Recent events have brought to light a number of unpleasant practices in the review system for books – authors faking accounts to write glowing reviews for their own books, and to write bad reviews for the competition, and even writers admitting they’ve purchased guaranteed 5-star reviews for their books – in some cases insisting the reviewers purchase the book through Amazon so they show as a verified purchaser. 

In light of this, I felt it was an opportune moment to re-post one of my earliest posts discussing unethical review practices. None of the recent unethical tactics had crossed my mind when I wrote this post, it being aimed at what I consider to still be dishonest, but in the scheme of things, somewhat less heinous review crimes, but the post applies equally well (or better) to these latest practices. I also note at the time I wrote this, most of the practices of which I spoke were occurring in indie publishing, but some of the latest admissions have come from traditionally published authors.


What value do you put on your word? On your honour? Is it even something you have ever thought about?
Without meaning to blow my own trumpet (ye gods, I have enough people putting their hand up for that without doing it myself) I put a fairly high value on my word. If I give it, I keep it. I’m not in the habit of making promises I can’t keep, or even a promise I don’t know I can keep.  My word reflects on my honour, and yes, my honour is pretty important.
I won’t go so far as to say my honour is my life. I would lie to a gunman to save my life. But that’s smart. That’s natural selection at work (based on the theory that stupidity is something we want to evolve out, and therefore intelligence should be a survival trait). But short of that, I do put value on being considered honest, loyal, trustworthy.
These days, though, the concepts of your word and your honour are almost archaic. Even in more prosaic terms of ‘keeping promises’, or being trustworthy, it doesn’t seem to be something our society values highly, or at least not one it promotes itself as valuing highly. We rarely talk about it, discuss, or say we value it, except in negative terms, usually when we’ve caught a politician with his pants down. I value faithfulness highly, but I find it hypocritical to crucify said hypothetical politician when the rest of the time society barely gives a passing nod to the concept of fidelity.
Making a promise and keeping it is such an important concept (or was, somewhere in the dark mists of time) that it is now backed up with the full force of the law – contract law. If you make a contract (a promise) and you break it, the law can be called upon to make you abide by that promise. It doesn’t always work, but we are only talking about the theory, not the practice. A large part of the fabric of our society depends upon the very idea that promises will be kept. Your electricity provider supplies electricity on the promise you will pay. You pay deposits on the promise that the goods will be delivered.
Why is it, then, that in our personal lives, so often the concept of keeping one’s word, and in the wider sense, of being honourable, or honest, is increasing seen as meaningless or valueless? I raise this point in the context of a practice that I have come across in the writing community recently. Those of you who are fellow writers may well have come across this practice as well.
The fake book review.
It most often seems to occur in indie publishing, although I expect there exist instances of it in traditional publishing. For those who don’t know, it is where a writer implores his friends and family to write glowing reviews on websites such as Amazon, whether those friends and family have read the book or not, and whether they believe the review is justified or not. Those friends and family who agree to write such reviews do so, I am sure, out of filial obligation or in the name of friendship. But, I’m afraid, all parties are guilty of dishonesty. Worse, this is dishonesty of the kind designed to con the innocent consumer out of his hard-earned dollar and deposit it into the pocket of undeserving writer. Or if not designed for that purpose (in some cases, it may solely be designed to stroke the ego of said writer) it certainly has this effect.
False reviews are not always easy to spot. Having so many 5 out of 5 reviews that it stretches belief can be a sign, particularly if they are mixed with a number of very poor reviews (1 out of 5 stars). Think about it – even authors like Stephen King do not get strings of perfect reviews. Other than that, there’s not much to go by. If the author has a website, check it out. Sometimes sample chapters are available for free, and you can read and compare to the reviews. Sometimes it is glaringly obvious the reviews are not justified.
A similar practice is where writers review each other’s work, and one of them tries to hold the other to ransom – ‘I wrote you a good review, now you must give me a good review’. Bad writer, bad writer. This is not a barter exchange. You get a review that befits your work, not the review you are giving the writer’s work. In some ways, this type of false review (if the ransomed writers bows to pressure instead of standing by their integrity) is more damaging, because the review has been given by someone who is assumed to be an authority on the subject matter.
Both of these practices completely undermine the system of giving reviews and trusting reviews. If false reviews abound, potential buyers don’t know what to believe – or buy.
As a consumer, what do you feel when you purchase something which does not live up to your expectations? Cheated? Ripped off? Lied to? I would.
As a writer (if you are one) how do you feel when you see this type of thing occurring? Angry? Ashamed maybe? Embarrassed that one of us is guilty of this type of behaviour? I do. It reflects on every last one of us when one of our number behaves in this fashion. 
Why do it? For monetary gain? For an inflated sense of self-importance? Your writing, if it is any good, will stand on its own merits. If it’s not any good, the reader is going to spot this, and no amount of good reviews will change their mind. If this is the case, then you should be learning from your errors and working to improve yourself. Lying about it, and worse, encouraging others to lie on your own behalf, is not going to make you a better writer. The only thing that will do that is hard work.
I’m afraid people who have so much conviction in the brilliance of their own writing that they not only encourage people to write false reviews, but shout down the honest yet bad reviews they receive, are never going to improve.
Improvement necessarily involves acceptance of a lack of perfection.
I’m always striving to write better. I try to help others to write better where I can, and I have been lucky enough so far to only receive heartfelt thanks for my efforts (but now I risk straying into a rant on the etiquette of giving and receiving critiques). I don’t want fake reviews – a fake review won’t help me improve. An honest review will, and if I improve enough, I’ll earn honest good reviews.
I’m not perfect. Are you?
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