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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Indie Life: Let's Stop Review Inflation

Anyone who has been to university is familiar with the phenomenon of grade inflation: students are given better grades than they deserve in order to make the department or university look good. There's a similar process going on in indie publishing that I call review inflation.

It's simple: an indie writer gets her friends to give the book five-star reviews, lavishing praise on the book. Sometimes it's quite obvious. I've seen books that have only been published for a day that somehow have half a dozen reviews, all of them five stars. The idea is that this will help sales.

In the end, this hurts the author and indie writers in general. When real readers buy the book, they're often disappointed and take out their sense of betrayal with especially bad reviews. Readers are also getting more sophisticated. I've seen more than one review on Amazon or B&N which complains there are too many fake reviews for a book.

It's also just plain dishonest, and trying to pull one over on your readership is not going to help your career in the long term. I have never asked my friends for reviews. For my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, only one reviewer is someone I know. ACLopez is a friend of mine. I didn't ask her to write a review, but she did anyway and gave it five stars. I'd think she really enjoyed the book and was probably tickled that much of the action took place in her county, but would she have given it five stars if she didn't know me? Probably not.

The only other unsolicited review from a friend was for The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other Dark Tales. On Amazon UK, Critch gave me only three stars and said, "He needs to improve if his fiction is to equal his non-fiction, but there are glimpses of potential in this collection."

Well, no review inflation with that guy!


  1. I have one 3 star review on mine and 6 five stars. ***shrugs*** I actually love the 3 star one. Its short and to the point. And he really had nothing bad to say about it. Other than I didn't have an epilogue.

    Hugs and chocolate,

    1. I got a four-star review on one of my traditionally published history books where the only complaint was that it was too short. I can live with that!

  2. This really bugs me too, but a lot of things in this biz bug me. People will cut any corners they can to support their books -- because if they don't, no one will -- and even the Big 5 publish books that are below par and tie all their authors into draconian contracts. Plus, the Big 5 will deliberately attach misleading blurbs and covers to books in order to sell them. You think you're buying one thing, and low and behold, you're reading something else altogether. Of course, readers get ticked off and rate low. The author's fault? Nope. the sneaky publishers who have already pocketed your money.

    I'll try to remember to alert you when my book releases; and I think the marching band and circus performers I intend to hire to celebrate it might be able to attract your attention first! ;)

  3. It is definitely a messy problem. Early on, I did ask friends if they were willing to read my works, and if they did, to write an Amazon review - but I never asked for a five star review, and in fact I've asked friends these days to NOT give a five star review.

    When you're first starting out, the people who're going to read your works are people you know, and those people want to see you succeed, so they write good reviews. Even if they find something wrong with the work, they'll either gloss that over, tell you ahead of time, or spin it in such a way that it's not really a negative (for example, "I don't really enjoy horror novels, but I found Blood Bath to be better than I expected").

    And, as Lexa pointed out, traditional publishing - and big businesses in general - have ridiculously misleading and clever tricks and tactics when it comes to marketing, advertizing, and promotion. Things we'd cringe at the thought of, and get lambasted for doing, are common, everyday practices for bigger businesses.

    I think the best practice is to not prevent friends from writing reviews, but to also make it clear to them that they aren't doing you any favors by inflating the grade. If someone's going to leave you a five-star review, they'd better make it clear in the review why they felt it was worth five stars. This is especially true of folks who read and review multiple of your titles - no one wants to put any weight in "groupie" reviews.

    Having said all that, I admit I typically write people five-star or four-star reviews, but I also have a personal policy of "If you can't write a positive review, don't write one at all". I've left a few critical reviews, but in general I don't write a review at all if I don't feel a book is worthy of high praise.

    To complicate matters even more, different review sites have different criteria for their ratings. Goodreads considers a 5-star review to be "one of the best books I've ever read" while 5 stars on Amazon just means "I really enjoyed this!", so if you "really enjoyed" a book, giving 5 stars is perfectly legitimate. In fact, Amazon considers 3 out of 5 stars to be a "critical" review, while on Goodreads 3 stars is "I liked it".

    1. Jack,

      I've struggled with whether to give bad reviews or not. Generally I've decided not to if it's an indie unless they have a host of misleading and obviously fake reviews.

  4. This is something that bugged me a great deal about the A-to-Z community. It seems as if the whole thing is there to provide mutual, uncritical support to everyone who plays along. Anyone who doesn't is shunned. Really. They're shunned! I could never get behind the concept of accepting friends and pimping their projects (which is exactly the same as giving false reviews) simply because you want their support in return. And the false reviews themselves are hilarious. And uncritical. Most of them are plot synopses, not reviews. There's a big difference. There's a periodic push to get people to review and to give as many stars as possible, because anything else "hurts" the book. As you rightly point out, any honest review is more helpful than a dishonest one. Books are theoretically written to find an audience, not just to be bought. If they don't deserve an audience, then they shouldn't get one. It's hard enough to be noticed. Half the reason there are so many indy writers is because traditional publishers receive far too many submissions to begin with. They don't know what to do with all of the material they receive, and as it turns out that material has the exact same fate when it's flipped somewhere else. The difference is that all those indy writers still can't think critically, but they suddenly have a whole (smallish) community that only further obscures everything, thereby not a bit improving the conditions that forced the new circumstances in the first place...It's so idiotic that I understand completely why it happens.

    But for the record, even though I haven't read it and I rarely comment here, I don't believe you or your books, including A Fine Likeness, are a part of this problem. I will read it eventually, and I suspect I'll like it.

    1. I'd love to hear your honest opinion when you do!
      You're spot on with the dynamics of the indie community. I don't participate in most forums and chats because of this.

  5. I let mine happen naturally. I'm the odd bird, I guess. I've asked my mailing list for reviews, but I don't really know them. They sign up because they're fans.

    1. I don't have a mailing list yet. I was thinking of doing one. Any tips?

  6. Inflated reviews bug me too.

    I was a freelance reviewer for a book site for several years -- until the beginning of this year when I stopped to focus on my own writing.

    When selecting books to review I tried to pick those that interested me, usually after reading the publisher's PR materials. Doing this helped me narrow my search to books that I would be more likely to enjoy reading and give good ratings. However, that wasn't always the case.

    I'm a firm believer of writers helping other writers, but even stronger is my belief that reviews should be candid and honest for the reader.

    On a few occasions I was disappointed to discover that some of the books I gave 3 stars in my reviews for the book site somehow showed up as 4 or 5 stars by the time they hit Amazon.


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