The ongoing saga of the dodgy review.

Some months ago, I was moved to write a post about fake reviews. I got quite a stroppy comment from one reader who said s/he was fed up with authors telling readers about fake reviews, and we should trust people to have the common sense to be able to spot the fake reviews. Frankly, I was embarrassed that I may have caused offence, and I took the post down. And now I wish I hadn’t.

In the last few weeks, there have been a endless articles, tweets and blog posts about fake reviews, and whilst I am prepared to accept that the amateur faker can usually be spotted a mile off, I think my previous reader had underestimated the seriousness of the whole sock puppet mentality out there. This is not about people’s family and friends writing one-liners ‘the best book I’ve ever read’, or their worst enemies writing ‘wish I’d saved the money’. This is now a very serious issue.

I started to write this post a few days ago, but then suddenly all this new information started to appear, so I had to rewrite most of it. I didn’t intend to name names, but find that the Telegraph and the Daily Mail have done it for me! The culprit that everybody is currently talking about at the moment is RJ Ellory, but he is far from alone. Check out this post from Stuart Neville to find another author revealed.

Like many people, I had assumed (and I apologise profusely for this) that the main culprits were a very small number of indie authors who were trying to promote their own books, and believed that criticising the competition was the way to go (??). When Only the Innocent reached the number one spot on Amazon, I was warned by Kerry Wilkinson of Locked In fame that I would now start to receive some really bad reviews. At that time, I had over a hundred reviews and they were all four or five stars. I was surprised at his comment, but accepted that not everybody would like my book – it was written to be an easy read, and I knew it wasn’t a work of literary genius. Most people seemed to enjoy it, and that was good enough for me. But what I hadn’t expected were the unbelievable number of obviously completely fake reviews, with comments that show absolutely no evidence of having read the book and just slam it into the ground. I was shocked. Even more so when I identified at least three of these reviews as coming from other authors who weren’t quite smart enough to hide their tracks.

Take for example the reviewer who (on Goodreads, no less) asked how many times I could refer to an ‘insincere smile’ in Only the Innocent. My first reaction was shock and horror. Had I really done that? Out came the manuscript as I searched for the word insincere, praying that I hadn’t used it more than twice at the most. Phew. I hadn’t. Not more than twice; in fact, not even once. The word ‘insincere’ does not appear anywhere in the whole book – and for this, I was awarded one star. This may not have been a fake review – he might just have read a different book, of course.

My shock turned to horror when I discovered that it is possible to pay for reviews from a site where everything costs a fiver (a bit of a clue there, for those who know about this site). You can buy up to three good reviews or three bad reviews from different named reviewers for a book of your choice for just $5. And there are still people out there asking for ‘genuine’ review swaps. Let’s be realistic here – if somebody is reviewing your book, are you really going to give theirs anything less that a four star? It should never be done.

I was also astonished by the peevishness, and I can’t think of a better word, of some authors. I have had to stop offering to give independent reviews of books via the excellent Kindle Book Review because of the negative effect on my own review statistics. I make it a policy never to give a bad review. I am not in the business of harming other people’s chances and opportunities just because their work doesn’t appeal to me. So if I can’t give a book at least a three star review, I write to the author and apologise but say that unfortunately theirs wasn’t my sort of book. If there is something technically wrong with it, I would mention it (for example, one really good book had passages in Italian which were incorrect – and as I live in Italy I was able to spot this), but I would never write up an Amazon review that would have a negative impact on sales. However…  some of these authors took a different view. I wouldn’t review their books, so they were publicly going to make sure that other people didn’t buy my book. After not one but two occasions when I declined to review a book for no other reason than neither of them were stories that I could relate to (and therefore manage to finish), I received on each occasion no less than FIVE one star reviews in the space of a few hours. None were from verified purchasers, and this was at a time when I was averaging one new review per week. Oh – and one of these authors was stupid enough to recommend his own book in a couple of the reviews too. So sadly I can no longer help to support other indie authors by reading and reviewing their books. Once again, the minority have impacted on the majority.

