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