Exploring the Murky Waters of Unreliable Consumer Book Reviews:

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38ensoThere has been a lot of noise recently about fake book reviews, paid book reviews and just outright mean reviews.

Goodreads recently created a storm when they announced the deletion and controlling of reader reviews. They want to focus the reviews on the book and eliminate the trolls who attack authors. I applaud them on regulating the discussion.

The New York Times also ran a piece about state regulators fining companies $350,000 for posting fake reviews and paying for reviews. Granted this was regarding restaurants and other non-book establishments. But the message is clear; consumer reviews can be manipulated, paid for and/or sometimes illegal.

For the self-published author, consumer reviews can help get a book noticed and rise in the search. A rash of bad reviews can hurt the book sales and also push would-be authors to quit.  The International Business Times recently ran an article on how a self-published author was savaged by 1-star reviews after she broke up with her boyfriend. Her memoir went from a total of four reviews to having over 100 1-star slams overnight.

John Locke is a self-published author. Amazon announced he was the first self-published author to sell a million copies on Kindle. In addition to selling eBooks for a cheap $0.99 each, it also came out that he paid thousands of dollars for fake reviews. It worked for him.

But for authors published by traditional houses and those that already have a brand, consumer reviews have less of an impact. These are the books that generally get the most reviews too.

Amazon has a long history of consumer reviews and not doing a lot to police nor restrict them. Anyone can put up a review and they do not have to even buy or read the book. There are services that will create “5-star” reviews for a fee. Over the past few years, many outlets have written about these services.  This piece from Forbes has a good recap.

I have never given much weight to consumer book reviews.  Most of the books average out to a 4.5-stars rating.  Of the recent top 100 selling books on Amazon, the average rating comes to 4.44-stars. Over 50% of the reviews are 4.5-stars. The ones that average 5-stars seem to be built up by fans of the author (generally a political pundit, business guru or look bogus). Similar language is used and the reviews just feel created. After all the discussion of the “pay-for-review” scams, it makes me question all 5-star reviews.

Check out Amazon ratings on lightning rods such as Sarah Palin. Her first book received 1,442 reviews. With 64% 5-star and 21% 1-star. So 85% of the reviews were at the extremes. These reviews had no effect on the sales of the book. It is personal.

When J.K. Rowling wrote her latest book using the pseudonym Robert Galbrieth. most consumer reviewers prior to the unmasking ignored the book. But once Harry Potter fans found out, hundreds of 5-star reviews appeared overnight on Amazon and Goodreads. These were not paid for, but fans just wanting to boost one of their favorite authors.

It isn’t just the Amazon reviews that have little credibility but they have the bulk of them. B&N also has user reviews but their traffic is much lower.  For example, the latest Lee Child “Jack Reacher” novel has 1,036 reviews on Amazon and only 206 on B&N.com and 40 on Apple iTunes (although there are over 700 ratings – people who rate the book but didn’t read?).

Each of the major on-line book retailers allow sorting of reviews by “most helpful”; “recent”; “highest” and “lowest.” So there is an attempt to parse the reviews. But overall, it really is unregulated and can be filled with agendas.

Nassim Taleb (author of THE BLACK SWAN and ANTI-FRAGILE) once told me that he gave weight to the 4-star reviews and ignored the rest. This has always resonated with me. The 5-star reviews are not critical enough and those with a negative agenda generally write the 1-star reviews.

As publishing shifts and self-published titles are more mainstream, the issue of fake reviews is very important. So, these eBook sites will need to continue to update the rules to meet the new realities of the marketplace.

10 thoughts on “Exploring the Murky Waters of Unreliable Consumer Book Reviews:

  1. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | Exploring the Murky Waters of Unreliable Consumer Book Reviews:

  2. Desmond X. Torres

    I agree that the consumer reviews for books have lost a great deal of their credibility. Locke, in publishing his book on how he became so successful by gerrymandering the system was a pioneer, and a lot of other authors and publishers followed suit.

    The current GR effort is just the first of what I feel will be many attempts at recapturing that credibility. I think it’s a waste of time and effort though; once a reader loses confidence, they’ll go elsewhere for that information.

    I believe book bloggers’ influence will increase and fill the vacuum. And social connections between readers that have an existing relationship will increase in influence.

    Is there any data that examines a shift in discovery towards those channels?

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      I agree that book bloggers influence will increase. Many are very professional and focus on the book’s merits and not looking to attack the author. I have not seen any data, but will keep an eye out for it. I have found some book bloggers to be very helpful in finding good things to read. Good point. Thanks.

  3. Michael W. Perry

    I suspect the key problem is that for most people a book review brings back less than fond memories of book reports in high school. What they didn’t like then, they don’t think of doing now.

    It’d help if there’d be an ethos, particularly among authors, that said that reading a book creates an obligation to review it. After all, you’ve spent several hours reading that book. Why not spend a few minutes giving it a quick review? A little time is a small price to pay for the author’s hundreds of hours of labor.

    If you liked the book, it’d be a good way to encourage the author. If you didn’t, constructive criticism would be appropriate. And yes, there are books so hopeless, it might be best to take a pass on them.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  4. Devi Michaelis

    I usually stick with the middle ratings and ignore the extremes. Like you, I feel like 5 stars are fake and the 1 stars just feel like trolls trolling. Nothing is extremely good or bad. So I’m more inclined to trust middle ratings like 2.5 or 3.5. Everything else I take with a grain of salt.

  5. Kathleen B. Jones

    All excellent points! Am re-tweeting this article. By the way, I suppose some of the same arguments could be made for the “advance praise” of books. Not payment for review exactly, but choosing the right folks to read and respond, creating “buzz.”I asked notable folks in the field to read and blurb my new “indie author” book. But even commercial/traditional publishers do this. Question is this: where to draw the line between reviewing as marketing and reviewing as judgment. And in what venues? Despite his criticism of Amazon, Jonathan Franzen still sells his books there.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Thanks for the re-tweet. I agree, many blurbs from traditional publishers are favors to the author and not necessarily from reading the book. The line is shifting every day with every book. I guess the best way is to find people you trust who review books and/or dip into some via the sampling. But it is murky.

  6. Pingback: The problem with bad reviewers - Scripler Blog


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