Vanilla Reviews

Reviews are wonderful, reviews are trustworthy, reviews are how you find out what real people think. But is it that simple?

There’s an arms race over reviews. On the one hand, sellers seek ever subtler ways to convince buyers that people think this is the greatest product since someone worked out how rubbing sticks together made fire, and buyers are trying to spot the paid-for reviews in the hope of finding a genuine one.

It’s a complicated world.

There’s been controversy about Julie Burchill’s review in the current issue of Mslexia (Issue 61, Page 55 http://mslexia.co.uk/ ) because she criticises Belle de Jour. I don’t care whether I agree with her comments or not – I just think there’s something wrong with her being criticised for expressing herself. We have free speech in this country and anyone who wishes to disagree can publish their own contrary opinion. Now am I going to get flamed for daring to say that? I moderate this blog, mainly to filter out spam and people trying to promote themselves, but I suspect I’d delete anything nasty, too. So am I guilty of suppressing free speech on here? I don’t think so, but you’re entitled to your own view of my actions.

I’ve been reviewing books for magazines and publishers for more than a decade. Most of the time, the recipient accepts whatever I’ve said about their book (or whatever), but occasionally I’ve been challenged over my opinion. One e-publisher emailed to say, “Why did you give this book four stars?” I was tempted to point out that I was being generous – I had been torn between awarding three or four stars. Presumably I was meant to give it five stars, regardless of the fact it wasn’t that good – so I haven’t reviewed any more for that publisher.

I used to agree to review-swaps with other writers, but I’ve stopped doing that after it became clear that these were expected to be sycophantic rather than honest.

It may be heresy, but I don’t see any point in reviews if they are always meant to be vanilla, give five-stars and only say nice things.

One major retailer emails me to review everything I purchase from them online, and won’t allow me to disable this on their website (yes, I tried). I reviewed an item of furniture I bought from them, saying how good it was but also commenting on the appalling delivery service and customer support. The review never appeared and they sent me an email saying my comments had “breached the terms” of their website. I queried this and got an admission (in writing) that I hadn’t breached anything, but they were “unable” to post my opinion online. Reviews for the same product say what a wonderful delivery experience other customers had – so I presume the only thing they objected to was my being negative. Even though it was true and provable.

So what is the point of posting a review where comments will be “moderated”?

As a writer, I’ve been contacted by companies who claim to offer review services. I followed one advert to its website to see what they were offering. Apparently, I could choose the number of reviews, the period over which they would be posted and the “proportionality” of the reviews. The example they showed was for 100 reviews, 80% five stars, over a one-month period. And they made a big deal of the fact I didn’t even have to provide a copy of the book. I couldn’t find out any more unless I gave them my contact and payment details, so I left their website.

Bearing in mind there’s been controversy about people writing bad reviews for their competition, I wonder if any of them have paid for 100 bad reviews for someone else’s book? Or twenty negative comments about a competing hotel?

Reviews have become a commodity, to be bought and sold like anything else. Maybe I’m being naïve to only seek reviews from people who’ve actually read my books – I’ve supplied review copies to various interested parties, but that’s the nearest I’ve ever been to paying for a review. (I generally make a comment like, “If you’re giving me less than three stars, please let me know what I did wrong”. But I never try to suppress a review.)

Meanwhile, I read reviews before purchasing something and try to guess whether they’re genuine.

Like I said, it’s an arms race.

Recently, I was asked for my opinion on honesty in the reviewing world for BBC Radio Wales – I think the Presenter was a little surprised how negative I was about the situation. But it’s hard to be upbeat when you’ve seen too much of the way the review system works.

So – how can a potential buyer judge the reviews of an item, be it book or anything else? There’s a clue in the sales pitch from the reviews-for-cash company I mentioned above. They obviously think it’s important to give a few four- and three-star reviews and spread them over a period of time, so they’re aware that buyers look out for a mass of five-star reviews appearing all on one day. These are flags to watch out for. Beware of reviews that are largely posted over a short period, and anything with a lot of reviews with no negative comments!

At the moment, I find it useful to spot reviews that all use the same phrases (I wonder if they ask for a list of stock phrases about a book?) and also reviews written by people who aren’t very fluent in English – I wonder how they could possibly read the book they’re commenting on. But my suspicion is that the next stage of the arms race will render this advice as useless as a chocolate sun lounger.

Some retailers try to improve things by highlighting reviewers who’ve bought that item through the retailer, or who write “popular” reviews – but do either of these criteria mean they’re producing an honest review?

Frankly, I think the best form of review is still one from someone you know and whose opinion you respect, whether that’s a mate down the pub or a newspaper columnist. Possibly not very helpful, but that’s the only way to be sure you’re not being duped by someone who’s being paid to be nice (or nasty).

But don’t let this dissuade you from posting your own reviews. If you have an honest opinion, share it online – especially if it’s about a product from a small business or Indie Artist of some description. If you’ve stayed in a small B&B or read a book by a largely-unknown author, share your opinion with the world. Most retail websites won’t even insist you booked / bought it through them before you post your review.

The review system may not be perfect, but it is the best we’ve got at the moment.

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Crowdfunding: Secrets of Success

Hello. My name is Meg and I’m a successful Crowdfunder.

