Reviews: A Need For Transparency

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In a terrific post, the first in her new series, ‘Authors Gone Wild,’ blogger/reviewer Naomi Blackburn discusses book review ethics and the practice of inflating reviews’

Naomi writes: ‘. . . in the world of self-publishers, Indie publishers (small presses), and even big publishing houses, competition for book reviews has reached a new level of fierceness. . . One of the whispers going around Goodreads and Amazon has to do with the fabrication of reviews by friends or family of the author to prop up a book’s ratings, thus increasing its visibility.’

Not surprisingly, many authors have voiced concerns. If, as Naomi suggests, readers doubt these reviews, what does this say about legitimate 4- and 5-star reviews? Are all 5-star reviews considered suspect? How do readers determine which are which?

This skepticism is discouraging, especially for indie authors striving to be taken seriously. Although this may change, traditional media currently refuse to review indie books, putting greater emphasis on consumer reviews. In my view, the problem is less with the reviews themselves than with the lack of transparency.

I may be alone in this–generally, I don’t see a problem with family or friend reviews. After all, consumer sites allow anyone to post a review. On Amazon, you must have an Amazon account; this at least guarantees the reviewer is a real person (with a credit card) and limits the number of reviews she can post for a particular product to the number of cards in her (or his) wallet.

To my knowledge, Amazon has the strictest policy. If reviews left by enemies are not censored, why is it fair to censor reviews written by friends? Furthermore, if an author has spent time building a platform, in all likelihood he or she has gotten to know many other authors. Should all these author-friends also be forbidden to leave a review?

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the frustration Naomi expresses. Readers don’t want to be fooled by inflated reviews. I don’t blame them a bit: I don’t either. The real problem, at least as I see it, is not with 5-star reviews but that there’s no way to know who wrote them. Ditto 1- and 2-stars, often also one review wonders and also in some cases written to serve an agenda.

I understand why reader and consumer sites allow anonymous posts. Their business model requires the sites to drive traffic. Allowing anonymity encourages more posts, thereby increasing traffic. Problem is, there is no accountability. Reviewers can say whatever they please, knowing they won’t be called out. Lest it seem undemocratic to suggest that the sites require users to post their real name, there is precedent: in response to bullying and other nastiness in comments sections, some news outlets now require users to post under their real name.

A simple solution might be to require disclosure. Any reviewer who receives a free product in exchange for a review is required by law to disclose receipt of the freebie. If an author sends a book to someone (usually a blogger) in return for a review, the blogger must – and most do – disclose this info in their review. If consumers were required to disclose their connection to the author, in other words identify as a friend – or foe – readers, armed with this information, could decide whether or not to take the review seriously. The policy would, of course, be unenforceable – it would rely on the honor system. And we all know what that means. J

Seriously, there are plenty of legitimate reviewers and ways for readers to find legit reviews. In a story for IndieReader in December, I offered several ways for readers to find reliable, unbiased book reviews: e.g., follow a book blogger or check out the reviews on sites like Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly or IndieReader.

The story also appeared in the Huffington Post.

Naomi graciously allowed me to interview her for that story. Thank you once again, Naomi!

Okay, off the high horse. Thank you for listening and putting up with my rant!

If this topic interests you, don’t miss Naomi’s next Authors Gone Wild column! On Tuesday, May 23, she talks about authors who, out of envy, competitiveness or pure spite, post damning 1-star reviews.

What’s your opinion about reviews posted by an author’s family and friends?

Please note, the views of the post author - and indeed anyone who guest posts on Day by Day - are not necessarily indicative of the views of Terri Giuliano Long and comments are moderated to filter spam/profanity only.

"Censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion."

Terri Giuliano Long

Terri Giuliano Long, a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on hundreds of blogs, is a contributing writer for IndieReader and also wrote for Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, winner of the Global eBook Award, Popular Fiction, and Indie Discovery Award, Literary Fiction, has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide.

Latest posts by Terri Giuliano Long (see all)

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  1. Two points..

    1) Dang, Ter…don't be killing my next blog post that I am writing on competitor sabotage! (or are you leading into it???)

    2) That is not what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is an outsourcing of marketing/business development departments to an outside organization who developes review sources, negotiates with advertisers, etc. Consider it a marketing co-op. Right now, the way I see Indie market development is that it is like puzzle pieces laying on a table and big publishers are loving it, because they are competitors, but they aren't toe-to-toe competitors. Until they join forces in marketing efforts, until those puzzle pieces are joined together, they remain discombobulated.

