Monday, July 16, 2012


by Barry S. Willdorf (c) 2012
In the last several weeks, I have received emails from two online sources suggesting authors ought to agree with each other to exchange reviews as a marketing tactic. In one case it was proposed that authors only write five-star reviews for other authors or not write any review at all.  This was presented as legitimate marketing. It didn’t feel right to me. I think agreements that look like a quid pro quo are bad for all of us. I didn’t think it was ethical. But I got little support for my opinion.

Now a recent article: “Yelp's Trust At Risk From Phony Reviews” lends support to my opinion that this kind of marketing is really just gaming the system.  The article reports, “Customer feedback on sites such as Yelp, and travel site TripAdvisor have changed the way people research and shop for products and services.” Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago who develops software to detect fake reviews says: “Such comments are the first thing many people check before trying a new restaurant or booking a hotel. As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,”

As more and more promotion and marketing tasks are transferred from publishers to authors, it is incumbent on authors to soul search what is ethical and what is not. We must ask ourselves: If I make an agreement to review another author’s book in exchange for her or him reviewing mine, will my review be influenced by my concern for the review I might get in return? When I soul-search, I must answer “yes.” I will think about the risk of retaliation if I don’t give perfect scores.

Any agreement to reciprocally review books is made to get a favorable review so the author can use it as a selling point. Even if the quid pro quo is unstated, both parties want five star reviews and both parties know it. Whether express or implied the agreement destroys the credibility of the review. Even if I am completely candid in giving five stars, it will still look bad in eyes of those who find out that there was an exchange agreement. Do I disclose the agreement in my review? If not, why not? Is it because I know, deep down, that it doesn’t look good?

It think that the author who suggested giving only five stars or none at all is wrestling with the same question but has convinced herself that her solution resolves the ethical conflict. I don’t think it does. Here’s why:

For the two authors who are parties to the agreement, it turns a five star review system into a pass-fail. When I get a review from someone I don’t know, we all every reason to believe it is a candid opinion. But what becomes of the five stars or no star-theory if the book under review is really a four star or three star book? Does the reviewer employ a cynical form of grade inflation and give five stars? If so, it’s not a truthful review in a five star system, which is what the Amazon and Goodreads rating systems are. They’ve made their own set of rules -- pass/fail. The reason is because it’s good for marketing to game the system. If the reviewer decides it’s a four and does not review the book at all, what benefit is that to the author? She’s written a four star book and should get a four star review. She gets nothing. Who wants to make that deal with that reviewer again? And woe unto the author who gives a nothing in exchange for getting a five star review.  Especially if the “no review” author publishes another book.

Some people say, look, if it bothers you ethically, you don’t have to do it. But that’s not an acceptable answer. It ignores the reality that we are all affected when the honesty and impartiality of reviews becomes suspect. Customers are misled and ultimately lose confidence in reviews depriving all of us of a marketing tool. Look at it from the point of view of the rest of the authors. They get an honest four-star review and have to market their book against someone who, thanks to a quid pro quo, has gotten five stars because the reviewer fears retaliation. Author “A” has a four star book and promotes it that way. Author “B” has a three star book but gets a five star review because the reviewer wants a five star review in return. It is unfair competition.

To what extent can this tactic skew the review system?  I complied statistics from Amazon comparing an author who admits using the five stars or nothing marketing strategy (Author X) with five top selling authors who yearly write multiple books, some in comparable genre:

# of books
published during past 5 yrs.
Number of customer reviews over same period
# 5-star reviews over same period
%  5-STAR
Author X
John Grisham
Daniele Steele
Stephanie Meyers
Elmore Leonard
Richard North Patterson

The Table leaves no doubt Author X is a very good marketer. But Author X’s reviews have consistently, over time, exceeded the performance of the five well-known authors. In collecting five star reviews, Author X even far outpaces Stephanie Meyers, who has a vast teen cult following and who, according to Stephen King, “can’t write worth a darn”.  In a further comparison, E.L. James, the author of the current hit “50 Shades” trilogy scores a 3.9 rating and has 45% five star reviews. The numbers suggest the impact of strategies such as quid pro quos between Author X and other authors.  

Author X also recommends cultivation of reviewers, especially the growing number of bloggers who want to receive traffic. Cultivation of bloggers who review books also involves the creation of a relationship where the blogger and the author come to know each other because the author writes for the blog, links the blog and recommends the blog, all as a marketing tool for the writer, who then asks for the blogger to review the book. It is not a blind review. There is a relationship behind it. The “build a relationship with the reviewer” strategy is little different for the author/author exchange. Each involves a preexisting agreement or relationship entered into for the purpose of marketing. This should not be confused with building relationships with readers. “Good customer relations” is different than gaming a rating system.

But is Author X a good writer? Has Author X earned five star reviews and a 4.66 rating overall based on quality? We can never use this writer’s reviews as a guide. The disparity between the statistics obtained on Author X, when compared to the other authors on the chart render questionable the reliability of Author X’s statistics as a means of judging actual quality. But they also underline the skill and effort exhibited by Author X in getting them. There is clearly a market for Author X’s product, but that does not mean we can use the author’s reviews to distinguish fast food from fine dining. We can’t use Amazon statistics to compare the author’s skill with others because the author is not playing by the same five-star rules.

Recently, I received a book from an author, to whom I’d given one of my books. There was no deal to review involved. I looked at the reviews on Amazon. There were thirteen reviews. Ten of them were five stars. One of the dissenting reviewers was suspicious of those fives and did his homework. He found that all of the five star reviews came from people who never reviewed a book before. This reviewer concluded, and I think with some credibility, they were not reviews at all but promotions, and they were worthless. That careful research was poison for this author.

I think the statistical analysis leads to an inference that Author X has stacked the review deck. And it’s not fair to authors who refrain from making express or implied attempts to influence reviewers. It’s like a drug-free athlete or student who is competing against someone using performance enhancing drugs. We all have books we’d like to sell too and there is no reason why it is not just as legitimate competition to throw a penalty flag on suspicious statistics as it is to sit silently and suffer the comparisons… or join in the new rules and do further damage to the credibility of the review system.

There are legitimate ways that an author can write reviews and obtain a marketing benefit. A well-written, clever, incisive review shows off the writing talents of the reviewer to many readers. Sometimes, readers either like or dislike a review enough to contact the reviewer. This provides an opportunity to engage with a reader that can be rewarding and can even sell a book or two. I think that is fair marketing.

When I was a boy a bunch of DJs were caught taking pay-offs from record company reps to play their label’s tunes on the air. It was called the Payola Scandal. Everyone knew it was wrong to promote songs and artists by bribing the folks who were responsible for getting the songs on the air. A secret quid pro quo, express or implied by the circumstances is no different.

So, I urge writers not to succumb to the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” marketing temptation, whether with other authors, bloggers, or anyone who can gain a benefit from them giving you a good review. Whether your review is honest or not, it will always be legitimately suspect, and so will your reputation. My advice to the book-buying public is to be skeptical of five star reviews. And my advice to publishers is to remember that under this new sales paradigm, as far as third parties are concerned, your authors can be held to be your sales agents. You will have to take ownership of the tactics used that result in revenue to you from the sale of your books. Although lawsuits are probably not at stake, business reputations are.

Barry S. Willdorf