This week I did something perverse: I did not buy a book on Amazon because it had a huge number of positive reviews (more than 650 five star ratings).
I had a little time free and I was in the market for something new to read. The book was the first in a series by an indie author I’d never tried. As a newbie writer who might try self-publishing one day I’m all in favour of supporting good independent authors, so this was a strike in its favour. The series had been recommended to me by a friend who reads a lot and whose taste is similar to mine, so that was another. I logged on to Amazon and specifically searched for this author with the positive expectation that I would buy her book. Then I did what I usually do, which is to browse the reviews to get a flavour of what readers had enjoyed and what had annoyed them, and things went downhill fast.
The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of reviews. A couple of hundred would have been impressive – at the time of writing, SEP has two hundred and six for Ain’t She Sweet? – but the book in question had more than a thousand, which set off my wrong-o-meter. More than 650 reviews were five star, and another two hundred and something were four stars. So I dug into the reviews to see what had got so many readers so excited. Here’s a sample of what I found (and these are full reviews, not excerpts):
“This is a very enjoyable story that kept me turning pages rapidly. Already started Book 2 and want to know when Book 3 is coming …” (Five stars. ‘Great Story.’)
“I found myself reading this book in one day. Once I started reading it I just couldn’t stop. I’m ready to start the next one.” (Four stars. ‘Good Book.’)
“I looked at this book and thought that it looked interesting. Little did I know that it would unravel a new world and captivate my attention for so long.” (Five stars. ‘A Great Book.’)
“The book was entertaining and an easy read. It is a book you can enjoy when you just want to escape for a little while.” (Four stars.)
“It is a nice story you should read i recommend 11 to 30 years old if someone who is gonna read it is mature.” (Four stars. ‘Very Good.’)
Once I’d started noticing a bunch of four and five star reviews that said nothing whatsoever about the story, I abandoned reading the normal-looking reviews (and there were some) in favour of trying to spot a pattern in the others. They were mostly dripped in over time, with clumps around the end of a month. They were without exception verified purchases (which means the reviewer had actually bought the book from Amazon). They all had a headline saying ‘8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.’ Or 9 out of 9. Or 10 out of 10.
I’m not totally naive, but when I started to dig deeper I have to admit I was shocked. I know that it’s possible to buy positive reviews on Amazon (see this blog post on the subject by Andrew Shaffer), but I had no idea that it was such an industry. Amazon supposedly had a purge at the end of 2012, deleting thousands of suspicious-looking reviews, but a simple search of the internet shows that there are still professional, well-organised and clearly laid out pay-per-positive-review services being prominently advertised.
There’s more. It seems logical that authors will do what they can to create a buzz about their work – I am 100% sure I’ll buy any book published by any of the other Eight Ladies. I’ll definitely read it. I’ll review it – honestly, with a disclaimer saying the author is a friend – and for sure I’ll tell anyone I know that I think would enjoy it. I assume anyone with a book to sell would do something similar, along with blog tours and tweeting like mad and offering free books in return for an honest review, but I was shocked to discover sock puppetry – pretending to be somebody else online to promote one’s own books and even worse, denigrating the work of fellow authors – which is obviously common enough to have earned its own moniker. Read this depressing article in the Guardian if you’d like to know more.
The probably-fake glowing reviews I quoted above were counter-productive. They actually stopped me from buying and reading a book that may well have been right up my street (and if I’d liked it, I’d have bought the rest of the series), but only because the apparent attempt to game the system was so clumsy. I buy a lot of books and now I’m wondering how many times I’ve been suckered in by a more sophisticated operation.
Word of mouth is one of the most effective ways to discover new reads, so I’m not giving up on it, but I’m feeling a little burned right now. I think I’m going to start a monthly post here, where I know there’s no funny business, asking for suggestions and offering my own. I’ll continue to trust suggestions from the commenters on Jenny Crusie’s blog and to pick and choose from the titles showcased over at smartbitchestrashybooks, but I need to find a few more safe sources.
Suggestions, please – where do you find trusted book recommendations?