One of the growing criticisms (and concerns) about self-publishing is the ease with which people can post good reviews – especially on a place like Amazon. Anyone can open up an account on Amazon and give a book 5 stars, no matter how bad that book might be. This has the potential to further tarnish the reputation of self-publishers because the more people buy a book based on positive reviews that turns out to be terrible, the more people will be suspicious about self-published books.
This criticism has come up twice now on the site, recently in this comment:
For a case study, let’s look at Talismans of Puissance, a self-pubbed book.
On Amazon, 11 glowing 5-star reviews. http://www.amazon.com/Talismans-Puissance-Justin-Hinks/dp/1403349096/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top
But read the two 1-star reviews. Then read what SFReader had to say: http://www.sfreader.com/read_review.asp?book=346
The amazon revew is are a perfect example of an untrustworthy review, most of them filled with hyperbole, and most of them from posters who have only posted the one review – a sure sign of friends roped in to ‘help’.
I’ve read online fiction with 5-star ratings that are appalling; badly crafted, rambling, plotless horrors. But if the author has enough friends, they can bump the story up in the ratings to get read by more people. Because that’s how most sites work; ratings = visibility.
I’m going to set aside the criticism of Authonomy because even I’m suspicious of sites like that, which can be more like click-through popularity contests than an actual measure of a book’s worth. Yes, I run Self-Publishing Review and I’m skeptical of a lot of online fiction the way some are skeptical of self-publishing in general. At least a POD writer has to get a cover together, maybe find an editor, find a printer, etc. before publishing a book. If there are limited filters in self-publishing in general, there are even fewer in online fiction.
Before online writers get angry at me, I know there’s great online fiction out there, but it’s problematic if traffic comes to equal quality. There was even a recent article about Dan Froomkin’s firing from the Washington Post that he got fired because he wasn’t generating enough traffic – this is a terrible precedent, if true. Traffic could become yet another bad metric of measuring a writer’s worth – even less viable than book sales. It’s hard to sift through Authonomy-esque sites because the review system isn’t entirely trustworthy.
And the same thing can unfortunately now be said about Amazon reviews. They’re getting diluted by too many people writing a good review as a favor to the writer. This means that both readers and writers need to look at other review sources. There are plenty of places that will review a self-published book with thoughtful and objective criticism. Basically book buyers need to be more savvy and not trust everything they read – especially reviews that are 100 words long and seem far too positive. The example cited above has reviews that don’t really past the smell test:
Hinks borders on absolute genius, taking his reader far and wide (and into!) literature’s most breathtakingly emmersive [sic] environments: full of wonder, intrique [sic 2] and adventure. A hero for our new age, an age of intellectual and emotional darkness and confusion, but never have I felt so assured, so comfortable as I am in the Hands of Hink! Bravo maestro!
I think it’s a pretty clear signal that if someone is using the word “genius” this is an incredible overstatement. So I would put some of the blame on the book buyer for actually believing it. Of course, most of the blame is on the writer, who was then met with this review:
Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the rating scale, it is not possible to give this book the rating it truly deserves – a zero. I received this book as a gift from someone who purchased it based on the reader reviews given here. I would refer anyone thinking about purchasing this book to the excellent review of it at www.sfreader.com. The review is thorough, well written, and gives multiple examples of Mr. Hinks contorted writing style. Remember, buyer beware. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. This book is self published for a reason – no publisher would touch it.
Gulp. It’s possible the way things are going that Amazon reviews get more and more diluted and people stop trusting it as a source. That would be a real shame and make the job of self-publishers even harder. So what can everyone else do about it? Nothing. You can’t stop people from posting glowing Amazon reviews. All you can do is implore writers to be honest. It’s really the same problem as self-publishing itself: anyone with a computer can upload a book, just like anyone with a computer can upload a review. There’s no way to police quality – bad reviews or bad books are a part of the fabric. When the book business is so maddeningly competitive, I’m not really holding my breath for writers to stop trying to game the system when Amazon reviews have been – to this point – more effective than a stray book review on a blog. As this example illustrates, the reviews worked. People bought the book. But it’s damaging to self-publishing’s reputation overall.
Hopefully as time goes on, and more high-quality work comes out of the world of self-publishing, higher-profile reviewers will take a look at self-published books, offsetting the problems with these types of reviews. But when it comes down to it, readers need to be as careful as writers.