Saturday, 26 April 2014

On Book Reviews ...

Okay. Lets talk book reviews.

Writing book reviews is generally a lot of fun and that is precisely why I write them. There is something lovely about being able to share my thoughts on a book with the general public. And, obviously, I appreciate it when people take the time to review my books. But I have also noticed that reviewers and authors can come under a lot of scrutiny. Here's why ...

Legitimacy

Here is one that some sectors of the online community get hung up about and it's not difficult to see and understand why. Some reviews are fake. I am confident that this is not news to anyone. It would be easy enough, I imagine, for anyone to create a fake account on goodreads or amazon and to write that glowing review that lavishes praise on a particular book. Or, conversely, to write two or three paragraphs damning a book by a rival author to hell. I'm sure it happens. And yes, I think it is wrong, unethical and a whole load of other things.

But that does not mean that we should automatically assume that every five star review on amazon or goodreads from someone who has only reviewed one book is a fake review that has been posted by an evil, attention seeking author. The fact is, not everyone reviews books for a hobby. There are a multitude of good, plausible reasons why someone might review just one book on Amazon or goodreads.* This is not suspicious behaviour. Especially when it is clear from the review that the person has actually read the book and gives a basically straightforward account of what they liked about the book without going too over the top. 

A professional troll or sock-puppet is generally good at what they do. A professional sock-puppet is going to try and make it appear as though they have a well maintained account, which can easily be achieved by the time-consuming process of creating an account, uploading an avatar, a short bio and sticking around to add a couple of reviews of other similar books. In other words, a professional sock-puppet is going to do his or her best to try and convince you that they are not, in fact, a sock-puppet. The real tell comes from the lengths they go to prove their expertise on the subject and then the language he or she uses to write either a glowing or damning review. They are going to want to convince you that this is a great or terrible book. A fake glowing review would read something like this:
In all my fifty years as a high school history teacher, I have never seen such a meticulously researched and accurate account of life in the slums of Berlin in the days before World War II as Hilda's Story. I simply cannot fault this wonderfully told tale. I also simply cannot understand why some reviewers believe that graphic and detailed depictions of Hilda's experiences as an underage prostitute make the book unsavoury. I would give this book seventeen stars if I could ... 
Obviously, that's something that I've just made up as an example and not a (suspected) fake review, but my point is this. A real fake review is going to contain statements that are very easy to challenge. For example:
All my fifty years as a high school history teacher ...
Seriously? The reviewer has been teaching history for fifty years. On the surface it may sound like a great qualification. But consider this. If they are at retiring age now (65), that means they must have started teaching when they were fifteen.
I have never seen such a meticulously researched and accurate account of life in the slums of Berlin in the days before World War II as Hilda's Story. I simply cannot fault this wonderfully told tale. 
Not suspicious in itself, but it's certainly heavy on the praise. Also odd that they would not be stating what makes the depiction so accurate.
I also simply cannot understand why some reviewers believe that graphic and detailed depictions of Hilda's experiences as an underage prostitute make the book unsavoury. I would give this book seventeen stars if I could ... 
Now this part would certainly arouse suspicion. First of all, it challenges the views of other reviewers and then hints at the fact that the book contains a significant amount of controversial content--a clever way to potentially increase sales as some people may buy a copy of the book just to see what all of the fuss is about. And then it ends with a ridiculous statement about the star rating.

A fake negative review is going to look something like this:
Don't get me wrong, I wanted to like Hilda's Story but I do not feel that this is a well told or accurate depiction of pre-World War II Berlin. For a start, the whole thing is written in English when everyone knows that people who live in Berlin speak German. Instead, I think that you should read Tilly's Tale by Imma Storyteller, which is the same story, only better and it's set in London. 
Again, this is something that I made up. But here are a few key statements that are easy to challenge:
Don't get me wrong, I wanted to like Hilda's Story ...
This is something I have never understood. Why would anyone note that they want to like a book? Liking any work of art is usually a highly subjective choice that is based upon numerous variables. I know the statement gets tossed about quite a bit on goodreads and its used often in legitimate reviews by people who have actually read the book they are talking about but it's generally used as a means of asking for empathy. See, the reviewer is trying to get across that they are not a bad person. They did not pick up this book with the intention of hating it. So please don't hate them for not liking the book, they are writing this negative review very, very reluctantly ...
... but I do not feel that this is a well told or accurate depiction of pre-World War II Berlin. 
Here we have an opinion that looks honest enough ...
For a start, the whole thing is written in English when everyone knows that people who live in Berlin speak German. 
Followed by evidence that is completely spurious. After all, book written for an English speaking audience is going to be written in English, regardless of the setting.
Instead, I think that you should read Tilly's Tale by Imma Storyteller, which is the same story, only better and it's set in London. 
And here is the killer. The reviewer is directly referring to a rival book and telling you that it is better.

