Dirty Little Secrets About Bad Book Reviews

Good books need your help. Seriously. The dirty little secret is that rivals manipulate book ratings to ensure that good ratings are questioned, but bad ratings are getting a free pass, and the authors getting hurt the most are the ethical ones who refuse to engage in bad behavior.

The minute a book starts selling, it rises up the rankings so that more people see it. Unscrupulous competitors, whose books were already up there, may knock the rising stars off the mountain with a bad rating, and they can get away with leaving bogus bad ratings for years. For all the ones who actually get caught, there are probably fifty more that get away with it.

The more descriptive these bogus bad ratings are, the more you need to question it. There’s a good chance a review is competitive manipulation if the review screams out, “Don’t buy this book! Don’t touch it with a ten foot pole! Your insides will turn to worms, and your brain will explode if you read it!” Author Rachel Polonsky encountered such a review, which turned into an all out Hatfield-McCoy feud. Her bogus bad review started with, “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.” The negative review was published by the wife of a rival author.

By knocking a good seller down the charts, a competitor can manipulate their own books to rise to the top and sell more. Seriously talented authors disappear before they’ve even had a chance, due to manipulations like this, especially Indie authors. Indies are up against not only other authors in their genre, but publishers, editors, and a whole host of people who make money off of books.

Indie books may even be targeted by the fan of a rival author, who has no opinion on the book they are rating, except that it’s in competition with their favorite author. Sometime’s it’s not even about the book itself, and a bad review is written in retaliation for political beliefs or religious beliefs. One author even got targeted because he left a bad review of a computer game, and an email went out encouraging others to “repay the favor” by reviewing his book.

Rosie Allen had a hit put out on her the minute her book was nominated for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction. Rosie had to shell out money to hire a company to defend her reputation as a writer, because of the suspicious negative reviews. Few authors have the resources to take such a drastic step, and they simply drown in the sinkhole created by the unethical behavior of others.

Nobody put it more succinctly than Todd Rutherford in his comment, “When there are 20 positive and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative.” Todd is referring to the other side of the coin with bogus good reviews. However, manipulators are fully aware of how devastating a bad review can be, and how easy it is to boost your book by smashing a competitor. The trouble is, readers take these negative reviews at face value, and make buying decisions based on them.

The bottom line is that you absolutely cannot trust the ratings — good or bad — for a book with a handful of ratings. Once a book gets up there with fifty or a hundred ratings, then you know all the friends and family, and all the competitors and rivals, have had their reviews overridden, and now the regular readers rule the roost. Fake reviews are BIG BUSINESS, and there’s not much downside to behaving unethically.

The first rule for readers is Trust Yourself. Don’t trust the ratings. Most books let you read a few pages or listen to an audio sample before you buy it, so that you can make an informed decision. If what you are reading or hearing doesn’t seem to fit the ratings, if you’re thinking, “Wow! This book doesn’t sound as bad as all that… or… This book doesn’t sound as good as all that…” then TRUST YOURSELF. In all likelihood, if your inner voice isn’t believing the ratings, then you’re probably looking at manipulated ratings.

YOU are the only people with the power to make it right! You’ve got the power to make your voice heard. Don’t let a good book die at the hands of unethical competitors. Don’t let a bad book rise to the top for inflated good ratings. Your opinion counts! Take the time to leave a star rating for the books you read, and better yet, add a few words in a review. Share your opinion on Amazon, Audible, Goodreads, Nook, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, or wherever you bought the book. The more readers who come forward to share their opinion, the more balanced the review system will be.

Next article in this series: The Problem With Editorial Book Reviews

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    17 Responses to Dirty Little Secrets About Bad Book Reviews

    1. Mary says:

      As a freelancer, I can tell you there are many, MANY paid reviewers out there. I don’t take those type of jobs myself, because they raise too many ethical questions for me as a Christian, but they’re offered all the time on sites like oDesk and Elance. I am very aware of the kinds of vague language reviewers use who haven’t actually read a book and I look for reviews that either offer a summary of the plot or point out very specific things they did or didn’t like about the book.

      Obviously most paid reviewers leave positive reviews, but it’s clear there’s motivation for negative reviewers, too. Sad.

      As for stopping that kind of thing, the only suggestion I could offer is to look for repetitive language- if one person is leaving multiple reviews, and you see that s/he uses the same language in most of them, they may be either a troll or a paid reviewer. Unfortunately, when it comes to monitoring opinion, it’s pretty hard to filter out the honest from the dishonest.

      Great blog entry, and well said. Thanks for helping to spread the word.

    2. I buy books if I find the description of the story interesting. I don’t go for good reviews because most of the time, I fee they are manipulated or it is not the type of books I want to spend my money on.

    3. John Chapman says:

      What makes it worse is when some well-intentioned person criticises a one star review pointing out how unjustified it is. Unfortunately the more comments a review has, the more its profile is raised and the more likely it is to appear as the first review seen. For the same reason an indie author should NEVER comment on a bad review and should never persuade a friend to do so either.

      If you must comment on a review – comment on a five star one.

