The Scourge of Good Amazon Reviews

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.

  • “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.”

    I agree about the review system Amazon has and how it is open to unadulterated abuse by ‘friend/supporters’ of an author. But we need to see this from a wider perspective.

    There is a tendency for ‘us’ (self-published authors and those who support self-publishing) to see ourselves as a very insular group. For the most part, most buyers who purchase a book from Amazon are not going there as buyers of self-published books, but simply as avid readers who purchase their books on line from sites like Amazon. So, all these concocted reviews on Amazon – is it giving self publishing a bad name. Specifically, no, I don’t think so. No more than a traditionally published book is also subject to agents, PR departments, friends of the author logging on and posting a ‘new literary genius’ review.

    I don’t think you can have any system that ensures that a review is entirely objective. The same can be said about print media reviews, but at least the print media is open to less coercion and abuse.

    Frankly, I’m more concerned about the view ‘we’ seem to have that self-published books on sites like Amazon are identifiable as self-published, as if it were a genre in itself, isolated from all the other listed books.

  • It’s interesting because I do sort of see self-published as a “genre,” in the sense that when good self-published books are released, I want to call attention to the book being self-published because this helps to decrease the stigma overall. For self-publishing to finally enter the mainstream, self-published books will blend in with all other books…which might not happen until it’s demonstrated how good self-published books can be by pointing out that they’re self-published. It’s sort of an Escher drawing of logic.

    But in general I think people generally are not so black and white in their book buying habits. If they read a bad book, they won’t say, “I’m never buying a self-published book AGAIN.” If they do, that’s their problem because it doesn’t make sense. Readers who don’t watch the book industry like a hawk (most people) are probably more forgiving, but it’s the critics who are the most vocal.

  • And perhaps seeing self-published books as a ‘genre’ in itself is not a bad thing. It is the only flag ‘we’ have to wave when there is a success, because, again, there’s that insular feeling that we don’t want any self-publishing success to pass by without everyone knowing that the book wasn’t initially championed by a traditional publisher and the author had to do the work of writing alone as well as selling it to its readership.

    But lets not take ourselves off the subject of Amazon and the review system they have….

  • The solution to this is to eliminate the stars and make people read the reviews carefully if they are interested in the book. A review is one person’s opinion. Sometimes prejudice, like that against self-published books, enters in, but the careful reader will usually detect those.

    Another problem is the review done in haste or with an incomplete reading of the book. I’ve had a couple where it’s obvious that the reviewer has read the book selectively, if at all. They miss central events of the narrative and concentrate on relatively inconsequential characters and events obviously selected at random as they fanned the pages. There’s really nothing you can do but take the hit.

    But most reviews are honest and the overall weight will give potential buyers a fair view whether or not the book is for them. I was a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Daily News for several years, mostly of spy thrillers. I had topic knowledge and I always read the book. I got paid decently. When they cut the amount per review , I quit. It wasn’t the money but the principle. No freelancer can accept that kind of bullying from an editor. You’re already saving them money and a deal is a deal.

    I think I have a solution for self published work; a reviewer’s circle which would include other self-published authors. To get a review you give a review, but you can’t review the writer who just reviewed your book. That eliminates the prospect of a tit-for-tat arrangement where everyone gets great reviews. And we rate on two factors; content and physical appearance. Having a great product as well as a great book is the way we gain respect for the self-published book.

  • I think I have a solution for self published work; a reviewer’s circle which would include other self-published authors. To get a review you give a review, but you can’t review the writer who just reviewed your book.

    This could be a perfect solution to the abuse of Amazon reviews.

  • “I think I have a solution for self published work; a reviewer’s circle which would include other self-published authors. To get a review you give a review, but you can’t review the writer who just reviewed your book.”

    Authors, in my honest opinion, are very poor reviewers. Not because they can’t produce a well-written review, but because, to survive, you sometimes need to be a little more complimentary than the work in questions deserves.

    You’ll find that a lot of published authors don’t do blurbs and reviews for that reason. If you produce an honest review of a book you didn’t like, there’s vitriol (Need I say Alice Hoffman?) If you produce a ‘kind’ review of a bad book, your reputation goes down the tube.

    Readers are the only truely impartial reviewers. They have nothing to lose by producing an honest review. And I don’t think authors should ever be pressured to review. Their business, especially in self-publishing, relies on good relations.

  • Merrilee, I think you might be overthinking this. The problem isn’t that “authors are very poor reviewers,” it’s that bad authors are bad reviewers. Good writing is good writing, whoever wrote it. The NY Times Book Review is a collection of reviews written by writers. The world of self-publishing is no different – it’s just that the quality of reviews have been different given the talent of some of the people writing them.

