Does It Matter….

Sock puppets and paid reviews.

In Buying Your Way Into Libraries, I wondered about authors buying their way into libraries: specifically, if bought reviews influence others to buy a book, and that book then goes up the sales rank charts, then libraries who may purchase solely on sales rank (as detailed and sourced in my post) are being bought.

Something new has been brought up: sock puppets, or authors pretending to be other people and either praising their own work or being negative about another person’s work. Again, impact on sales rank, etc. Some articles at The Guardian go into much more depth: Sock Puppetry and Fake Reviews: Publish and Be Damned; What Does the Sock Puppet Scandal Mean for Online Reviewing; and So much more than sock puppetry: in defence of reader reviews.

I thought it was pretty simple. Online reviews are about integrity, about knowing who is reviewing, and trust. Paid reviews and sock puppets that are undisclosed (and, really, who discloses that?) impact that. I’ve seen some say, “oh, it doesn’t matter to me as a reader….”

I’m going on record here as saying as a reader, and as a librarian, the integrity of online reviews matter.

“Oh, I don’t read reviews, I just go into a bookstore/library and see a cover, flip through a book, read the blurb, and buy it.” Not to channel my heroine Miranda Priestly, but you think this has nothing to do with you? The book is on that shelf (real or virtual) because a person selected it. How did they select it? A review; and increasingly, while booksellers and librarians still read and use professional journals, they also pay attention to online reviews. That book is on that shelf because of a review. As for online booksellers that go by computer programs deciding what to show in search results or other lists, that is impacted by sales and, as we’ve seen, sales can be manipulated by paid reviews and sock puppets, so, again, yes, even if you don’t read an online review it has an impact.

In regards to ebooks, I’ve read another argument: instead of reviews, read the sample chapter! Read the book! If you don’t like it, get your money back and add a one star review.

Who gives me back the ten hours I spent reading that book? And can I be the only one who has seen promising starts fizzle or slow builds not explode until beyond what would be a sample chapter? And now you’ve taken my precious time to read the book instead of a trusted review (which even a long one is not ten hours) and… you want me to write a review. When, if trustworthy reviews had been around to start with, I’d never have wasted my time. And trust me: my reading time is precious.

I review two to three books a week, or roughly 100 to 150 books a year. I read another 50, which either don’t fit with what I do in this blog, I don’t like, I don’t finish, etc. I read sometimes for “me” but I also read for this blog and I read for my patrons so that I can do a better job of readers’ advisory. A trustworthy online review matters very much. It’s important.

So, what do you think? Do online reviews matter? Do you care about sock puppets and undisclosed paid reviews?


12 thoughts on “Does It Matter….

  1. Internet boundaries have stretched so far they seem to bleed into one another. “Citizen reviewers” parallel “citizen journalists” who blog news without a degree in journalism. If librarians buy books due to sales ranks that are bought and sold, who do you trust? I trust those that are integral with a long history. Sock puppets are an industry. They are used online for marketing all the time. Reviewing is a skill that helps to market a book but it’s a craft. And in today’s world marketing trumps craft. I hope you are paid a pretty penny for your time, efforts and specialized skills.


  2. I think paid reviews and sock puppets do matter. And it is why I do not read on-line reviews provided by retailers. My purchasing decisions are based on books I have read (which as you note, there is never enough time for), books that are requested by our school’s teachers and students, and reviews in professional journals or the blogs of other librarians.


  3. I think that they do matter. As a reviewer who has been blogging and reviewing for over 15 years it is very upsetting. Those of us that have been doing it because we love the genre that we write about are being smeared with the same brush of those sock puppets. It is hard and demoralising. For the record, I do not post any of my reviews on Amazon unless they have been on the website that I review for. I can also count on one hand the number of my reviews that are on Amazon. I also don’t get paid or expect to get paid for my reviews. It is also fraudulent. Some of us have built up good reputations over the years and it is really sad to see them go down the drain because some people are misbehaving. It has to stop.


  4. Online reviews do matter to me, some of them. Even if I’m not familiar with the author’s work, a review can strike me if the reviewer is specific about why s/he did or didn’t like the book. If the review is a general “This book is great!” or one star with no explanation, that review means nothing to me.

    My local newspaper printed an article about a visiting author. I liked what they said, and I’m going to sample his work. If I like it, you can bet I’ll be at the signing with my purchased copy!


  5. Trustworthy reviews do matter… which is why it’s important to find trusted sources not just accept individual or even groups of reviews at face value. Some of it is taste, of course: there are books that are legitimately 5 star-reviewed that I am sure I wouldn’t get past page 10 of because it’s not my cup of tea. And there are books that get low star ratings but probably would be my cup of tea. While I might use an Amazon star rating or a best-seller list as a quick reference point, I’d never make my decisions based on them.

    What’s interesting to me is that none of this is new, just back in the news. Authors rate their own books on Goodreads… authors get family to rate their books on Amazon or wherever… merchants game Yelp and Amazon and and and. Happened the moment the online world began, and I am sure it happened before, too.

    Trusted sources matter. I will read your reviews, Liz, and, because I’ve come to know you and your taste, I know how your reviews will work for me. When I meet a random person at a party (i.e. a review on Amazon), I’ll take it under advisement but not in the same way a rave from you would impact me. Same as it ever was. Caveat emptor.


