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Can we really trust book reviews? (The dark side of online reviews)

Can we trust online reviews The stakes are always high, whichever game you find yourself playing where the competition is exceptionally fierce. From the perspective of bookselling and publishing, this appears to be especially so. There are countless authors out there, in both the traditional and self-publishing arenas, releasing the fruits of their labours by the hundreds every week, and inevitably they’re all clamouring for your money. In years gone by, promotion was practically the sole province of the publisher, unless the author was prepared to do signing tours, and convention and literary festival appearances. The only other media venues for making people aware of your work was through magazines, the radio and, if you were lucky, the television.

All that’s changed, of course, and so has the promotional role of the publisher. With the advent of the technological revolution that has been, and still is, the internet and the concomitant publishing platforms, availability and awareness is at an unprecedented high. Access to hitherto rarefied domains and the world of the published author has been granted to all, and the dam represented by the literary gatekeepers has subsequently been irrevocably breached. Naturally, this has led to a veritable flood of Biblical proportions inundating the publishing landscape: the waters of this metaphorical Niagara are of variable quality, ranging from the purest spring water to the utterly poisonous.

What does all this mean for the mid-listers?

And therein lies the rub, as the Bard perspicaciously has it. Publishers no longer have the time or the resources to promote all the books on their lists, so now they are more likely to corral what promotional resources they do have and concentrate on the big names. Which, of course, leaves the smaller ones, like the mid-listers and the debut writers (unless they happen to be extraordinarily gifted), somewhat adrift. Now that practically everyone is electronically connected to the outside world via social media and whatnot, the authors themselves have stepped in to fill the vacuum to become conspicuous promoters across all the social venues, both major and minor.

The positive consequence of this is that potential readers will be made aware of books that would otherwise have slipped below their literary radar, and that authors have the potential to get their names out to the book-buying public much quicker and far wider than would have been the case pre-www. There are writers out there who, had the status quo still pertained, would never have had the chance to achieve their dreams of earning money from their writing. The latter is, after all, the ultimate goal of all those who take their writing seriously.

When social media turns ugly

There’s inevitably a darker side to all this. The least of these ills is continual spamming in various specialist online groups and on social media pages. I can honestly say that I have been guilty of this, too – it’s all part and parcel of the learning curve, however, and it’s a necessary exercise in getting the balance right. That one’s easily rectified: just acknowledge the fault and then back off a little. A little higher up the scale of mischief are those posts in the same venues of people asking others to ‘like’ their books on platforms such as Amazon and to tag them, even if they haven’t actually been read by the said likers and taggers. Why ‘like’ something that you have no direct experience of? It’s the equivalent of how great a film was without ever having seen it.

The two worst offences, however, are charging for book reviews and reviewing your own works on a public platform under different aliases. Instances of both of these situations have recently come to light, in the latter case involving a well-known thriller author. I am not here to rail against the individuals concerned: instead, I will be turning my baleful eye upon the practices themselves.

Some years ago, I was a book reviewer myself (and I still do the occasional write-up when time and inclination allows) and, given the fact that my budget for books was non-existent, I considered the copy I received for review as my ‘payment’. This also allowed me to review the book as fairly as humanly possible – after all, the publisher/author need not have sent me the review copy in the first place. The only obligation I felt was that I should give it as objective a review as I could, regardless of whether it would turn out to be positive or negative. Charging people to review their books only leads to pressure to provide a positive write-up in return for them paying the reviewer. That exerting of subtle pressure may not be what is intended on the part of either the author or the publisher – nevertheless I think there’s an unconscious expectation that value for money must be fulfilled by getting a good review.

There’s also more than a hint here, on the part of such reviewers, of cynicism and shameless exploitation into the bargain, especially of those new writers who have yet to figure out how things work. If there are people who think that even an author of the calibre of Stephen King has to pay to get his work published (I was genuinely asked once ‘How much does Stephen King pay to get his books published and printed?’) then you can be sure that there will be those who will think it normal practice for all publishers/writers to pay to get their books reviewed. This is not the case in any situation: sending out copies is all part of the promotional process. If the reviewer gets paid at all, the remuneration shouldcome from the magazine/periodical/website he/she writes for and nowhere else.

Don’t review your own book!

Stretching the moral dimension even further in the negative direction is the instance of authors writing reviews of their own books under a series of aliases on online sites like Amazon. This just beggars belief. Questionable and dishonest are the only appropriate words for this deception, and is abhorrent on any level. Firstly, it shows a calculated underhandedness, that nothing is too low for the author to indulge in behaviour-wise in order to secure that sale: secondly, it displays a wilful disregard for the book-buying public and their fans alike, plus it’s as sharp a character delineation as anything that could have been committed to paper. Those at the start of their careers might be tempted to commit something similar, to generate some sales, but inevitably they will be caught out eventually and the outcome isn’t worth it in the end, and it certainly won’t enhance their prospects in the long-term. At the very least the writer will seen as being suspect and, more to the point, any future reviews, however honestly they’ve been attained, will be judged in light of that misbehaviour.

Newcomers perpetrating this kind of subterfuge is one thing, but established authors doing so is quite another. A case recently came to light where an established author was found to have written glowing reviews of his own books on Amazon. Compounding what was already a considerable sin was the trashing and bad-mouthing of his rivals. Right there could be heard the sound of trust and reputation being shattered. Any kudos the writer may have gained over the years wasn’t merely eroded, but completely crumbled into dust. What I said above about future reviews applies here ten-fold: from my own point of view I can no longer take any of the reviews as being honest and truthful, and that’sa disservice to those genuine readers who were moved enough to leave a write-up. In other words, it affects not only the author himself but also his die-hard fans. Furthermore it extends to all the reviews posted to sites like Amazon, making suspects of everyone and concomitantly rendering them worthless.

Some may argue that this is just another example of what it is to be human, and that we all make misguided mistakes at one time or another. I am not disputing that we are all prone to error on occasion, but the other side of the argument dictates that we all have enough nous to realise that deceiving people in this manner is wrong and, having decided that this is so, to refrain from carrying it out. The bottom line is that we possess moral intelligence, which means we should know right from wrong, and that we are conscious of our choices. The true test comes in which way we decide to exercise that choice. Sadly, there will always be those who will fail that test miserably.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/columns/read-letter-day/can-we-really-trust-book-reviews-the-dark-side-of-online-reviews/

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