Do authors 'salt' their and other online reviews?

More for GQ perhaps, but since it’s book related I’ll put it here.

I see this time and time again with mediocre novels. I’m not talking about Dan Brown and other blockbuster bestsellers written for the movies or even some that while I personally may not care for seemed to have caught a juggernaut or got on Oprah or some such.

What I refer to more are what the writers may call “literary novels” but I think of as “English professor novels” because usually if I’ve read them then it was recommended by a friend who’s an English teacher AND OR it was written by graduates from/professors at graduate level creative writing programs (not that there’s anything wrong with that in and of itself). These are novels where if it is possible to describe in six pages what could be described in 10 words then it’s done and then there’s a 2 page callback later (and this critique coming from somebody who recognizes he’s prone to verbosity and doesn’t even particularly mind that trait in writers he likes).

There’s hardly ever any humor or levity (that would make it not deep I’m guessing) though there’s often graphic sex (as shocking as possible- in one that was a minor bestseller the male main character mentions having been fisted while an underaged prostitute at least a couple of times). Dialogue is of the “people don’t talk like that” variety or of the “pick a random bit of dialogue and try to tell me which character is speaking” variety and in the worst case scenarios complete absurdity is mistaken for meaningful. (Admittedly I’m prejudiced on this issue since I detest pointless absurdity in movies and in books; for Kurt Vonnegut it worked brilliantly, for John Irving it worked except when it didn’t, and for most it doesn’t work at all).

So hopefully you know the type of books I’m talking about. The weird thing is though that these things will get glowing 5 star reviews, sometimes 100 or more even though few people you meet have ever heard of the book and it wasn’t that publicized. Stranger is that the reviews are often amazingly well written, which if you know anything about most review sites online- even reader reviews- isn’t that common, and comes across almost as if other writers who happen to know the author wrote them.

One reason that I write this is that I got that request this week from a former co-worker who is a creative writing prof and was bothered by a couple of negative reviews on Amazon and sent out a mass email (as in “I haven’t seen or talked or exchanged emails with her in years and I got the email”) essentially asking us to go an praise this book in the reviews session. I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to- the plot seemed as pedantic and conventionally unconventional as your typical bad arthouse film and it’s not the book this person- who has talent- should be writing. (This isn’t the case but trust me it’s no further off: imagine a writer who grew up in an affluent mostly Jewish suburb of Chicago decides to write a novel about a black male ex-con in love with a third generation Cuban-American hooker in Miami- it’s at least that far removed from anything the writer knows about from experience.)

This makes me wonder- is this common? Does anybody know of any writers- particularly the ones who are around the corner yet from famous and still working on that breakout book- who salt the field like this? Or is the inordinate number of 5 star reviews and near complete lack of negatives just that they appeal to a different class of reader, a disproportionate number of whom leave Amazon reviews (or B&N or other online bookseller)?

What makes it most suspicious to me is that most of this type of book would be of the “hurled with great force” category to most readers and yet there are hardly any negative reviews for the book, and you’d think at least a few would sneak through. (I’m not speaking of my former co-worker’s book as I’ve only read the first chapter [which is on her website- it wasn’t promising.)

Anyway, anybody know how common a practice this is? Or if there’s a name for it?

According to someone I know who works for, it’s quite common. It’s also discouraged, and if they see a lot of such reviews, they will get rid of them. But usually, someone has to complain, and then the favorable reviews are assessed to see how much alike they are.

Some authors give free books to people who review (favorably) on amazon and on other on-line sites. I guess it’s assumed that, if you would like a free copy of the author’s book, you probably like the author’s work.

It’s sometimes called “logrolling,” when two authors praise each other’s books.

I don’t think it’s common for any commercially published books. As you move down, however, it become more and more common. For self-published books, it’s very common to see two or three extravagantly positive reviews – often using the same terms – by friend of the author (or the author’s sock puppets).

You’re asking for the middle area. That’s harder to quantify, but I’m sure many people do it. I think, though, that any author on the verge of making a career out of writing is smart enough to know that Amazon reviews are next to useless for promoting a book.

Not so far.

But this:

is not true. A couple of good reviews definitely improve sales over no reviews at all.

Do you have any evidence for that statement?

I’ve often wondered if publishing houses hire some college intern to spam five-star reviews everywhere.

A few years ago a glitch on Amazon made all “anonymous” reviews no longer anonymous – and quite a few authors were shown to have been reviewing their own work multiple times.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. One: I just finished reading a book by Peter Abrahams called Their Wildest Dreams, which I like very much (Abrahams is a great author). In it, an author struggling with his next book checks his sales figures on Amazon and sees that somebody’s posted a negative review of one of his previous books. He’s a little drunk and he fires off an indignant e-mail to her. She ends up not only being right, but helping him with everything from his characters to his plot. Abrahams knows his business.

