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Fake Reviews and Author Credibility

reviews-fakeI was interested in reading a certain novel… until the fake reviews started rolling in.

Sure, maybe I’m overreacting. I mean, everybody’s doing it, right? Authors know how important “good reviews” are. And when you can pay for people to shill for your novel, what’s the big deal? Especially if it spikes consumer interest. It’s kind of the equivalent of paying for groupies to squee when you step out of the limo. Chumming for bigger fish only hurts the ones that are hooked. And the ones who are bait.

Don’t misunderstand me: Every author wants to get reviews. Good reviews. And lots of them. But just how far should we go to get them? I probably fall on the wrong side of the equation. The side of indifference. I try not to worry too much about reviews, both content and quantity. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I had a giveaway with the one requirement that the winner writes a brief review after they’re finished, only to have the review never be written. But as frustrating as that is, I’ve never once considered stuffing the ballot box.

So I’m watching this novel’s release and within a week it’s pushing 20 reviews. All but one is five-stars (and the one “negative” review is four stars). Mind you, this author is a relative unknown. They are not a brand name with a huge fan base who is counting the days till the next book in the series. So either readers have been secretly salivating over the release of this new novel or something fishy is going on.

And sure enough, upon closer inspection, most of these reviews look… fake.

What does a “fake review” look like? Most consist of the so-called reviewer copying and paraphrasing what’s on the back cover and then adding some gushing generic rave, like:

  • “This book is a must-read for its thrilling action!”
  • “This book was a page-turner from the start!”
  • “An enjoyable and moving story you won’t want to miss!”
  • “Well written and the characters are so realistic!”
  • “Can’t wait for the next novel!”

A “real” review will often mention a plot detail or even quote a passage from the book by way of example. But being that “fake” reviewers usually haven’t actually read the book, no such specificity should be expected.

If the review is very short, it also may be fake. Of course, this isn’t always true. But if the writer is being paid to affect the overall score, their intent may simply be to boost the book’s valuation via the “star” rating. The result is a short, very generic, five-star review.  Another thing: Fake reviewers often have only one review (or one book, one video game, and one piece of jewelry) which is always five-star. In other words, they are not a regular reviewer. They are a ringer.

Sadly, the aforementioned book and its reviews had all the above.

Anyway, my interest in the novel quickly deflated. Why? Because if someone has to pay people to “like” their stuff, how good can their product really be?

So here’s my question: Should I let “fake reviews” negatively influence my interest in a novel and its author? Because, for now, I do.

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{ 30 comments… add one }
  • George Anthony Kulz October 30, 2013, 5:51 AM

    Hi Mike

    I would call the whole “fake reviewers” thing a lack of good judgement on the author’s part, more than anything, if they are in fact the one who had anything to do with it at all. I can also picture a bunch of close friends and family thinking they’re helping out the author when in fact they’re having the effect they’re having on you right now. “Fake reviews” would be fine with me though as long as they backed up their glowing praise with some facts. I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight on “real reviewers” either whose reviews don’t really tell you anything.

    What usually tells me I’ll like the book is if a) the premise sounds interesting, b) I’ve seen a sample of the writing and it looks promising, c) people that know me who have read the book have raved about it, people whose words I trust way more than some random reviewer because they know my tastes, or d) I see a review that really goes in depth (without giving anything away obviously) as to why they liked/disliked the book.

  • Kat Heckenbach October 30, 2013, 5:55 AM

    Well, you know this had probably piqued everyone’s curiosity. I know I’m sitting here wondering which book it is! Who is this devious review-buying author? (That’s rhetorical–I don’t expect an answer, but it’s what I’m thinking.)

    And I find it funny that you posted about reviews when I was scrolling through the reviews I’ve written last night. I noticed that about 1/3 of the “votes” on my (nearly 250) reviews are “not helpful” even though many of the reviews voted such are quite detailed. It goes hand in hand with what I’ve witnessed–authors asking people to go “vote up” positive reviews of their books and “vote down” negative reviews. (I actually saw someone post a request on Facebook, in a Christian writers group, for people to do that for reviews of his books. I commented that I thought that was one step away from harassing the readers.)

