I published an opinion piece at Talking Writing called, simply enough, “Can You Trust Online Reviews.” This piece identifies a small component of a much bigger phenomenon in the writing world today. Yes, there are loads of fake and biased reviews to be found at Amazon and on other book sites throughout the worldwide web. But writers are doing all sorts of other things to try to get noticed. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking so-called indie writers here or them that’s been dunned by a publishing house (Big Six or small independent). I for one don’t see a distinction between the self-published and house published anyway. Except for a very few, most writers in America are left to their own devices marketing their books and promoting themselves. Most writers also make practically nothing from royalties.
So we’re all kind of desperate. We’re also willing to try anything. Witness the book giveaway phenomenon at websites like GoodReads. Or how about all the “Review Trades” topics at list-serves and bulletin boards. There are also groups of writers running around the Internet Tweeting and blogging almost randomly about dozens of books they’ve probably never even looked at. As far as I can tell, some of these folks may be getting paid something to do this. Others are in reciprocal promotion mode where broadcasting for each other is supposedly getting the word out to others in a more legitimate and trustworthy fashion.
The review game is at the forefront of this because it’s played out on such a public and static stage. Go to any high ranked book on Amazon and spend some time assessing that book’s reviews. Follow the reviewers links back to other reviews they’ve written. Compare the 5-star graphs of various books. Seriously! Look at how those graphs line up. Books with few 3 and 2 star reviews but a hundred or more 5-star ratings can provide hours of entertainment.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to point this out, but using a 5-star rating system sort of contributes to this entire problem. FaceBook is kind of on to something. They simply have a Like button. Maybe that’s too meaningless for books (or any form of art). Maybe what they really need is a thumbs up and a thumbs down. If you couple that with the ability to write a review, you accomplish the same intent. Yes, anyone could figure out a grand scheme to log thousands of thumbs up for their novel, but the value of that rating structure would be flattened out by the simple dual nature of the rating system. If I see that Diane Williams’ book of short stories, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, has 100 thumbs up that’s entirely different than LN Cronk’s Chop, Chop which has 175 5-star reviews. In theory, hopefully, people might need to actually read reviews to get an idea about whether something was worth their time (of course, the most important thing any consumer can do is use the sneak peak option that now comes with virtually every Amazon book).
I promise I have a concluding insight here, but I do need first to point out that standard mainstream book reviews have for decades completely eschewed a graphic rating system for books. Music and film in particular have used things like stars or music notes or film reels to summarize the opinion depicted in the text of the review. Restaurant reviews and hotel rating systems have also used this methodology. But book reviews are different. The idea is that the reader should actually read the review to figure out what the writer thinks. Books, even the most pathetic, are so multi-dimensional and interactive. One person’s super-duper reaction to a mystery is another person’s search for a vomit bag or toilet bowl. I have always deeply loved book reviews for this reason. Yes, the author has an opinion, and it’s usually fairly obvious how many stars they might give a book if that were what they were required to do, but the idea is still to actually read the review and think about it.
What makes Amazon so compelling from this standpoint is that you can go to any book and read all its reviews. Sometimes that’s easy because there may only be 5-10 reviews. Sometimes there are several hundred — or several thousand. It’s easy to understand why Amazon uses the star system when you really spend some time looking at their customer written reviews. Rankings break up reviews. It’s kind of fun and useful to read all the 1 and 2 star trashings of a book. It’s also interesting to read the 4-star reviews and to look for the few sentences of critique that explains why the reviewer felt 5-stars was too much. Probably the most interesting reviews to read, at least in my opinion, are the 3-stars. Whatever the case, there are positives and negatives to this system — many book bloggers use it as well now — but with the veracity of reviews called into question in general, Amazon and others are likely thinking about re-designing their approval system.
All of this points, though, to the most basic problem of commerce and the Internet. Writers and their books certainly provide ample opportunity for all sorts of stupid tricks — but so do thousands of other professions and products. The problem is that Internet presence gives people the illusion of prominence. And with the hypnotic sense that we (and our books) are prominent, comes the go-go urgency of immediate gratification. Ask any writer who has a book posted online, they’ll tell you that waiting for sales to build sucks. This illusion of prominence and need for gratification NOW, has been turned into desperation with stories about the success of EL James, John Locke, and Amanda Hocking (all three phenomenally lucky to be on the ground floor when the frontier of ebooks became an open-ended proposition for every intelligent person in North America and Europe).
It’s this problem with time, I think, that fucks everyone up. Even those of us who would rather people wipe their asses with our digital work than pay for trumped up reviews, want success as soon as possible. And because we’re all drunk with creativity and communication lust it’s so easy to get lost in the newest scheme to take that illusion of prominence and attract hundreds to our Amazon or Smashword pages. We all know the “tipping point” concept. It just takes one little bit of critical mass and then — SHAZAM! Right?
Wrong. Success in the real world comes from dogged diligence; belief in what you do or what you have to offer; and commitment to excellence. Whatever your “audience” or crowd, they figure it out, but it takes time and patience…and confidence. What do paid bogus reviews reveal about ones confidence? What does a lot of flash and hype reveal?
For writers, to my mind, it’s terribly difficult in a world that sees something like 750,000 book titles a year enter the Internet. But it still comes down to three things:
1. Yes, you need a presence — a blog, networking tools, and product for sale somewhere legitimate and convenient.
2. You also need quality products. That’s plural. One book will never make a writing career. Even Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison know that…(Google them if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
3. Finally, you need to trust time. Be patient. Keep writing. Keep publishing. Return all emails from people who buy your work. Respond to comments in blogs by readers. And, above all else, don’t look for the easy way in. There’s too many people out there looking to cut you down and make you their next blog topic. On the Internet, books last forever. That means you do, too, as a writer. Use that to your advantage and take the long view. After all, you’re not in this for the money, are you? You want readers. Readers will bring the money…even if your book is free.