Who do you believe when you want to know if a book is worth reading?
Do you believe the professional critics, who write under their own name, and sometimes earn the eternal hatred of the people that they review badly?
Do you trust in the advice and recommendations of respected friends, who tell you that this, or that, is a book that you really must read?
Or do you believe the Amazon reviewers, those humble, self-sacrificing, and frequently anonymous people who buy a book from their hard-earned cash, read it thoroughly and carefully, then take time out from minding the kids, doing the garden, or whatever turns them on, to tell you that this particular book is bigger than the Bible, mightier than Moby Dick, or dodgier than Dickens?
Revelations regarding authors who ‘promote’ their own books by writing glowing 5-star reviews on Amazon highlight a problem which many people have been aware of for a long time. The shameless self-congratulatory reviews which R. J. Ellroy has admitted writing about his own novels under false names is bad enough, but when he admits to slagging other writers, such as Mark Billingham or Stuart McBride, under the same false names, then a sly trick becomes extremely nasty.
The coin has another – ridiculous – side, however…
Does anyone take Amazon reviews seriously?
As a writer who has never achieved more than 9 reviews on Amazon (ranging from 1 to 5 stars) and having published four crime novels which received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, I have to say that I have never believed in the Amazon customer review. Indeed, my wife and I (who write our novels together) have been advised by a number of people in the business to promote our books in a manner which we consider to be both unethical and dishonest. It may be reasonable to shout on Twitter or Facebook that you have a new book coming out, that it has been reviewed in this or that (respectable) newspaper, and that you will be promoting it here or there, as opportunity permits, but once you started spamming, falsifying, lying, then you may as well chuck it in and start looking for some other way of making a living.
Let’s take a case or two.
Big names like Ellory, and two of the writers he slated, Mark Billingham and Stuart McBride, managed to clock up around 50 reviews for each of their previous novels. It took a few years for some of the books to reach the half-century. Quite suddenly, Ellory’s “A Quiet Belief in Something Totally Unbelievable” receives 369 reviews. Any fool can see that there’s something dodgy going on. “Fifty Shades of Grey” (by… whoever wrote it) has been reviewed 821 times according to amazon.con.uk this morning…
I don’t believe it.
I don’t believe that there is a man or a woman alive (especially reviewer number 821) who has a thing to add to what the previous 820 Amazon commentators have churned out.
I don’t believe that any reader, however independent, however disinterested, however generous, will sit down and waste an hour or a day to write a long, glowing review that NOBODY is ever going to read.
What is the point?
MY ADVICE: Do you remember what you used to do when Amazon was just a seed in some demented salesman’s brain? You used to walk into a bookshop and browse… and browse… and browse. And sometimes you didn’t buy anything. We need to get back to basics. Books are for reading, not for hyping.
The reason some books receive lots of reviews of Amazon is (a) some authors write them themselves using "sock puppet" identities, (b) publishers give away free copies on condition the recipients write a review, and (c) there is at least one enterprising American compnay who charges authors for good reviews and pays the reviewers on a sliding scale to make sure they are good.
In 11 years I reviewed 972 crime novels for three UK newspapers. I don't count the ones I've done on the web or on Amazon. I have always used my real name and have never been offered a bribe. Threatened, yes, but never bribed. I have a policy of not "trashing" as I see my role as recommending good books. I prefer to ignore books which I don't think are any good. This attitude has won me no friends in the Crime Writers Association nor The Detection Club (neither of which I am a member) but the respect of some fine writers, whose opinion and friendship I value, including the Michaels Gregorio.
You're right, Sophie, but 'axes' and favours are transparent, as a rule - we know who they are - while authors pretending to be someone else are difficult to spot.
Like anything unedited and not vetted professionally, internet reviews, whether amazon or other, should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think some readers do take the time to respond thoughtfully to their reading, I know I have tried to do so. I think you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater--'crowd-sourced' comments can be useful in sifting through the massive quantities of information available to us all. Are there also cheats, cranks and nutters skewing the ratings? Of course, but a 'legitimate' reviewer may also have an axe to grind or a favor to repay....