Amazon Book Reviews: Pure as the Driven Snow?
If you’re an author, you have a certain expectation that your work will, at some point, be noticed and reviewed. And with online booksellers such as Amazon allowing for the bibliophile equivalent of Joe the Plumber to post their reviews at the click of a mouse, there’s more chance than ever that something you’ve had published will actually be reviewed by someone. Sounds good, huh? – all nice and egalitarian! Well, in theory, yes. In practice, however, it has its pitfalls…
…The main one being that an unbiased review by Joe the Plumber-turned-Reviewer may not, in fact, be so unbiased. One of the most recent and highly publicised examples of this involves historian Orlando Figes, who wrote negative reviews of his competitors’ books on Amazon. This sounds like something straight out of an episode of Inspector Morse, minus the murder and Oxford setting. Now imagine, if you will, the number of times this happens that we don’t get to hear about. I suspect it is not at all uncommon and has probably happened to most authors at some point in their careers, whether they’re aware of it or not.
I’ve had a handful of suspect reader/customer reviews myself, and the instant I read them a red flag went up, because they didn’t sound as if they were written by a layperson at all. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they might actually have been penned by someone who either had a “competing” book out or who submitted work to me that I rejected. I’ve edited a number of anthologies and dealt with a number of egos, so believe me, this is not as paranoid as it sounds. There are just certain things that ring false, and after awhile you get good at spotting them.
So is it a personal attack or a way of trying to swing the vote away from a competitor by lambasting his/her book? Like, duh! Anyone who thinks it’s a touchy-feely love fest in the book business is living in another hemisphere, especially in this era of dwindling imprints and dwindling disposable incomes to pay for such luxuries as books. The expression “dog eat dog” didn’t come out of nowhere. Heck, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if whoever coined the phrase was a writer!
The point is, these reader/customer reviews are intended to be unbiased and absent of any agendas (or vendettas). Joe buys book, Joe reads book, Joe loves or hates book, then gives us his verdict by writing a review – at least this is how it is in theory. The key to having this process work is very simple and straightforward – unbiased book reviewing from the general book reading/buying public that is not subject to any outside influences. However, it seems that the purity of the process is becoming even more corrupted in ways beyond those mentioned previously. For example, what about authors/editors who give away free copies of their books to any Tom, Dick, Harry (or Joe) who will agree to post a review? Is it likely that someone who is handed a free book direct from the hot little hands of an author is going to write a review proclaiming that said book is total shite? The odds are they won’t, even if the book IS total shite. So much for that unbiased reader/customer review from Joe, eh? Now I’m all for self promotion (as we all know!), but this is crossing the line into the inappropriate – and I’m not sure how happy the average book buyer will be to discover that all those rave reviews posted by other “customers” were actually solicited in this manner.
When I look at reviews posted on Amazon or other sites, I tend to give more credence to those from legitimate and established publications and websites (ie Publishers Weekly, The List, Midwest Book Review, The Library Journal), professional book reviewers, and websites/bloggers/authors who have some sort of track record as book reviewers (and are accountable for their words by using their real names). Mind you, even so-called “legitimate” reviews can be laced with a bit of subjective arsenic. Professional reviewers have agendas too, and it isn’t unknown for them to trash a book for personal reasons.
Of course it isn’t only books that fell prey to this kind of thing. There are product reviews as well on these sites. Some time back I heard about negative reviews on various websites that were discovered to have originated from competing brands, which wanted to get one over on their competition. I’m sure it continues to go on, but again, the average consumer is likely unaware of it.
I am certainly not advocating the annihilation of reader/customer reviews. But when no one is guarding the hen house, how can you ever be entirely sure of their legitimacy? You can’t. The point is, take these reader/customer reviews with a grain of salt. Although the majority are probably kosher, rest assured there are some that are otherwise. So buyer beware!
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