THE BLOG
12/21/2011 12:41 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Did that Bad Review Come with a Side of Ulterior Motives?

How much can you trust book reviews on the web? Turns out, very little.

My journey in self-publishing started at the end of this past October. I had a young adult book, no prospective agents and a life-long dream to fulfill, so I decided to go it my own. In the first three weeks, I sold a meager 35 copies. But, by mid-December, I'd sold nearly 800 copies and had racked up several good reviews -- most of which weren't my family. I was completely elated, until I got my first taste of bad press.

A 2-star review rolled in on Goodreads, stating "WTF? This cover looks like a rip off of captivated. and the cocky character in the beginning sounds too much like Shane from Apodaca's book." Like any writer, the merest hint of plagiarism set off blaring warnings in my brain, so I searched for this book "Captivated." Both covers depicted the close-up of a red head, but one visit to the YA section of Amazon will show you dozens of books depicting a similar thing. I scanned the reviewer's profile and saw she'd joined Goodreads only minutes before rating my book. About an hour later, another person commented on the review saying, "I totally agree!... It looks like the Captivated cover (only Captivated is waaaay better)." This reviewer had joined Goodreads in November. On Nov 5th, she gave "Captivated" a 5-star review, stopped using Goodreads for almost a month, and then logged on to give the not-yet-published second book in the series, "Unattainable," a 5-star review and to comment on my book. The whole thing seemed odd, but I decided it could still be coincidence.

I let it go, until I woke up Monday morning to see I had received 1-star reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon. The individual on Goodreads had joined on April 20, 2011 to give '"Captivated'" a glowing 5-star review, and then stopped using Goodreads for seven months before giving my book a 1-star rating. Not wanting to believe someone would go out of his or her way to sabotage my novel, I checked Amazon, almost hoping to see a legitimately bad review. As you might have guessed, my 1-star 'critic' had only ever reviewed one other book, "Captivated," and had gifted it with a rave 5-star review in October of 2010.

And, that's when I got infuriated. Bad reviews I could handle. My trials and tribulations had prepared me for the good, the bad and the ugly of reader feedback, but in my mind this was something else. Did I know if this was a malicious attack? No, I didn't know, but the events seemed decidedly fishy. Did I think people were going out of their way to hurt me? Absolutely. And you know what? It was succeeding. Since the negative reviews were posted, my Amazon ranking had sunk and the rate at which my books were selling had gone down. At the beginning of a self-published novel's life, even one bad review can ruin months of dedication, late nights and hard, hard work.

And, that's when I said enough! With publisher's rejecting agent proposals, agent's rejecting author queries and the economy as bad as it is, getting published is already nearly impossible. But, when self-published authors who should be helping each other get noticed start sabotaging the competition instead, there needs to be a change. But, what to do? Amazon already only allows reviews if you have a unique email and credit card, and have bought one of their items. And, Goodreads has a one email per account stipulation. So, how can this end? Take away the ability to post anonymously, and you could remove a lot of the good-natured participation on these sites. As the saying goes, you don't want to let one bad apple spoil the bunch.

The only real solution is for authors and readers to help each other. Online, people seem to go out of their way to smash others, when the appropriate thing to do is to help others grow. If you honestly do not like a book, by all means state your opinion and give a negative review, but give the author pointers on what to improve, not just a blanket negative statement. If you love a book, go wild and rave about it, regardless of whether the author is your best friend or your competition. If we want to change the industry, we need to start by changing our own actions -- the goal should be to help and not to hurt each other.