  2. Terri..

    I am going to play devil’s advocate(would you expect any less from me?!?!) and say that family/friends reviews are less legitimate. It goes along the lines of are family members or friends going to give an honest indepth reviews? In my humble opinion, and that of a chunk of bloggers/reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, the concensus is no. Just with the dynamics of the relationship, they are going to be “blinded” as to the quality of the book. Are they going to be able to look at the author and say “Sorry, but your book just wasn’t good!” or “Boy, that character you wrote was really lacking in development.” When one thinks of family/friends, most would want to think they want to help prop that person up..not tear them down.

    My firm belief is that Indie publishers need to form “marketing coalitions” which are similar to “purchasing groups” that are present in smaller companies and allow them to purchase supplies/equipment at the same discount prices that are normally reserved for large companies. The same type of concept needs to occur with marketing/business development for indie publishers so they can compete toe to toe, dollar for dollar with the larger publishing houses. Conduct market development smart and I think Indie publishers will see their marketing dollars streamline and, in the process, once the issues of “fake” reviews are taken off the table, they will see their works be taken more seriously.

    Just my two cents!!

  3. I am here because of Christine and found your post very interesting. There has been a lot of discussion and accusations flying around the blog sphere recently about false and inflated reviews. I think there are a lot of bitter and jealous authors that cannot believe some authors really do deserve the 5* reviews we bloggers give them. I am always honest in my opinions and have in fact been criticised for this but I do believe I need to be truthful. I am going to share this on my FB page, hope that is ok.

  4. Wonderful point about poor reviews, Naomi. No author's voice resonates with all readers, and each of us certainly requires improvement in some area of the storytelling skill set.

    With regard to garnering reviews, debut novelists should keep in mind that a well-received first novel will guarantee book blogs will want to promote your next work. Elbow grease pays off, both in the hard work of creating compelling fiction, and the frustrating art of connecting with and nurturing friendships with book reviewers. I now count dozens of book reviewers as friends. They're smart, dedicated bibliophiles who want to find and promote The Next Great Read. All novelists owe them a debt of gratitude.

  5. Naomi and Terri–thank you for this honest and much-needed post. As an Indie author, I worry about the credibility of the self-publishing movement when inflated reviews and undeserved 5-star accolades appear to abound. I’ve seen reviews posted on an author’s Amazon page by the same author’s pseudonym, and books with a treasure trove of 5-stars by folks who have never reviewed anything else. Should readers trust such reviews? I think not.

    To maintain credibility, Indie authors must seek out reviews from book blogs and traditional media. I send my books to The Midwest Book Review and Publisher’s Weekly as well as to a host of blogs managed by serious bibliophiles. Yes, friends have reviewed by novels but never at my behest. And I know my friendship with certain authors will color my ability to review dispassionately, which is why I shy away from most offers to read a friend’s latest release.

    Thanks again for shedding light on a growing problem.

  6. John C. Davidson

    I’ve been writing for a very long time, mostly letters to the editor where my content is not harass by the editors. I took a course with Long Ridge Writers Group which I never completed for my teacher wrote Harleguin novels. I check a review of on of her love stories and found what I expected: Not a very realistic story line.

    I feel sometimes we try too hard to please editors rather than the reader while giving up our own identities in the process.

    One thing I do is never comment on my essays. No matter what,it serves no purpose & does hinder you from attacking a new subject you feel should be addressed.

    I even was given the opportunity to write four columns one year in our lcal newspaper, but even that becomes tedious to my style for I want to feel some emotion in what I write about, not just the need to say something.

    The main problem in writing letters to the editors is the monthly restrictions which actually kill any follow-up to what you have started a discussion about.

    Too many publications are politically oriented, no people oriented. So, it is a rough field to exoress yourself in at this precise moment.

  7. This has been an interesting topic. Thanks, Terri and Naomi. I am a huge fan of reviews on all products. I seldom buy anything without digging deep into the reviews to see what others said about it. I don’t see a problem with ‘friend/family’ reviews per say, it is only when they are nothing but fluff. If a friend can add something for a potential reader/customer to help them make an intelligent purchase decision. I had a few ‘friendly’ reviews go up on my book, and I almost wish they hadn’t done it. A shallow review can be spotted a mile away.

    Sometimes, though, early reviews are from beta readers. And by the nature of it, these people have a connection with the book. They might have made suggestions that helped improve it, and they then become more than readers, they are almost ‘co-authors,’ so their reviews might reflect that. But those tend to be helpful ones to readers. Detailed and in depth on characters or plot. Example: My sister did one review on mine. It was good, but she also cautioned that the book had violence, and language that could be offensive, even shocking. To me, that helps the people that would be offended by that. I’d rather they not buy it and be unhappy.

    The bottom line, IMO, is that shallow reviews-whether negative or positive-do nothing to help a reader make a decision, and that’s what reviews are supposed to be for. When I go to reviews, I toss all shallow ones aside and then read the ones who have something to say about what might be my concerns.

    Thanks so much for the great article. We need more of these,

I'd love to hear your thoughts!