Write Stuff – Reader Beware

Dishonesty in book reviews is nothing new. As this Atlantic article points out, as far back as 1846 Edgar Allen Poe bemoaned the ?tissue of flatteries? that misled readers. Still, consumers have relied on respected sources like The New York Times book reviews to get advice on buying?or avoiding?books.

Then came the populist revolution in which anyone could post a literary opinion, giving fellow readers an honest, grassroots picture of a book’s merits. At least, that was the theory.

The reality, though, is that today’s online review system is rife with corruption. Everyone, from successful mainstream authors to struggling indies to disgruntled fans, has played a part in rigging the system to the point that It’s becoming useless.

Take the case of R.J. Ellory, a highly successful British crime writer who has won several awards (including Crime Novel of the Year 2010). Still, it seems that wasn’t quite enough for him. As The Telegraph reports, Ellory recently admitted that he’d created fake identities to give his books five-star reviews on Amazon. Even worse, he ?gave his rivals bad reviews and low ratings using the same pseudonyms.? Ellory’s case is similar to the deception pulled by Orlando Figes, the award-winning historian who wrote fake reviews slamming other history writers? books while praising his own.

But It’s not just ego that drives the fake reviews out there; at least one reviewer was in it for the money. As David Streitfeld reports in The New York Times, an enterprising marketer named Todd Rutherford hit on the idea of selling reviews to authors. In 2010 Rutherford started a website offering positive reviews. For $99, he would write one review. For $499, he’d provide 20. For a thousand dollars, he would write 50 online reviews.

His business was shut down, but in its short existence it supplied 4,531 reviews. Odds are, those enthusiastic reviews convinced at least a handful of honest readers to part with their cash.

Streitfeld also notes that Rutherford’s fake reviews are just the tip of the iceberg. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, ?estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.?

Sometimes fake reviewers are motivated by spite; their loyalty to a favourite author drives them to post scathing (and false) comments about other authors? books. Some people simply do it to trigger a reaction from other readers, and still other reviewers have altruistic reasons, raving about mediocre books by friends or family in an attempt to be supportive.

No matter what the motive, these misleading reviews undermine the entire system?including the authors that they’re supposed to help. If consumers see a book’s page loaded with five-star reviews, it could make them suspicious that someone’s gaming the system, and prompt them to spend their money elsewhere.

The good news is that the system is relatively new, and no doubt safeguards will evolve to minimize this kind of abuse. But until readers can trust that there’s a basic, widespread level of integrity behind online reviews, It’s a simple case of lector caveat: reader beware.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

%d bloggers like this: