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Book Reviews, Criticism, Publishing

How to Avoid a Bogus Book/Movie/Art/Whatever Review

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The more exclamation points in a review, the less likely I am to believe it.
  3. 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.
  4. Critics who reference other critics. If I see, “In X’s review, he talks of…” then I just go read X’s review.
  5. 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.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


28 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Bogus Book/Movie/Art/Whatever Review

  1. I haven’t had such bad luck with reviews, however I usually go to websites like Goodreads or Urban Spoon where it is a community effort. My husband and I also use Homeaway.com to book vacation homes and the reviews there are crucial. The trick is to sort them by date, most recent first. Then you have to read them, not just look at the number of stars. I tend to discount reviews that are poorly written (writer snob showing) and if the reviewer has bizarre expectations, such as wanting five star service from a burger joint. I agree that a lot of commercial reviews are suspicious but that is why I go to communities instead. I also get a lot of suggestions from friends on books, movies and restaurants. Even there you learn who has similar tastes and who to trust.

    Posted by jetepper | September 1, 2012, 1:26 PM
    • To be honest, I haven’t done much with Goodreads. I should definitely take a closer look. As you said, the best advice usually comes form people who understand your tastes.

      Posted by jpon | September 1, 2012, 6:26 PM
  2. I don’t know if all of my own reviews/articles about books stick to your strict standards, but I’ve never been paid for one, so I guess I’m doing something right. In actual fact, I write only about books and etc. that I actually like, and simply analyze/retell bits from a literary point of view. It’s really good to have someone like you with a position in the professional reviewing community to help set standards for what should be done in a review/article. Now I only hope i can live up to the standards you set (i.e., I sometimes find myself a little perplexed for words in which to describe my particular reaction to something I’ve read).

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 1, 2012, 1:33 PM
    • Thanks for the kind words. In fact, I’ve been asked by another blogger to write a post on what I look for in a book review, and a writer interviewed me for a possible piece in The Believer. Both opportunities made me think hard about just what separates a good review from one that’s just average. If either ever gets published, I’ll post the link here.

      Posted by jpon | September 1, 2012, 6:25 PM
  3. Joe, I’ve got to say this week’s blog entry is boffo, written with razzle-dazzle exuberance, and is dare I say, sumptuous. I give it 5 stars!

    Posted by socalsoxman | September 1, 2012, 2:26 PM
    • Roger, you’re wasting your time doing… what is it you do now?… when you could be writing book reviews for a living.

      Posted by jpon | September 1, 2012, 6:21 PM
      • Thanks Joe, but my hands are just too full right now (with wads of cash) from my career path as a “vulture capitalist”. It’s very lucrative…the feathers alone from shooting down one of those old buzzards can fill eight pillows in a Malaysian sweatshop. And emulating the noble Native-American philosophy, we strive to use every part of the animal.

        Posted by socalsoxman | September 1, 2012, 7:10 PM
  4. If you’re interested in what some self-pubbers are saying about the ethics of buying/selling reviews, there’s an interesting discussion going on at http://www.shelfari.com/groups/10012/discussions/460276/John-Locke-and-winning-by-dishonesty

    Posted by akhoffman | September 1, 2012, 2:47 PM
    • Another interesting discussion. I’m glad to see most authors are against the idea of buying reviews. The alternative seems to be spending years as part of the writing community and building the credibility necessary to persuade legitimate reviewers to look at your book. I’m in that boat, and if it ever works for me, I’ll let you know.

      Posted by jpon | September 1, 2012, 6:20 PM
  5. On the one hand you have paying for superlative book reviews, and on the other hand you have getting horrible reviews for free from hack reviewers. Here’s how to avoid the latter: http://bit.ly/Lhe6J2

    Posted by bruce a | September 1, 2012, 4:14 PM
    • That’s a very interesting blog post. If I ever get one of my novels published, I’ll certainly remember the advice. Thanks for the link, Bruce.

      Posted by jpon | September 1, 2012, 6:12 PM
  6. Yes on the exclamation points. One I can overlook. Two or more, no thanks.

    I like a measured review. I never want to hear they loved it or hate it (whatever “it” is). Kind of like a writing workshop, I want to hear their opinions on what worked and what didn’t and let me come to my own conclusion. Sometimes I read a review and wonder if the reviewer even read the whole book. I remember a scandal about this a decade or so ago with the National Book Award, when a judge confessed, anonymously, that he/she had not read most of the books and that this was common practice, that reading 10 or 20 pages was enough.

    As for blurb reviews on book jackets, and I hate to admit this, if I don’t recognize a single name I don’t buy it. Unless it’s been recommended by someone I trust.

    Posted by Teri | September 1, 2012, 7:14 PM
    • Your comment about how you like book reviews to be like a writing workshop makes a lot of sense, especially to another writer. I think a lot of us are looking for reviews to not only dissect the workings of a particular book, but also to learn “what worked and what didn’t,” which we hope to add to our own practice. But I’d guess that most “regular” readers just want to know if it’s good or bad.

      Posted by jpon | September 2, 2012, 9:49 AM
    • And forgot to mention how difficult it is sometimes to finish a book before writing the review. But it’s absolutely necessary. I can think of several I’ve read this year that featured an ending that changed what I would have written otherwise.

      Posted by jpon | September 2, 2012, 9:51 AM
  7. My bug-bear is “unputdownable” you can forget having me on board as a reader if you’ve got that on your cover or in your review…it’s not a word!

    Posted by Kate | September 2, 2012, 3:36 AM
  8. mine is the term “relateable/relatable” which was satirized sublimely by my friends Linda Besemer and Erika Suderburg, incredible avant-garde artists. I can’t even spell it, it makes me so annoyed.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 3, 2012, 12:11 AM
  9. This story keeps getting bigger. Now the guardian is on the case, with a traditionally published author who fakes his own reviews and trashes the competition: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/03/rj-ellory-secret-amazon-reviews

    Posted by akhoffman | September 3, 2012, 4:27 PM
    • I think we’re just viewing the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Thanks for the link.

      Posted by jpon | September 3, 2012, 5:42 PM
    • I see the article mentions that the writers who condemn the practice are trying to craft a code of ethics…something like this would be a great idea for other communities of writers. Guess I’ll hop over to the HWA & SFWA sites & see if they have anything posted (not that I’m a member of either yet, but someday…)

      Posted by Dora Badger (@dorabadger) | September 5, 2012, 6:52 AM
      • I’d love to see something in place to raise the level of integrity of book reviews. Those who choose to follow the guidelines would be able to list that fact with their reviews. I looked around for a BR code of ethics, but even the National Book Critics Circle doesn’t seem to have one.

        Posted by jpon | September 5, 2012, 9:24 AM
  10. i tend to agree, but have you ever taken yourself out of the game too soon? i.e,, have you ever avoided something because everyone said it was great only to, years later, find that the thing in question was great and you missed out because you avoided going where the smoke was. i think i’ve done this more than i’d like to admit.

    Posted by the circular runner | September 5, 2012, 9:06 PM
  11. Sigh….

    Posted by fpdorchak | September 8, 2012, 5:56 PM

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