Saturday, December 07, 2013
The Seedy Underbelly of Book Reviews
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Carlos J Cortes
Published: September 18, 2012
Whenever I browse through titles at Amazon, I must confess to being baffled at reader’s review ratings. While I accept that people can love a book others hate—and award anything from one to five stars to the same title—I didn’t understand how hundreds or even thousands of readers would stop to write blurbs or even more insane, hundreds of words about a product. Writing is hard work and to produce a coherent and structured review takes time.
But the issue that had me puzzled concerns the intrinsic quality of some reviews. A large number of the reviews I’ve perused praise the prose quality of poorly written and unedited books, and they do so with a level of language far superior to that of the work they’re supposed to be reviewing. Obviously, the authors of those reviews can write, and write well; they have the technical know-how to evaluate shoddy work, and yet they praise it. Why?
I wasn’t born yesterday and I know that many people have built long lists of fellow writers whom they beg for reviews on the understanding that a quid pro quo will follow; sort of you scratch my back and I’ll reciprocate in time of need. I know because my in-box brims with such requests. Then there’s the long-suffering family and friends to tap for even more reviews, but somehow the numbers didn’t add up.
In The New York Times, I came across an insightful and beautifully written
article by David Streitfeld
(cross my heart, Mr. Streitfeld has not paid me to write this) on the book-reviews-for-sale setup.
In his article, Mr. Streitfeld interviews Todd Rutherford—who ran an Internet service offering reviews for sale.
He [Todd Rutherford] was part of the marketing department of a company that provided services to self-published writers—services that included persuading traditional media and blogs to review the books. It was uphill work. He could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement manifesto or one more homespun recollection of times gone by. There were not enough reviewers to go around.
Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted—that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.
In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. 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.
Live and learn. There you have it; for less than twenty bucks a shot, whoever has churned out low-quality work that has never been edited—or deserves being published—can have hundreds of glowing reviews. But there’s more...
Mr. Rutherford goes on to state:
The sad thing is that 1,2, and 3 star reviews can be just as fake. There are people that advertise they will post negative reviews on your competitor's products.
I get it. How do you sell copies? Simple. Pay for positive reviews for your work and for negative reviews on competing titles and then people will be suckered in to buying the book.
I have the greatest respect for Amazon executives; they know how to milk the Internet cow. They
know what’s going on. In fact, they enacted a token show by refusing to advertise Mr. Rutherford’s website and deleted (so they say) the bogus reviews. How did they know
reviews to delete would open another can of worms I’m scared to touch?
Let’s call things by their proper name; fake reviews, as well as being dishonest and unethical, constitute fraud, plain and simple. It's like buying votes. The FTC has made it clear that it is an illegal practice that amounts to consumer fraud. Companies have been fined for doing this. In a better world, the FTC would enforce their "paid endorsement" provisions. Trouble is the Internet is a decade ahead of the FTC.
What’s in it for Amazon?
Those reviews, fake and otherwise, generate billions of words (and keywords) that bubble up to Google that in turn directs even more people to Amazon who then generate billions more words, and on and on it goes. So while Amazon may take down the glaring examples of paid reviews, it simply doesn't want to know the extent of the problem, which could erase most reviews from the site.
Next thing, companies will offer to sell Twitter followers, Facebook likes and Youtube views, reviews and endorsements will be equal—none more or less credible than the next—and readers will be forced to think on their own. Then, to accommodate the tsunami of the hundreds of thousands of self-published books to come, perhaps cloud storage could serve as a sort of NCWWR (The National Catacomb for Writers Without Readers).
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