When is a book review not a book review?

It seems simple enough. You write a book, someone reads it, likes it (or not), writes a review, and other potential readers interpret the review for themselves, deciding whether or not to read your book based on their own criteria. One of the most important factors readers might use to interpret a review is the identity – and therefore perceived credibility – of the review writer.

For example, for some readers there might be a big difference between a review written by the New York Times and one penned by Oprah (or at least endorsed by her). Or between the writer’s spouse and someone who doesn’t know that writer personally. That may be the line we cross into territory where a review is not really a review – it is an advertisement. And these are not the only kinds of ‘advertisements’ masquerading as book reviews.

There can hardly be a writer or ‘wanabe’ writer around these days who is unaware of the current book review scams visited upon readers.

In August of 2012 The New York Times published an article titled: “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.” Author David Streitfeld reported on what appeared to be a newly established business model: writing book reviews for cash. He tells the story of Todd Rutherford’s gettingbookreviews.com, a business based on writing online book reviews – paid for by the writer. One of the service packages he offered was for him to write 20 online book reviews for $499. What could be better? Twenty reviews proclaiming a book to be worthy of 5 stars, the work of a literary genius. In my view, what would be better would be some honesty.

And Rutherford was merely one among myriad businesses that have been springing up all over the place to provide exactly the same service to writers desperate for sales. Quite often, the entrepreneurs offering this service are themselves wannabe writers.

But what happens when a reader finds out the truth of the review? Maybe the book is a good one; but maybe it isn’t. Readers searching for new, indie writers will soon become jaded from being burned. Buying book reviews hurts everyone.

So if a book review is not a book review when it is written for money, what about when it’s written by your spouse (or mother, or sister etc.)?

The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.
The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.

I was mortified when I went onto Amazon.com to see that one of the reviews (and a 5-star one at that) of one of my historical novels Grace Note was penned by someone whose last name is PARSONS. I’m quite certain that anyone looking at that would make the reasonable assumption that it was written by one of my relatives. It wasn’t. I’m just glad the reviewer liked it! The bottom line, however, is that a review by one of your nearest and dearest isn’t really a review either.

So…and here is the one where I’m going to get myself into trouble… what if the review is written by a member of your co-dependency group. These are those writing groups, usually virtual, or Twitter communities, wherein everyone gushes about everyone else’s books mostly so that when yours is published everyone will do the same. I have to admit that this really bothers me. It puts me off buying the promoted books, which is a shame for the writers. However, I just don’t trust these reviews.

I follow a number of otherwise interesting indie authors who also review books on Twitter, but I find that the reviews are always 5-star ones, or very close to it. I’m presuming that they only tweet their 5-star ones (surely there are books they dislike?), but I’d like to be directed to one that might be a 4 or even a 3 ½ star review so that I can make up my own mind. When everything is ‘awesome’, then nothing is ‘awesome.’

Let’s get back to some truth in advertising among writers and publishers. Please.