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 GettingBookReviews.com, 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.
- "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy" by David Streitfeld, New York Times, August 25, 2012.
- "Condemnation Grows for Sock Puppet Reviews" by Benedicte Page, The Bookseller, March 9, 2012.
- "Reviewing the Review Story" by David Streitfeld, New York Times, August 31, 2012.
- "Yellow Medicine/Anthony Neil Smith," review by Pete Barber, Big Al’s Books & Pals, August 30, 2012.
- “Stop the GR Bullies: A Response” by Foz Meadows, Huffington Post, July 20, 2012.
- Book-blogging sites: The Indie Exchange, Rabid Readers Reviews, and Awesome Indies.
- Donna’s Brown’s "community review" of How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months, Goodreads, July 13, 2011.
David Biddle is a contributing writer at Talking Writing. You'll find his digital fiction on davidbiddle.net.
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"