What’s an Amazon Five-Star Review Worth? Pervasive Fraud Devalues Praise, Tars Honest and Dishonest Authors with the Same “Cheater” Brush
by Peter Bowerman
I attended college at the University of Virginia, one of a relatively small group of schools (including all the military academies) with an honor code, and one of the very few whose code is totally student-administered.
The terms of the code are clear: any student caught lying, cheating, or stealing is subject to expulsion. And yes, if you witness such a violation, you’re duty-bound to report it, or be subject to expulsion yourself (admittedly harder to prove). And I can tell you it worked. Sure, at any given time, there was likely an Honor Trial going on (again, all student-run), but the dozen or so trials in a given year in a student body of roughly 25,000 proved the system’s fundamental solidity.
Professors would hand out tests, hang around for five or ten minutes to answer any clarifying questions, and then take off. And no one cheated. When you finished your test (or handed in a term paper), you wrote on the front, “On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this exam.”
Not the case for many friends from my Massachusetts high school, particularly those who attended one New England state school. There, the cheating was so brazen and rampant that it created a tragic yet all-too-common dilemma: If you were an honest B student and people doing C and D work were often cheating their way to As and Bs, what to do?
This wasn’t simply a theoretical discussion of ethics and morality. When higher grades meant higher GPAs meant a higher chance of graduate school admission or a better job, people sticking to their principles ran the risk of losing those races. To realize that my academic playing field was truly level was a gift.
But today, as an author, I find myself being able to relate to my honest friends’ dilemmas of many years back. Let me explain.
Between my two active titles, I have roughly 180 Amazon reviews that hover around five stars. Recently, one of my books (The Well-Fed Writer) received a one-star review with the title “Fraudulent Five-Star Reviews!!”
This, uh, gentleman had decided I was, in fact, guilty of recruiting my friends to manufacture my reviews out of whole cloth. Of course, this conclusion was based on nothing more than (1) the existence of my 60 five-star reviews, and (2) the unfortunate fact that fabricating B.S. five-star reviews to help out your friends (while also posting one-star reviews for competitive titles) is endemic on Amazon.
Of course, it couldn’t be that I’d actually written a good book. Since so many others are cheating, I must be as well.
So this is what it’s come to: If you’re one of the authors who invests copious blood, sweat, tears, and silver to write and produce award-winning books, and who earns honest praise from readers, you wake up to discover that that genuine praise has been both devalued and rendered suspect by a flood of fakes.
I know. “Quit worrying about one knucklehead’s clearly minority viewpoint.” Point made. And yet, given Amazon’s proclivity to highlight one-star reviews (must be that Pacific-Northwest, latte-swilling, tree-hugging, über-inclusive, “everyone’s-opinion-has-value” vibe), they can get a lot of traction.
And yes, I did contact Amazon and ask that the review be removed, on the grounds that it wasn’t, in fact, a “review” (i.e., it never discussed the content of the book). No luck.
I promise, I’m not losing sleep over it. But the whole trend toward made-up five-star reviews is worrisome enough that none other than the New York Times devoted a recent story to it: “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5.”
Whoa. The trend has actually spawned a new writing specialty—writing five-star reviews for money. Pay me $5 and I’ll say whatever you want me to say. Amazing.
At the risk of appearing preciously quaint, this just wasn’t how I was raised. And to all those involved in crafting made-up reviews for books you’ve never read, or asking (or paying) others to do so, I’d say this (and likely waste my breath in the process): This isn’t “smart marketing.” It’s not “being aggressive” or “proactive.” It’s not “adapting to competitive pressures” or being a “creative promoter.” It’s dishonesty. Period. Dress it up any way you want, but bottom line, it’s lying in print.
The Better Choice
The good news, according to the article, is that entities such as Amazon are taking this seriously, since the currency of a five-star review is becoming devalued day by day. Researchers at Cornell have come up with an algorithm that, in 90 percent of cases, can distinguish real from fake reviews.
Of course, even if that evolves into software, the B.S. artists are likely to adapt, by emulating the identified qualities of a genuine review while avoiding those of a counterfeit one. And round and round we go (see: spammers/spam filters).
To those who haven’t stooped to this yet but are considering it (in much the same way as my B-grade friends did way back when, and their contemporaries no doubt still do), just don’t. Focus on making your books as good as they can possibly be, in every way—better than they have to be, in fact (a part of the publishing process, over which, incidentally, you have 100 percent total control).
Do that, and the praise will be genuine and will come naturally. But, more important, your book will benefit from priceless word of mouth, which will build an enduring demand for the title. And that’s something the author of a mediocre book who’s resorted to fraudulent reviews can never hope to enjoy. For when real reviewers and real readers really read the real book, and speak the real truth, the jig’s up.
Peter Bowerman is a professional copywriter, a self-publishing coach, and the self-published author of the award-winning Well-Fed Writer titles. He chronicled his self-publishing success in The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living, and he offers titling/back-cover-copy writing services at titletailor.com. For more information, visit wellfedsp.com.