What Value Reviews?

The last post looked at why reviews for products/services offered to self-publishers might be outright lies to not quite what they seem, and how to potentially spot them.

This post looks at reviews for books and the shady goings-ons that can equally be found involved with them too:

There’s no doubting the necessity of reviews period, never mind to an unknown self-publishing author (see NOBODY Cares About Your Book!)

The question becomes how many are needed on a platform like Amazon before the causal shopper will stop and take a closer look.

At least, it does for those in the business of selling reviews.

Twenty is an often seen number stated by sites and blogs talking about it, though never with a source to substantiate the number.

An article on G2 (here) lists all kinds of review related stats (50+ and their origins).

One is to the Spiegel Research Center (here), which states:

The purchase likelihood for a product with five reviews is 270% greater than the purchase likelihood of a product with no reviews. But having more reviews isn’t necessarily better, after a point. The marginal benefit of additional reviews begins diminishing rapidly after the first five reviews.

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image courtesy Ekrulila

As always, understanding what’s really going on behind the scenes of the information can reap dividends.

In this instance the full SRC report (PDF file) reveals this particular stat was ‘Based on data from the high-end gift retailer’.

While the information is certainly relevant, its reality is only being a rough guide for high end retailers.

Perhaps more important is this, also from the same report:

Is five stars “too good to be true” in the eyes of consumers? According to our research, it is. Across product categories, we found that purchase likelihood typically peaks at ratings in the 4.0 – 4.7 range, and then begins to decrease as ratings approach 5.0.

Of all aspects of self publishing reviews are perhaps the most complex.

Example:

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image courtesy Markus Winkler

Someone going to the effort of falsifying fifteen book reviews themselves is unlikely to make them all glowing and five stars – that would be too obvious; whereas overzealous friends and family are unlikely to leave anything less for the first-time author they know and love.

Best intentions can apparently do more damage than good, even going so far as to by-default help anyone manipulative enough to regulate their own false reviews.

Book reviews have become as much an industry as writing actual books.

Numerous articles can be found explaining the process for finding ‘professional’ reviewers on Amazon. Pointing out what a lengthy process it is, they will then mention small pieces of software that can allegedly do all that hard work for around $195.

Whether the software works is one thing; whether the once found reviewer will agree to review the book another. Either way, software or not, the whole thing’s a bit convoluted when compared to what’s going on over at Goodreads.

Goodreads started as a website for people to display their book collection online. Today it’s predominately an online community of people who like to read and write reviews – often an art unto itself.

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Writing book reviews has become an art form in its own right. Image courtesy Christina Morillo

Somewhere along the way it was bought by Amazon.

Like Facebook and Twitter, anyone with an email address can sign up for an account (and so leave reviews).

On Goodreads there are groups where self-publishers can ask for verified Amazon reviews.

To achieve this they offer a free copy of the book.

The terms under which Amazon and Goodreads allow this insist the reviewer must state in the review that a free copy was received in return for it.

True: a review can be left on Amazon without a purchase; however, it will be highlighted as such, and for that very reason not a lot of weight is put in them.

Verified purchase‘ being the indicator that the reviewer does in fact have the item in question.

Many reviewers approached through Goodreads for Amazon reviews will also post it to Goodreads and very possibly their own blog.

Despite this relatively straightforward D.I.Y. option, there are people offering to do all the work for a fee on top of the cost of all the free books.

Some are for reviews for Goodreads only.

A quick word about them specifically:

The accounts described The Trouble with Twitter are often found linked to/offering this service, part of which involves enticing potential readers and thus reviewers.

  • ‘Would you like to receive free books in return for reviews?’
  • Who wouldn’t?!
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image courtesy Sharon McCutcheon

With Goodreads it’s easy for a person to open as many accounts as they please; meaning there might just be the illusion of numerous reviewers at the other end.

But, really, if it’s simply decent reviews you’re after, does it matter if just one person writes them, so long as it appears many did?

Amazon is a ‘PoS’ (point of sale): the best place for a person to be when deciding to buy something from both their and the vendor’s viewpoint.

Any PoS, Amazon or otherwise, is where a vendor really needs reviews to be.

How many books might be sold because of reviews on Goodreads alone is debatable; but it doesn’t need a study to know it will be less compared to reviews left at a PoS.

