Flaws in Online Book Reviews

Graphic courtesy of stopsmilingonline.com

The doors of publishing have been virtually thrown open to self-published authors, but as ever increasing numbers of books become available, discoverability becomes an issue. Authors trying to get attention for their books have nearly as much work to do in marketing as they do in the creative process.

While some authors take to their social media outlets to spread the word about their books, and other writers choose to enlist professional public relations firms to advertise, still others have lately opted to go for a less scrupulous option: paying for book reviews.

With the popularity of leaving reviews online for everything from books to consumer goods, more and more consumers are relying on reviews posted on ebook retail platforms—presumably, reviews that were posted by individuals who actually read the books they are reviewing—to give them a head’s up on what books are deserving of a five-star rating. More importantly, readers and authors alike often rely on the reader reviews to direct consumer dollars towards the risk of an unknown author’s self-published work.

And that’s where some new businesses have sprung up to take advantage of the boom in digital publishing. Often for a flat fee, these companies will produce a predetermined number of reviews for a book and post them to sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, and more. While most companies guarantee positive reviews, others work on the premise that any attention is good for sales, even negative reviews.

Over the weekend, the New York Times posted an article that profiled one company in particular, as well as discussed well-known self-published author John Locke’s own use of some 300 paid book reviews to boost name recognition and sales, a practice Locke himself does not take issue with.

Some in the publishing industry have railed against the practice of paid reviews—at least ones that promise a positive review and are written by teams of reviewers who do not actually read the books—as just one more way that self-publishing and digital publishing is ruining books. On the other hand, authors are willing to pay for the publicity, even if they don’t want to admit it, because there is simply so much content out there that any indie book runs the risk of being buried in the pile; if readers are duped into buying a book, they will leave their own genuine reviews if they feel strongly about it.

One of the worst consequences of this debate is the harm it stands to do to genuine reviews, statements of approval or disapproval from readers who loved or hated a book, may now be dismissed by browsing consumers as potentially just another untrustworthy blurb aimed at duping readers into handing over their money. Critics have spoken out in favor of a better system of validating reviews, but until that happens, consumers will simply have to trust what they see.

Mercy Pilkington (1982 Posts)

is a Senior Editor for Good e-Reader. She is also the CEO and founder of a hybrid publishing and consulting company.