The Scary World of Book Reviews

I bought an ebook to take with me on my recent writing retreat. The description made it sound great. The top reviews were great. The small sample I ordered looked great. I paid my $3.99, drove to my island retreat, and started to read.

It was awful. Grrr. What an idiot I was.

I am so naive, and behind the times, when it comes to book reviews written by ‘customers’ on amazon.com. I knew that some authors asked friends to write reviews. These are usually easy to spot because they’re all posted within a few days of each other, and they’re glowing, often encouraging the reader to “buy this book!” Of the thirty reviews of my memoir, Sheepish, I only recognized one name, and I didn’t ask her to write a review. I feel good that all 30 reviews were unsolicited.

But it’s gotten much worse than friends and family writing glowing reviews. I just read that authors are posting their own reviews of their own books, under assumed names, of course. This practice even has a name: sock-puppeting. Ha. It’s dumb and pathetic.

But wait. Things are even worse than that. The NY Times recently reported that self-published authors pay companies to post positive reviews on amazon.com and other sites. Holy @#$%. Seriously?

So when I returned home, I got back onto barnesandnoble.com and read the reviews more closely. The first 20 or so were 5-star. They were error-free. Not even a dropped apostrophe. Not even a misspelling. Not even one exclamation mark!!! The reviewers were entertaining, articulate, and often spoke in general terms rather than specifically about the book. They could have all been written by the same person.

These reviews must have been purchased. What a sad, sad thing. Cornell University is actually studying how to identify deceptive reviews.

Soon readers, including me, will be too wary to buy anything but big-name authors published by major publishers. This means the “mid-list” authors—published and edited, but not selling 100,000s of copies—will get squeezed out. Unless you know enough about publishers to recognize published from self-published, you’ll be cautious.

Here’s the link to the NYTimes article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/book-reviewers-for-hire-meet-a-demand-for-online-raves.html?pagewanted=all

The book I’d purchased was horrible. The sample was well-written, but the author probably got lots of feedback at writing workshops, etc. Most people can write a tight first 10 pages. It’s sustaining it that separates authors.

I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey (I’m not into BDSM), but friends who’ve tried tell me the writing is horrific. Yet 10 million copies sold in 6 weeks. If we, as readers, buy crap, then soon that’s all that will be available.

Heads up, everyone. Do your research. Not all self-published books are bad, but many are put out there by people with enough money to pay $1000s of dollars for reviews. They cast suspicion on all books, and on all reviews, which hurts all authors.

Okay. Climbing down off my soapbox now. I feel better for ranting. Thanks for listening!

14 thoughts on “The Scary World of Book Reviews”

  1. I was excited when I bought my Kindle, so many affordable books available and I could increase the font size. At first I was terribly disappointed, then very angry at myself for my choices based on the reviews. I am still angry about all the time I’ve wasted with such poorly written material.
    Thank you for this blog post, today I can let the anger go and go back to trusting myself a little more regarding what I choose to read.

  2. When I read reviews, I almost always look first at the 1 or 2 star ones to see what people complain about–if it doesn’t seem that bad to me, then I read some of the better reviews. It is sad how quickly the market can destroy trust.

  3. I’m probably wearing my parent hat here but I generally try to include both bad and good points when I write a review on Amazon. How does an author learn without criticism? Especially authors of the low-cost, self-published ebooks. Sometimes the plot is a good idea just sagging under from poor editing and formatting and it deserves better!

    Over the years, I’d guessed that some reviews were written by family/friends and the move into purchased reviews is sad but not unexpected. Kind of like those gamers who play online games in order to “mine” tools or gold or spells to “sell” to other legitimate players.

  4. Lately the books I have chosen to read have been written about on Yarn Along…a meme I join on Wednesdays…and I don’t tend to do the “everybody is reading” books…it took me over a year to read The Help, I have never or will ever read a Twilight book..and have absolutely no interest in the Shades of Grey books…my exception is kid’s books, as a teacher I do try to keep up with their popular books…and I loved The Hunger Games trilogy..

