The best writings, like the best men, tell the truth.” (Sophie Perinot, The Sister Queens)

This past weekend I read this article in the New York Times about the increasingly prevalent practice of “buying” good reviews in on-line venues to boost salesThis is a despicable practice (and I do not use words like despicable lightly because, as a writer, I know the power of language).

The idea of offering someone a quid pro quo (whether cold hard cash, savings, or swag) to say something good about you is dishonest and demeaning.  I know in the current economic climate competition – whether you are hotelier or a novelist – is fierce, but cheating is still cheating.  I wouldn’t want to win a race because I put pebbles in someone else’s shoes, and, likewise, I wouldn’t want to trick anyone into buying my debut novel.

One of the idiot businesses in the New York Times article claims they are only soliciting honest positive reviews and then rewarding those “loyal” customers with discounts on return visits, but PLEASE—pecuniary interest and honest judgment have never been comfortable bedfellows.  Does it matter that this hotel truly believes it is an excellent place to stay?  Does it matter that the authors who purchase 5-star reviews for their books on Amazon likewise believe what they’ve produced is 5-star worthy writing? No.  The truth of the matter is buying reviews is NOT the same as earning them—no matter how well deserved those stars might be.

We don’t always get what we deserve.  The best man doesn’t always win, nor does the best novel.  But the minute we start to think that we are just “leveling the playing field” or we make other excuses for disguising promotional materials as impartial reviews we diminish ourselves as persons of honor and integrity.  As far as I am concerned honor and integrity are more important than sales.

What about the folks who write these reviews?  Many of them are being hired to do so.  It’s just a job, right?  Surely they are less culpable.  Hm.  Maybe I live in the past (an occupational hazard when writing historical fiction) but what happened to the idea that a man’s word (or a woman’s word) is his bond?  What is an individual’s betrayal of his own word worth?  Surely more than the $5 or $10 dollars per review that he is being paid to prostitute his honor?  As I the bard said, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” (William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 3 scene 5)

I understand that individuals who work in advertising get paid to praise products they’ve never used but that is distinctly different.  Consumers know that the slogans advertising folks write are marketing.  The same is true of celebrity endorsements.  When I see a big name athlete holding up a shoe (or wearing one) I assume he is paid to do that.  I do not assume he loves that shoe on its own merits.  Paid endorsements (and that’s what these fake reviews are) hiding among genuine personal opinions are wolves among sheep.  A reader has no way of knowing which reviews are genuine personal opinions authored by someone who has read the book and which reviews are mere penny-a-word hyperbole.  As members of on-line communities (and the reviewers at Amazon, for example, do make up an on-line community) we are relying on our fellows to be honest.  We are taking a given reviewer at his word and we are being duped.  To quote the Times:

The Cornell researchers tackled what they call deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers, to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.

And that is where the serious damage kicks in.  If we don’t care about the damage the charlatans who pay for reviews or who write them are doing to their personal honor (and I am not sure they are deserving of our concern), consider this—readers are being hurt.  They are being conned and cajoled into buying books on false pretenses.  That bothers me as a reader AND as a writer.

If one of the premises of our “brave new world” of publishing, in which the barriers to entry are being lowered by the digital revolution, is that readers have the power to anoint books, then fake reviews sadly threaten this democratic marketplace.  Once readers begin to distrust on-line reviews, genuine appraisals will be disregarded along with paid ones.  Writers who earned those legitimate 5-star reviews the hard way (by pleasing an actual consumer) will suffer, and readers will be left looking for a new way to decide what to buy (or borrow from the library).

Unless authors or the folks who run websites can come up with a way of slowing or stopping this dangerous trend, I guess readers will all be reduced to asking Aunt Mary or their best friend for reading recommendations.  I thought “word of mouth” in the time of the internet might expand to be a little less literal.  So what can writers do?

As the Cornell research demonstrates, we would have a heck of a hard time “policing” fake reviews in threads for other authors’ books.  But that’s okay because there is SOMEBODY WE CAN RELIABLY CONTROL—our self.  So I propose a pledge, a public statement on our websites, our “authors pages” or wherever else we think potential readers may see it.  Here is mine: 

I hereby pledge that I will not pay for praise.  I will not buy good reviews for my books on Amazon or at any on-line review site whatsoever.  I will keep my marketing dollars for legitimate marketing uses (like this snazzy website or some blog ads if I can afford them).  I will not offer readers discounts on my book in exchange for saying they like my writing, or offer them freebies in exchange for positive reviews.  And finally I will not bear “false witness” against other writers by negatively reviewing their work or by paying others to negatively review it (there is a special circle in hell for writers who do this).

Good, bad or ugly, the reviews of my novel will be the opinion of their writers on the work of this one.