  6. I think the whole purchased reviews/sock puppet thing would matter to many readers. We’ve grown up on advertising and know to distrust it. Purchased reviews would be viewed as paid advertising by many. And sock puppets–Well, just the fact that that’s called “sock puppets” indicates that it’s perceived as a joke.

    The issue is whether most people know this is going on. Yes, it has received a lot of attention, particularly in the British press, by OUR standards because we read book-related material. But a lot of people don’t. I don’t think it’s general knowledge.

    Greg–I saw some authors on Goodreads offering to “Like” each others author Facebook pages in order to make themselves look more popular. What? I can’t believe what I see on Facebook, either?


  7. I also just read an article about how easy it is to purchase Twitter followers. So you can’t go by the number of followers there, either.

    I’m with Greg on trusted sources mattering. I’ve removed blogs from my Google Reader recently, not because I don’t agree with the reviews exactly, but because of overly positive reviews of books that I think are flawed. I’m looking for people I can trust, and I value them when I find them.

    I do use Amazon product reviews, but, as Danette said, only if they are detailed and specific. A five star thumbs up from someone I don’t know isn’t useful. A detailed review that talks about pros and cons of something … I think I can get a sense of what is and isn’t plausible. Sometimes, anyway …


  8. melanie, reviewing is a craft. That some may use it to market doesn’t change that, does it?

    steph, it seems like part of the answer may be disregarding reviews at retailers. but some of them are legit; and it does impact sales and increased sales means even more sales, etc. It’s funny, I don’t think those arguing that sockpuppets don’t matter meant to strengthen the need/importance of professional journals and mainstream media, but that’s part of the result —

    Ayo, agreed. In addition to the impact on readers there is also the impact on legit reviewers whose reviews are now in doubt.

    danette, uhg, the one line loved/hated it. can’t stand them. i tend not to read those reviews, but when I’m looking to link to reviews in my post i may stumble upon them.


  9. Greg, why I like details in the hate/love it review is that the details more than the conclusion tell me if I, too, would hate or love it. Or come to a different conclusion. And I agree — same as it ever was! A reader has to do a bit of research and the ones I trust are the people I “know” through their blogs and social media site. Still, it baffles me to see people either defending it as OK or pretty much dismissing all reviews because of it. I’m a big one for transparency — let the reader decide. So in my review of Gwenda’s book, I note we’ve worked on online projects. I’m reading a book by a good friend, and when I write up something about the book, that notice will be front and center for people to take into consideration.

    Gail, terrific point that “we” know it. What about the typical reader who thinks they can rely on the Amazon reviews? And isn’t this why the FCC got so interested in regulating things as advertisements instead of commentary?

    Jen, I think I can tell the “good” reviews by the details, but who knows? And purchasing Twitter followers….why? I don’t get it.


  10. Hi Liz, No, using the reviews for marketing purposes doesn’t diminish the craft of reviewing. I post reviews from citizen reviewers. These reviews are mostly from parent to parent blogs. I send these reviews to the audience that would appreciate them most, other parents. If I were to contact a bookstore or librarians with my reviews I’d go with the trade reviewers or the bloggers such as yourself or Betsy, those with a track record that this audience can relate to. After reading the comments I think we are all shooting ourselves in the collective foot by overestimating the public. They have no clue to the inner circle world of publishing and who is who. I constantly need to educate those I meet that I am not self published and what is the difference. Reviews are not as important to the parents as they are the librarians, booksellers, teachers, etc. I’ll bet most of the public’s info comes from Amazon and word of mouth.


  11. It gives me hope that I have read articles about paid reviews, but not many paid reviews themselves. I have a list of librarian/teacher/parent bloggers whom I trust, and rely on them to point me to the books I should read– and then I read the books before I buy them for my library. It is an alarming trend, however, and the casual buyer of books may not be aware of this.


  12. As an active member of Goodreads, I’ve become more and more disgruntled lately at the quality of general reviews there. I scan them, particularly for the adult book club I run at my church, and dismiss most of the reviews I see. If there’s a .gif included, I skip over it immediately. Otherwise I read a few sentences and if there’s no substance, I’m done. I don’t remember which reviewer (maybe Nina over at Heavy Medal?) said they tend to seek out the two star reviews when they want information. These are more often the critical people who have something constructive to say.

    I don’t really understand the people who seem to have thousands of friends on Goodreads (except the authors and bloggers who are clearly presenting their public personas for self-promotion/marketing) – how do you filter which reviews you actually want to read or which are quality? I don’t think Goodreads is quite as bad as Amazon yet, but as it’s grown in popularity it’s having the same problems. I’m at the point where I’m so frustrated by the lack of quality that unless I’m specifically looking for different points of view (like for my book club); I won’t read any reviews except for those of my friends. I’m not saying that people who want to network or gush over books shouldn’t use Goodreads; it’s just not what I use it for – and also, that’s not reviewing. Networking and gushing are two things that are not at all like reviewing, but I can see how in online forums they can look that way because they’re all lumped together.

    I guess the nice thing about my disgruntlement is that I don’t think I’m seeing most of the sock puppet reviews, which is good because that is just repugnant to me in general because it’s dishonest. It’s not that hard to be upfront (Like you are Liz!) and identify any connections. I have a hold on Elizabeth Fama’s new book Monstrous Beauty. I don’t know Elizabeth in person, but we collaborated lightly and briefly on a blog post and you bet I’ll be mentioning that even though it’s just a Goodreads review that reaches a very small audience.


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