The latest chapter in the “veracity of book reviews” controversy playing out on the web comes courtesy of The New York Times, in an article about book reviewers who sell their services in return for positive reviews.
Are you really surprised? I didn’t think so.
The article also quotes Bing Liu’s 2008 research, which showed that “60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars… Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.”
What’s so different about these practices from what happens in the movie, music and other subjective industries? Nearly every movie ad includes a glowing quote from a reviewer you’ve never heard of, who works for a publication you’ve never seen. Thousands of web sites rate movies, albums, restaurants, and any subjective field. And for every creative endeavor, there are people who claim to be in a position to judge it, whether or not they have the experience or ability to do so. Sure, every opinion counts, but they don’t all matter.
It makes the life of those of us who enjoy good literature, art, food, etc. sometimes frustrating. But we learn a few tricks along the way to help separate the bogus from the legitimate. Here’s a few of mine; feel free to suggest others:
- The more people who like something, the worse it must be. That way I don’t waste time reading books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
- The more exclamation points in a review, the less likely I am to believe it.
- Use of generic or subjective adjectives. In book reviews we’re talking terms like endearing, riveting, beautiful. For movies, how about action-packed, emotional, and heart-wrenching. Then there’s restaurant blather like tasty, well-prepared, and my personal favorite, sumptuous.
- Critics who reference other critics. If I see, “In X’s review, he talks of…” then I just go read X’s review.
- Reviews that tell “you” what to think.
So when I find a reviewer or a publication I can trust to give me the facts and let me draw the conclusion, I tend to come back for future articles. Seems simple, but a lot of people and publications don’t get that.