Book review BS: When reviews are bought (or coerced), the unaware reader suffers
This is a true story.
A couple years ago, a colleague referred a businessman to me as a prospective client. I met with the man, we chatted, he seemed interested in what I had to say, but he did not hire me for my editing or self-publishing consultative services. It happens. Frankly, I didn’t think much more about the project.
A year … 18 months … go by. I start a Meetup group for authors, and this man joins. He’s finished his book and is in the process of marketing it. He invites me to an early launch/book signing event. Many of his friends are there. All speak very highly of the book. He gives me a copy, which I graciously accept. I take it home, anticipating a fantastic read after all the glowing reviews.
Disappointment does not begin to convey my response to the book. Two words summarize my review: unreadably bad.
From the first 3 paragraphs of the preface, as it is printed in the book:
A legend, lived and believed, if you have clarity and confidence with unwavering focus and determination, anything is possible and achievable in life… (ellipsis by the author).
This writing is a collation of life long events, incidents, and anecdotes driven by passion and focus, irrespective of lack of resources, and numerous distractions that created obstacles along the path to his goals of undeterred integrity and humility for service.
And it never improves.
I would not be mentioning this — the book would simply have continued to gather dust on my bookshelf until it made its way into a yard sale or the donation bin for the VNSA book sale — had I not received the following “request” from its author: “I hope to read your fantastic testimonial of my book soon on Amazon.”
Initially, I did not know how to respond. So I went to Amazon to see what others had to say about the book. Of the 15 reviews listed, 14 of them were 5-star reviews; the last offered a miserly 4 stars. WTF??? I must have read a different book — or been having a really bad day when I stopped reading after the first 17 pages in my first go at this story. So I pulled it off the bookshelf and picked up where I’d left off, hopeful that maybe I’d been mistaken. No — I had not been imagining things. It was still a terrible book. But there they were, 15 glowing Amazon reviews.
And then I got angry. Because these are not honest reviews — they are reviews from people who, in all likelihood, were similarly coerced by the author with comments like the one he made to me in his email. This is a smart man who spent years in sales and knows how to get what he wants. But those reviews are either (a) flat-out dishonest, (b) repayment for some perceived debt, (c) written by friends who, while they may be doing the author “a favor,” are doing prospective buyers a grave disservice, or (d) written by people with absolutely no common sense or appreciation of the English language.
It occurs to me that maybe this poor guy really believes his own hype and thinks he’s written a magnificent book. But how could no one who’s read it (including the professional editor he allegedly hired) have pointed out that his first sentence in the book is not even a sentence?! I was truly reminded of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And still I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, I decided to reply to the email:
I’m a little taken aback … by your assumption that I would write a fantastic testimonial for your book. I haven’t written a review for it because, honestly, I don’t think you’d like what I would have to say. If you truly want my opinion, I will offer it privately, but please don’t ask if you don’t really want to know what I think. I respect you and will not sugar-coat things just to avoid telling you what no one else, apparently, has been willing to say.
A friend suggested to me today that it might appear as if I am upset that this person did not hire me. That is simply not the case. Some hire me; some don’t. Some make great books; some make awful ones. If I lost sleep or sought revenge on every author who went with someone else, I’d be living a pretty miserable life. I am aggravated by the attempt to winnow from me something wholly unearned.
As a rule, I don’t offer unsolicited advice. Friends and acquaintances often give me books, or I buy them to support the author. If I don’t tell them how good the book is or offer praise, that’s probably because it isn’t a great book. But unless they ask, I keep my mouth shut. They know what I do for a living; if they want my opinion, they can ask — or hire me. I’ve received pushback more than once for offering my honest opinion, when asked. Here’s what I tell people: “Don’t ask me what I think if you don’t really want to know.”
If you’re an author, and you’ve got a good book on your hands, I will tell you so. If you’ve written a mediocre book that, with some work, might have promise, I’ll tell you that. I recently had a client to whom I could not be more philosophically opposed. I edited his book, but told him I was not the one to help him market it. I referred him to someone I think will do a good job for him, in terms of getting his book into the hands of readers. I think this author would tell you I was fair in my editing, only questioning him once where I felt he was deliberately misleading the reader. And even though I personally disagree with about 75 percent of his premise, I think his book has a potential audience, and I’ll be interested to see what he winds up doing with it.
Most books have at least some promise; even the above-mentioned bad book probably has a decent story buried under the dreck.
Here’s what I recommend to authors and aspiring authors who are (or will be) looking for reviews: Don’t attempt to stack the deck. Earn your good reviews honestly. Have the common sense to get some honest feedback before you send your book to the printer. And if someone gives you a bit of a harsh critique, be realistic enough with yourself to explore their comments, provided the critic is not just a crank with an axe to grind. If their suggestions could make for a better book, don’t take offense — just fix it! That’s the beauty of self-publishing. There’s always a do-over.
Here’s what I recommend to readers/prospective book buyers who are relying on reviews for guidance: Beware ANY book that offers only gold-star reviews. If there is not a single dissenter about the wonders of a given title, it’s a pretty good bet you’re not reading actual reviews, but “reviews” from friends who will say whatever the author wants them to. Think about the best movie you’ve ever seen. Now, go look it up on RottenTomatoes.com. I almost guarantee there are at least a couple reviewers who didn’t like it. Why? Because no matter how good it is, people’s tastes are diverse, and there’s almost always at least one person who doesn’t swim with the rest of the fish.
Here’s to great writing … and good, well-earned reviews!
We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.
Check out Laura’s newest book, Practical Philanthropy: How ‘Giving Back’ Helps You, Your Business, and the World Around You. A percentage of all book sales is donated to Art4TheHomeless.org and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.