Write Stuff – Five-Star Follies

You need to buy a gift and you know just the thing: a book. Maybe you’ll spring for a gorgeous coffee-table book on gardening for your mom. Or maybe you want to add a horror novel to your best friend’s e-reader. But You’re not into gardening, and the closest you’ve been to the horror genre is The Devil Wears Prada. No problem. Just check out a few online reviews and click the buy button, right? Not so fast. If you don’t know what to be wary of, you could end up being hoodwinked by an authors? feud?or falling for some playful (but less than accurate) rankings.

Traditionally, we’ve gotten book-buying advice from trusted sources. A favourite newspaper’s review page, recommendations from friends, or a casual mention by a librarian. But these days reviews and rankings are everywhere, from blogs to retail sites, and it can be hard to know which ones to trust.

If You’re in a hurry, it can be tempting to simply go straight to a retailer’s Top 100 section. Unfortunately, those sales rankings are all too easy to manipulate, and It’s a subject That’s had a lot of attention lately (this Teleread article sums up one case).

Even when they’re legitimate, high sales rankings and bestseller lists are no guarantee of a good read. For instance, Jean M. Auel’s The Land of Painted Caves has spent over three months on Amazon’s Top 100 and has climbed into the top 10 as of this writing. It’s also high on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. Yet the majority of reviews at sites like Goodreads give it only two or three stars, and the Globe and Mail‘s response to the novel was lukewarm. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the book, but it is a good reminder to dig a little deeper, especially if It’s an author or genre You’re not familiar with.

So if sales rankings aren’t a good yardstick, what about those reviews and ratings from other readers? Well, the dozens of Amazon five-star ratings for How to Avoid Huge Ships offer an amusing insight into why those rankings also need to be evaluated carefully. From what I can tell, the title itself is legitimate?and self-explanatory. It’s also attracted over a hundred tongue-in-cheek reviews that include gems like this one: ?[H]uge ships are everywhere and it doesn’t help that the [TV] and movies make huge ships seem glamorous and cool. This book helped me really approach the subject of huge ships with my kids in an honest, open and non judgmental way.?

It’s all in good fun and clearly not meant to dupe people out of their money. In fact, whimsical reviews have become a sub-genre all their own; you can find links to several more in this Cracked article. Even if you don’t get a chuckle out of them, they offer at least eight good reasons to look beyond those little gold stars.

And in case you think the art of rogue reviews is strictly the domain of anonymous posters with too much time on their hands, It’s worth noting that many such reviewers use their real names?and that sometimes, review systems are manipulated by respected authors themselves.

One of the most high-profile cases comes from the world of academia, involving an Oxford University professor no less. The story hit the popular media, including the Guardian, about a year ago. Orlando Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck, London, wasn’t content to anonymously post glowing reviews of his own book at Amazon UK. He also used a pseudonym to dismiss his academic rivals? books as ?awful? and ?hard to follow.?

In the growing online maze of reviews, ranks, and listings, perhaps the best way to find candid book-buying advice is to blend the old with the new. Spread your net wide over the abundance of choices, and you’ll soon narrow it down to a few favourites you can trust. They might be bloggers who write regular reviews, or usernames you begin to recognize from retail sites and social forums. They might even be familiar standbys like established media columnists. And who knows? You might just discover a few five-star friends.

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