    I know that’s a little different, but it’s in the same vein. It is a huge frustration for me. I want everything about my writing to be legitimate. I want the reviews to be genuine. I want the sales to come from readers telling other readers, not me using persuasion or giveaways–even though I know I *have* to market. I refuse to stoop to buying reviews, and I will not ask people to vote down negative ones.

    That said, I do think I’d be influenced by fake reviews. It would make me lose respect for the author. I would also wonder why there would be a need for such if the book is really good.

    • T. W. Johnson October 30, 2013, 11:17 AM

      Kat, I read “Ordinary Folk”. My review is up at Amazon.

    • Kathleen Freeman October 30, 2013, 11:41 AM

      With ya, Kat!

    • Katherine Coble November 4, 2013, 1:08 PM

      Kat, I get LOTS of “not helpful”s for less than glowing yet highly detailed reviews.

      I actually had one author, however, thank me recently for the two-star review.

      Apparently because of buyers like me who won’t consider books with no below-3s, a solid 2-star review has become a sought-after commodity.

      • Kat Heckenbach November 4, 2013, 1:41 PM

        I believe it, Katherine. About you getting lots of “not helpful”s because I’m sure there are fans voting down your reviews–reviews that are well-written and therefore may actually be persuasive.

        I can’t say I won’t consider a book that doesn’t have below 3 stars, but it does make me doubtful. And if that lack of negative reviews is accompanied by a bunch of gushy and/or non-specific positive reviews, I’ll skip the book.

        • Katherine Coble November 4, 2013, 1:59 PM

          I shouldn’t say I won’t consider them. I should say I won’t consider them _strongly_. Because just last week I did buy one.

  • Jill October 30, 2013, 7:59 AM

    Tech geeks often write one-liner reviews. To be fair, not everybody is an English student looking for gold stars when reviewing. That’s not to say there aren’t fake reviews out there, but I don’t assume I can spot them.

    • Iola October 30, 2013, 12:49 PM

      One way to check fake reviews is to click on the author profile. If they only have one review, it’s probably fake. If they have five reviews, one for each of the five ‘books’ by the author, they’re probably fake. If they have the same very unusual surname as the author, it’s probably a relation (so not necessarily fake, but probably not unbiased either).

      There are also a handful of top Amazon reviewers who are well-known for being review mills. Harriet Klausner is the best-known offender, but there are others.

      • Jill October 30, 2013, 5:08 PM

        Even if they’ve only reviewed once, it doesn’t mean it’s fake. The first review I ever did was for Mike Duran’s The Resurrection. It was my first. If somebody had clicked on my name, they would have found no others. It was not fake. Unless you have facts, don’t second guess. It’s hard enough to be an author without having people try to guess whether reviews are fake. I have a couple of reviews on my book that I think look fake and yet know aren’t because they’re Amazon verified purchases from people I never asked to review. It mortifies me that people might think they are.

  • Jay DiNitto October 30, 2013, 8:00 AM

    One thing to consider is that reviews, faked or not, must be taken with a heavy shot of context. One children’s book author I know has known fake reviews–known because they are manufacturings on their face and because I know him personally. One book has 14 reviews, all 5 stars. War and Peace doesn’t have a 5 star average…so are we to say his (mediocre) children’s book is better?

    If it really was a 5-star book it would be relative to the children’s book realm, not, say, general market fiction.

    • D.M. Dutcher October 30, 2013, 9:19 AM

      There’s an issue with that too, because the reviewers of kid’s fiction are adults and review often based on adult understanding. This is why the Newberry Awards tend to be so ineffective, because while adults may love the book, kids often don’t until twenty years after the fact when it’s taught to them in class. Most of what a kid would rate five star usually isn’t; things like Goosebumps, Animorphs, or Redwall for example.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) October 30, 2013, 8:58 AM

    I don’t really have an answer to your question, but I’m in the same camp as you.
    That said, one four star review got an upset response from the Christian writer who said I shouldn’t have disliked what I did dislike about the book, even though I SAID my feelings were likely mine alone and everyone else would like the emotionality of the book. I gave three stars to A Pius Man, and the author wrote me to thank me and gave me info I wanted. Now there’s a sweetie.
    Kat, I’m sorry your honesty gets you grief. I do happen to like a lot of books you hate, and so find your reviews useful in that way. Keep up your honesty.

