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Thursday, October 22, 2015

All The News About Reviews

 From the inbox...

    I heard about the thing where Amazon is suing people for fake reviews. My question is: why would anyone pay for reviews? You either know your book sucks or it doesn't. Do authors really need to pay someone to stroke their ego and praise their book?

- Confused"


Dear Confused,
I imagine there would be a healthy market for professional cheerleaders for authors. Self-esteem gets hit hard when you're in publishing, but that's not why people buy reviews. People buy reviews to sell books.

It sounds weird. Especially when you look at the Fiverr case where authors were paying people to buy the book and leave a review. It seems like it would have been smarter for the author to buy 100 copies of their own book and sell them at the Farmer's Market for cash, right?

But it all comes back to Amazon algorithms.

If you've ever shopped on Amazon you've probably noticed there's a nifty list of things other people bought when they bought the item you're looking at. Whether you're shopping for Barbie videos or the newest EL James novel or vintage Harry Potter gear there's always a suggestion for other things you might like. 

That very sneaky advertising relies on a couple of factors: your buying history, prices, the buying history of other customers, and reviews. And when it comes to books, the reviews are very heavily weighted.

They don't even need to be good reviews! A hundred one-star reviews reading, "This book was written by a concussed vole with questionable taste in men!" will still get more attention from the sales algorithms than the book with three five-star reviews, even if those five-star reviews come from Stephen Spielberg, Neil Gaiman, Michelle Obama, Pope Francis, and the Duchess of Cambridge. 

Because what Amazon sees is 100 sales vs 5 sales. The computer program looks at the spreadsheet and says, "This book by Concussed Vole is selling like hotcakes for 99 cents and we make 50 cents per sale! And this book by Truly Perfect Author is selling for $7.99 and not doing anything. Put all the advertising into Concussed Vole sales!"

It's the smart bet.

Amazon would rather rake in the pennies from the hate-sales (books sold just because no one can believe it is truly that awful) than waste advertising space on a good product that has poor sales.

And what do you think happens when Amazon pushes Concussed Vole's book to the front page? That's right, it has even more sales!

When authors buy reviews they are trying to game the system. They're trying to trick Amazon's advertising program into giving them attention and free press. 

Understandably, Amazon (and other - more honest - authors) get a little bit upset about the fact that someone is trying to turn publishing into a pay-to-play situation. And while it's true Amazon is doing this all to make a hefty profit with little overhead it is still unethical on the part of the author.

I've seen authors offer free copies of books for honest reviews. In some genres that's practically required. The ebook boom led to a review boom. People who couldn't otherwise afford books are now turning away authors because they don't have enough time to read and review every book put out there. 

Other authors, daunted by the ordeal of getting honest reviews, try less scrupulous methods: paid reviews, sock-puppet accounts, bribing friends and family, or Fiverr. 

I've yet to meet anyone in my circle of friends who's admitted to buying reviews. I know of a few "celebrity" authors who bought 1000 copies of their book to boost sales data (*ahem* some politician *ahem*) but at the end of the day the boost is artificial and won't last. 

Real reviews come from fans who are invested enough to give up their time not just to read, but to comment. Those are the fans that want to interact with the author, and those are the fans that will share the books they love with others. The fans who leave reviews become part of the 1000 True Fans every author is looking for. 

TL;DR - Buying reviews is about boosting sales ranks on Amazon, not about stroking the ego. If you love a book, please leave a reviews. REVIEWS SELL BOOKS. 

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