You too can be a literary critic!

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This post has a point so please bear with me and read to the bottom. If you’re in a hurry, just skip to the bottom.

A few years ago someone “tweeted at” me with a link to a book that I needed to check out. For those not au fait with Twitter, this means he was both a stranger to me (usually the case on Twitter) and also that I wasn’t following him (so he couldn’t send a direct message). There are plenty of kooks on social media, but often such messages are from a perfectly normal person bringing something to your attention or promoting themselves to a journalist. I usually ignore the latter, but I checked this one out as he had written a supposedly riveting “financial thriller” – my great white whale.

Normally someone trying to get a journalist to read a book will offer to send them a copy or just put one in the mail unsolicited. The author, whose name I’ll refrain from mentioning, didn’t have a publisher and only provided a link to the book’s Amazon page. In other words, he was a literary spammer.

I clicked anyway and saw dozens and dozens of five star reviews. They had titles like “Awesome Historical Thriller” and “Incredible Book…Ripped Out of Tomorrow’s Headlines!” None of the top reviews showed “Verified Purchase” which, since the book was unlikely to have been available in bookstores, was odd. Where did they buy it? Did they really buy it?

There also were no editorial reviews as such – not even from places such as Kirkus, which will write one for any book for a fee. The author bio had poor grammar such as: “He lives on a 300+ year old farm in Connecticut deeded from King George of England with his children.” I downloaded the free Kindle sample anyway and read the whole thing. It was bad. I’ll let a couple of the are one-star reviewers sum it up:

 “The author does not demonstrate basic grammar skills, sentence construction, nor realistic dialogue formation. He should have invested in the advice of a professional editor before self-publishing this book. I would suggest he find a good editor and rework the novel for republishing under a different title.”

And:

“Everyone has a story to tell but not everyone is cut out to be a writer. The numerous, obviously contrived reviews are not doing the author any favors. It is hard to tell someone that something they worked hard on is poorly done, but sometimes the truth is more important. This book is not good. It is not even an approximation of good. REDACTED may be a knowledgeable and intelligent individual but he is not a writer and I hope for the sake of his family and friends that he does not attempt another book (at least until he has taken a high school level composition class).”

These are outweighed by some 183 mostly breathless five star reviews and very few in-between. In other words, when someone decides whether to buy the book in question, he or she will see that it has an average rating of 4.6 stars. Just to put that in context, The Great Gatsby and Lolita each have 4.3 stars. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator and The Financier, three well-regarded works of fiction involving finance, have 4.2, 4.5, and 4.4 stars, respectively.

Clearly the author solicited friends and family or a paid service – perhaps including “King George of England and his children” – to write positive reviews.

Why should you care? I guess it’s not a big deal as long as you can see past the fakery, though it does make it tough to evaluate all sorts of consumer products on Amazon or restaurants on Yelp where the deception is a little slicker.

And why do I care? Well, I just published my first book. It has some very nice advance praise and has been written up in The New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Money, USA Today, Barron’s and excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, Marketwatch, and elsewhere. I’m grateful for that and all the other media exposure as I’d like people to buy it.

But a lot of people just hear about it in cyberspace, navigate to the Amazon page, and check out strangers’ reviews. There are some really nice ones and, for a while, all were five stars. I was worried that I’d look like the aforementioned author. Then a couple of four star ones crept in and even a three star and I actually was sort of relieved. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of one star reviews started landing. “Waste of money!” and “The worst book on investing I have ever read!” On Goodreads, which doesn’t provide proof of purchase, some of the reviews criticized stuff that wasn’t even in the book.

I guess they’re entitled to their opinions and, according to Amazon at least, they made “verified purchases.” A former colleague of mine, Kaja Whitehouse, is a dogged investigative reporter and also an author of a book about wills. It looks like a really useful book and the two reviewers that are verified purchases both gave it five stars. Then there are several one star reviews all submitted on the same day from non-verified reviewers (see screenshot below). They are by people who never reviewed any other books. Clearly she wrote something negative about a company they owned and they punished her by trashing her book, which now has an average rating of 2.3.

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I’m not a victim of a smear, but all this made me realize that many books benefit from friendly reviews, which brings me to the point of this post. I thanked friends and strangers alike who told me they liked my book but I never asked them to go and write a review.

Now I’m politely asking. If you didn’t read the book then please don’t go onto Amazon or Goodreads and click five stars for my benefit. But, if you read and have something to say, I’d really appreciate a little bit of support. And if you hated it? Well, it’s a free country, but nobody likes a gossip.

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About SJ

I know, I already write for a living.
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