The New York Times has an interesting article by David Streitfeld this weekend titled The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, exploring the murky world of paid reviews. Streitfeld comes up with some interesting information about how paid reviews have helped various self-published writers become top-selling authors, and there’s also a quote from data-mining expert Bing Liu claiming that around one third of online consumer reviews are fake.
Most people involved in publishing know that paid reviews happen, and they have been a part of the industry since long before the internet was created, but Streitfeld’s article exposes just how widespread and profitable the practice has become. In some cases, authors and publishers are paying out four-figure sums to get the reviews they hope will propel them to the top of the Amazon charts. The idea is that a few good reviews will kickstart a more legitimate process, encouraging genuine readers to try the book and then post their own reviews. But there are some obvious ethical problems with this approach.
As the article shows, reviews have become the most important part of any product’s sales pitch. With traditional advertising techniques falling flat online, marketing agencies have had to rethink their approach. What people value more than ever is a word of mouth recommendation from a trusted source. Of course, that recommendation only works if it seems to be genuine and spontaneous, and this is why some people worry about whether some paid review services are deceptive. If a reviewer was paid for a review, should they declare this, even if they didn’t guarantee that the review would be positive?
At the same time, consumers are becoming more and more wary of reviews. For example, if you go to the Amazon page of a new self-published book and find that it has a couple of 5-star reviews, you would probably be suspicious. There’s no shortage of sites offering paid review services for Amazon, even if Amazon occasionally takes action to remove reviews that are obviously purchased in this way. But the problem is clear: fake reviews, if they aren’t too obvious, work really well, provided the product is of a decent standard. Fake reviews do help books rise in the charts. It’s a classic case of supply and demand.