There was a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday about a now-defunct website that sold reviews of books. The website, GettingBookReviews.com, offered several packages for authors seeking reviews of their book on sites like Amazon.com, including their highest-end package, 50 reviews for $999.
I had heard of fake reviews on websites before, of course, but more in the context of the author using a fake name to promote his own book, or a competitor trashing a rival’s volume. The idea that people might pay for Amazon reviews was news to me. The article got me thinking about what kinds of reviews I trust and how I use reviews on sites like Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Yelp.
My ideal review is one written by an author I know and whose taste I understand — like my favorite TV critic Alan Sepinwall, or Jo Walton and Liz Bourke over at Tor.com. I don’t always agree with their reviews, but all three of these reviewers are good at giving their readers a sense of exactly what they did and didn’t like about a book or show. After reading one of their reviews I can usually make a pretty good judgment about whether I’d like or dislike the book or TV show — even if my reaction will be different from the reviewer’s. Sepinwall, for example, convinced me to watch “Downton Abbey” by praising the show’s writing and acting, but admitting that the British aristocracy thing wasn’t really a subject matter that interested him and he never fell in love with it. Since I’m an Anglophile and a sucker for upstairs-downstairs drama, I knew I’d love it even though he didn’t.
But if Google searching doesn’t turn up a review from one of my trusted sources, I’m off to Amazon. I’m more cautious when it comes to consumer reviews — less because I worry about fake reviews and more because so many of them are unhelpful. (Why bother submitting a review if all you’re going to say is “So good!!!! Buy this book!!!!!” or “This was so boring adn lame, terrible book”?) If a book sounds promising based on the description I tend to focus on reading longer two-, three-, and four-star reviews. I’m looking for thoughtful mixed reviews to get a sense of what people didn’t like and whether it would bother me. So, for example, if I’m looking for a beach book, a three-star review that calls a book “fun but not deep” tells me exactly what I want to know. So does a two-star review that says “easy to read, but poorly paced with an unlikeable main character.” If several reviews make the same observation, I tend to trust that feedback.
Since I take the grain-of-salt approach to online reviews anyway, I’m not terribly outraged by the idea that some of the raves were paid for. It does strike me as ethically dubious, but I sympathize with authors who want their review count to rise in order to stand out in the glutted self-published market.
So what would be better ways to get a self-published book out into the spotlight? If I ever self-published a book, my instinct would be to offer review copies to a few book bloggers or Amazon reviewers who I thought would be fair and thoughtful and hope they liked it. But that wouldn’t exactly skyrocket my book to the top of the Amazon.com e-books list. What do you think are fair and effective ways for self-published authors to find a readership?