16 Responses to “Fake On-Line Reviews Hurt Readers and Writers Alike”

  1. Well said, Sophie. I think the pledge is a great idea, too. I’ll be putting one up on my blog soon.

  2. Bravo!!!! I agree wholeheartedly! When the time comes I will put up a pledge, too!

  3. The flipside of this is that many downright nasty 1 or 2 star reviews are posted by people who have plainly never read the book they are reviewing and have some ulterior agenda – rivalry? payback? – for sabotaging another writer’s sales.

    I can’t believe AUTHORS would genuinely pay for 5-star reviews, though I believe businesses might. I certainly never shall, and if I felt I needed to do so, I would stop writing immediately.

    But while investigating these practices is a start, we should also acknowledge that the opposite end of the scale exists, that some people out there deliberately write negative reviews in an attempt to affect sales. This happens both with authors on Kindle and with businesses who employ people to do this to rival companies.

    Is it possible to fight back with any dignity? I’m not sure it is. But it’s certainly an unpleasant practice and makes my skin crawl.

    • Elizabeth —

      It makes my skin crawl too. I didn’t discuss the practice of “sabotage by review” (though I did mention it in my pledge) but it is touched upon in the NYT article. Apparently people aren’t just personally posting one-star reviews (for whatever twisted reason) but are paying others to do so on their behalf. As I said in my pledge – there is a special circle in hell for professionals (whether they are authors or active in other fields of business) who stoop to engage in such sabotage. When will people learn you cannot build yourself up by tearing others down?

      As for writers paying for 5-stars who can say if or when people will start using their marketing dollars for this? I have certainly witnessed examples of writers tempting folks to leave reviews with gifts etc. I have no problem with writers urging people to review a book but I personally think a line is crossed when they say, “if you can leave a positive review I will give you X”

  4. Thank goodness for Facebook friends & their book blogs.. Like mine 😉

    • I hadn’t thought of that but book-bloggers, already important taste-makers, may become the gatekeepers for savvy readers. They have reputations to protect and generally already state on their sites that they have received a free copy of the book in exchange for an “honest and fair review.”

  5. Bravo, Sophie.

    I fully agree. I want my work to be liked and remembered for its entertainment value, not because I had to pay someone to like it.

    That feels as pathetic to me as having to buy friends. In the end it’s a waste of time, and money.

  6. Once again the anonimity afforded by the internet rears its ugly head.

    Would a person that had to sign their name and be held accountable for their words be likely to sell themselves so cheaply? Probably not, although I am sure there are some who would. And if the man with an axe to grind could be readily identified for who they actually are, would he be so vitriolic in his criticism? This I doubt.

  7. Sophie,

    It is a sad world we live in when personal integrity is bought with a few dollars. Sadly, the damage can never be undone when a book/writer is deliberately sabatoged by others. Nor can we hope to compete with the sheer number of five stars bought by unscrupulous people.

    In the end, I think quality book review sites with no agenda will be a reader’s go-to place when purchasing books. Or, as you stated, back to the old fashioned word of mouth!

    Great post.

  8. I, too, pledge never to pay for reviews. Come good, bad, or ugly, they will be what they will be.

    Speaking as someone who makes purchasing decisions about books based on reviews, I think there’s no room for dishonesty. Word of mouth does sell books, but only if we can depend on its honesty. With the flood of e-publications available now, there’s no reliable way to sort through the choices without honest reviews.

  9. Great article, Sophie. I believe that one of the best ways to combat faux reviews, both on the five star and one star extremes, is to require that everyone reviewing on places like Goodreads or Amazon does so under their full legal name. Anonymity can hide a wide range of lies and ulterior motives. If you have to stand by your own words with your own name, I think people will be a lot more careful and honest.

    • Mary —

      While I like the “full legal name” idea in principal, it would stifle many innocent reviewers and book bloggers who – like some authors – chose to keep their private and “professional” lives separate. Many writers use pen names for just this reason and so I have no objection to a book blogger, for instance, not wanting to use his/her legal name.

      I heard a discussion of this point on NPR recently (in conjunction with google and facebook crack downs on fake names) and one of the commentators argued that being anonymous and using a pseudonym are not equivalent. His point was that that often a pseudonym is something that someone has carefully developed as a brand (e.g. an author’s pen name a book blogger’s blog name), in which case that person will not wish to make statements that degrade the value of the name (faux or not). I guess that argument sounded pretty convincing to me.

  10. I had got a desire to start my commerce, however I did not earn enough of money to do this. Thank God my close colleague proposed to take the business loans. Thus I took the short term loan and made real my old dream.

  11. I’ll take the pledge.

    Fake reviews hurt Amazon’s credibility too. At least reviews marked with “Amazon Verified Purchase” indicate the reviewer bought the product.

    Ultimately, if everyone jumps on the fake review bandwagon, we all lose.

  12. Just a little update — MJ Rose posted this link today. Very visual reminder of the problem I was discussing.

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