  5. This is why I like Goodreads. I can see all of the reviews written by anyone with a Goodreads account, but I also get to see what my friends have read and what they think.

    Funnily enough, that’s how I found the first book of yours I read in the first place! A friend wrote an excellent review of your book and I HAD to have it.

  6. This is true of restaurants and other reviewed things, too. Pippin has the right idea – look for the low ratings and see why they didn’t like it and see if that aligns with your values. If someone complains that a Thai restaurant’s food was too hot, it doesn’t worry me too much.

    But the best reviews are from friends, especially friends who share one’s esthetic. So what are you reading these days that you are loving?

  7. Does your library have a website allowing cardholders to download books to kindle? Mine does.

    And whereas you might feel like you’re not supporting the authors or publishers when you check out a print copy, when electronic copies are sold to libraries they often are paying for a certain number of downloads.

    I’ve never commented here before so I’ll say I read Sheepish after checking it out from my library, and I didn’t check it out until I’d sat and read the first half of the book (I liked it).

  8. Never heard of Shelfari…will have to check it out.

    Jonah, I love libraries. People reading a library book can actually help its sales—people want to own a copy, or give as a gift. Love the image of you sitting in your library reading half of Sheepish!


  9. Twinsetellen,

    I just finished two time travel novels by Connie Willis: Doomsday Book, and To Say Nothing of The Dog. Read an excellent post-apocalyptic novel called The Dog Stars. (I seem to be into sci-fi these day.)

    And am rereading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

    And you?

  10. You’re welcome. 😉 My mom read 50 Shades and said it was the most poorly written piece of semi-erotica she had ever tried to read. Sadly many folks are heading down the ‘feed it to me and I will lap it up’ path and are happy to be told what they will like. How else can we explain Toddlers and Tiaras, WWF, and this farce we are calling an election? But I digress…

    Keep the faith. You could read Michael Perry’s “Coop” if you want to laugh milk out of your nose, Brad Kessler’s “Goat Song” if you want to be swept off on a soothing river of well written prose so delicious you will find yourself rereading the paragraphs just to experience the afterglow, or Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood” if you want to get really pi$$ed off.

    I think I have said this before, but your book “The Compassionate Carnivore” changed my whole outlook on life. For the first time I felt it was OK to take a baby step down a path _I_ chose, and not feel like I had to be perfect to be effective (or happy). You take care, and as much as you can, ignore the nay-sayers and the cheaters. They are just jealous.

  11. Hi Catherine! I second the recommendations for Goodreads and reading the 1 star reviews at Amazon. They are often eye opening. Today I received my first ever solicitation to do a “purchased” review of a book. I never knew the concept existed. But there were several caveats to it, and must dos on a timeline. Not my cup of tea, personally. I a library book addict myself!

  12. It’s like Twilight. After all the hype I decided to borrow a copy (thankfully) and truly had to force my way through it. One of the worst books I’ve ever read, mainly because the writing is just so terrible. Truly a crime. I rely on my local independent bookstore to make choices – they put little blurbs under books the staff themselves have read, and I’ve found some great books this way.

  13. I agree with some of the earlier commenters – that’s why I use Goodreads to sift through what to read versus Amazon or other big box reviews. Granted, now that Goodreads has been acquired by Amazon, we’ll have to be even more wary. I’ll usually skim a few of the five star reviews, then a few of the one and two star reviews to get an overall idea of whether or not I’d enjoy the book. The handful of times I haven’t done my due diligence and ended up disliking the book, the warning signs were always there in the reviews when I went back to review it.
    The Dog Stars! Oh that book. So simple and yet so tender and strange.


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The Big Pivot

About Me

After twenty-five years on the farm, I’m adjusting to the adventures of city life. Part of that adjustment is figuring out what I want to write about now, since sheep are no longer part of my daily life. I’m challenging myself creatively by painting with pastels and playing the ukelele as I seek my new writing path.

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Minnesota State Arts Board grant

Catherine Friend is a fiscal year 2021 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.