Second, I am a newspaper book columnist, and after I write my review for a book that is less . . . shall we say notable? than one of Mr. Abrahams’, I go to a site like Amazon to check the price and availability. There’s no sense in submitting a review for a book that nobody can buy. And I have seen many reviews that clearly were written by friends of the author, and some I would have little doubt were written by the author him- or herself. A lot of these books just aren’t that good and from the reviews you’d think these people had stumbled across the next coming of Sinclair Lewis. Either they just want to keep the free books coming or they’re afraid of pissing off their brother-in-law.

Sigmagirl’s observation reflects what I’ve seen. Reviewers on Amazon, especially for smell press and self-published books, often are friends and sock puppets of the author. There are also a small number of people who write a large number of reviews in order to get free books and egoboo (similar to “quote whore” movie critics).

In addition, the reviews tend to be in the love/hate category – thoughtful “this book has good points and some weak points” reviews are rare. Further, reviewers are self-selected: people who love the book are more likely to review it than those who enjoyed it but didn’t think it was the greatest book ever. And those that hate the book or the author will also be quick to comment

With reviews, you need to trust the reviewer and know his or her judgment. The reviews are interesting, but their effect on sales is minuscule.

I dunno. I’ve seen a lot of reviews that started with “I bought this book because of all the good reviews”, usually followed by “I think it sucked”. :slight_smile:

a recent academic talk on why amazon reviewers review

I have often wondered the same about movie studios and reviews on IMDb. Reviews always seem to start dropping after opening weekend, which makes me think the studios frontload their releases with positive reviews.

John (‘More Guns Less Crime’) Lott was found to be using a sock puppet Mary Rosh.

Yes, lots. But then I work in non-fiction, so maybe it’s different.

hmm. I’ve reviewed a book or two written by friends, perhaps a bit more favorably than I should have. But they didn’t ask me to. I think the OP’s ex-coworker stepped over the bounds. I’d be rather tempted to write a snarky review.

I’ll admit it crossed my mind, but decided ‘nah, she’s just kind of desperate to get it to sell and free her from teaching [which like most writers I know she can’t stand]’. If I read it and like it I’ll write a positive one and if I don’t like it I’ll just not post one.

An irony is that her grandfather is a fairly famous politician- or was back in the 1970s. If I mentioned his name not everybody here would recognize it but those up on southern history would (he’s not George Wallace but he’s kinda ‘second tier’ version). She loved him, but he was a race baiter back in the day and she’s liberal, in an interracial relationship and has a gay sibling, yet they all have his surname. I once told her “THAT’S your novel- it doesn’t have to be a memoir, you can fictionalize it to hell and gone, set it in another state and change names and even whole plot points, but simultaneously loving your elders and loathing their views is something that millions can relate to”. Since it would be about changing traditions and a deep south family I suggested the title “FIDDLER ON A HOT TIN ROOF”, but… she was uninterested and said it would be too easy and too offensive.

I have to admit that, while I haven’t done it, two people I knoe did review my book. I certainly didn’t ask them to. I’m pretty sure in one case the guy would’ve done it even if he didn’t know me, but the other may have acted out of friendship.

I kind of appreciated it after I got the one really snarky review.

Yeah, while I’m sure what you’re describing happens all the time, I suspect it’s just as common that a very sizable fraction of the people who have read the book, and so are eligible to review it at all, are friends and family of the author. While I would try to be objective, I would almost certainly write a review if a friend of mine wrote the book, and while I would try to be objective, I’m sure I’d end up giving a glowing review with just the barest hint of criticism to help me sleep at night. How many of us wouldn’t do that (or at least feel tempted) if it was really a close friend who wrote the book?

I don’t pay attention to Amazon book reviews, but I do read album reviews, and it’s not unknown for self-serving comments to wind up there.

One rock group’s album reviews feature a number of entries by a person who will slam an album for supposedly being released by the record company without the artists’ permission (and with no royalties being paid out), and urge buyers to select another particular album instead. I suspect this person is an actual member of the group. :slight_smile:

Due to the number of crazy, crazy authors out there in the world (who are really, really crazy), I would never leave any reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, etc. Okay, that’s not fair. Actually the vast majority of published authors are perfectly sane, reasonable people. But there is a minority of authors who will not only encourage their friends and fans to post a ton of favorable reviews, they will also attack people who post less-than-favorable reviews. From Anne Rice who informed an Amazon reviewer that she’s “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective” to the authors you haven’t heard of who mount a campaign of harassment over the reviews.

The strangest thing is that reviews really are meaningless to sales. Occasionally, a bunch of great reviews will result in somebody buying a book they weren’t going to before, but most people buy books based on whether they’ve read and liked that author before, reading the first handful of pages, or direct suggestions from trusted sources like friends and family.