amateurish.

And, as a marketing guy, I think the practice of paying for reviews is reprehensible.

Perhaps big-time book reviewers are not as influential as they once were--which may mean that more middlebrow reviews (which I think we're doing at Punchnel's) are more influential; we're talking mostly with our friends and their friends and their friends. We still read the NY Times Book Review, the New Yorker, etc., but our own reviews connect with a different part of the book-buying public. They're a little closer to "regular" people's opinions--which makes me hopeful about the whole mess.

The whole idea that reviews can be bought and sold is repugnant, as it should be to any person of integrity, writer or otherwise. David has used the popular term (not necessarily his own), “creative marketing” to describe the tools some authors and hired marketers use to promote new book titles. Is that something like the term “creative financing” mortgage lenders touted several years ago that eventually led, in part, to the worst economic crisis our country has seen in decades? Gads. In this context, even the sound of “creative” anything shoots the bile straight into my throat.

I like to read those “informed opinion” book reviews Martha Nichols talks about, but when it comes down to it, I can’t know for sure if I’m going to like a book until I read it. For example, everybody knows the rave reviews Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM received from all those prestigious, hip, in-the-know reviewers at The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc., etc. Franzen even made the cover of TIME magazine. So, if I bought his book, I couldn’t miss, right? Well, no. The book was a slog from start to finish. My opinion. I had to read the thing from cover to cover to find that out for myself.

I buy books at Amazon as well as at the few physical bookstores I can still find in my area. I love browsing the back-cover blurbs and inside pages of titles that look interesting to me. At Amazon I usually click on the “Look Inside” feature and read a few pages before adding a title to my shopping cart (or not). Alas, even that approach isn’t always foolproof.

All advertising is deliberately designed to sway consumers into buying the product. “Creative marketing” in the book publishing world is no different. Yet, I truly believe savvy readers (buyers) are aware there is something amiss with the current online reviewing process. In the end, we readers muddle through all that creative hype and buy books we hope will appeal to our individual tastes. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. Bottom line: The well-worn adage “Let the buyer beware” still very much applies here. In my opinion.

Heads up, David: This Friday in TW, Lorraine and I will be referring to Bentley's hilarious review in the NYT. Thanks for including the link here.

And Donna, thanks for joining the discussion--and huzzah! I didn't realize that you co-ran The Indie Exchange. That fact makes the closing quote from you in David's piece even more resonant--and real.

Paula, I like your point about Franzen's "Freedom," and about your opinion not matching the ravings of the "informed" literati. David's piece has touched on lots of book reviewing issues, not just the obvious hucksterism of paid reviews. Another issue, I think, is whose opinion matters? An elite critic's? Yours? Mine? Maybe that's our next op-ed on reviewing: professional critics vs. "amateur" book bloggers. Maybe we all need to become our own reviewers.

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