    The reviews on this site are, for the most part, written by writers, not readers. Maybe the world of self-publishing is different because there’s not a filter of editors first approving the book, but I don’t think the person who wrote the review matters if the review is well thought-out. Citing Alice Hoffman isn’t the best example because people jumped all over her for being negative. She’s the archetype of what not to do.

  • I’m not making my point very clearly, I can see 🙂 I don’t mean the quality of reviews, I’m more talking about the advisability of authors writing reviews. It’s a touchy situation, and opens the author up for either vitriol, if they’re honest about a bad book, or, as you mentioned before, loss of credibility if they write an overly complimentary review of a bad book. And when it comes down to it, most people need the support of their peers.

    As for the ‘padding’ of ratings, I do think that’s a particular bugbear of the self-pub community, simply because of the effort required to get noticed.

    There are a lot of issues going on, and maybe I am overthinking things. I do agree that the quality of the review is the most important thing.

    Once again, thanks for fostering discussion of the issue.

  • I may be the one not be making my point clearly. I totally get that when an author writes a review the author has to think about politics and diplomacy and may not be able to be totally objective, and can be criticized in the process. My point is that a good writer will be able to be objective and honest, sort of wiping out the whole problem. On the other side of the picture, an author receiving a bad review from another author needs to be thick-skinned and try to see if the reviewer has a point.

    I’ve received a bad review from an author that just didn’t bother me because the review was so wrong-headed. I’ve received reviews from authors with criticism I thought was valid. A writer needs to have some confidence in his or her work to understand what works well and what doesn’t. Any writer who thinks, “This book is perfect and anyone who doesn’t like it is an idiot” has more problems than the reviewer. Ironically, it’s untalented writers who might be overconfident, not the writer of a great book.

    I know this is not what you’re getting at, but it’s another point. I guess I’m just trying to justify authors writing reviews if the review is well-written enough and the writer of the book has confidence in his or her own work. I just don’t want to see self-published reviews as being that different than the traditional review system – because it potentially paints self-published writers as being a bunch of no-talents.

  • I may be over confident here because most of my reviews have been “five star” and ones that seemed to trash the book were done by people you can tell did not actually read the whole book, but just parts of it.
    That’s a very unfair, incompetent way to review anything, like seeing 30 minutes of a two hour movie and basing your review on that. It’s bad reviewing and bad writing and something that gets people fired.

    But anyone who accepts a book for review in our reviewers circle has to commit to reading the whole thing, and , if they have a grudge against the genre or the author (This #$#%! shot my dog!) that should either be disclosed or the review passed on to someone else. When I did my spy thriller column for The Los Angeles Daily News, I got about 120 books a month, so I had to choose wisely and I passed on the ones that just looked bad; incompetently executed, with lots of typos. They are always more books than slots to review them and no one should be guaranteed or feel entitled to a review. That has to be earned. And the only thing worst than a bad review is no review.

  • First, a correction — not “anyone” can open up an account on Amazon and review a book. Amazon requires every reviewer to create an account and PURCHASE something before they can review anything. Now, this isn’t much of a barrier, but it actually has kept a few people who really like my book from posting reviews on Amazon. They didn’t have accounts on Amazon, and didn’t want to open them AND then have to buy something. So, instead, they only told me about how much they liked the book. It was still nice, but not every good review I could have is on Amazon.

    When I first published, I made a short list of top Amazon reviewers, and emailed a few to see if they’d be willing to review it. I didn’t know them from Adam (or Eve), and only filtered for readers who liked the genre (mystery) I’m writing in. Otherwise, it was like cold-calling. A few answered they’d be interested, and they gave me reviews I seriously couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise. One reviewer judges fiction contests for major publishers, and has become a supporter of my series.

    Readers have to learn to judge reviews, and most are good at it. Amazon’s “n of N found this review helpful” meta-filter is a smart dimension, allowing the most useful reviews to go to the top, and also setting reviewers up for higher status in the ecosystem.

    Ultimately, self-publishing is about the democratization of what once was reserved for “professionals,” and often these professionals had questionable taste (there are movie critics whose negative reviews of films indicate to me the movies I’ll like). Just like drivers all used to be professionals, now amateur drivers are the majority of the population. The same will happen to authors and reviewers. Professionals will still exist, at various levels, but amateurs will be more common, and potentially more influential in most settings.

    For instance, I don’t know why a bookstore wouldn’t create a “Web buzz” indicator for books that are getting good reviews on BN.com, Amazon, Booksamillion, and others.

    Aren’t bookstores about selling books? They seem sometimes more concerned with being traditional than entrepreneurial. That bugs me sometimes. It seems there’s so much opportunity now to do things in a way modern readers expect, but the installed book business had a tin ear for innovation.

  • “I just don’t want to see self-published reviews as being that different than the traditional review system – because it potentially paints self-published writers as being a bunch of no-talents.”

