Reviewgate, or who ever said the world was fair?

I was supposed to write about something else today, but then what I call the “review-gate” broke out and no self-respecting blogger can walk past the shit-storm that’s resulted from that NYT article. Here are some of my thoughts in no particular order.

1. Reviewgate, what’s it all about?

So apparently, some writers stoop low enough to solicit good reviews for hard cash. Shocking! Except, it’s not. The only thing that’s shocking here is the time it took the NYT journalists to discover and investigate that problem, when fake reviews is the first thing anyone entering the world of digital publishing encounters.

A quick Google search shows even that’s not the case: NYT regularly publishes features on ‘fake reviews’ – they did so in January this year and in August last year, and probably before. It’s only natural – NYT reviews and bestseller lists section is one of their most read ones, so they will do anything to defend the relevance of the professional review business. Only this time, the article was picked up by other media outlets and, more importantly, social networks. There’s been a hubbub, to say the least.

I’ve been observing this with some amusement. Surely, I thought, surely everyone knows that? Ever since I’ve become at all interested in the world of digital distribution – first as a reader, then as a writer myself – I’ve been noticing the ever growing proliferation of fake reviews and star ratings. Most of them were easy to spot: the usual pattern is a brief summary of the plot and product (as if product description above wasn’t enough) followed by some enthusiastic exclamations: as NYT put it in its January article, “acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-Il”. That was just the tip of the iceberg, however. I have since seen authors whose entire careers had been faked on the internet – from hundreds of ‘devoted fans’ following their every launch, to fake fan websites and forums where bots chat with each other inanely. I won’t be naming names, but do a search on TV Tropes and you’ll soon learn whom I mean.

Of course, this is something I’d never do myself. I’ve solicited a few reviews for my book, but the only “cost” to me was the review copy. I did check out a couple of professional reviewers – see below – but their prices were way too high. 

2. Does it matter?

So, no, this isn’t a new thing, and it won’t be going away soon. Why? Because contrary to what many will say, these things matter. Not just to ego-driven writers who want to see their name accompanied by a golden crown of five-star reviews. It matters because people on the internet have low attention span and not much time. Yes, many readers are savvy enough to tell the fakes apart, and they are usually the ones most vocal – but many are not. If every consumer had the will and knowledge to tell fake enthusiasm from real one, advertising industry would not exist. For many, looking at the number of stars may just be enough to sway them to buy one book instead of another, similar one. This is what these companies are exploiting – and this is why they are so successful.

3. Is it wrong because it gives unfair advantage to those with money?

That’s not why it’s wrong. Here’s a newsflash: everything works better if you have money. We live in a capitalist society; everything costs. Cover design, editing, proofreading… and the prices of all these things have in the recent years soared through the roof. Of course having money gives you an “unfair” advantage.

It’s wrong because it corrupts the market and creates wrong expectations. Just like the models in the newspaper ads create an illusion of ideal beauty everyone should strive for, so do fake reviews create an illusion of ideal product. The inflation of ratings is something most of us are familiar with: you can get up to 5 stars on sites like Amazon or Goodreads, but anything under four stars tends to disappear off the radar. When a vast majority of books is rated either “very good” or “brilliant”, the ratings become meaningless. This is insanity, and fake reviews are largely to blame for it.

4. Reviewers need money too!

This is an argument I’ve heard a few times – what’s so wrong about taking money for your work? Reviewing is hard work too!

It is. But only if you have a recognizable brand, name or style that’s worth the money – and if you write real reviews. And it’s always a lot more money than you think. Some Vine Voices take money for reviews, and even I balked at the numbers quoted. Literary magazines sometimes take money for reviews, and these cost even more. Definitely not a few dollars per paragraph.

Other than that, reviewing had always been a voluntary game. You write a review because you loved or hated the product enough to share it with the world. It’s an online equivalent of you telling a friend you liked the book. Should I be paying for everytime you do something like that?

5. Should I do it?

Definitely Not:

It’s immoral. It corrupts the market. It breaks the trust between reader and writer. It makes all your other reviews seem fake. Besides, it’s costly and has no proven results. But then again, what does?

Hmm, why not:

On the other hand, if you have no moral qualms about any of the above, and money is burning through your pocket – sure, go for it. In the end, it’s just like any other form of advertising: expensive, fake, amoral and probably useless. But that never stopped anyone from wasting piles of cash on marketing and PR.

6. What do I do to stop it?

There is only one thing you can do: write a lot of genuine reviews yourself. People are too shy or lazy when it comes to reviews; I know what it’s like, I have been guilty of neglecting the reader’s duties myself. But only when the genuine reviews will begin to seriously outnumber the fake ones in the marketplace will this menace be defeated.

So go on, remember the last book you’ve read, log on to Amazon and leave 20 words or more in the comment box. Here’s one you can start with 🙂

2 thoughts on “Reviewgate, or who ever said the world was fair?

  1. Thanks for your post and interesting thoughts, which I certainly agree with. But I especially had to drop in to say, even though this is a serious subject, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at your description of ‘fake fan websites and forums where bots chat with each other inanely’. What a wonderfully weird world we live in! Very Douglas Adams.

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