On Bogus Book Reviews

There’s been a furor recently about authors faking reviews in one manner or another: Either by buying reviews, or by sock puppetry. As nobody can generate reams of morally-outraged words like offended writers, it’s created a pretty big buzz in the publishing world. Here’s my thoughts on these types of reviews. For brevity, I lump all of these reviews into a category I’m going to call “fake reviews.” It’s not strictly accurate, I know, but I can’t come up with a better phrase at the moment.

I’m not outraged. I’ve expected this. Perhaps it’s my computer security experience, but any system that permits this kind of exploitation will be exploited. Publishing is no magic kingdom exempt from the rule of self-interest. Just because I’ve expected this, doesn’t mean I approve of it.

Reviews are important. I depend on reviews for sales, and I depend on sales to write new books. Would I like hundreds of five-star reviews? Sure.

Would I pay for them, or sock-puppet them? No.

Purchasing reviews betrays a lack of confidence in your work. If your work is good, if it has an audience, that audience will find it. Eventually.

Writing is a long game. You must have patience. In traditional publishing, a paperback book has about three months to find a readership. Today, with ebooks, online ordering, and print-on-demand, books can take years to find a readership. (My nonfiction books are different, mind you; one factor that goes into deciding if I should write a book is if I expect it to have at least a three-year lifespan. My books have considerably less time to find readers. Lucky novelist bastards.)

The fact that I’m not willing to pay for good reviews means that I have to ask my readers for them. I walk a careful line between groveling for exposure and annoying my readers. So far, I seem to have erred on the side of not annoying my readers, but I’m OK with that. It’s better to get fewer reviews than alienate your readers.

I send books to book reviewers. They want books to review, I want book reviews. It’s a fair trade.

I can’t say that I would never buy a review. Never is a strong word. Purchasing a review from a reviewing business would be a business decision. But if I ever do buy reviews, they will be disclosed as such.

On the other side of this coin:

I occasionally review books, both on Blather and on Amazon. I frequently know the authors of these books. I don’t consider these reviews fake, but I do try to disclose my bias.

If I review a book on this blog, it’s because I honestly think it’s awesome, or because it fills some desperate need and it’s “good enough,” or because it changed how I think about things. I review some books from No Starch Press, because they always ask me if I’m interested in their new titles. I don’t review all the books they send me. In part that’s because I’m lazy. In part it’s because I’m working on my own books. But I find the time to review the truly exceptionally awesome books they send me. (Which reminds me, I owe them a review on the Magna Guide to Linear Algebra.)

I also review fiction books I really enjoy, but not as “Michael W Lucas, Famous-in-a-real-small-world Author.” Usually those go up under my family’s Kindle account. Do I know those authors? Some of them, sure. I’m a writer. I make friends with other writers. We sit around smoky rooms late at night, sipping absinthe and bemoaning how unfair life is to us artistic sorts. But most of my blog readers don’t really care that I think that Harry Connolly’s 20 Palaces books are unquestionably the best modern fantasy of the decade, and that everyone interested in that genre should purchase them all, immediately. You’re here for other reasons. (I have no idea what those reasons are, but they’re something about technology. Or writing. Something like that.)

For example, I didn’t know Chris Sanders before reviewing Practical Packet Analysis. But we’ve exchanged emails several times since then, and if I ever get to his part of the world I’ll ask him if he wants to get barbeque. It’s called networking, and it makes your career go. But if he ruins the (purely hypothetical) third edition of his book, that connection won’t make me give him a five-star review. I’ll just quietly not review it.

Same sort of thing Peter Hansteen and his Book of PF, although my chances of getting to Norway aren’t very good. And Norway isn’t noted for their barbeque. (What do they eat in Norway, anyway? From my observations at tech conferences, the answer seems to be “beer.”)

I occasionally write reviews about books by writers I know. It’s a small world.

If I write a review, in any genre of book, it’s because I honestly think a book is awesome. I’ll give that book 4-5 stars. I won’t give someone a 5-star review just because I’m their friend, however.

If I read a book and I enjoy it, but it’s not awesome, I won’t review it. Just because a book doesn’t set fire to my brain doesn’t mean that book won’t speak to someone else. In computer book terms, just because a book is about Windows 7 doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book. It’s just not for me.

Would I ever give a book a 1-star review? Sure. If a book is unprofessionally done, I’ll excoriate it. Sentences have these things called “verbs” and “nouns,” and are built with this thing called “grammar.” If a book completely fails to meet my standards for competent wordcraft, I feel free to label it a failure.

But usually, when I get crap in my eyes I close them.

3 comments to On Bogus Book Reviews

  • Paul

    Just a minor point, but isn’t Peter Hansteen from Norway? :)

  • Oh, dang! Fixed, thank you.

  • Paul

    I think the beer thing still applies to Finland though. At least, that’s what I understand from discussions with a couple of Finnish people. Maybe it’s true for Norwegians as well :).

    Back on topic, it’s disappointing that some authors resort to these tactics to generate sales (or is it ego?). In Australia we have had some examples of media personalities ‘tweaking’ their own wikipedia pages for personal promotion, which is in a similar vein to the sock puppetry that you have mentioned.

    Ultimately, I hope that quality will shine through and that hard-working authors producing quality material will be recognised and rewarded for their works…but I guess this remains to be seen with the industry changing as it is!