The Illegitimate Book Reviewers And How to Spot Them
By Irene Watson
Authors need book reviews to sell their books, and of course they want great ones. Authors who learn their craft, do their research, and produce quality, well-written books deserve good endorsements, and by putting in the proper time and effort, such authors usually receive glowing praise from reviewers. But even good books can receive bad reviews-and I don't mean reviews that say negative things about the book. I'm talking about ones written by people not qualified, no matter how highly esteemed, to write them. Why are they not qualified? Because they do not read the books.
Let's face it. Books are a business, and reviewers know authors need them. Free reviews are becoming harder and harder to find. Reviewers are now being paid for their services, and they should be; their time is valuable, and reading a book and writing a decent review can take many hours. Authors need to be prepared to pay for the service and to realize it's a business investment, just like advertising and marketing, where money is invested in hopes it will result in book sales.
But unscrupulous people-let's call them illegitimate book reviewers-are willing to prey upon authors' needs. They realize they can make money off an author without providing a legitimate service. Let's say you make $100 for every book you review, and it takes you eight hours to read a book. That's $100 a day. But wouldn't it be nice to make $200 or $400 or $1,200 a day? What if, instead of reading the books, you just skimmed them, or you just regurgitated what the back cover said? Think how many fake ones you could pump out, and how much money you could make, while giving authors what they want. So what if the review is only four sentences? As long as you give it five stars at Amazon, the author will be happy, right? Cha-ching!
Sadly, yes, in many cases, authors have been happy. But mostly they are first-time or self-published authors new to the business who got lucky getting accurate descriptions of their books. I've known many such authors rave about how their book was rated by one of these "esteemed" or "top" reviewers, often one close to the top in Amazon's rankings.
Early on when I started offering book reviews, I realized it was unlikely I would ever be ranked in Amazon's Top 10, not because my reviews lacked quality or I didn't cover enough books, but simply because I was not a robot, and I actually read the books. If you look at Amazon's list of top Amazon reviewers, many of them have reviewed over 5,000 books. If you are a service with several reviewers on staff, that number is understandable, but most of the top ranked are individuals. How can this be? Even if it's your full time job and you could read a book a day, or even two books a day, that's only ten a week or about five hundred a year. You'd have to have been reviewing at Amazon for ten years to break 5,000. Okay, I guess that's possible, but take a look at some of the top ones on Amazon. Some of them have posted on up to fifteen books a day. Yes, some of them are legitimate and write quality write-ups, so I don't mean to disparage those individuals.
Granted, a few of these people might be speed readers, but the jury is still out on the legitimacy of speed reading. I had a friend who claimed to be a speed reader. I gave her three mystery novels to read that she returned to me the next day. When I asked her whether she had figured out who the murderer was in one book, she couldn't remember "whodunit." If you're reading so fast you can't retain the basic plot, you're not really reading the book.
Worse, some of these write-ups have nothing to say that an author can even use. I've seen some that are only three or four sentences of plot summary without anything that states the book is "good, excellent, engaging, or not to be missed." An author can't get a blurb for a back cover if a review only summarizes but does not rate the book's quality.
Still worse, many of what authors hope will be useful endorsements for their books end up, because the books weren't read but text was quickly reworded from the back cover, with characters' names misspelled, factual errors about the plot, and sometimes even mistakes about the theme, content, and whole point of the book-all dead giveaways a book was never read. Sometimes the plot summaries then only result in confusion, and if a reader is confused, he's not going to buy a book or waste his time reading it.
Some authors might not care about such details. If the review is good, it's good enough to sell books, right? But if it's misleading, readers are not going to be happy when the books they buy do not reflect what is said about them. Hopefully, when readers have those experiences, they'll know better than to trust those reviewers again.
Sadly, as long as money is involved, illegitimate reviewers won't be going away any time soon. But as an author who is paying, you deserve to have your book read. Most authors, myself included, want legitimate feedback on what readers think about our books. We write our books as much to entertain, inform, educate, or invoke an emotional response from our readers as we do to sell a few books. As authors, we deserve better.
So what can an author do about this situation? I don't see any point in getting angry over the situation since I don't think it will change anything. You can write to these phonies and complain, but it's unlikely to do any good. A few things you can do are:
- Do Your Research. Look at a reviewer's history and what they have written in the past. How well-written is their work-is it more than just plot summary? Ask yourself whether it's worth your time and money to pay for such a service, or even just pay the postage and give away a free book to such an individual.
- Request Corrections. If you get reviewed, and the write-up has errors such as misspelled character names or the book is incorrectly listed as a sequel to your last book, contact the individual and request that corrections be made. I have known several authors who have successfully had the review corrected-especially when they paid for the initial work.
- Vote. Every review posted to Amazon gives you the opportunity to vote whether or not it was helpful to you. Reviewer rankings are not based solely on how many postings they have. While figuring out how Amazon determines these rankings remains largely a mystery, votes do impact the rankings. Voting may do little to help or hurt a reviewer but it's better than nothing.
- Learn from the Experience. You've learned your lesson, and it might not even have been a difficult one, but you now know in the future to stay away from these unscrupulous individuals. If you're traditionally published, your publisher might use such a reviewer anyway but you can request otherwise. Nevertheless, remember that publishing is a business and that makes it a dollars game; sadly, accurate representation of your book may not be as important to your publisher as making a buck.
- Share Your Knowledge. Share with your fellow authors your experiences. That doesn't mean you're gossiping about reviewers. You are assisting other authors in making legitimate business decisions about how to spend their money. Legitimate business decisions should not end with illegitimate results.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
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