    • Mike Duran October 30, 2013, 10:47 AM

      Lelia, I’ve praised some three star reviews of my novels because the author clearly spent time with the book and was honest. I recently met a man at a writer’s conference who apologized for giving me a three star review. I laughed. It’s pretty sad we’ve come to the place where we have to apologize for three star reviews.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 30, 2013, 9:53 AM

    Yeah, I’ve seen those reviews too. The galling ones are where a book has five star reviews, and a lot of typos. Or it looks like it’s a first draft. Or worse, the book is unreadable in ebook format, like they never opened a preview copy of it.

    I don’t know what can be done. It’s an issue that just leads into distrusting 5 star reviews automatically.

    • Kathleen Freeman October 30, 2013, 11:45 AM

      I think it’s going to lead to people learning to read between the lines. Not a bad thing… especially for a mystery reader.

  • Carole McDonnell October 30, 2013, 10:09 AM

    As someone who has an average of 5 stars on her book (which also has a few too many typos) I don’t know if an average of 5 stars necessarily means a book is bad.

    Also, I’m not sure one can really know something is a fake review by the wording. One could research the reviewer though. So you have to check a number of factors, check to see if the account name has been flagged previously, or if it’s connected to a reviewer account on a place like Fiverr, look at the other reviews that the individual has done.

    Some people do write reviews like that — “Page-turner,” etc. That’s how normal folks talk about books. They don’t write the way writers write. And just because an author is an unknown doesn’t mean that a book can’t be a page turner. Witness the Harry Potter problem. It’s possible that those are real reviews from family members and friends. Current laws don’t require posters to disclose relationships. Folks who pay for reviews usually buy a lot more. Folks who are buying reviews generally have more than 20. And there are people who are not that expensive, particularly if you the wroter provide the review for them. Fake reviewers tend to be more systematic in their approach, making money off it.

    So, while I agree somewht with your premise….as usual you haven’t gone deep enough. Not being mean…just saying.

    • Carole McDonnell October 30, 2013, 10:11 AM

      Oops typo. Meant to say “doesn’t mean book is fake-reviewed and therefore bad” NOT “doesn’t mean the book is bad.”

    • Carole McDonnell October 30, 2013, 10:26 AM

      Re: depth of review and paid review:

      I’ll also add that there are a lot of paid reviews where the author is honest about the book….and where the auithor goes into depth about it. And you also leave out people who do reviews as part time jobs. Also a lot of people aren’t willing or able to write in depth reviews. If one has a lot of friends and supporters who write reviews, that is okay if they review honestly. Also some writers give out a lot of pdfs to friends and those friends review the story honestly. So you might have to redefine your definition of fake review.

      As a writer, I love getting indepth reviews…but some folks are just not deep. And some folks are deep but they are more folks who will tell you in person why they like a book. When I write reviews, I tend to write short reviews on amazon because those reviews don’t belong to me anymore. Amazon supposedly owns the rights. (in the fine print but not realistically) Then I will write indepth review of the same book on my own review sites so as not to clash or endanger the other sites in some flaky internet quibble.

      • Iola October 30, 2013, 12:56 PM

        “I don’t know if an average of 5 stars necessarily means a book is bad”
        It doesn’t, but I know a lot of Amazon users who won’t even look at a book by an unknown-to-them author if that book that doesn’t have any reviews less than three stars.

        “Current laws don’t require posters to disclose relationships.”
        No, but Amazon doesn’t permit reviews from people with a financial interest in the product (which includes family members).

        “Also some writers give out a lot of pdfs to friends and those friends review the story honestly”
        Those people are required by Amazon (and the FTC) to disclose they got a free copy in exchange for a review. Readers can then evaluate the reviews accordingly.