Back to Amazon:

Understanding how the Goodreads for Amazon reviews process works in practice shows why the latter might want to monopolise the self-publishing market.

An example of how it is trying can be found in the terms and conditions of KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). Given the alleged benefits many first-time self-publishers sign-up. However, while in the KDP programme Amazon retains exclusive publication.

This includes not publishing excerpts on one’s own website to promote it.

Failure to comply will result in the book and author being permanently banned from the Amazon platform KDP or not.

If Amazon isn’t trying to corner the market (it did start as a book store, after all) it’s got a funny way of showing it.

(Note: a book doesn’t have to be in KDP to undergo the review process described)

This is what happened when telling a friend—let’s call them X—about the system of free books via Goodreads for reviews on Amazon :

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image courtesy Laura Kapfer

Instead of be outraged there are so many ‘paid for’ reviews floating about, X instead rushed off and signed up for some themselves.

They were contacted by a first-time author. The format offered was an ebook; once not an option for this process, but certainly better for the author than having to pay for physical copies and postage too.

With an ebook, the author could send a copy completely free of charge as an email attachment, but that wouldn’t result in the all important ‘verified purchase’ status.

Instead of send X a voucher/coupon specifically for the book, the author sent a $10 voucher for Amazon in general.

X decided to be nice and still buy the book, not spend it on something they really wanted instead.

The ebook was priced $9.99.

Any once first-time unknown author who’s tried to sell an ebook at that price will know that’s between 80 and a 100% overpriced.

While it’s true the author will receive a good percentage of that $9.99 back in royalties, the relative ease with which prices can be changed on Amazon means way more was handed to it on a plate than necessary.

Consider: the whole reasoning of paying for reviews is because books won’t sell without them. Books take time to read. There’s plenty of opportunity to raise the price while waiting for the reviews to start rolling in (the fact the price in question is still way too high even with some reviews momentarily ignored).

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image courtesy Thought Catalog

By this process of review buying—which relies on Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon, and apparently is essential if everyone is doing it—Amazon will sell some copies of any book published without a single genuine sale having to take place.

And, if X’s example is anything to go by, at a price much inflated from its real market value.

While X did leave a review, they told me it was better than it should’ve been (as the book had been free) and also they forgot to mention they’d received a free copy, an allegedly strict requirement of the process that apparently has no way of being enforced.

Many attempts to sell this type of service use similar tactics as described Delving Deeper into Genuine or Lie: apparent stamps of approval from other self-publishing authors are used as validation it works.

Likewise, then, a similar principle was used to analyse the accolades.

An option often found: packages offering reviews for more than one book. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to see which package had been purchased by an author leaving positive feedback about the service.

Much like the lovely press packages, they got the reviews they paid for, but not the hoped for sales thereafter.

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image courtesy Pixaby

Unless the author in question is in someway behind the service in question. In that scenario every resource at their disposal will be directed to reviews for their books, so making it harder to distinguish when a particular service is actually delivering what is hoped for:

The sales that should result from having the reviews.

A straightforward way of establishing whether an author has genuinely benefited or is doing so as they’re behind the scenes is to see if they can be found directly promoting the service.

Of course, it shouldn’t be overlooked that most people won’t go to the effort of leaving a review; their number, then, isn’t an accurate record of actual books sold.

We might conclude the reason a book only has ten good reviews is that in fact it’s not all that good and so no one genuinely buying a copy left one.

But this not only highlights a major flaw in bought reviews, it also overlooks that someone buying a book off the back of glowing ones (no one would pay for bad ones, after all) only to find it didn’t deserve them might be more inclined to set the record straight with their own, so saving others from likewise wasting money.

There is no doubting reviews are needed

How someone might best get them, though, is another matter entirely, for regardless of how they’re obtained, if ‘paid for’ worked then the ‘obviousness’ of the analysed packages wouldn’t be so easy to spot.

The consumer is already starting to catch on, especially with more and more big media articles on the subject; as example, the BBC’s ‘Why I write fake online reviews‘.

In fact, even the reviewers are getting sick of it thanks to the lengths some are going to in the name of looking highly acclaimed; check out the one star reviews at the end of this link to a review on Goodreads.

Coming soon/Next: Self-publishing and why it’s really just old Vanity in disguise.

This series:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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