It was supposed to be the new democracy.
They said that the internet would revolutionise the way that we live, shop, eat, work. As consumers we would be able to publish reviews about everything – the book we have just read, the film we watched, the restaurant, pub, museum …
And while that is great in theory, there are some drawbacks. It is not quite working as we thought it might.
Let me put some personal perspective on this. I am trying to establish myself as a self-published writer. That means not only writing a book that people will enjoy reading. It also means marketing it.
That’s when you realise that reviews are the lifeblood of the self-publishing world. Reviews sell books. A good cover, blurb, title and the right selling price also help. But there is no getting around the need for lots of reviews. That sends your book higher up the Amazon lists which means that buyers are more likely to see it. And readers are more likely to buy a book with a long list of mostly good reviews.
Here comes the first problem. Some people will not read a book unless it has several good reviews. If everyone thought that way, how would a book ever get its first reviews?
So you look for people who will review an un-reviewed book. You might start with your friends and family. Then all your friends, followers and fans on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads …
You’ll probably get a smattering of excellent reviews this way. That’s a great boost to your confidence, but it comes with a caveat. Can we trust these reviews? Maybe Auntie Flo wrote you a nice review because she is Auntie Flo.
After friends and family, there comes the “review 4 review”. Other authors also need reviews, right? I’ll write a review of your book if you write a review of mine. We’re helping each other and we’re not friends and family. What could be wrong with that?
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It can also throw up a few awkward situations.
The biggest problem is deciding how honest to be. Can you give a bad review to a book if the author is reviewing yours at the same time? This is a tricky dilemma. On the one hand, you want to be honest. But you also need that review in return.
And you don’t want to hurt the other author’s feelings. You’ve probably exchanged emails, seen each other’s photographs, chatted a bit on the writing and reading forums. You are getting to be friends. Do you have the cojones to give a poor review if that’s your honest response to their book?
So you give the best review you can. You leave clues in the review about the bits that you didn’t like. You big up the positives. And you hit the “send” button with a huge amount of trepidation and fear. Will the other author be upset? Will they give your book a similarly bad review out of a sense of revenge?
Then it gets murkier and more cynical. One of the good things about Amazon is that you can get information about reviewers as well as about products and authors. So when I see someone give a five star review, I will sometimes click on their name to find out what other reviews they have given.
Some interesting patterns start to emerge. Sometimes you will see a reviewer who gives hundreds of five star reviews. That is an amazing workload – in some cases they are managing to read several books in a single day. And by some freak chance they never give less than five stars. That could mean that they are easily pleased. Or they could be very lucky that the books they read are all wonderful.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, they are in the business of giving five star reviews?
The other pattern I have spotted is the author mutual support group. Author A gives five star reviews to authors, B, C, D and E. Author B does the same for A, C, D, and E. And so on.
This is impossible to spot if you just look at one book. But you can see it if you look at several books by the same author or several reviews by the same person. You can follow the trail of breadcrumbs between the different authors scratching each other’s backs.
You might think that there is nothing wrong with any of this. Everyone is doing it, so it must be okay. No doubt the authors would argue that their reviews were genuine and it’s only a coincidence that they all happen to be five star reviews.
But wait. If everyone is sprinkling a layer of five star fairy dust on their books, soon readers will work out what is happening. Instead of needing, say, ten good reviews to get noticed we will need twenty, then fifty, then a hundred. We may be in the middle of an arms race where everyone loses – authors, readers, publishers.
Then we have the sillier end of the scale. A few days ago I received a message from someone offering to write me a review for five bucks. They asked me only to reply if I wanted to take up the offer.
Yeah, right. Reaches for the delete button.
Let’s turn the volume knob up. Next comes downright dishonesty. It turns out that a few authors have resorted to buying fake reviews:
All of this has caused a rather weird phenomenon. A five star review may now be worth less than a four star review. A five star review may be faked. A three or four star review is more likely to be genuine.
I don’t know what the answer is. The self-publishing industry relies on reviews and reviews can be manipulated. Readers are getting more sophisticated at spotting the BFF and back-scratching reviews, but then authors and publishers will get smarter at using the system.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I think I know what my answer is. About a month ago, I made “Love, Death and Tea” free for five days. This generated the grand total of two five star Amazon reviews and two four star Goodreads reviews.
Here’s one, a five star review on Amazon.com:
When I didn’t think this book could get any more deliciously absurd, well, let’s just say Once never stopped delivering.
I quite liked this book. Found it on a free promo day and took a chance with my time. So glad I did, though I ordinarily steer clear of zombies. This was a delightful play on the undea– er, uh, the supernatural.
I admit it wasn’t so gripping that I just had to finish my chores to get back to it, but will say that I didn’t want to put it down each time I picked it up. The writing style is so informal and fun that I found the reading of it to be easy and enjoyable. I laughed out loud at several parts and seek out my husband and teen daughter to read the funny bits to them. (So, I may have gotten more exercise reading this book than many others I’ve read.)
The decidedly British lingo and humor were a bonus for this American.
That’s a genuine review from a genuine reader. I have never met her. She isn’t a friend. I haven’t paid for the review or asked for it. She is getting nothing in return.
Those are the kind of reviews I want, even if I have to fight for them one or two at a time. It may take a lot longer to build up a readership that way. But at least I will know it was earned.
Here’s the rub. How will potential new readers know that was a genuine review, and not one that I have bought or traded?