Yes, it is possible.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Crowdfunding is based on the idea that money can be raised by collecting small amounts from a large number of people. Instead of a lump sum from a single source like a bank loan, a publisher’s advance or Great-Aunt Ethel’s will.

But it isn’t a magical pot of gold just waiting for someone to find it. Raising money through crowdfunding takes planning, work and a touch of luck.

People are in the crowdfunding community because they want to raise money for their own project, not because they are looking for people to give it to. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But many have assumed I’m only involved because I’m looking for reasons to give money away. I suspect everyone is spamming everyone else – I wonder if anyone ever makes any dosh that way?

Mind you, I’ve been accused of spamming someone with my own campaign. I’d just sent out the third email of my crowdfunding project (a month into the two-month schedule) and I got a reply telling me I was spamming her and she had no interest in my {expletives deleted} writing. I checked that all my emails had included my polite message asking people to let me know if they didn’t wish to receive any more. I also checked the paper headed “Sign below for news of my books and other writing” to make sure that was where I’d got her email from. She continues to send emails trying to sell me her overpriced jewellery.

It’s worth remembering that even the politest form of communication will annoy someone who once told you they were interested in supporting you.

So if you can’t raise money from other crowdfunders or by asking for donations, how do you actually get money from your crowdfunding project?
The simple answer is, from people who are interested in buying your product.

So:
• Your fans,
• People who’ve bought from you in the past,
• Groups with an interest in your particular genre,
• Friends and family,
• Work colleagues,
• The occasional stranger who comes across your pitch online. (I had one!)
– and I’ll guarantee someone will complain about you asking.

So, straighten your shoulders and thicken your skin. Calculate your costs and prices. Prepare your list of emails and work out what you’re asking for and what you’re offering in return. Draft your first email and setup a system to track who you email and when. (I’ve just asked someone to take my email off their list, after their 5th email in 4 days.) Set a finish date for your fundraising and a delivery date for the product. (I’ve been left hanging over some items I crowdfunded. I paid my money, but haven’t received what I paid for and still don’t know when they may arrive.)

Next you need to choose a crowdfunding website (or design your own webpage to take donations). Look carefully at their charges – most state it’s 5% of money collected, they don’t tell you they’re going to add VAT and don’t all mention that the payment company (such as Paypal) takes another 3%-ish.

Revise your estimate of costs!

Write your pitch, record a begging video, whatever you want to use.

Load it all onto the website and start sending out your begging mails. Print posters / flyers / business cards.

Keep careful track of money as it goes into the website and encourage your supporters to let you know when they make a donation, just in case it goes missing between their ewallet and yours.

Above – play fair with your supporters. Give them what they’ve paid for and when you said you would deliver. (I always include a little extra with my books when I send them to crowdfunders.) If there’s a delay, let them know – and offer a refund. Better to lose a few quid than a valued supporter! Don’t spam people who haven’t expressed an interest (or me!) and don’t send too many emails to anyone.

I believe that 2013 will be the year of crowdfunding. And I wish you well in your own venture into this fast-growing arena.

(If anyone does want to pre-order my book, my own crowdfunding page is here: http://jaywalkerwriting.co.uk/chrystal.html or not. I’m not pushing!)

Carnivores, Vegetarians and Corporate Dishonesty

So the news this morning is full of scandal that a major supermarket chain has been selling beefburgers that contain non-beef meats. One frozen burger was found to consist of 29% horse meat. 10 of the 27 tested contained meat from pigs. The media aren’t forthcoming about what else was in there – they just comment on the ingredients that are likely to upset people.

Now I’m a carnivore – I do eat meat, although I prefer to be sure it’s been treated humanely throughout its life. That’s my choice and I don’t try to force it on other people. I respect the fact that many people are vegetarians, or pescetarians or avoid certain meats on religious grounds. That’s their choice as long as they don’t try to impose it on others. But if I buy beefburgers, I don’t expect them to contain other meats.

There are laws in the UK and many other countries regarding ingredient lists on food products and I’m quite certain the supermarkets don’t list “horse meat” as one of these. As someone who has food allergies, I have a problem with manufacturers who list ingredients as shellfish or spices as if we don’t have a right to know which ones are present, but at least they’re being honest. If they claimed it was scallops and my allergens reacted to the prawns they’d put in, I’d have a right to sue. I don’t think you’d get very far claiming compensation for being fed horse meat when you thought it was beef, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lie!

It’s not common to eat horse meat in the UK, or guinea pigs or jellyfish. They’re all perfectly edible, but we either think the animal is too cute, or somehow disgusting. In other parts of the world, each of these would be acceptable table-fodder. As the human population grows, meat-eaters may need to broaden their horizons. The issue here shouldn’t be about what animals we should or shouldn’t eat – it’s about honesty. If we’re lied to, we no longer have a choice.

Supermarket chains have been criticised in the past for all kinds of rule-breaking. I don’t think a company that regularly builds stores that are significantly larger than they’ve got planning permission for will be worried about customers complaining they’ve been fed meat from the wrong animals. If it isn’t something they can be taken to court over, they aren’t going to worry. The publicity won’t hurt them in the long run and they’ve been making a good profit from their dishonesty for however long this has been going on.

Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Flogging a Dead Horse,” doesn’t it?