Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spotting Fake Online Book Reviews

There's a whole lot of e-books out there. And more get released every day, in every genre, in almost every language, all over the world. Just last summer, the World eBook Fair made available more than 6,500,000 e-books during its annual fair. To put that number in some perspective, in 2008 the fair touted about 650,000 e-books, and the 2009 fair included about twice 2008's offering.

I'm not complaining. I think it's great that the "traditional" publishing model's stranglehold on what books folks can choose to read is loosening. The issue becomes, how to select which books to read. If you live to be 80 years old, and from your 20th birthday to your last you read two books weekly, you'll only have time to read 6,240 books in your lifetime. That's .00096 percent of the e-books featured at last summer's fair, and certainly a lesser percentage of the e-books out now, and a virtually infinitesimal fraction of the ones that will be published before your 80th birthday. No avid reader wants to waste her precious time reading bad books.

On the flip side, how do authors attract attention to their books in an environment of geometrically, if not exponentially, growing competition for readers' time and money? Thanks to the on-going revolutionary democratization in book publishing, this is a matter of concern for all but the tiny sliver of very famous authors whose names have risen to the level of a brand.

I posted a few weeks ago (Tear Down the Walls) that the only "superpower" traditional publishers have left any longer over independently published books is the traditionals' preferential access to esteemed literary critics at premium book review sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the like. As matters of practice and/or policy, those sources rarely dedicate review space to independently published books.

Shut out from the premium review sources as vehicles to promote their work widely, independently published authors must rely heavily on word-of-mouth, and ever more importantly, on customer reviews at online retail destinations like,,, and dozens of similar sites. Legitimate customer reviews are invaluable aids in helping a book's potential reader decide whether to take a leap with a new book by a new author.

But it's not the legitimate online customer reviews that this post is about. With all those e-books out there multiplying daily like super-rabbits crazed on genetically enhanced Spanish fly, the simple act of drawing enough attention to get potential readers to notice, buy, read and review a new book by a new author can be a daunting task.

Now, not every unknown author longing for reader attention is unscrupulous, and not every unscrupulous author is desperate. That said, from time to time temptations to pad the online customer review roster might be difficult to tame. For example, I remember reading what I know is the worst book I've ever read in my life a few years ago. It was an absolutely putrid independently published excuse for a thriller, typed by a doctor from somewhere around Los Angeles. To make sure I wasn't mistaken in the book's loathsome foulness, I read long portions of it aloud to unfortunate friends and strangers. Consensus came quickly -- the book was truly terrible.

You'd not know that if you went to Amazon and read the book's purported customer reviews, though. I checked. There were more than forty of them. None of them were less than four-star, and the vast majority were screaming five-star raves. If you had relied on this book's posted "customer reviews," you'd have bought the novel with the smug confidence of knowing you were about to indulge yourself in the work of a writer whose immeasurable authorial talent could result from nothing less than his being the gifted offspring of a union between Nobel and Pulitzer, with Shakespeare as his Godfather.

Relying on those seemingly forthright reviews, you might eagerly buy the book and delve into it. If you did, your disappointment would be boundless, not only in the book itself, but also in the "reviewers" who duped you.

So as a valuable public service, this post is a primer on spotting fake online book reviews. Hopefully, it will help you steer clear of rank books whose glowing "customer reviews" are nothing but scams orchestrated by alleged authors who are in truth nothing more than inept self-published typists with profoundly unfounded delusions of literary prowess and way too much idle time on their hands.

After a lifetime dedicated to becoming the finest marsupial whisperer in all of Gulpin Gulch, Arkansas, Cletus Skweezweezle capped this laudable achievement by partially overcoming functional illiteracy to self-publish his magnum opus, Sh*t My 'Possum Says. While surfing Amazon looking for something new to read, you stumble upon Skweezweezle's masterpiece, attractively priced at $7.99. Perhaps the cover caught your eye, or there's a soft spot in your heart for 'possums. Still, justifiably cautious before adding the work to your electric shopping cart, you wisely choose to consider the 417 customer reviews unanimously praising the book since its release 20 minutes ago.

Does it strike you as odd that the vast majority of Skweezweezle's reviewers don't post their critiques under names one might find in a telephone directory on earth? What level of trust is due a review consisting entirely of the word "awsome" posted by someone named Is it comforting that 356 of the book's reviews are five misspelled words or less long, and shockingly enough also come from uncommonly monikered posters at What can you determine upon discovering 409 of Skweezweezle's reviewers have posted only about Sh*t My 'Possum Says, and no other thing in all of Amazon's vast array of saleable goods and services? Do your eyebrows raise when it appears, to the extent you can tell, that more reviews are posted by people from Gulpin Gulch than recent U.S. Census data indicate live in the greater Gulpin Gulch metropolitan statistical area? Against this backdrop, what can you make of that one pseudonymous review over 900 words long that begins, "In all my years as a tenured professor holding the Charles John Huffam Dickens Chair in the English department at Harvard University, never have I dared allow myself to dream for even the fleetest of nanoseconds that one day before death gently lifts my soul from this mortal coil would I be blessed with the inexpressible bliss of encountering a work of such monumentally towering yet utterly sublime merit as the relentlessly dazzling tour de force that is Cletus Skweezweezle's Sh*t My 'Possum Says"?

Are we learning yet?

In bookstores and all over the Internet, terrific books by very talented independently published authors are eager to entertain, educate, amaze and enthrall you. They deserve your attention. Diverging from the well-trodden path of reading only books written by famous authors is a good adventure. Now that you've reached the end of this post, you're better positioned to distinguish thoughtful and reliable online book reviews from drivel cloaking itself behind a cluster of self-serving rubbish that's sole goal is to hoodwink you into wasting your valuable resources. Happy reading.

"Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not."
~~E.R. Beadle~~


  1. Well done! I have read reviews that appear to be written by one clearly taken with the author and the work, but (fairly or unfairly) the poor grammar, spelling, vocabulary or syntax makes me leave the page and go looking for another book. Guilt by association?

    Recently Goodreads had a discussion post of negative reviewing targeting unfortunate authors who had angered someone. Those reviews are logically disregarded by true readers (and, when pointed out, deleted by Goodreads.)

    The numbers of e-books is astounding! I don't feel so mysteriously left out anymore.

    My blog is of reviews offered honestly. If they all seem to be five stars, it is because I don't post the books that earn fewer.

    You can visit me at

  2. I have written the same sort of article often as I see so many doing fake reviews on each other without even reading the book just to help them rise in the ranks and it sickens me. I refuse to do that am may only have a few reviews (I think 12 is the maximum on one of my books) but they are all genuine by readers and not done by friends who have no idea of the content. Well said you

  3. Would you like to trade e-copies of books? I would love to read Blood of the Moon and in return would be happy to provide you with a free kindle copy of my Stone of Destiny, a modern day thriller.

    Let me know if you are interested.

  4. It is truly depressing how many people out there are willing to fake reviews, comments, followers, etc. in order to appear to be something they are not. The value of feedback is eliminated when you cannot determine which feedback can be trusted.

  5. I like your post. I had many negative reviews including the ones mentioning that I didn't know how to spell. I saw how their spelling was not good. At least I use my dictionary when I wrote my work. It got me a little bit upset at first, but then I felt better, because people still reads my work. That was what I wanted to be a writer. No matter what we are all writers. Writing is an art and it can be shared how ever it's written. When people read your work you know that you accomplished your goal.