- Florrie Binford Kichler
President’s Post: Dealing with Bogus Book Reviews
by Florrie Binford Kichler, President, IBPA
● The Independent Book Publishers Association respects the value of book reviews for publishers, authors, and readers, and urges publishers to ethically pursue both traditional and online reviews.
● IBPA rejects and deems unethical the practice of posting “sock puppet” reviews—bogus reviews by people writing under false names and/or false pretenses.
● IBPA calls for “citizen reviewers” to pledge to review truthfully and thoughtfully—or not at all.
Remember the cartoon that pictures two dogs sitting in front of a computer monitor, obviously in deep “conversation,” with the caption “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”?
Of course, the same phenomenon makes phony reviewers safe from discovery, while our era’s ease of online communication fosters the phenomenon known as crowdsourcing. As defined by Jeff Howe, author of the book Crowdsourcing, crowdsourcing is “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”
Online consumer services such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, and a slew of others built their business model on soliciting reviews from the public, and it’s a rare seller of goods and services these days who doesn’t provide opportunities for buyers to weigh in on their products.
The “wisdom of the crowd” is especially valuable for businesses. Tasks that used to be the province of the marketing department have been transferred to large numbers of individuals whose (best case) passion for the product, willingness to help others, creativity, and objectivity enable businesses to get valuable mass customer input (usually at no charge).
But when does crowdsourcing become crowd-duping?
When people in the crowd create “sock puppets,” the term now used for reviews, submitted under false online identities, of places, products, or books that the “reviewers” have not visited, not used, or never read.
As readers of my blog on this subject may remember, I was struck by a recent New York Times article, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” that focused on Todd Rutherford, founder of GettingBookReviews.com, an online service that specialized in offering online reviews to self-published authors for a price. With the service, which is now defunct, $99 bought one online review, $499 bought 20 online reviews, and for $999, 50 glowing testimonials would be seeded across the Web.
Rutherford began by reviewing titles himself, but as demand quickly outstripped supply, he outsourced his reviews to others, advertising on Craigslist for “reviewers.”
The New York Times spoke to one of those reviewers. For a shorter review—50 words or so—she noted that there was “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” Longer reviews—300 words—required a bit more effort. She spent 15 minutes reading the book. “‘There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,’ she said.
In its heyday, GettingBookReviews.com was earning Mr. Rutherford $28,000 a month.
No one can deny that the nature of book reviewing has changed as much as the industry in which it belongs. With just a few exceptions, newspaper review sections (and many newspapers themselves) have gone the way of the buggy whip, and the outlets for “traditional” book reviews are shrinking as well. Couple that with the exponential growth of books published (Bowker reports 300,000+ in 2011), and it’s no wonder that, given the law of supply and demand, Rutherford found a niche worth filling.
But at what cost?
For Honest and Heartfelt Assessments
What’s the price of integrity these days? Apparently $28,000 will suffice. But to the many longtime and well-respected book review outlets (Shelf Awareness, ForeWord, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, to name just a few—there are more) and the innumerable online reviewers who post honestly about what they read, the value of integrity is incalculable. And now their integrity may be questioned by readers with a little learning about bogus reviews.
Certainly online sellers of books bear responsibility for policing what’s posted on their sites, but one group of 56 authors, including Michael Connolly, suggests that the ultimate answer to weeding out bogus reviews lies with all of us—as readers, authors, and publishers.
The group wrote in a blog post, “The only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process. The internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving, can drown out the phony voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”
It’s difficult if not impossible to determine how much “wisdom” the crowd really possesses. When I read a book review online, unless there’s something glaringly deceptive or obviously inappropriate in it, I believe it, and I bet most of you do too. I’m not suggesting that there is any one effective way to police citizen reviews, nor am I recommending that, as readers or publishers, we stop posting or encouraging others to do so.
What I am asking all publishers to do is actively incorporate, communicate, and support IBPA’s position on sock puppets—bogus reviews—as stated at the beginning of this column. Our obligations to consumers and creators of content demand that.
Follow Florrie and IBPA on Twitter at twitter.com/ibpa, and on IBPA’s blog at ibpablog.wordpress.com. Join Independent Book Publishers Association–IBPA group on LinkedIn (linkedin.com).