The review riddle revisited


A strange thing happened today. Someone wrote an Amazon review of my book “Love, Death and Tea”.

A single review might not be much of an event to the Stephen King’s and JK Rowling’s of this world. But down at the plankton end of the publishing food chain, it’s big news. A review – yippee!

Then you read it:

3 stars

Unique perspective. Funny

That’s it. A three word review. One word for each star.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m truly grateful for the review. Someone has taken the time to write in their busy schedule. Three stars is much better than 1 star and “It sucks.” Every little helps and all that.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s a comedy and they found it funny and, oh I don’t know, wouldn’t a fourth star be too much to ask for?

No, no, mustn’t think like that. Slaps own wrist.

Authors mustn’t quibble about reviews. Readers have a right to say whatever they want. Some people are tough reviewers. A three star from this reviewer might be hard won. If we save five stars for the genuine literary classics, then we should be realistic and be thankful for three stars for our more humble efforts.

It just so happened that I was on the Smashwords website later in the day. I noticed that they have a list of their highest rated books.

And that got me curious. With my three star review still buzzing in my head, I wanted to know what marvels of the English language might be the highest rated? To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps? Lord of the Rings? The Great Gatsby?

Not quite. If you click on that link you get a list of books with perfect five star ratings from all their reviews. At first, it’s quite a humbling thought. The highest rated book on the list has 74 reviews – each and every one a five star review. Wow.

There are 13 books on the list with more than 20 perfect reviews. Not a single four star amongst them, let alone my dismal three star.

Hmmm.   Is your BS detector beeping right now? Because mine certainly was.

I won’t name the books – you can go and look for them if you want. I don’t want to make any accusations without firm evidence. I took three books at random from the top ten and started to read their reviews. This is what I found:

Book one. Around half of the reviewers had only ever reviewed one book on Smashwords. This one. I suppose that is theoretically possible, but doesn’t it seem rather unlikely?

The other half of the reviewers had reviewed more than one book, but they had all read and reviewed more or less the same books as each other. Half of the people who had reviewed book one had also reviewed a couple of the other books in the most highly rated list. Books by different authors and on different subjects.

Again, that is theoretically possible, but highly suspicious. Half of the people who had reviewed book A had also reviewed book B? And given both books five stars? Yeah, right.

Book Two. Every single review came from someone who had only ever reviewed this book or its prequel.  Not one of its reviewers had reviewed anything else. That is either supreme dedication by its fans or …

Book three. Again every single review was from someone who had not reviewed anything else. What was more odd was that most of these reviewers joined Smashwords, bought the book and then reviewed the book all on the same day. And then never felt the need to review another book.

Then there was the language. I started to notice the same phrases cropping up in different reviews. In one of the books, more than half of the reviews included the phrase “Great story”, often written as a two word sentence. Great story.

One of the books had almost every reviewer as a one word username as in “FredSmith” or “FredS”. Another had almost every reviewer as a two word name, all in lower case – “fred smith”. That might just be a coincidence. But equally it might be someone sitting at their computer inventing names which sound just a little too much like the last name they invented.

I can’t be sure. For all I know, these reviews might be 100% genuine. All I can see are patterns that look mightily odd to me. Getting so many five star reviews is just a little too perfect.

Real reviewers don’t always give the full five stars. They review other books (but not all the same as each other). They use different language and sentence structure. Their usernames are unique and distinctive.

I have this slightly sad image in my head. I can see an author desperate to get more sales of a book that they poured their heart and soul into. But they can’t get sales until they get reviews, and they can’t get reviews until they get sales. So they look for ways to boost the number of reviews, maybe even to the extent of writing their own reviews or paying someone to write them.

I imagine they tell themselves that they are only doing this to kick start the book. A few dodgy fake reviews to get people to buy it and then the real reviews will come flooding in. A little white lie. No one will notice when they are rich and famous. Everybody does it.

Maybe, maybe.

Now I look back on my three star review with a new perspective. I’m absolutely proud to have a three star review from a living breathing human who took some enjoyment from my book. And who isn’t me under an assumed name or a friend doing me a favour.

Three stars? Three honest stars? I’ll gladly take that.

Thank you.


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