Should we write off online book reviews?
Amazon is finally cracking down on rogue reviews on its site, but many say the online giant is not applying its own rules consistently
Giving rave reviews to family members is no longer acceptable. Neither is the practice of writers reviewing the work of other writers. But showering five stars on a book you admittedly have not read is fine, apparently.
After several well-publicised cases involving writers buying or manipulating their reviews, giant online retailer Amazon is cracking down. Writers say thousands of reviews have been deleted from the shopping site in recent months.
Amazon has not said how many reviews it has killed, nor has it offered any public explanation. So the purge has generated an uproar about what it means to review in an era when everyone, it seems, can be an author and everyone a reviewer.
Is a review merely a gesture of enthusiasm or should it be something of a higher standard? Should writers be allowed to pass judgment on peers or are they competitors whose reviews should be banned? Does a groundswell of raves for a big new book mean anything if the author is soliciting the comments?
Quite a few writers take a permissive view. The mystery novelist JA Konrath, for example, does not see anything wrong with an author indulging in chicanery. “Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm,” he wrote on his blog.
Some readers differ. An ad hoc group has formed on Amazon to track its most prominent reviewer, Harriet Klausner, who has posted more than 25,000 reviews. They do not see how she can read so much so fast, or why her reviews are overwhelmingly – and, they say, misleadingly – exaltations.
“Everyone in this group will tell you that we’ve all been duped into buying books based on her reviews,” said Margie Brown, a retired city clerk from Arizona.
Amazon, which captures nearly a third of every dollar spent on books, values reviews more than other online booksellers, featuring them prominently and using them to help decide which books to acquire for its own imprints by its publishing arm.
So writers naturally vie for more, and better, notices. Several mystery writers, including RJ Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke, have recently confessed to various forms of manipulation under the general category of “sock puppets”, or online identities used to deceive. That resulted in a widely circulated petition by a loose coalition of writers under the banner, “No Sock Puppets Here Please”.
In explaining its purge of reviews, Amazon has told some writers it did not “allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors”. But writers say this rule is not applied consistently.
Michelle Gagnon had three reviews of her young adult novel Don’t Turn Around deleted. She said she did not know two of the reviewers, while the third was a longtime fan of her work. “How does Amazon know we know each other?” she asked.