    4. Marcie Cumberland says:

      I try always to leave one and to be honest in what I say. Since I frequently read books for young adults, some very well written books are given 3-4 stars because of irritating spelling and punctuation errors which don’t set much of an example. My own book, published in print a few years ago is undergoing a thorough clean up for just that problem.
      But when the story is good I say so. If you know you’ve got a great story, do everything you can to make sure it’s error proof. Do not do the final proof yourself- I learned the hard way!

    5. Tommie Lyn says:

      This happened to one of my books. I’d made it free, it had over 16,000 downloads, and had climbed to the top in the rankings (and this was “back in the day” before KDP Select). Someone who couldn’t spell and didn’t know grammar left a 1 star review which was replaced later that day by an edited version, obviously written by someone else. That review is not there anymore, why, I don’t know.

      It’s such a shame that there are those who will purposely try to hurt other writers in this way. Thanks for writing this post…I didn’t realize this was happening to others, too. I thought I’d been singled out, and I didn’t know why.

      • Allie says:

        Wow. It breaks my heart to think you struggled believing it was just you. Trust me, it’s a lot more common than we hear about publicly. It’s a scary subject to even post publicly because it usually has backlash for the brave souls who stand up for it. I watched an inspiring book get slammed the other day, one which people should have been boasting up, one which has the power to make a difference in the lives of those it was written for. It was one of the best books I’ve read, and it kept me turning the pages from beginning to end. That’s what spurred me to write this post. I did not believe that book deserved to get slammed.

      • Tommie Lyn says:

        Bless you for having the bravery to speak out. Perhaps if enough people become aware of this practice, someone will think of a solution that will stop it.

      • Allie says:

        Brave? No, just frustrated, and tired of watching authors suffer in silence. People are scared to death to talk about it, and that’s just not right. Authors should not be afraid. We should be able to reach out and connect with people, not hide in a corner afraid with zipped lips. Voicing an opinion could very well sink me, but you know what? As my very wise father likes to say, “It is what it is.” If somebody doesn’t speak out, we’re all sunk anyway.

    6. Tigress says:

      As an editor and a reviewer this is kind of disturbing. Sharing this on Twitter, Facebook and my blog. Thanks.

    7. m cundy says:

      A friend in the book world sent me this article, and I’m glad they did. This scares me now that I have a book out there! Very well written, thank you for sharing this. I try to not allow bad reviews to sway me, hopefully this becomes good Karma! Will share.

      • Allie says:

        I write a lot about good and bad Karma, mostly in blog posts 🙂 People don’t realize how important their every action is, however small it may seem at the time. One summer, a teenager who I barely knew was sent to help me paint my house. I knew this teenager for maybe three months that summer, and then moved away. Years later, that teenager had grown into a young adult who found me on Facebook. We chatted one night and I discovered that I had literally changed that child’s life in those couple of months, shaping the entire course of their future. I was stunned. I just sat with tears streaming down my face, in total awe of how we impact others and the world around us without even realizing it. That is one of the messages I’d really like to impart to the world.

    8. Truth. Someone decided to bash my very talented and new-to-audible narrator, and it killed sales. I know it’s a troll because she got two one star reviews on the same day, right when her second book was released.

      • Allie says:

        I just checked it out and saw that. Wow. It was the first rating for your narrator’s other book, guaranteed to kill it before it even has a chance. Someone did the same thing to a book I narrated, actually two, I think on the same day. In being the first, they destroyed the chances for an audiobook that could have changed the lives of families of people with brain injuries or disorders. The book was so powerful, I actually had to take breaks to cry. The power of the human spirit to overcome adversity is AMAZING, and this reviewer killed it. On Amazon, the book had straight five star ratings. On Audible, it’s now dead thanks to the review that said I was the worst narrator she’d ever heard 🙁 It breaks my heart because this book did not deserve it.

    9. Excellent article, and so true!!! I’ve shared and tweeted!

    10. Great article – shared on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and StumbleUpon

    11. This is a wonderful, brave post. I wish retailers would do something about the way their reviews are being manipulated. Removing the star ratings would be a big step. Especially on Kobo and B&N, where anybody can leave a star rating with no review. This is really getting out of hand. There’s some religious group that’s giving everybody who doesn’t belong to their church one-stars for “bad language” and “nauseating sex scenes” without reading the book to find out if there are any sex scenes or 4-letter words or not. The same review with identical wording appears on dozens of authors’ buy pages.

      • Allie says:

        I’ve actually pondered on how it could be done from a software programming perspective (I’ve developed software games), and I genuinely couldn’t think of ‘the perfect solution’ that could be automatically implemented. Like the algo that deletes five star reviews, there’s just too much room for error. I wish they were as diligent in removing bad reviews. I reported one on someone else’s book, and even sent them PROOF that the reviewer was biased, but the review remained. It really sucked the joy out of my heart for awhile, seeing how a bad guy had gotten away with hurting someone. I did not personally know the author, but when she posted in a forum about her bad review, I immediately recognized the handle of the reviewer.

        BTW, you have an awesome blog!

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