More Thoughts on Fake Reviews and Other Stupid Writer Tricks

ImageI 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.

6 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Fake Reviews and Other Stupid Writer Tricks

  1. David – Imagine my surprise when I googled my novel today (something I do often to see if any new reviews have appeared on someone’s blog or something) and found that it was mentioned in a blog entitled: More Thoughts on Fake Reviews and Other Stupid Writer Tricks. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “someone is accusing me of garnering fake reviews!” Instead I found an interesting article examining many of the problems consumers encounter when trying to decide what books to purchase (at least I don’t think you were accusing me of garnering false reviews!!).

    I have never visited your blog before, but a quick glance leads me to believe it is geared toward Indie writers. If so, I thought your readers might benefit from learning how I have received so many five star reviews on Amazon.

    First of all, my novel is free on Amazon. I realize that this is not a viable option for many authors, but my novel has been downloaded almost 100,000 times since February so (even though I do realize that a tremendous number of those will never be read) that sheer number of downloads alone helps to secure a certain number of reviews (that’s why giveaways, KDP, etc. are so popular).

    Secondly, at the end of my novel, I specifically ask people to leave reviews. I also have a fan page on Facebook and post there about once a week asking people to leave reviews. Whenever someone contacts me and tells me how much they like the book, I always thank them and almost always ask them personally to leave a review. People often intend to leave a review, but don’t get around to it, but I keep reminding them! Obviously, no one joins my fan page to tell me how much they hate my book (but if they did, I can promise you that I wouldn’t beg them for a review!).

    Lastly, I try very hard to make sure that my description gives a clear and accurate idea of what the book will be about and who will probably enjoy it in an attempt to keep people who clearly would not enjoy it from downloading it in the first place. For example, my novel is a Christian novel and I make this very clear so that I don’t get negative reviews from people who feel they were duped into reading it). Of course – because it is free – this doesn’t always work as planned (some people will download anything just because it’s free), but overall I think this is one of the most important things that authors can do – really make it clear in the description to whom the book is geared.

    Like you said, most writers in America (whether Indie or traditionally published) are left to their own devices marketing their books and promoting themselves. I hope that what I’ve shared here today will be of help to some of your readers. Remember: do whatever you can to get as many copies of your book in the hands of people who will more than likely enjoy it and – when you find out that they did – don’t be afraid to ask them (and ask them and ask them) for a review!

    Many blessings ~ Leeann

    • Hi Leeann…I was definitely not accusing your reviewers, or you, of doing anything. I just randomly chose Chop, Chop because I saw it had so many 5-stars.

      I’m impressed that you figured out how to let your book run free like that. May I say, Brilliant?

      Also brilliant to be so communicative with your readers. That is what makes indie authoring so darned special and important. It’s why this revolution makes so much sense. Honesty, communication, and trust.

      Congratulations on all your successes. Thank you so much for your insights. I hope others present the same. And nice to meet you, Leeann. Keep up your great work!

      • Thanks so much and nice to meet you too! I wasn’t brilliant though, just persistent! I kept seeing free books that were clearly self-published and I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it. Finally I contacted one of those authors on Facebook and they very kindly explained that they had put their book free on Barnes and Noble and then clicked the “Tell Amazon About a Lower Price” button. That’s what I then did. It took a while and you don’t have the same control over it that you would have with KDP, but Amazon did eventually price match the book. Of course they are under no obligation to continue this price match (or to price match any one else’s book who might hope to go this route), but like I said, it has been free since February and I’m obviously very pleased about that fact and thankful to Amazon.

        For those who may be wondering why I would give away my novel, it is because (aside from the fact that I really do want everyone in the world to read it!!) I have sequels available that are not free. I have found that readers who like Book 1 go on to purchase future books. Be careful of this route, however, if your first book will leave people hanging and force them to purchase a sequel for closure – I personally think you would be wise to disclose that upfront so that you don’t get bad reviews from readers who weren’t okay with that. Just my opinion!!

        Like you said, you really need multiple books to make money as a writer (although there are obviously exceptions to this). Even if you don’t have sequels, offering a book free (or very cheap) can help you to build a fan base of people who are willing to pay for other books that you write because they like your style.

  2. Great advice again. I was trapped by the Amazon KDP agreement until last weekend. I am trying to carve out time to move my ebooks to B&N, Kobo, etc. It is interesting what happens when Amazon feels competitive and drops the price of books…

  3. I did mine through Smashwords and highly recommend that route (not that I tried any other route, just that I was pleased with the final results). It takes a while to get the hang of how they want it formatted, but once you get it right it really makes for a clean read on an ereader. If you need any help, just let me know!

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