The problem with reviews

5-star-reputation

I was having a Twitter chat yesterday with a good blogging friend about the recent controversy surrounding the author Kathleen Hale. Before you switch off, this post isn’t about the controversy itself (although if you want to know more, you can find a link to the original article here and an excellent response here) but a comment made during the discussion. We were talking about reviews in general and my friend said:

“As a reader and an observer of the self-publishing phenomenon: I don’t trust ratings of self-published authors.”

Unsurprisingly, the comment annoyed me, but as she explained her reasons it made me realise there is a problem with the review system, at least for new or first time authors (especially if they are self-published) of which we should all be aware.

Red Herrings

The issue is around the trustworthiness of reviews but not in the way you may think. I’ve read a lot of articles on self-publishing and many talk about authors trying to “game” the system; generating unwarranted reviews wither through the use of reciprocal reviews, paying for good reviews or even creating multiple accounts to award bogus reviews. I don’t doubt this happens (although I don’t believe this behaviour is restricted to self-published authors). However, the vast majority of authors I’ve befriended since I published my novels have been honest professionals working hard to build their careers as writers. I was approached once, many months ago, to do a reciprocal review (which I declined). To date this has been the only time it’s happened.

This doesn’t mean authors don’t, or shouldn’t promote other author’s work. I certainly do (via my Recommended Reads). I know some of these authors have read and liked my work in return. A cynic may view this as a reciprocal agreement, either by intention or through social convention, but I stand by every recommendation I’ve made. It’s not unusual to find a group of friends having a similar outlook, shared values and shared interests, especially if they me through a social media platform. I’ve once had a person – who had given  my book a great rating – upset with me because I didn’t like their book, but that could have been more to do with the clumsy way I approached the situation than with me not giving a review.

I don’t believe the majority of self-published authors, or even a significant minority, are trying to “game” the review system. I do, however, believe the majority of us are doing things, quite innocently, that are skewing the review system to the point where readers don’t trust it any more.

Proportionality

The issue has nothing to do with false reviews but whether the number of high-rated reviews truly reflect a book’s quality in the eyes of a regular reader. Let’s me use my book, Second Chance, as an example.

On Amazon UK, Second Chance has 30 reviews with a 4.8-star average. This is something of which I’m very proud. As with most first-time authors, the early reviews came from people I know personally.  Because of this, you might infer this personal relationship led to my book receiving higher ratings than it would otherwise have received. Knowing my friends, I would say this is highly unlikely. However, there is one level distortion I’m sure has happened. More of my friends bought my book than reviewed it. The reasons for this may vary (not read the book, not had time, forgotten) but for some it’s because they read it, didn’t like it but are too polite to say.

This isn’t just true of your friends. People in general dislike giving one-star reviews. I do. I know how much work goes into writing a book so if I don’t like it, I won’t leave a review (this is also why I call my reviews ‘Recommendations’ as opposed to reviews). It’s also becoming common for book bloggers to behave the same way, whether for the same reasons I don’t leave one-star reviews, or more worryingly because of fear of retribution. In my opinion this would be a bad thing, because if the review system loses some form of proportionality, us indie writers lose our greatest path to visibility.

The problem is this causes the review system to be skewed towards good ratings, especially so for newly released books and particularly so for newly released books by self-published authors. For many of us this is a nice little springboard to gain neutral readers and true reviews. What this also leads to is very poor books being rated highly, causing readers (like my blogging friend) to feel conned.

What’s the solution?

The simple answer is I don’t have one, at least not something that will fix the system, completely. I know Amazon are doing a great job in stamping down hard on those trying to “game” the system. At the same time, there are things we can do to help mitigate this effect. When you ask people to leave a review, always ask for an honest review. It doesn’t mean your friends are likely to pan your book, but it shows you are serious about understanding how good it is, or not. Send your book to bloggers for review. Don’t just send it to those you know, send it to complete strangers. For myself, it was only once I’d received my first independent review from somebody with whom I’d had no previous contact (thanks, Dave, I will always be in your debt), that I truly believed people might like my book as opposed to them just being kind. Also, be nice to book reviewers, even if they don’t like your book. Not liking something is just as natural response as liking something. It is not personal.

So what do you think? Do you trust the review system? Do you choose books based on reviews and if so, what is the deciding factor? I’d love to hear from you.