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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A Sobering Thought on World Book Day

“You’re an author – you must be raking it in.”

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who hears this comment or variations on the theme. It follows the one about how preferable writing is to actually working for a living.

In some ways, writing at home is easier than going in to the office for eight hours every day. You don’t have to get up at a certain time; you can stay in your pyjamas all day; you can take things easy when you want to.

But the reality is that the books still have to get written, magazine editors must be satisfied and products have to be sold. There may not be anyone checking that I’m actually working – but if I don’t, nothing will happen and there will be no books, no articles and no sales.

This is the reality of the self-employed.

There has been a lot of research lately into writers’ incomes. There’s an interesting article here:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/02/bestseller-novel-to-bust-author-life?commentpage=1

And it’s becoming clear that most of us don’t make the vast sums of money people assume we do.

There’s a steady stream of people after freebies from authors. From the book blogger who emailed me (with an obviously form email) to promise she’d give me lots of publicity for my new book if I gave her an electronic copy (obviously forgetting she had a free copy of a previous book and never even reviewed it), to the person who thinks the way to get a free book is to try and get my husband to bully me into it. (It doesn’t work with strong women – that’s a definition of the term!) Not to mention the people who assume I’ve had promo goods made so that they can help themselves to as many as they want. If you really want something from an author, why won’t you pay?

I’ve just been emailed by a large supplier who appears to have increased my order and charged me an additional 30% for doing so. I suspect any publisher would flinch at that difference – it’s potentially disastrous for a small business. I don’t think they’ll worry about me taking my business elsewhere in the future, I know I’m a very small fish in a large ocean. But the loss of goodwill is something that doesn’t appear on any balance sheet.

Read Same

Yes this is a rant, but there’s a reason for it. Today is World Book Day. If you’re inclined to celebrate by buying a book, think about supporting an Independent Author. There are many of us, struggling to survive in a business world that’s constantly trying to squeeze every last penny out of our bank accounts. Every sale is worth something to us. And you may discover a new writer you really like.

The mercenary bit – Chrystal Heart has been out for one whole year! Reduced on Kindle to celebrate this and World Book Day- £1.99 / $3.49 or equivalent. You can read the first few chapters for free via Amazon, if you’re unsure whether it’s for you!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Chrystal-Heart-Meg-Kingston-ebook/dp/B00BT09GS2/