Has Anybody Seen an Honest Reviewer?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Has anybody seen an honest reviewer?

Five years ago we asked Do Amazon Reviews Count? Our answer was yes, they absolutely do, and we were surprised that few publishers quoted them to support the books they published.

Since then a surge of self-serving reviews, many of them covering self-published books, has cast a dark shadow on the honesty and credibility of Amazon reviewers. In 2009 we cast our spotlight on a website that promised “For just $15 U.S. you can get a completely ‘honest’ review of your book posted to Amazon in mere days!” (See If Amazon Reviews are Meaningless, Why Are Authors Paying to Have Them Written?)

The practice of buying good reviews has not only persisted but seems closer than ever to prevailing. In an article in the Sunday New York Times business section, David Streitfeld describes the methodical corruption of the Amazon review process by a businessman who literally churns out reviews by the gross. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

The production of manufactured reviews now extends beyond books and into the complete gamut of products and services, from hardware to hotels, rendering it all but impossible for consumers to make informed decisions. “About one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake,” Streitfeld writes. “Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.” Enforcement of Federal Trade Commission guidelines has been ineffective, he adds.

The odds against informed decisions by consumers are approaching the point where nobody will be able to judge the merits of anything.

At the dawn of the Digital Era many of us recognized that the old gatekeepers would lose their standing as the process of viral, democratic tastemaking replaced the opinions of elite nabobs telling us what to buy. If the deterioration of honesty continues, we may well see consumers returning to the old gatekeeper system to help them make sound purchasing decisions. But that system depended on the impeccable integrity of its practitioners. Are there any left?

Below is our original article, Do Amazon Reviews Count? Five years after its publication it may seem hopelessly naive. Nevertheless I stand by the ideals expressed then and live in hope that Amazon will find a way to protect the integrity of its review system.

This blog post was originally published in Digital Book World as Has Anybody Seen an Honest Reviewer?


If you were browsing a book in a store and the jacket blurb said,

“This is one of the best books of the year!”
– amazon.com

…would you be inclined to buy it?

Before you say no, here’s something to think about.

Any author who wants to get published successfully must run a gauntlet of “gatekeepers” who judge whether the work has artistic and commercial merit. Among the Cerberuses guarding the franchise on taste are literary agents, editors, bookshop and chain store buyers, critics and reviewers. Today’s Big Publishing establishment is dominated by such gatekeepers. They also guard tradition and guard it fiercely, and who can blame them? If the gates are breached a way of life comes crashing down.

Like a walled city, the gates enclose a world of tangible books produced in physical offices and distributed to brick and mortar stores. Until recently there was no other world, and as stupid and clunky as it is, somehow we’ve all managed to find a way to make a living in it. But now the Digital Revolution is eroding that world, just as it has done to so many business models that depended on middle agencies for distribution of tangible products. Today’s publishing model is a virtual one, and can be reduced to a simple formula: A Writer, A Reader, A Server. Absent from this formula, you will readily note, is A Reviewer. The question arises, in a world where books are sold virtually, do we still need reviewers?

After all, one of the keystones (to use a tangible image for an intangible concept) of Internet marketing is the way that public opinion can be instantly and virally created and marshaled into an economic force. Do we need gatekeepers to help us judge whether we should buy or read a book?

I happen to think that not only do we need them, we really can’t exist without them. And the interesting news is, we are creating a new class of pundits. Though their taste, judgment and experience may be no better than yours, we listen to what they have to say and, like it or not, we’re influenced by them. In particular I’m referring to the people who review for Amazon.com.

The idea that your next-door neighbor’s opinion may affect your decision to buy or pass up a book seems unlikely. True, word of mouth has always been a factor in the fate of successful books, but usually the mouth that the words come from belongs to someone you know, not an anonymous name on a website. But wait — when you search your Zagat guide for a restaurant recommendation, do you know who has written the review? No, but in all likelihood it’s a restaurant patron with no more professional reviewing credentials than yourself. That doesn’t stop you from saying, “Let’s go here!” Some of your neighbors thought the food was good, the place clean, the atmosphere pleasant, the service excellent, and the prices right, and that’s good enough for you.