In other words, look carefully at the review itself, rather than the account holder. We do not need to call into question the morals or legitimacy of every person that has only ever left a solitary review on a website that allows anyone to write a review. The content should tell you everything that you need to know.

*For the record, these reasons can be anything from forgetting ones password and opting to open a new account instead, to discovering after completing the long and laborious task of writing a review that they decide that they would much rather stick their head in a toaster than write another one. 

Reviews From Family and Friends

I like it when family and friends go and write books. Not only is it a rare and momentous occasion that deserves to be celebrated but it usually means that I get to be one of the first people in the blogging community to review their work. Win. 

This is another issue that people get hung up on. Reviews from someone who is a family member, or a friend of the author, can be sneered upon in some quarters. Why? Is there are rule that says that the family and friends of an author cannot be a reader? Granted, those family and friends are probably not going to do much rating and reviewing for an author who is a family member if they think the book is terrible and do not want their names associated with it, but is it really so terrible if say, someone's aunt who also happens to be an avid reader and an active member in the goodreads community reviews their nephew's latest self-published book? Is it deceptive if they clearly state that they are that authors aunt, give four stars and note what did and what did not work for them? Or what if the aunt is an avid reader, but only writes the occasional book on goodreads but genuinely this work is so great that she just has to write a review? Should we discount her opinion then? What if she posts her review on amazon, where there are direct links to where the book can be bought? Is that misleading? What if, also, she legitimately bought her copy from amazon? Does she have less of a right to share a review than anyone else who purchased a copy?

The fact is, anyone can write a review on either site and so long as it is about the book and nothing else, it is not a violation of the terms of service. Sometimes that can seem like an unfair rule and sometimes it is. But mostly, it isn't. 

Paid Reviews

I have to admit, I had a bit of a chuckle when I discovered that over on fiverr there are people who are willing to buy your book from amazon and review it. Considering that five dollar price tag includes purchasing the book and a couple of hours of their time while they read the book, it seems like a bit of a lark to me. It would certainly cut down the amount of time it takes to find bloggers who may be interested in your work and then writing out personalised emails to them all--which can be a long and thankless task. For five dollars, you're essentially giving someone a review copy of your book and letting them keep the change in exchange for their trouble. Seems a lot easier than spending a weekend typing out personal emails to book bloggers who (mostly) never write back. (And yes, before you ask, I'm guilty of not replying, or not replying as quickly as I should do ...)

The main problem with this one--and this one most definitely is a legitimate concern--is that most of the people offering their review services are not offering fair or honest reviews. Most of these people are offering guaranteed five star reviews and the chance to 'play' the system on amazon to generate further interest in the book. I can see why anyone would be upset by this. It's false advertising.

But that does not mean that every five star review written on amazon or goodreads ever was written by a shill. Most of them are probably just written by people who genuinely liked the book.

* * *

As I stated before, liking any work of art is highly subjective and based upon a huge number of variables. I know a lot of teenage girls who believe that Twilight is brilliant because it is the first "grown up" novel that they have been able to understand. Who can really blame a fourteen-year-old girl for preferring Twilight to Moby Dick? And who is not to say that their opinion, on a site where everyone is welcome to have a say, is invalid? A thirty-seven-year old, male English professor may have a totally different opinion and their opinion is just as valid, but what it does not do is invalidate the former. Both have the right to put forward their views. And they also have the right to do so without their motives being questioned, even if that fourteen-year-old also happens to be the niece of Stephenie Meyer and that thirty-seven year old male English professor just bought shares in a rival publisher. The real tell lies in the evidence that they offer in conjunction with their reviews.

I am going to end this piece by saying yes, I am aware that a lot of fake or at least questionable reviews exist out there. And yes, sometimes there does need to be someone out there flagging those reviews. However, I feel that authors come under a little too much scrutiny at times. The fact is, if you want to read the reviews on goodreads or amazon, you're going to have to live with the fact that anyone can post a review there and not all of them are going to contain opinions that you agree with. And some reviews are going to be fake. But that does not mean that every reviewer or author should automatically come under suspicion without just cause. 

2 comments:

  1. I need to have a reply, but it's late and, actually, I have to leave again soon, so I don't have time to figure out what I want/ought to say.
    However, more people should leave reviews.

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    Replies
    1. No worries Andrew.

      I've rewritten the article slightly, as I don't think that I was getting my point across as well as I could.

      I agree, if more people left reviews, it would wipe out a lot of speculation about some reviews being fake, because there would be a wider pool of opinions to peruse.

      Delete