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The Ugly Truth About Consumer Book Reviews: Part One

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For IndieReader, by Terri Giuliano Long:

Love it or hate it, this is an exciting time in the publishing world. Technological advances have made the long, arduous process of publishing a book cheap, easy and fast--giving voice to millions of new authors and providing readers with a richer, more interesting selection of books.

That's the good news. The challenge is, with so many new choices, how do readers determine which titles to pick?

With indie books, it can be especially hard. Only a handful of indie authors have been around long enough to have an identifiable "brand" (think James Patterson or Nora Roberts). To buy a book by an unfamiliar author, even if it costs only 99¢, readers must take a chance. This perception of risk is amplified by the stigma still associated with self-publishing. Complicating matters, traditional media rarely (if ever), review indie books, forcing readers to rely on consumer reviews--putting disproportionate authority into the hands of consumer reviewers.

Why is this bad? While the majority of consumer reviews are genuine and well-intended, anyone who has visited a review site like Trip Advisor or Yelp knows that they can also be unreliable and-- sometimes--downright dishonest. Some reviewers will lower a restaurant's rating because their server happened to be in a bad mood. Others fake their own glowing reviews or post reviews intended to damage a competitor's reputation. One popular up-and-coming restaurant received caustic reviews on Yelp--posted, it turned out, by a restaurant owner down the street, infuriated because he thought the new guy was "stealing" his business.

With the industry in tumult, publishing has become a free-for-all, akin to the Wild West. Eventually, a new hierarchy will emerge and rules will be set in place. In the meantime, the rules are ambiguous and loosely enforced. In a highly competitive environment, uncertainty and lax regulation offer people plenty of incentive to game the system.

In his controversial book "The Day the Kindle Died", which Amazon has since removed from their site, Thomas Hertog claimed that, by using a few simple tricks, he'd gotten his book onto Amazon's bestseller list. In an article titled "Amazon Kindle's Best Seller Ranking Is Bogus," Nick Farrell writes: "Over five months all he [Hertog] had to do was buy and download his book to his Kindle 173 times. He has also written 42 customer reviews that he voted on a hundred and eight times to raise the ranking on Amazon's bestseller list and recommendation lists." Manipulation like this skews perceptions and muddies waters.

Equally disturbing are reviews posted solely to serve an agenda. As with any revolution, the rise of indie-publishing has upset the balance of power. Some people find this troubling. In one unsettling case, an indie book received a 1-star rating on Goodreads--a week before the book was published. The "reviewer," it turned out, had rated hundreds of books, according every indie title--and only indie titles--a single star. Blanket reviews violate Goodreads' Terms of Service policy. After the author complained, Goodreads, to its credit, removed the review.

Readers have every right to express negative feelings about a book. Sincere reviews, positive and negative, ought to be encouraged--and honored. But disingenuous reviews hurt everyone. Host sites exacerbate the problem by allowing anonymous posts and encouraging the use of pen names, providing a safe haven for their reviewers. This blanket of anonymity engenders discussion, which is good. But anonymity combined with lenient rules rewards dishonesty. Essentially, an author can stack his reviews. Similarly, a disgruntled reader, an envious competitor, or a staunch protector of the old guard can post a scathing 1-star review, even if false--without being held accountable.

Part of the reason the hinky review practice flourishes is because social media sites and online retailers operate under a business model that relies on traffic. If moderators aggressively scrutinized or censored reviews, they'd risk alienating people, reducing the very traffic that keeps the sites in business. Many sites do post and uphold Terms of Service policies but typically, only egregious violations--e.g.: reviews that veer off-topic, contain foul language or attack an author directly--are removed. Unless site users complain, these policies are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Retailer sites have different issues. Reviewers can post a review, and then return a day or two later and post the same review again. On Amazon, when customers open a new account, they're required to make a purchase and then wait two days before posting a review. This limits the reviews to the number of credit cards the reviewer holds, and cuts down on fraud. Some sites don't bother to set limits and do minimal monitoring; on those sites, anything goes.

Realizing that consumer reviews, whatever the product or service, are often unreliable, savvy readers play them down or ignore them. Jenn, a book blogger also known as The Picky Girl, says, "I don't rely on recommendations from those types of sources because often the person just says something trivial or doesn't give a lot of information."

Assessing Consumer Reviews

So how can you tell if the reviews you're reading are reliable?

Be judicious. View overly enthusiastic as well as excessively negative reviews with a skeptical eye. If a book has 30 stellar 5-star reviews, and not one lower rating, chances are good that the author rallied a team of fervent cheerleaders. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice. If friends enjoy an author's book, why shouldn't they be allowed to post a review? Nor does it suggest that those reviews are deceitful or fake. It may mean the book has not yet been widely read outside a close circle of family and friends.

Exceedingly cruel remarks--"a waste of time," or "my eight-year-old could have written a better book"--or snarky comments questioning the legitimacy of awards, the integrity of the other reviewers or the authenticity of positive ratings, are sometimes motivated by an agenda. For a quick read on credibility, click the button to view the reviewer's profile. Does she favor a particular genre? Are your tastes similar? Do you agree with her other ratings? These answers, along with the total number of reviews--does she post regularly or is this her only review?--the length of time she's been a reviewer--three days or three years?--and the percentage of helpful votes tell a compelling story.

Books should have a mix of positive and negative reviews. Remember: most reviews are based on opinion and--if you haven't noticed--people usually have different tastes. Notoriously bad, roundly panned books attract avid readers, while even a masterpiece like "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, has garnered a smattering of negative reviews. Naomi Blackburn, founder of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, a 300+ member Goodreads group, says, "Although it might sting, they [authors] want those [negative] reviews. I am leery of books that have nothing but glowing reviews."

Vague, unsubstantiated claims--"the worst (or best) book I've ever read"--are rarely helpful, because they don't give the reader enough to go on. Look, instead, for thoughtful analysis backed by supporting detail. Lori Hettler, the "indie lovin' mastermind" behind "The Next Best Book Blog," says quality reviews "describe the writing style, plot lines, and characterization and back up the positive or negative comments with specific examples."

"While a reviewer's opinion is important," says Jennifer, creator of the blog "Books, Personally," "it is important that a review give some useful information about both the story and the writing style, so a reader can decide for him or herself."

Terri Giuliano Long is the author of the award-winning novel In Leah's Wake. Her life outside of books is devoted to her family. In her free time, she enjoys walking, traveling, and listening to music. True to her Italian-American heritage, she's an enthusiastic cook. In an alternate reality, she might be an international food writer. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. In Leah's Wake is her debut novel.