In short, we live in an age when peer review is meaningful if not significant, and Amazon.com has used this fact to create a cadre of reviewers who must be taken seriously. Go to Amazon, click on any recently published book and page down beyond the official reviews (Publishers Weekly, New York Times, etc.). You’ll find Customer Reviews, and note that many of the reviewers identify themselves as the authors of a number of reviews. If they regularly review or blog about specific genres you may in time come to the conclusion that this person’s judgment is reliable and enlightening. Thereafter, when you see his or her name next to a review of a new book, you may very well be motivated to buy it.

It’s worth your time to click on the link that says “See all my reviews”, or on the badge beneath the reviewers name. Amazon has created a badge system to help you identify the reviewers credentials and review-worthiness. Click here to see what the badges mean.

I haven’t seen too many traditional books with Amazon.com quotes blazed on the cover, but I won’t be surprised if that changes before long. The first time you see one, let me know, and remember you heard it here first.

– Richard Curtis


Expert Publishing Blog
Richard Curtis

About Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is a leading New York literary agent (www.curtisagency.com) who foresaw the Digital Book Revolution and launched an e-book publishing company early in 2000. E-Reads (www.ereads.com) is one of the foremost independent e-book publishers in the industry, specializing in reprints of genre fiction by leading authors in their fields. Curtis is also a well-known authors advocate, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry, and prolific blogger – see his hundreds of other blog posts here.

9 thoughts on “Has Anybody Seen an Honest Reviewer?

  1. Jim Murdoch

    I would like to think that I’m an honest reviewer. I rarely post my reviews on Amazon though although I do post short paragraphs on Goodreads that link to the main reviews on my site. Like many others my default mode is one of sceptic when it comes to reviews on Amazon. I have a friend who recently published her second book of poetry. It is a decent enough collection and she sets a high standard but every single review that appeared on Amazon was five stars. The girl herself was embarrassed by it because she realised that people were giving her five stars for all the wrong reasons. Mostly they were just being nice and supporting a friend but cumulatively they did more damage than good.

    The problem is we’re stuck with Amazon. It’s the place everyone goes to buy books. I have seen Amazon reviews quoted on the inside of a book—I believe it was Legend Press but don’t quote me—and I quite often incorporate a quote from one within the body of my own reviews (especially if they take a contrary position to me and give reasons). As you say we need to be less trusting and check the credentials of those reviewing but that’s nothing new unless you’re dealing with a big name that everyone knows.

    There are sites out there who do in depth reviews. There aren’t too many—there are loads who purport to be review sites although really all they do is advertise new releases—but I think they’re important and will become increasingly important. I’m in the fortunate position of being sent books straight from various publishers so I’m never hunting for something to read but on the odd occasion I do run across something I go searching for review sites that say more than, “Great book. Loved it. 5 stars.” Amazon may be the first place Google throws up but it’s never the only one.

  2. Jane Steen

    I’m here, Diogenes! I neither (as a reader/reviewer) can be bought, nor (as an author) would I want to see reviews about my books that were anything other than sincere.

    I believe readers are pretty savvy people. We know which reviews are the real deal. Authors who pay for glowing reviews are wasting their money, because those reviews are easily detectable and just as easily ignored.

  3. Lichen Craig

    I am unfailingly honest and thorough. I have the credentials and experience to be qualified to review a book well, and I do read each one in its entirety before commenting.

    I agree at least in part, with Jane (I’m certain not all readers are discerning unfortunately). A fake review is fairly easy to spot. Because my reviews are thorough and well-written, writers seek them out. Simple.

  4. marquita herald

    I have two books on Amazon and I’ve yet to purchase a review – I have however exchanged read/reviews with other authors. I always make it very clear both as a reviewer and author that I want to give as well as receive only honest reviews. The biggest problem I’ve experienced getting reviews has been how many ‘professionals’ do not review nonfiction … I get the same response for author reviews. It’s like there is some unspoken embargo against nonfiction. I had no idea this of all things would end up being such a stumbling block!

