Fake Reviews and blah, blah, blah

One of my favorite students said, “That’s the problem with Amazon Reviews: they should not call them Reviews; they should call them Opinions.”

If you’re the soundbite kind of person, a Twitter type loving the 25 words or less kind of thing, this post is about this: I don’t like a star rating on a book.  It’s the most arbitrary, dishonest and disrespectful gesture towards a writer.

Worse, it discourages challenging reading and encourages lazy thinking. Let the opinions soar, but no one has a right to put a number to a book and call it a “review.”   Let me set out the facts here.

Q: How do you get to be a reviewer?

A1: Read a book.

A2: Read a book for free through an early promotion program on Amazon or similar that allows publishers to pay Amazon to find someone to give a book to for free and write a review.

A3: Read a book for free or as a paying customer, but do not be related in any way, professionally or otherwise, to the writer or the review will be erased from many sites, especially Amazon.

I have been a “professional” writer since 1999 when I began officially teaching creative writing in a University setting.  If you want to be really picky about it, let’s say that I’ve been a professional writer since 2002 which is the first time I published a book (legitimately, not self) and actually got a paycheck from my writing other than through teaching.

If there is one thing that I learned in all these years in the profession it is this: This. Is. A. Small. World.

If in the world in general we have six degrees of separation, in the writing world we have two, or one.  Sooner or later, you’ll meet everybody, either through social media or in person in some conference, reading, or through a mutual agent, editor, former student, etc.  Which means, for Amazon, no literary writer will ever get a fair, professional review online, because any connection from writer to writer or writing professional (editor, etc.) will immediately disqualify that person from writing a review.  I have experienced this personally, both for reviews I have written of other writers’ books, and vice versa.

What I am saying is this:

If your professional relationship to another writer disqualifies you from writing a review, then my friend, the only people who are “qualified” to review a book on Amazon are non-professionals.

By definition, a non-professional writer is unqualified to write a “review” although certainly it does not disqualify that person from having opinions, even strong opinions at that.

Let’s review: someone had an opinion about someone else’s book.  It was an unprofessional opinion based not on knowledge of writing, the writing process, or on the craft and thematic resonances involved in writing the novel, but rather on the reader’s experience with other books, which may or may not have been in the same genre, which may or may not have been extensive, which may or may not have been, for that matter, reliable in any way, under any criteria deemed fair by any standard.

In fact, in some context, a stupid book might fare better than a smart one, as it seems that a lot of “reviewers” get angry when a smart book defies their expectations or challenges them to think differently about a situation.

I have written my fair share of low-starred review, and I have had the unfortunate experience of people liking those more than my glowing reviews, and saying, “Thanks. I think I’ll skip this one.”

What? No!

Reviewers cannot be the self-appointed arbiters of good and bad writing: why would you trust a reviewer to make a decision for you in terms of reading a book? Are you that hard up on money that you can’t afford the gas to a local library? For god’s sake, give it at least ten pages before you throw it away: skip a movie for once. Believe me, it will be worth it even if you don’t like it that much.

And by the way, so what if it was a friend or a class mate or a service that posted those pointless reviews? Who cares?

I know what you’re saying: people read reviews because they want opinions; they don’t want another advertisement. It’s unethical to pay someone to post a review, yada yada yada.

And I say (excuse my French for the more orthodox among you) bullshit.

You mean to say you’re not going to go to McDonald’s anymore because of all the ads you see on tv that tell you that it’s wonderful?

I cite the #1 law of American capitalism: he who pays for the most advertising WINS.

A book isn’t a blender that can break after the second time you use it.  It isn’t a treadmill which requires your investment of space over time and serious money.  A book costs anywhere from 99 cents to $25.  Even if it wasn’t to your taste, at least it gave you something to think about, even if those thoughts were, “God, this premise is really ridiculous.”

A book takes years to write and five minutes to destroy.

