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Publishing

The Ratings Game! Just How Good Is That 5 Star Rating Anyway?

Box by Mikeblogs on Flickr

Box by Mikeblogs on Flickr

Last year, I wrote a mini blog post entitled, “Is The Book Review Dead?” And then – I forgot about it. I forgot about it until the other day when I was searching for an article writing gig on a freelance website, and came across a potential employer that was seeking to pay $5 for Amazon reviews. Here’s what the employer was looking for:

  • “reviews for 1 (one) of the 13 books we have published on Amazon.com.”
  • “You only need to read through the book quickly and pick a couple of points to highlight in your review.”
  • “The reviews should be honest and exemplary but not overly so, and 5 stars.”

Besides that – you had to fulfill the following requirements:

  • “Must have an Amazon.com account in the U.S., preferably one that has already done reviews for other books (please send URL to your profile with your bid).”
  • “Prepared to post a detailed, positive, and honest review of the book on the product page after reading the book (at least 150 words).”
  • “Excellent English writing skills.”

What I read when my eyes first glanced over this job posting was –

  • You have to have an Amazon.com account – so that people will take your review more seriously and the review seems more authentic.
  • You have to speak English – uh, DUH!
  • No need to read the entire book. Wait a minute – no need to read past the first paragraph!
  • The reviews better be positive and nothing below a 5 star rating.

Let’s clear the air before I continue – No, I did not bid on this job.

Many articles were written last year on the exposure of fake Amazon.com reviews after it came to light that some traditional and self-published authors had either: 1. Used fake review services (e.g. John Locke) or 2. Were more creative and developed their own imaginary fan base to get things started (e.g. Stephen Leather). Forbes Magazine published an article about the widespread use of fake reviews called, “Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core.” According to the article, fan based reviews have opened up opportunities to all authors. However, it’s come to light that many people – authors, fans, and random people who have nothing better to do – have been exploiting the review. Reviews were supposed to be a way to receive honest comments from “regular” paying customers; customers that had no stake in whether the product would sell. Who better to trust? A paid and trained journalist that provides possibly staunch reviews for a living or the neighbor next door? It sounds like a positive step forward, right? The Forbes Article mentions a panel that Leather participated in. During the panel, Leather was asked if he had created accounts on forums to create a positive buzz about his book. Here’s what he said:

“I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…”

What can I say? At least Leather put in some hard work and long hours creating chats with himself on Twitter and other forums! John Locke, on the other hand, took the easy way out and paid approximately $6,000 for 300 reviews. Here’s a quote from a New York Time’s article about John Locke purchasing reviews from Mr. Todd Jason Rutherford’s GettingBookReviews (also mentioned in the Forbes article):

“One thing that made a difference [to Locke’s sales] is not mentioned in [his best-selling guide to self-publishing] “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford.  “I’m ready to roll.”

Mr. Locke was secure enough in his talents to say that he did not care what the reviews said. “If someone doesn’t like my book,” he instructed, “they should feel free to say so.” He also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.”

Now, those of us that have followed John Locke’s success or bought his book “How I Sold 1 Million eBook In 5 Months” (by the way – I bought the ebook and want my money back) know that Locke is a natural salesman. It makes sense that he would grab any opportunities that might push him towards success. But, because of people like him and the famed controversial (former) top Amazon reviewer Harriet Klausner, who posted  more than 25,000 mostly 4 and 5 star reviews, Amazon took action in December 2012, and deleted thousands of alleged fake reviews. Take a look at the Newser’s article, “Amazon Deletes Thousands of ‘Fake’ Reviews”  or or Gizmodo’s “Amazon’s Culling Its Reviews, Mostly The Fake Ones”.

The culling of 5 star reviews has put a thick black mark on the review process. I understand the logic behind what Leather and Locke, among others, have done. I’ve also come across these websites offering “help” with “word of mouth” in getting your book out there and seen by the general public. I get it – really! After putting in so much work to write the book and get it published you want to see it flourish. It is your baby, right? What has stopped me from approaching one of these services is that I want to succeed solely based on my talents; because the book is that good. It’s also unethical…my paralegal background and Catholic school girl mentality just won’t let me step across the imaginary border.

But, I also wonder if the authors that are utilizing these services are tipping the success scale in their favor while at the same time making the climb to success a steeper one to achieve for others. To make matters worse, honest authors have also suffered with the deletion of “fake” Amazon reviews. Many authors, including myself, have reviews from family and friends on Amazon. Now, to be clear, if a family or friend of mine states that they’ll put a review on Amazon for my book, then I say thanks of course, but also request that the review be honest. It’s not only the right thing to do, but hey, I also need to learn, right? A overly positive fake 5 star review won’t help me to improve during my writing journey. A few authors have lamented that the reviews from family and friends have been deleted. Should these reviews really be deemed as fake, especially if the person actually read the book? They can’t provide their support or opinions? Check out the New York Times article on this subject, “Giving Mom’s Book Five Stars? Amazon May Cull Your Review.”

With that said, I did find a better vacancy on the freelancer website. The potential employer is an author who wants to pay for reviews. He or she is requesting the following from the reviewer(s):

  • “a verified Amazon account”
  • “ Not that lengthy (150-200 words)”
  • “ Perfect grammar”
  • “ Informative”
  •  “Helpful”
  • “You have to expound on it so that means that you have to really preview the book and give truthful facts and your opinion on it.”

Yes, they’re paying for the reviews ($2/review), but they’re at least not expecting a positive 5 star review in return. Are they smart to do it this way? Probably better to request honest reviews via Goodreads or LibraryThing.  At least they would save some money.

What do you think? There will always be someone like Mr. Rutherford who will want to exploit the writing business or any business for that matter in order to make money. We can’t control what ambitious entrepreneurs and scam artists will do with their time and energy. So, my question is actually for those that have a clear stake in the writing and publishing industry: the authors, the readers, the publishers. Should authors be allowed to pay for reviews? Should we be seeking reviews at all or concentrate on writing a polished book, and then work hard to promote it? And if we should be allowed to seek (paid) reviews, then should regulations or parameters also be put in place to protect those of us that don’t have large sums of cash stashed away somewhere?

To finish on a lighter note, here are two YouTube clip’s about fake Amazon reviews. Have fun watching! I sure had a chuckle or two!

Top 5 funniest fake Amazon reviews

50 Shades of Grey Review, by EL James – Fake Amazon Reviews

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