The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Book Reviews

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There was an interesting story that broke last week regarding self published authors and how they exploited Amazon’s algorithms to become bestsellers. One of those authors was John Locke who was hailed as the first non-traditional author to sell 1 million eBooks. However according to a New York Times article he paid for people to review his books on Amazon, despite the fact that they had never read them, to increase his books’ discoverability. And it worked.

This is not new. Google’s search engine is built on complex algorithms that can be exploited by businesses. The official term is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) which is basically gearing your website and links to your website so that it gets more hits when someone does a google search and tries to get your website as high as possible on the google search. Most platforms use some kind of algorithm in one way or another for their search engines and where there’s a computer program there’s a way to influence it or manipulate it.

So basically what John Locke and others were doing was SEO on Amazon. They paid for a service to get their books higher up on Amazon searches and display their books more often in the recommendations bar. It is devious and it is dishonest, because there is no disclosure that the reviews have been paid for, but so far Amazon has done nothing to curb this manipulation of their system. Why would they? They’re selling loads of books.

However it has also emerged that some authors have decided to cut out the middle man and are posting their own positive reviews under pseudonyms. The term for this is known as “sock puppetry” and it is not limited to posting good reviews about their own work. Some authors are also giving bad reviews to other authors who write in the same genre, to try and decrease that author’s discoverability. And we’re not just talking one fake account, one author has multiple fake accounts and even creates fake conversations between these fake accounts about how wonderful his books are!

Now this goes beyond being devious and dishonest. We’re entering the world of fraudulent and slander. The credibility of authors who are partaking in “sock puppetry” also has to be questioned. And once again Amazon is perfectly happy to allow this to happen on their website which also calls into question their credibility or as I like to think shows their true colours.

Unfortunately it also calls into question all online reviews. I’m not naive enough to think that “sock puppetry” is limited just to Amazon but how can we discern between real reviews and fake reviews on Good Reads, Shelfari or any of the other myriad of book platforms that are out there. Creating an account is as easy as setting up a fake gmail or hotmail account. If you’ve got the time or the money this is probably a hundred times more effective than Google AdWords or Facebook Ads. But there is serious dishonesty occurring and I am sure most readers would feel cheated.

This is also not the first time Amazon’s search engine and generated recommendations have been called into question. It is widely know within the industry that if you don’t pay the appropriate marketing co-op to Amazon as a publisher then your books are harder to discover. They can limit some books discoverability to isbn only which is not the general readers’ main method of searching for a book.

Retail is changing and evolving at a rapid pace. It is imperative that consumer protection and competition protection keep up with these changes. eCommerce is probably the most unregulated and unmonitored area when it comes to commercial, consumer and taxation law and big business is taking full advantage of that fact. “Sock puppetry” is just the tip of the iceberg and if we don’t start clamping down on these deceitful practices now we’ll end up hitting the whole iceberg and then it will be too late.

More on Sock Puppets:

Welcome to Britain, a home fit for shysters

RJ Ellory: detected, crime writer who faked his own glowing reviews

Naming Sock Puppet Names: Sam Millar

Some questions for Stephen Leather

Hit ‘em where it hurts

The Numbers game

Fake book reviews are rife on internet, authors warn

No sock puppets here please

and I talked about this issue on 702 ABC Sydney:

What is sock puppetry?

9 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Book Reviews

  1. Great post! I actually worry about that all the time when I read reviews of books, particularly self-published ones, online. If a book only has 10 reviews or fewer and a four or five-star average, I’m usually skeptical.

  2. Lots of debate going on about this, but just wanted to note about Amazon (UK site which I use) that their reviews are labelled “Amazon verified purchase” “real name” (if the reviewer is using her real name linked to her Amazon account), and reviewer ranking (top 500, etc). So though I take their reviews with a big pinch of salt, some are good and there are some authentication processes in place. I don’t bother with Goodreads reviews as I’ve seen so many terrible, illiterate ones.

  3. Nothing surprises me in this world, especially in the digital world of self-publishing. It is awash with tricksters, hucksters and ego driven individuals.

    I am ashamed that I allowed myself to be suckered into their world. I have self-published a book and it was not worth publishing. I let myself get tricked into doing it.

    My advice is to anyone thinking of self-publishing, don’t do it. You will ruin your career.

  4. While I am no fan of Amazon I do think it’s a more complicated issue for them than has been conveyed in the discussions on this issue to date. Legally it is something of a mine field because, depending on the jurisdiction, once they start intervening in the issue of account verification they are then accepting responsibility for the words written by so-called verified accounts. And even with the best will in the world they will not stop shysters being shysters if those shysters can perceive value in shyster behaviuour.

    I also think we have to start taking responsibility for ourselves a bit more and stop expecting governments or protection authorities to do it all for us. I visited a local art gallery on the weekend and a particular artist’s work was being promoted very prominently while the work I actually wanted to see was virtually hidden. One of the workers there kept repeating to each new customer how artist X’s work would be worth a lot one day as she was just about to take off. One person that I saw bought one of the promoted pieces. I later found out that the promoted artist is the cousin of the gallery owner. Do I think this behaviour is at least as reprehensible as an author promoting his own work on Amazon? Yes. Do I expect anyone to do anything about it? Not really. Personally I would never spend serious money on the recommendation of a complete stranger – I went away from the gallery and did a bit of research and if the person who bought the art work is upset at having been pushed into buying something that isn’t going to go up in value my advice to them would have been to do the same thing – it’s not that hard these days.

    Of course as a community we should try to stamp out deceipt – close avenues for its promulgation – wherever possible. But we also have to be pragmatic and use the critical thinking powers of our brains rather than just accept whatever we see as the gospel truth.

    • It is an extremely complicated issue and not isolated to Amazon or even books. But you’ve got to seriously question the ethics of some authors and if there is payments going on I believe disclosure.

  5. When I first encountered Goodreads, like a naive child I read reviews of books that interested me and then trotted off and bought them. Without fail they were – for my taste – bloody awful. So I read reviews of books I love and realised I disagreed with every reviewer and their subjective assessments of books. Scrap Goodreads. Amazon? I try not to go there.

    I buy books for myself based on a multitude of variables, but reader reviews isn’t one of them. Friends and family invariably choose books for me that I don’t like, so what to do? Newspaper reviews can send me to the bookshop, and mostly their reviews are sound, and booksellers who know me usually get it right.

    The one who get it wrong every single time is the algorithm that says to me, ‘if you like this, you’ll like that.’ No, I don’t.

    Choosing a book and enjoying it is a process so chocka with mystery and human perversity that I believe the best tools remain genuine ‘book’ people who go beyond the ‘I liked it/I didn’t like it”. Humans soaked in the culture of books and perceptive enough to direct readers buyers in the right direction. There is no substitute for human interaction.

  6. Jon, dont know if you’ve seen this ww.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/socking-it-to-the-puppets-of-reviewerland-20120905-25dsq.html

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