Jilly: The Bad News About Good Reviews

Five Gold StarsWhere do you find new book recommendations? Do you read reviews, and would you make a purchase based on the opinions of persons unknown?

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?

21 thoughts on “Jilly: The Bad News About Good Reviews

  1. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt — but it is odd when most of the readers are giving such imprecise reviews. I think I would go back to my friend who recommended it, and ask why she liked it.

    (-: If she said something that sounded like those amazon reviews, maybe it’s a clever alien hypnosis strategy that brainwashes people into voting four or five stars (-:. Stay away from the book!

    In general, I think the four-star reviews are pretty good at describing a book. I’ll also look at two-star reviews. What I’m looking for is keywords that match my booksense. (Or in the case of two-stars, negative keywords that I shy away from.)

    More mainstream reviews (from magazines like The New Yorker, or podcasts from NPR) are also useful — if I see my keywords in the description.

    Other than that, I use friends, both on-line and off-line, to be my filters. Found lots of good books thanks to The Ladies here. Some of my on-line friends can be quite expensive! OTOH, my off-line friends often share the books, so I save a bit there.

    A book still has to jump a lot of hoops before I buy it, though. The booksellers’ reviews, the blurb on the back, and I try not to give too much weight to the cover, but a good cover will tip me over the edge. I have bought a few stinkers just because the cover made me take the chance. But I’ve read too many books with dire covers to discount a book just because of it.

    (-: I haven’t read that much lately, so I don’t have anything timely to add to your reading list.

    • I tend to browse the content of reveiws and skip the ratings, but I like your two and four-star approach, Michaeline. I mostly buy online and I don’t take much notice of the cover. Apart from a general indicator about genre I don’t think it’s any kind of reliable indicator (just got an email this morning about Patricia Briggs’ new Alpha & Omega book. It’s an auto-buy for me but knowing the characters I absolutely *HATED* the cover).

      I’m not giving up on reviews, but I am definitely going to upgrade my filters. And hope you start reading again soon. Recommendations of any kind from you would be much appreciated – my husband and I both owe you for Rivers of London/Midnight Riot and Thoroughly Modern Millie 🙂

  2. I have a couple of friends who are awesome at providing suggestions. And so is my daughter. And NPR and New Yorker reviews. Between working, keeping house and writing, that’s generally enough to keep my stack beyond my ability to keep up.

    • Jeanne and I must be living parallel lives. My go-to recommendation sources are friends (especially fellow writers), NPR, and my daughter. My daughter has excellent taste, or at least I think so, as our tastes are so similar :-). She has a bit more patience for books with a slow beginning or saggy middle, but I think I had more patience with books at her age, as well.

  3. I do read Amazon reviews, so I was quite shocked by your findings, Jilly. Having said that, it’s probably fairly rare that I pick up a new author cold from Amazon, without having heard about them elsewhere. The best sources of recommendations for me are 1. online friends (eg I’m reading the fifth in Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series right now – recommended by you), or 2) Blogs with book readers who like similar genres. My favourite one is on Lauren Willig’s blog – most Fridays she does a weekly reading round up and lots of people contribute what they’re reading at the moment – I’ve lost count of the number of great recommendations I’ve had from there (Gail Carriger being just one example), 3) I’ve also had great leads from writer’s facebook pages – so, for example, I think I find Eloisa James from Julia Quinn etc.

    Things I am reading at the moment, or have just read (as well as Julie Anne Long):

    1. Big Georgette Heyer re-read, so that’s no use as a lead – just re-read Faro’s Daughter, loved it and felt rather depressed that my H and H are nowhere near as fun or engaging.
    2. Just read Connie Brockway’s latest – The Songbird’s Seduction (brilliant, light-hearted Edwardian romp of a romance)
    3. also just read One Hundred Proposals – Holly Martin (actually, I did get this cold from Amazon – it was Daily Deal). Very sweet contemporary romance – I really liked her voice.
    4. Gone Girl – on the TBR pile before film comes out – want to know what all the fuss is about
    5. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell – on TBR pile because there seems a buzz about this writer, so I was curious.
    6. My Beautiful Enemy, Sherry Thomas – this is her latest on TBR pile. Have you read Sherry Thomas? Mostly brilliant Victorian romances, though a few have slightly strange plots but writing is great.

    Right, ending this now rather long post…

      • I re-read Outlander and tried the first two JD Robb In Death books – felt I should have read them before now. They’re maybe a little dark for my taste.

        I also looked up Lauren Willig’s first Pink Carnation book but hesitated because it looked as though there are parallel storylines, contemporary and historical – is that right? You’ve read the series, so obviously it works, but I wasn’t sure how it would develop, and I was grumpy about investing in it blind (it was just after the review debacle so I was feeling cranky).

        • Yes, it has a framing story which is contemporary. The thread that runs through the series as a whole is that this modern day American graduate student is researching her thesis into Napoleonic spies (and particularly the little known Pink Carnation) and she comes across a cache of letters owned by a descendant of the man supposed to be the Pink Carnation. We then follow the series through various spies (most of whom seem to have names of flowers), but at its heart, each book is a love story with a different couple – with some of the characters staying the same throughout (eg the Pink Carnation, who of course is not the person we think at the beginning, but someone quite different).

