Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Going Rate For Fake Reviews

12th June 2012


Musings and rants

Mastodon For SFF Fans
Where to go in the Fediverse to find the best speculative fiction and literary discussions.

Nine Political Books That Change The Conversation
Following news that Simon and Schuster plan to publish an inflammatory commentator, here are nine political books that deserve more attention.

Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
Penguin Random House have decided not to recognise Unite and the NUJ as a result of staff negotiations, leaving the publisher with a stain on its reputation as an employer.

Authors Support Stop Funding Hate
Some authors have had enough of divisive and xenophobic elements in the British press, and are willing to make an ethical stand.

Women In SFF: Indie Edition
A list of indie and self-published women writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres.

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists
The new per-page payout for the Kindle Unlimited subscription service makes it a much better deal for authors of longer novels.

Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
The Sieghart report on libraries missed its mark by miles. Yet the real cause of the decline of the UK library network is depressingly obvious.

A Shout-Out For The Good Guys
When nastiness dominates online conversations about books it is time to appreciate the well-behaved authors.

Critique Circle: Shaping Fabulous Stories
The appeal of a certain writing critique website. Or, why I have neglected this blog.

Where Shall I Point This Pitchfork?
Some thoughts on Jonathan Ross, Loncon, and the twitchfork mob.

Reading Is Not A Race
Why I will be abandoning annual reading challenges in 2014.

What Book Discovery Is Missing
The current state of book discovery is narrowing our reading choices and squeezing out midlist writers. How can it be fixed?

An Explosion Of Discovery Tools
New book discovery engines are popping up all over the web. But which ones will come out on top?

Blog Tours From Both Sides
Blog tours are the lastest marketing fad. But what are the pros and cons of this kind of publicity?

It's Not Your Story Any More
When a book is published, authors lose control over how the story should be read. They should let go the reins and enjoy the ride.

Same Old, Same Old
Are current methods of book discovery pushing us further away from original literature?

Female Protagonists In Genre Fiction
A list of recommended SFF books for adults which feature a female as the main character.

Is This The End Of Sweeping Vistas?
Do recent trends in fantasy art styles and the constraints of online book discovery mark the decline of landscape cover art?

A Rising Tide Floats All Boats
Authors: stop thinking of other writers as your rivals. They're not the enemy.

Reviews Are Useless Without Context
With so many review blogs, quick ways of understanding their authors are more important than ever.

For booksellers like Amazon and review megasites such as Goodreads it's an embarrassing time. There have always been shill reviews, but until Fiverr came along it's never been so easy to find evidence of them. Nor has the going rate for dishonesty ever been so transparent.

Stephen Theaker documents a couple of cases of this on his blog. The author Mike Cooper notes more examples, and points out the inflation of average ratings this can lead to. Amazon is reacting by removing some of the most obvious examples, but it's got its work cut out. The trouble is, its recommendations depend on the volume and positivity of reviews, so they matter. For every paid sock puppet they catch, how many slip through the net? This is to be expected when they use quantity as a proxy for trust, and hope people will be honest.

So is there a crisis of trust in modern book reviewing? Sort of. There are still plenty of honest reviewers writing online who value their reputations, and the main challenge for most readers is finding them. However the problem with dishonest 5-star reviews is likely to get worse unless something drastic is done. That's because the ease of self-publishing has brought about a deluge of new works. More books than ever are available to buy, so it seems easier than ever for the good ones to get lost amongst the noise.

Being flooded with choice is almost as bad as having none at all. James Gleick has some upbeat things to say about information overload in chapter 15 of The Information, which is well worth a read.

"Strategies emerge for coping. There are many, but in essence they all boil down to two: filter and search."

However this solution is the very thing that's getting gamed by scammers. And the more self-published books that arrive on the market, the more authors will be tempted by the easy fix of paid reviews. We need a better way of filtering the mass of opinions, so that genuine ones have more weight.

So how do we put the trust back into reviews, and use it to build a better book discovery system?

  job postings on Fiverr for positive reviews on Amazon
  • By rewarding people for their integrity when they write reviews.

  • By giving reviewers who have a track record of trustworthiness more influence over recommendation algorithms.

  • By allowing readers searching for recommendations the ability to choose whose word they trust, and favouring those views. Some books are very polarising, like Marmite. According to the consensus view Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are very popular: I don't care, I want to know how like-minded people feel about literature. For this, Amazon could take a leaf out of Goodreads, which lets users highlight the reviews of friends. Its system, inherited from the Discovereads site that it bought, "uses machine learning algorithms to analyze which books people might like, based on books they’ve liked in the past and books that people with similar tastes have liked."

  • By giving bloggers and reviewers of all stripes a good enough reason to contribute to the system. This is something Amazon doesn't do with its copyright grab on the text of reviews and its rules on content posted elsewhere.

All of the above is an engineering challenge, and therefore fairly expensive. However corrupt systems are also dear, the price paid in goodwill and lost sales in the future when readers get duped into buying badly-written books that don't even serve as good material for cat litter. Amazon's system doesn't appear to emphasise trust enough. Goodread's recommendations are better, possibly because their system has ways of predicting what kinds of opinions users will agree with based on ratings they've already given. However it could always go further: this is the beginnings of an arms race between people who want to game these systems, and those who build them, and as long as there's money involved there will never be an end point. But right now the testimonials on Fiverr suggest that scammers are winning this round.