    That was not the impression I wanted to give. The only reason I believe that books in bookstores don’t have this problem is that there are, as you say, reputable reviewers willing to review them. But there are also plenty of good reviews from blog readers, and I’ve found good reading material that way. I want to see more blog reviewers taking a punt on a self-published work.

    I think the system is the same for all work – the popular floats to the top due to advertising and word of mouth. It’s just that there’s such a bias against self-pubbed books (and I’m just as guilty as the next person), and a tendency to view them as sub-standard before you even turn the first (metaphorical) page.

  • I know at least one independent bookstore owner who says that reviews don’t sell books. He told me this when he passed on one of my handouts, printed from our web site. Posters (of the book cover), on the other hand, at least make people aware your book is in that store. When they are used to announce a signing, they do draw a few people. I look at it this way, reviews do produce blurbs you can use in ads. Every little bit helps stir the promotional stew

  • Henry, I follow you on Twitter (Wayzgoose) and am glad to see a thoughtful and thought-provoking article on “group-think” as it relates to reviews. This is not an issue isolated to self-publishing. We’ve based a business at Long Tale Press on readers reviewing what writers submit to determine whether it should be published. We set a high bar, requiring an evaluation of 100 points. Typically this would take a minimum of 50 reviewers and more likely 80 to reach that level. We encourage writers to have their friends read their excerpts and write reviews. We figure that, like any marketing organization, a strong fan-base is a step in the right direction as far as publishing goes.

    We’ve been open for business a year now and only two submissions (of nearly 100) have crossed the threshhold of 100 points on our rating system. One of them, we published immediately. The second has not passed its full manuscript review and is being sent back for re-writes. The author may not make the second cut, depending on how well she can respond to the critiques and re-write her book.

    It amazed me that the readers, even when a lot of friends were involved, were both sensitive and critical of the works that have been submitted. Friends can take the manuscript a little way, but it takes more than a few friends to sufficiently move a book up our scale to publish it, and other readers quickly see through ratings that have been padded out of kindness rather than out of love for a great book.

    THe rating systems have to take into account two things: The number of reviews that have been submitted for this book; and the number of reviews submitted by each reviewer of other books as well. This type of rating system works extremely well for some organizations (like Netflix) who use it well. eBay ratings on buyers and sellers also affect whether people do business with each other. I think we will see book reviews start to follow the same patterns, and that there will be a new life breathed into self-published and small-press books as a result.

  • I read your ‘Opinion’ with great trepidation. Like all writers, I’m sure, and Indie authors, in particular, the subject of Reviews is a bittersweet topic that leaves me with butterflies in my stomach. I am wanting reviews from credible sources (namely not friends and family members who have read my books), while at the same time, I am frightened by what might come from ‘out of the blue’ when a perfect stranger might elect to give my work a review even on Amazon. Like most authors who live far from the publishing meccas and are not financially equipped to make the pilgrimages to New York necessary to literally pound on potential publishers’ doors, I have been forced, more or less, to self-publish my work. Again, the lack of funds precludes hiring or employing publicists, ad agencies, professional reviewers. My first and only foray into the ‘tricksy’ world of ‘hired guns with glasses’ came when I spent $100 very hard earned dollars to enter my book in an international book fair (that I could not attend), which also included a ‘professional review’. I waited on pins and needles for the review and when it came, it felt like a punch in the stomach, literally. The reviewer was obviously bored with my book and said as much, suggesting that I cut about 50% of it out completely and perhaps trash the rest. I thought “Geez, I paid a hundred dollars for a punch in the face!” Well, d’oh!!
    But with the advent of Kindles and Amazon’s DTP, I’ve sold almost 500 books in the past 68 days just by participating in the Kindleboards forum. I figure that speaks for itself and the warm words of support and praise from the members on the forum have done wonders to boost my confidence that my work is not only acceptable, it is actually good and sellable. I am, however, debating whether to submit my work for review here because I’m worried that it will fall into the hands of a reader who is not particularly interested in the genre in the first place. Can this fear be overcome?

  • william Klein

    Misuse of reviews and comments applies as well to one-star reviews by mischief makers with their own agenda. My historical novel was given a one star review by a woman who claimed that my novel contained ” too much sexuality.”
    She was then joined by sympathetic friends who offered 25 comments that increasingly strayed from the subject matter. The new venue became a place for woman of the same mind to discuss their homes life, husbands and their damned cats and dogs. All of this at a venue that was my Amazon book web page. A week later, these same Harlequin-NASCAR romance reading ladies swarmed onto the Goodread website, and gave my book identical one star reviews. I really can’t complain because sales have soared because of the attention the novel has received, especially when an excess of sexuality was mentioned. Still, I wonder if we haven’t unleashed upon the literary world a lower tier of readers with nothing better to do than slam authors and their books.

  • william Klein

    Let me hasten to add that my novel was commercially published