Manipulating reviews; sad, but not surprising

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Category: Reading

Once upon a time, if you really wanted to know how a new book was going over, you probably asked a friend or (gasp!) opened the paper to read the reviews. But we live in a digital world now, and everyone’s a reviewer. And more often than not, the reviews we read on Amazon or social media are helping us make the decision whether or not to buy a book.

Is it really surprising, then, to hear that authors are manipulating those reviews to sell more books?

I doubt that anyone was shocked to learn that unknown authors dipping their toes into the crowded literary waters were providing brisk business for companies that will write flattering reviews for a hefty fee. But what did get people’s attention was the news that bestselling authors like crime writer R.J. Ellory and thriller scribe Stephen Leather were also actively manipulating online reviews by reviewing their own books under pseudonyms and even, rather reprehensively, secretly panning the works of other writers.

Though we may not condone the practice, I think most of us can understand why newbies to the bookshelves are trying to work the system. These authors are trying to get a toehold in the publishing world and make their work stand out amongst many similar books. Of course, they run the risk of having their own and their books’ reputations trashed if they’re ever found out; something they’re probably not considering as they chase sales and work the Amazon ranking system. But why are established authors doing this? Their names are already well known; their books sell in the millions. Why do they need to falsely build up their own works while running down others?

The fact of the matter is: publishing is changing. Self-publishing and direct publishing to e-readers means anyone can be an author, and the shelves are getting crowded. The savviest authors nowadays are plugging their books heavily through social media, building up excitement and strong followings. And even established authors might be feeling threatened in this new world of constant, aggressive self-marketing as self-published books like Fifty Shades of Grey shove them off the bestseller lists.

This is not to say that faking reviews and having conversations with yourself about how brilliant your books are—known now as “sock puppeting”—is right. It most definitely is not. It’s manipulation of your readers, plain and simple, and nobody wants to feel like they’ve been had. These writers are risking alienating their audience once they’re unmasked (and chances are, they will be). They deserve to lose readers, too. Why should we support a writer who stoops so low to sell a few books?

This latest scandal has divided the literary community, with many authors and readers condemning the practice and some publishers taking a closer look at dodgy practices. For those of us who genuinely care about books, it’s made us think a little more about the reviews we read and whether or not we can trust them. After all, who is this anonymous person leaving five-star reviews on Amazon? Who is this blogger talking up a particular genre—are they really an expert? Are they being paid or somehow manipulated?

Maybe it’s time to go back to the newspaper.

Brianne Moore is a Web Editor for Scottish Book Trust.