But back to my previous incorrect assumptions. Along with the majority of the press and the ‘traditionally published’ authors, the sock puppetry was claimed to be shocking behaviour by a (very) small minority of indie authors. But in the space of the last few weeks, the following has been revealed about traditionally published and well-known authors –

  1. One writer of several successful books allegedly admitted publicly that he has a number of sock puppet characters registered on Amazon. He goes into forums and creates discussions between himself and, er, himself to say what a fantastic book he has written. I didn’t hear this admission personally, but it was reported on several blogs after the Harrogate Festival.
  2. An article in a well respected New York paper last week told of an entrepreneur making a considerable sum of money by offering professionally written reviews of books. But not just one review; authors could buy up to ONE HUNDRED reviews from him, all for their book. Now, given that the cost for this service was not inconsiderable, this was not a route taken by your average indie author who doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. But this guy has made a lot of money writing these reviews, so somebody was buying them.
  3. Since Friday, Twitter has been alive with allegations about a couple of top ranking authors who have been discovered to be using sock puppets (for those, like me, who had never heard the phrase sock puppet in this context, the definition is “an extra online identity created by a member of a discussion forum, etc, to agree with opinions submitted under his or her usual online name”). The main culprit was RJ Ellory, and he was exposed by Jeremy Duns, although from the tweets flying around it would appear that Ellory wasn’t the only one up to these tricks. There was plenty of evidence to show that this top author had written some astonishing reviews of his own books, and had similarly crafted carefully and eloquently worded appalling reviews of books by people he considers his competitors. This is somebody who has sold over one million books, and has a traditional publishing deal. How can the average reader spot these sorts of fake reviews?

The one bit of good news is that Orlando Figes was actually caught out for doing exactly this a couple of years ago. He apparently had to pay legal costs and damages to the two people that he had slammed, as they were going to sue him for libel. Now that, I like… a lot!

Let’s be absolutely honest about this – any writer who has their first book published is likely to get a rash of good reviews from friends and family. Whether asked for or not, all those who care about you will be so impressed by the fact that your book is up there that some are likely to want to help you out by buying your book, reading it, and reviewing it. That’s to be expected. But for most people, it will account for a fairly small number of reviews.

What I now look for when I search for reviews of a book are not those from faceless people who have maybe only written one or two lines and have never reviewed another book. Nor do I look for those people who have reviewed a lot of books, but have given only one author five stars, and everybody else one or two (bit of a giveaway!). I also completely ignore reviews that mention another author or another book. I look for those reviews that are from trusted sources. People who regularly review books, and give a range of levels of review to different authors; those who demonstrate that they have read the book. Even if they point out negatives, a good reviewer will do so in a constructive rather than an offensive way.

I will admit now that I do have two Amazon identities – but only because I have to (or at least, HAD to). The reason? (Skip this bit if you like, because it’s boring.) Living in Italy, I had to register my real address to upload a book onto KDP Amazon. A Kindle bought with the same identity (and therefore an Italian address) at the time could only buy books from the US. So I created another identity with a UK address so that I could buy books. I haven’t tried to hide this, and occasionally I forget to log out and respond using the other identity in a forum. This confuses everybody, because I always sign my posts as Rachel, and in order to avoid a massive (and boring) explanation, I usually say that it’s a friend’s account – but I have never used that account to talk about me as if I’m someone else (if that makes sense) or have conversations with myself. Do these people use two or more computers to do this, or do they log on and off all the time, I wonder? How very tedious! Oh, and I occasionally write reviews for other people in my other name, but only good ones!

So what, if anything, can we do about all this? We can look out for any and all sock puppets and report them where appropriate, or perhaps try to lobby for tighter restraints by Amazon. They could check for more than one review from a single IP address, or could insist on real names (ie names that matched the credit card used to buy goods). People may have more than one credit card, but most people don’t have more than one name!

In a recent press release, Amazon stated : “Amazon.com, Inc. seeks to be Earth’s most customer-centric company” and if that’s the case, customers need to be given genuine information.

As author Gregg Hurwitz said on Twitter yesterday morning “The concept of other authors as “rivals” is foreign to me”. I agree with that, and I would have thought that any sale based on fake and dishonest behaviour must seem like a very hollow victory.

I await, with interest, your feedback!

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