Books Magazine

Buying Book Reviews

By T.v. Locicero

Suddenly two weekends ago (8/25-26)

All those contentious words flying around the web for weeks on the subject of book reviews (Too nice? Too nasty? Not worth the trouble?) got trumped. In a sprightly expose in the New York Times with the irresistible title, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” David Streitfeld caused a firestorm of comments (331 the last time I looked) by describing a handy little service that once was available but is no more.

The brainchild of a guy named Todd Rutherford, a shrewd entrepreneur with a convenient conscience, opened for business in the fall of 2010. At first writing all the reviews himself, Rutherford charged $99 for one, $499 for 20, and $999 for 50. But soon he had so much business that he needed the help of a bunch of folks he found on Craig’s List willing to write reviews for $15 a piece. Rutherford made clear that 5 stars were not absolutely required, but if conscience dictated otherwise, their fee would be cut in half. Quickly all of his new employees developed his kind of conscience. And even though Amazon forbids paid-for reviews and online forums were filled with complaints, before long Rutherford was making $28,000 a month.

It didn’t last long…

Ironically, a dissatisfied customer hastened the end. Angry that her review was taking too long, she spread her complaints across the web, and then Google suspended Rutherford’s ad account and Amazon began taking down reviews. After 4531 reviews, closed up shop.

But David Streitfeld’s biggest bombshell involved a more-than-satisfied customer named John Locke. Everyone who knows their ebook history knows about John Locke, the 60-year-old former insurance salesman who started writing and self-pubbing ebook thrillers. At first he got nowhere, and then suddenly in December 2010 he sold 15,000 books. Soon he would be celebrated as the first self-pubber to peddle a million. And then he celebrated himself with a non-fiction book entitled How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.

In it he generously includes all his success secrets…except one: in the fall of 2010, Mr. Locke paid Mr. Rutherford about 6 grand to buy himself 300 mostly 5-star reviews.

Hey, you think maybe all those wonderful reviews had something to do with all that heart-warming success?

Now naturally with four books of my own just recently up and, of course, looking for reviews, the Streitfeld piece in the Times grabbed my attention. Was I shocked? Not really. Nothing humans do should shock any of us any longer. But in addition to cynical resignation, did I feel annoyance, disgust? Yes, to both.

For one thing Streitfeld’s tone often seems gratuitously disparaging. Occasionally he offers bold, bald factual statements like this one:

“So as soon as new authors confront that imperative line on their Amazon pages — ‘Be the first to review this item’ — the temptation is great for them to start soliciting notices, at first among those closest at hand: family, friends and acquaintances. They want to be told how great they are.”

And then apparently for unimpeachable support for this questionable opinion, he quotes some know-it-all Stanford professor named Robert I. Sutton:

“Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard. When people tell us we’re not as great as we thought we were, we don’t like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack.”

Okay, then. Tarred with a very broad brush indeed.

In a related piece published in the Times a week earlier Streitfeld described the efforts of a team of Cornell researchers to create a computer algorithm that would smoke out fake reviews. The good news: on hundreds of hotel reviews it worked about 90% of the time. The bad news: hotel reviews and book reviews seem like apples and oranges.

On Sunday morning, as I perused the first 30 or so of those 330 plus comments in the Times, they ran the gamut:

From, woe is us poor indie authors, this is the last nail in the coffin of our desperate quest for respect. To: Hey, eff it, legacy publishing does the same damn thing!

From: John Locke is a lying pig. To: John Locke is really smart.

From: I would never, ever do such a thing. To: Yeah, but if others are doing it, the rest of us are screwed.

From: This is a dead-certain sign we’re at the edge of the ethical abyss. To: No, man, this is the essence of free enterprise and the glories of capitalism.

From: Reviews are worth shite. Anyone who trusts them is an idiot. To: I can tell a phony/worthless review within the first few words.

From: All I need to do is use “Look Inside” to read a few pages, and I’ll know if the book will be worth my time. To: No, you doofus, those lazy, evil indie authors buff and polish those first few pages so they can get away with writing dreck for the rest of the book.

And, seemingly, ad infinitum.

With many of the comments I found myself agreeing and sometimes also not. A fellow named K.W. Jeter had some cogent things to say, but later on his blog he wrote this:

“There’s a battle going on right now, to demonstrate that indie ebooks are as good and even better than traditionally published print books. The battle is being won by indie writers self-publishing compelling, well-written ebooks which garner genuine positive — and unpaid — reviews from actual readers and not desperate shills recruited from Craigslist. As the comments to the New York Times article indicate, it’s going to be a long battle. We don’t need dishonest writers, willing to do anything to promote their books, raising doubts in readers’ minds about the reliability of the reviews they see on Amazon about our ebooks.”

Again I agree and disagree. Yes, we don’t need dishonest writers. But that’s like saying we don’t need dishonest people. And if there’s a battle going on between indie ebooks and legacy print books, it’s only so if you think it’s so. A battle? More like a free-for-all in which everyone is struggling for notice and survival.

In fact, what’s really happening is that we’re about five years into a huge shift in the publishing business. Things are changing rapidly, inevitably, and the only certainty is that the landscape already looks and feels very different. In another five years?  Who knows? Certainly in a variety of ways today there are many more books being published . Some are good, others not so much. Whatever happens, Good luck to everyone.

Look, if you’ve been out there scouring the web for places to get a new book reviewed

You know there are multiple sites offering to sell you something that looks like a critical judgment. Often they’ll give you a choice: a free review that may arrive in two or three months (or maybe never), or one that will cost you but will definitely take only two or three weeks. If you chose to pay, that’ll be 59 bucks for one, or three for 129.

Most of these places provide the standard disclaimer: whether free or bought and paid for, good reviews are not guaranteed. Occasionally you’ll see that silly old saw about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But com’on, folks, how long will these outfits stay in business if they take your cash and serve up a bad review?

Actually, I found it at least slightly reassuring that those smart people from Cornell are out there trying to devise ways to sort the wheat from the chaff, to spot the phony among the real.

Now if someone will just come up with an algorithm where you could plug in a reviewer’s name and out would pop an accurate notion of that person’s intelligence, honesty, good taste, comprehensive knowledge and common sense.

Of course, each of us could make all those calculations and judgments on our own, but then that would take a whole lot of reading and thinking and the like.

For what it’s worth, here’s my thought…

Yes, most of the pro reviewers are still behind walls manned by gatekeepers who will consider submissions only from established publishers. The best of the online reviewers and book bloggers are swamped with requests, and the amateur enthusiasts often seem to merit little trust. So what happens to all those indie books, dumped in our vast digital sea to sink or swim? How will we find a way to establish their genuine value?

I’m pretty sure this whole indie publishing thing (now obviously at the toddler stage) will sooner or later shake itself out. Maybe with some of the novelty worn off, more of our expectations will float back down to earth. Most likely more resources will evolve and develop to provide us with what we need and want for literary assessment. In the meantime, let’s all relax, take a deep breath and get back to writing our books.

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