Reader Beware.

Reading rivals everything I value on this planet. Everything. Before I was a wife, mother, writer – even really a friend to anyone – I lived/breathed/survived on fiction. Don’t ask me what I liked to eat growing up, ’cause I couldn’t say. But ask me what I read, and get ready to shoot me if you hope to get out of my fervent, evangelical clutches when I launch into an answer.

I make my confession without shame, since I know many of you are the same way. In fact, I’m posting this essay on my personal blog site because of the solidarity I feel with other readers, not on LinkedIn from the standpoint of a writer, since writers are already well aware of the problems with online book reviews. And there are problems you should be aware of, friends.

It’s like this: have you ever read a book you out-and-out loved, gone online, and queried the internet for recommendations on others like it? Sure you have. Despite how compromised the information might be, I still do it. The big book sites make it easy, even, running titles of “similar” books, or “books you might also like” when you make an online purchase. Embedded in these recommendations are ratings tied to reviews to help us readers make an informed decision, with one star indicating the book is not up to snuff, and five stars telling us this could be The One. The One we read through 25 other books to get what we most crave out of reading. Enter the emotional and economic capitalists, i.e., people seeking relevance by writing reviews to have influence, no matter how sad, on others; and people out to convince you they have what you need so you’ll buy it from them.

Genuine reviews are still out there, but they’re buried among the purchased and coached and not-quite-honestly motivated. Reader referral sites have deep – not just superficial – sales ties these days, and Amazon gives greater prominence on its site to books with more than 50 reviews, which has prompted some authors to buy them from services that offer such things, or create ghost accounts by seemingly different people and post glowing reviews. Why wouldn’t they? Amazon, being the biggest distributor, has come under fire for not doing more to protect readers from unethical reviews; Google Books, from reports I’ve read, is a more careful steward of reader trust, but they’re no Amazon when it comes to reader influence. I found this Forbes article to give any of you interested more background on the various issues in play: http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2012/08/28/fake-reviews-amazons-rotten-core/

Authors are at fault, too, and reputable reviewers are leaving the online community because of them. Two long-time reviewers I know took their sites down recently due to threats from authors to whom they did not grant five-star ratings. And I already posted this link to an article that ran in The Guardian last year, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic In this particular drama, the author, who feels justifiably offended, acts pretty suspiciously, herself – one former reviewer I know had this funny but chilling comeback when she read the piece: “I so very wish [this author] had come to my doorstep. I promise you, she would not have left it.”

I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to talk about it, and maybe encourage readers to keep asking questions. I believe the companies we buy from will act on our behalf if we do, either via existing vehicles or a new one. One thing I can say as an author is I know many, many talented, caring writers who want to make this situation better, their professional interests aside.

So. Have you ever been taken in by a disingenuous review? Have you found reviewers you trust, or sites you now return to for recommends? Post a comment and let me know what you think!

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