        “Amazon supposedly owns the rights”
        No. The reviewer owns the rights to the review and allows Amazon worldwide use of that review for no compensation.

        • Katherine Coble November 4, 2013, 1:06 PM

          I’m one of those who won’t consider new-to-me authors without at least two below-three-star ratings.

    • D.M. Dutcher October 30, 2013, 10:51 AM

      Wind Follower has a good review curve though; the three star reviews are a third of the five star ones, and tend to agree on a weakness. Compare this to say The Legend of Corinair, by Ryk Brown, which has 91 five star, 29 four star, and only eight three star or less reviews for the third episode in a series. I’ve read this book, and it’s nowhere near that good, even factoring in it being a bridging book.

      Not saying Ryk does this. He may just have a loyal fanbase. But usually when you get indie books that have such a lopsided distribution, something’s up.

    • Mike Duran October 30, 2013, 11:09 AM

      Carole, on five star reviews, I’ve given them. So I’d agree that they don’t necessarily mean the deck is stacked. I mostly agree with the rule of ignoring really high and really low reviews. And while it’s true you can’t assume a review is fake because it’s short or generic, I think being aware that garnering and spiking reviews is a reality should at least generate discernment, if not skepticism.

    • Jill October 30, 2013, 5:10 PM

      Thank you. I completely agree.

  • T. W. Johnson October 30, 2013, 11:16 AM

    I don’t know anything about fake reviews, but I do know I don’t like reading long, drawn-out ones (unless I have a very particular reason for doing so), which, more often than not, gives away the entire story. I’ve seen it happen too many times. Just tell me that you liked it. Give me a nugget of info to go on if you want, but please… please don’t give me another summary. You’ll also probably never find me giving a three star rating for any book, because if it’s going to be that low for me, I’m certain to have lost interest and never finished it in the first place. It’s happened before.

  • R. L. Copple October 30, 2013, 4:13 PM

    I’ve always considered a 3 star review to be good. Not outstanding, has some issues, but still worth reading. But I guess my scale trends to be different from most.

  • xdpaul November 1, 2013, 10:01 AM

    One-star reviews often make it clear in their first of two or three sentences that the critic hasn’t read the book. If the review, regardless of positivity or negative, says nothing substantial about the book itself…it is meaningless to me.

    I don’t tend to use “stars” to search for good books – I’m mostly interested in the average ratings out of curiosity. I’ve never avoided a 2-star book, nor picked up a 5-star because of its average. I know some do, and so I do my best when writing reviews to give it an honest, personal ranking. ME Brines’ extremely thoughtful essays on the nature of historic magic and the systems of the world often find themselves averaging something around 1 or 2 stars, which is preposterous until you realize that often the most interesting ideas will meet the most resistance.

    I’ll admit it: I’m a big fan of despised books, so, if anything, the lower the stars, the more likely I am to check them out for substantial criticism.

    And I’m in line with R. L.: a 3-star book is something that I would recommend to someone else despite any shortcomings it has. 2 stars is something pretty flawed, and 1 star is something I probably didn’t finish and didn’t remember to review – so it only exists theoretically. I see no point “warning people away” from a book. I’ve never read a book that I wished I had been warned off of, so it seems like an odd thing for someone to do on my behalf.

  • John Robinson November 1, 2013, 2:41 PM

    Every one of the fifty-six Amazon reviews to date for LAST CALL is real. That includes the three that reamed the novel , one of which came from a dear lady who thought it was real, and then found it wasn’t and became incensed … bless her heart.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work very hard at my craft, and when I put it out for the public to judge, I do it knowing it won’t resonate with everyone. That’s fair.

    Forcing good reviews–gaming the system, if you will–well, that ain’t.

  • Joel Savage February 1, 2014, 10:51 AM

    Thanks for the interesting article Mike. We are now in the middle of sea of books. Everyone wants to reach the top but only few famous authors are making it.

    In this case some desperate authors think the best way to get to that top is to cheat. That is the reason Amazon and other book sites are flooded with fake reviews.

    R. J Ellory confessed of faking reviews and apologized. Time will tell as many more shall be exposed.

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