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.

The explosion of reviews for The 4-Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss shows how the system has evolved from something spontaneous to a means of marketing and promotion. On publication day, dozens of highly favourable reviews immediately sprouted. Other reviewers quickly criticized Ferriss, accusing him of buying supporters.

He laughed off those suggestions. “Not only would I never do that – it’s unethical – I simply don’t have to,” he wrote in an email, saying he had sent several hundred review copies to fans and potential fans.

“Does that stack the deck? Perhaps, but why send the book to someone who would hate it? That doesn’t help anyone: not the reader, nor the writer.”

As a demonstration of social media’s grip on reviewing, Ferriss used Twitter and Facebook to ask for a review. “Rallying my readers,” he called it. Within an hour, 61 had complied.

A few of his early reviews were written by people who admitted they had not read the book but were giving it five stars anyway because, well, they knew it would be terrific.

A spokesman for Amazon, which published The 4-Hour Chef, offered this sole comment for this article: “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.”

The dispute over reviews is playing out in the discontent over Klausner, an Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer for the last 11 years and undoubtedly one of the most prolific reviewers in literary history.

Klausner published review No. 28,366, for A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder. Almost immediately, it had nine critical comments. The first accused it of being “riddled with errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation”. The rest were no more kind. The Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society had struck again.

Klausner, a 60-year-old retired librarian who lives in Atlanta, has published an average of seven reviews a day for more than a decade. “To watch her in action is unbelievable,” said her husband, Stanley. “You see the pages turning.”

Klausner, who says ailments keep her home and insomnia keeps her up, scoffs at her critics. “You ever read a Harlequin romance?” she said. “You can finish it in one hour. I’ve always been a speed reader.”

She has a message for her naysayers: “Get a life. Read a book.” More than 99.9 per cent of Klausner’s reviews are four or five stars. “If I can make it past the first 50 pages, that means I like it, and so I review it,” she said. – (New York Times)