Don’t get me wrong: some reviews are honest and well-thought out even when they give one, two, three stars.

But too many reviewers use a bad review to build their “platform” — for various purposes, maybe because they’re frustrated writers and want to get as many social media fans as possible, and the quickest way to do it is to bash someone else. The new rule in publishing seems to be you can’t get a query through an agent without at least 1,000 fb friends, and we all know why American Idol and all its spawns is/was so popular: humiliation sells.  So there’s a whole cult out there of full-time humiliators, thriving on their bad reviews and answering nastily to anyone who tries to defend the book.

Q: “There are so many books out there, why should people spend money on a book that isn’t good?”

A: If you ever spent more than 400 words at something in writing, you’d know how difficult it is to get an agent or editor to even read the first page of any novel, let alone commit tens of thousands of dollars towards printing, distributing and marketing a book.  By that standard alone, we should consider that no book can be that bad: it just went through too many professional evaluations to be that.  It can certainly garner lots of bad opinions, but what’s a rating supposed to mean?

Can you imagine how hard it is to put your words on paper, not just for the 400 words it takes for you to destroy someone else’s dreams, three years of neglecting family, chores, and pleasures large and small to see the work finished, and then more years taking abuse from editors and agents who at best treat you with serialized Dear John letters, and occasionally will bother to tell you things like “you’re a hard sell” or “really, this work is just too immature.” If you’d done the kind of blood letting it takes to be a writer, maybe you’d realize that writing is a dying art.  Writers cannot make a living out of what they write.  The days of Stephen King and J.K. Rowlings are over.  When you put a one star review on a book you’re not destroying a writer’s finances: you’re merely preventing that writer from seeing the hard work he or she did touch and inspire other people.

There are so many books out there, yes, but how many do you really read? One, two a week? Most people, I think, read less than one a month. And you spend all of $9.99 or at most, if you bought a hardcover (rare birds), $23.99. And if you got the book for free, then a publisher spent money editing, binding, marketing and distributing the thing, a publisher who wil get all $23.00 out of the $23.99 that you didn’t pay, and give $0.99 to the author if that much. (Most writers earn between 6 and 10% of net profit).

There’s a perfect reader for every book, but star reviews often kill the possibility of a perfect match in one fell swoop.

God knows, we don’t want to waste a reader’s time and money. True. True. After all, if you read a book, a book you really dislike, your brain is going to explode. You might miss another episode of Game of Thrones. You may actually have forced yourself to concentrate on reading for a whole hour before you finally gave up on the book and the $9.99 that you didn’t pay for it because you got it for free, remember?

Blonde in HeelsThat’s a whole $9.99 that could have gone to a Starbuck’s smoothie, or to a Big Mac meal. That’s a whole $9.99 that you could have used towards getting back some of the $75 that you spent on those shoes that you realized only after you got sober where not such a good idea because 8″ heels are never really a good idea when you’re sober, and you can’t remember where you put that damned receipt, so forget it, they’ll just languish in the closet.

But you read a book. Maybe even a terrible book. A book that, in spite of the fact that it went through the multiple gates of hell of peer critiques, agents, editors, publishers, professional reviewers, etc. is really in your honest opinion a ghastly book that needs stomping all over because, yes, I remember: there are so many books out there.

Well: think of it as a walk in yoga class for the brain. Because reading is like yoga for the brain. Maybe the yoga of this particular book was a little too easy for you. Ok, so you could have been at the Pilates next door, but you got this, a stress relaxation book. How much did you really loose? At least you have something to talk about.

Let me be explicit: I don’t give a f%^%&# if a writer pays people to write reviews or if they ask all their friends and cousins to write one, too.  The fight isn’t even, the fields aren’t level: there is no fairness in the publishing game, and writers aren’t in it for the money, only for the hope of finding that perfect reader to inspire them. If you were so concerned with what other people think about a book as to trust a star review, then you deserve a bad reading experience all the way, and I give you one star.

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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