  5. Jonathan Gunson

    The issue faced by most indie authors on Amazon is how to remain unfailingly honest in the face of widespread gaming of the system by the less so.

    Some of the factors leading to successful Amazon book sales by novice indie authors

    1. The book itself – is it beautifully written?
    2. Is it in touch with a defined audience genre?
    3. Is the book listed correctly – e.g. in the correct category?
    4. Did the author use the KDP select promo program?
    5. Is the author capable of driving buyers to the book independently?
    6. Does the book have a stack of 5 star reviews?

    The #1 and #6 are the buying motivators.

    But the last one, #6 – the review – is the one and only thing that a book buyer can rely on in the absence of any other information. So no wonder the system is being gamed. Very interested to see what Amazon will do about this issue – if they do anything at all.

  6. Omar Luqmaan-Harris (@bookmarketing33)

    Thought-provoking post. I believe that authors who utilize these shortcuts are only limiting their long term career success. This may work for a writer once, but if they are not a good writer, it will come back to bite them if they don’t do the same thing over and over again. I heard of a book review site that aims to become the rotten tomatoes of book reviews. As long as they look at the indie titles as well, this could truly help readers distinguish between inflated good books and actual good books. But let’s not kid ourselves here. At FREE or .99, the purchase is mainly knee jerk impulse, no matter how bad the book is. My publishing company has had great success stimulating real readers to write real reviews thus far.

  7. Donald Kennedy

    Mr. Gunson has it absolutely right. The recent NYTimes article reminds me of an essay the same paper printed a few weeks ago. The essay, \How to Get Doping Out of Sport,\ was written by former professional cyclist Jonathan Vaughters. Vaughters was, himself, a doper. In the piece he says, \I wasn’t hellbent on cheating; I hated it, but I was ambitious . . .\

    Many self-published authors are facing the same dilemma Vaughters faced. They know cheating is wrong, they aren’t crazy about doing it, but they’re ambitious. They want to see their dreams come true and other unscrupulous writers have made it hard to do that without gaming the system. Vaughters talks about how talent and perseverance only gets you 98% of the way towards your dream. In sport, doping can get you the extra 2%. In self-publishing it can be fake reviews.

    In sport they’ve responded to doping by banning athletes from competition. Should Amazon respond to fake reviews by banning authors who pay for them? Just a question.

    Donald Kennedy

  8. Edward Nawotka

    As appalled as we may be by “paid for reviews” — blurbs that come pre-packaged on freshly minted books are first cousins to kind of false advertising — and the incestuousness is getting perverse. I just reviewed a collection of short stories for a major newspaper, the book was published by a fledgling university press, which came with two blurbs from highly regarded writers — both likely classmates or friends of the writer from his time at Iowa — touting the writer a fantastic. The book was nicely written, but not even close to the standard these blurbs professed and needed serious work. I highly doubt those writers were being completely honest in their assessment of the book. It doesn’t surprise me, but in my innocence I’d like to think those two famous writers were at least as rigorous as readers.

  9. Sue Knott

    I think savvy readers can sort out the fake reviews. I’ve seen people comment that all the 5 star reveiws come from people who have only that one review published (suggesting they are friends of the author). And I don’t think it’s only the self publishers who might solicit/pay for reviews. I’ve seen books with reviews that predate the publication date, making me believe the reviews came from ARC readers…who may be hand picked.

    Unfortunately, readers of popular fiction aren’t necessarily savvy. And when other books have dozens of reviews, your book with one or two reviews seems unloved. I don’t know how some authors get so many reviews. I can’t even get my own sister to bother posting her review…and I don’t even care if she loved or hated the book, just said it would be nice if she bothered to post.

    Fortunately, some conscientious souls do post reviews. My Hunger Games parody got a lengthy reveiw from a perfect stranger: John Green, \Darkwriter.\ I’d like to offer kudos to him for the many, many reviews he posts. We need more people like this.

    (Interestingly, I get more reviews on Barnes & Noble than on Amazon, even though I sell easily 10 times as many books on Amazon. Apparently, B&N readers are more caring.



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