          In my opinion, the modern day story is a lot weaker than the historical ones, but don’t be put off by that, because the bulk of the stories are set in the past (as I said, the contemporary bit is really just framing).

          Re Outlander – I wasn’t gripped and put the book down and didn’t pick it back up again. However, I suspect the problem was that I didn’t have enough time in one go to get far enough in and then got sidetracked. Re JD Robb – I’ve always been a bit worried that this would be Nora showing her more violent side, which is a bit too much for me. I’ve just read The Collector, which was okay but not a classic.

        • Forgot to say that I’m trying to get into Goodreads for recommendations but so far haven’t got very far.

          Btw, just wanted to say to Nancy that I’m not rudely ignoring your post of today (which normally I’d be fully into), but avoiding it because am paranoid about Gone Girl spoilers (I’m about to read it).

    • Fangirl and Gone Girl are both buzz-y books that I haven’t read – would be interested to hear what you think of them, Rachel. I have read one Sherry Thomas, ages ago – would it be His At Night? The one with the clever hero pretending to be stupid. I thought the writing was good but I didn’t go on to buy more of her books and I can’t remember why now.

      • She locked him in the basement – that’s brilliant – but he thought that was an entirely logical thing for her to do – for me, that’s the best. There’s all this conflicting action on the surface, but under everything the H&H are in perfect accord with one another. Love, love, love Heyer. Compared with her, almost everyone’s H&H come out subpar.

        • Re-reading it with a writing hat on is great and interestingly adds to rather than takes away from my enjoyment. It’s a great example of where H and H completely clash from beginning to end, but she manages it skilfully so it is completely right that they get together rather than appearing a weak volte-face on the part of protags.

  4. I quit reading reviews a while back. It turns out that what I am looking for in a book is rarely what others appreciate. I know everyone here who knows me is just shocked by that. 😉 I ignore the number of stars in a books’ Amazon rating unless it is bizarrely low. An overall rating of one or two stars will put me off.

    If a friend recommends a book I will immediately order the Kindle sample and download it to a “Collection” labeled “TBR Samples.” Then I will search through those when I want something to read, looking for a match to my mood.

    Most of the time, though, I find new books through Amazon’s Author Pages (for Author Page newbies, you can find author pages by clicking the link that is the author’s name on any Amazon book listing). Author pages give you a bio, a list of their books, often their latest tweet or blog post, and most importantly the “Customers also bought Items by” block. It’s that “also bought items by” space where I find most of my new authors.

    • Two new strategies there for me, thanks, Jennifer. I never used to bother with samples, and the only reason I know about Author Pages is that I got one thanks to my Stories For Homes short story last year. I’ll try wandering around there a little and see how I get on 🙂

  5. Jilly, you’re right: the Amazon reviews are gamed in many ways. Here’s one, a personal account: I use a pseudonym to review books on Amazon, because I’m not crazy about using my name to (potentially) give a mediocre review to a romance novel when I write romance novels. Seems like that way trouble lies, even though I almost never review a book I don’t like. The other day, I was looking over the reviews for one of my self-published books, and there was a two-star review by “Kay Keppler,” who clearly is not me, and who, when I clicked on the link, has reviewed only one product, this one book of mine. So somebody out there doesn’t like me, not that it has me worried over much. There was also that big scandal a couple of years ago about a relatively well-known author who both wrote fake good reviews for himself under pseudonyms and also bad reviews for others.

    So, I get new books from recommendations from the 8 Ladies and Jenny’s blog primarily, but I look at any review anywhere to see if the blurb is appealing. I’m sorry to say that when I look at blurbs for books and I see bad marketing writing, no matter how interesting the subject matter, I almost never go further. And I always read the first page or two. I’ve rejected all kinds of stuff with all kinds of reviews because that invitation to the party wasn’t sufficiently appealing.

    The library continues to be an outstanding resource for me. It has new books, it has classics, it’s free. It reserves titles that are out, it sends an email when the book’s due, I can renew online. I love it. Plus, the librarians have all kinds of recommendations. So I can indulge all I want without breaking the bank and without having to store anything, paper or digital. Could we get this through Congress today? I think not.

  6. Actually, two places I use to find new books are Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine. Not EVERY book they recommend is fantastic, but quite a few are. Also, Oprah’s book club (not sure if she even does that anymore, but you at least have a list of really good books to choose from if you look backwards).

    You might also try other book club recommendations. There’s a site called bookclubgirl.com that lists book club suggestions/recommendations, as well as what Book Club Girl is currently reading. Not sure every book there will be your cup of tea, but it might give you some out-of-the-box suggestions. A few of the books there I have read and they are amazing. “The Help,” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (non-fiction), for example.

    Okay, now to find a good book. (I promised myself that I’d read more, which means most evenings, so no more working on the book at night — I need to be reading new stuff.)

  7. Pingback: Justine: Fiction as Reference Books | Eight Ladies Writing

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