Communion Of Dreams

“The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”

That’s the title of a NYT article a friend sent me. It’s long, more than a bit depressing, and probably something that every aspiring author should read.  More than that, it’s probably something that every book consumer should read. Because if you’re going by book reviews listed online, well, you might be reading nothing more than “artificially embellished reviews” in the words of one former business owner who brokered such reviews for authors.

Why do people do this? Money. From the article:

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

And why do authors seek such services? Same reason. Gaming the system to have a bunch of fake reviews posted helps to boost sales, building the dynamic which leads to a self-supporting “best seller.” People love the idea of being part of something successful. This is why marketers of all sorts seek to create “buzz” — that kind of attention is the Holy Grail of selling anything. Again, from the article:

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

So, what to do about it?

There’s no easy answer, for either a writer or a reader. Ideally, you should be able to read a review and tell whether the person actually read the book or not. But you can’t trust that. Believe me — I wrote advertising copy for several years after college and before grad school, and I got to the point where I could convince almost anyone that whatever product I was writing about was *FANTASTIC* whether or not I had ever even tried the product, let alone whether I liked it. Any competent writer could churn out ‘reviews’ for books they’ve never read by the dozens.

So, what then? Because reviews really do make a difference — having a solid body of honest reviews has helped others decide to give my books a try. That’s why I keep asking people to do them: it helps. A lot.

But what I think helps even more is word-of-mouth. Well, the internet equivalent of it, anyway. Which is people — real people — posting their thoughts/recommendations about a book on their favorite forum/blog/twitter/Facebook wall. I haven’t hit this mechanism nearly as much as I probably should since the initial launch of both Her Final Year and Communion of Dreams, but that’s because I hate bugging people.

But I’m going to swallow my pride and ask when it comes time to kick off the Kickstarter Project for St. Cybi’s Well that I keep mentioning. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that the Kickstarter will either succeed or fail according to how much promotional support it gets from people who have read Communion of Dreams.

So if you read that book, and enjoyed it, and would like to read another component in my over-arching story — be ready to help spread the word.

Thanks. In advance. There will be more tangible expressions of my appreciation coming soon.

Jim Downey

PS: Editing (Sept. 3) to add another link addressing this problem: RJ Ellory’s secret Amazon reviews anger rivals 

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What do you think of the “Editorial Reviews” section on Amazon (and other retail sites)? What about Goodreads? I agree it’s quite disheartening to run across so much review spam.

Comment by Lisa M.

Lisa – sorry for the delay in responding; I just noticed your comment when I came in to add the additional link.

As the Guardian link discusses, this is a bigger problem than most people realize. I do think that having some kind of verification on the review sites could help — tied either to someone’s purchases or their Facebook profile or some such.

Comment by James Downey

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