Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 2 September 2012

What's a 5-star review worth?


5starsSo what is a 5-star review worth these days? About five bucks it seems but I’ll come back to that.

Have you ever noticed that as soon as someone comes up with a good idea someone else will be looking for a way to spoil it or if not exactly spoil it then exploit the hell out of it? Someone came up with a way to produce cheap energy so what did they do? They made a bomb out of it and dropped it on Japan.

I’m big on meaning. I fret about word usage. One of the early readers of my first novel complimented me on my choice. He said I used exactly the right word for the job in each case. That pleased me. I never actually found out what he thought about the whole book because I left before he’d finished it but I’ve always imagined it would have been a decent review, maybe 4-stars. My first novel has in fact received 5-star reviews but I gave it 4 stars myself when I posted my ‘review’ on Goodreads because I thought that’s what it deserved; I’ve written better since and were I to give that book 5 stars when what would I give the others? There’s no 6-star review. Well, in most places there’s not.

I gave my last novel, Milligan and Murphy 5 stars because I felt I had achieved everything I set out to do. It was perfect. A lot of people think that’s not possible. You do your best and try and quit before you revise it to the point of ruin. But that’s not how I feel about that book. None of the reviews I’ve collated on my website give it any stars. They’re all glowing reviews but no stars, not a one. A lot of bloggers don’t give any stars. I don’t. I do look at star ratings when others allocate them but I really don’t pay too much attention to them. What that person says about the book in their review is what helps me decide if I want to read it. But, that said, star ratings are here to stay. Restaurants have stars, hotel, generals, banks, sheriffs, football stadia. Oddly enough film stars don’t unless the pecking order is: starlet, star, superstar and megastar.

It’s all about trying to say as much as possible in as small a space as possible. Time is valuable. All we want are the bullet points summarised and distilled down to shiny gold stars. So if a book or a film or a CD gets nothing but 5-star reviews then it has to be the bomb? Not so. Why? Because we live in a rotten world where good ideas blow up in our faces.

Although there’s plenty of criticism that can get levied at Amazon there is a lot good about it. Look up a book or a DVD or a CD there and, if it’s by someone who is even remotely well known and you’ll have dozens, even hundreds of reviews and it’s rare to find anyone who’s had more than a handful of reviews that all nothing but straight 5’s. Because, people being people, there’s invariably someone who doesn’t like something about it or is just a bit on the stingy side when it comes to doling out those five stars.

I’ve learned a few new terms recently: shill reviewing, Amazonbombing, sock puppetry and astroturfing. Whenever a system comes into effect there will be people who want to play that system, to make it work in ways it was not intended to. There is nothing essentially wrong with the way Amazon reviews work. You don’t even have to have bought the book from them to review it which is the case with Smashwords and that’s good because it means that people who have received free review copies can post their reviews there and the more the merrier. Yeah, right.

Shill reviewing

Shill has been in use for a long time, in the sense of a conman's accomplice. In the real world you might see one in the audience at an auction. It’s the shill's job to make the first bid and get the crowd stirred up. Online this works in two ways: the proud-mumfirst is where an employer gets his employees to post positive reviews for something they produce, or, alternatively, to post negative reviews on a competitor’s site or product page. They pretend to have no association with a product or service but obviously do. So, if your Mum posts a glowing review of your debut poetry collection is that shill reviewing? In principle, yes, unless she heads the review ‘Proud Mum’ or something like that. Friends too could be accused of this but a lot of my reviews have been by people who I am friendly with—that’s the nature of life online; we make friends—but if their reviews are honest and objective then there’s nothing wrong there. If, however, you emailed all you uncles and aunts and cousins and nephews and nieces and asked them, knowing nothing about your book and never having even read one of your poems, to log on and praise the hell out of you then that’s really not on.


I’ve seen this defined to two very different ways:


This is not tactical reviewing. This is tactical buying. On 1st November 2006 the publisher Harry N. Abrams released a book called Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century. On the book’s website they then did an odd thing. They said to their potential customers:

On November first, at eleven minutes after eleven a.m. (Pacific time), please go to Amazon and buy the book.

Now you would have thought they would have simply been happy to get the sales, after all this was a 600-page hardback book but, no; there was method in their madness. In the accompanying article entitled Help Us Hack the Publishing System! they explained:

Here's how the system actually works: you write a book. Unless your publisher spends large sums of money on marketing and promotions to convince booksellers that you will be a blockbuster, your book remains obscure, often quickly sinking out of view, and few people have a chance to see it, let alone encounter the ideas it contains.

These days, in other words, publishing is like the film industry (with its obsession about opening weekend ticket sales) or the music industry (with its focus on making hits). Big is everything. Big gets you into stores. Big gets you media coverage. Big gets enough people talking about your book that the ideas in them (if there are any) have a chance to spread. The Long Tail may keep your book in print, but it won't get your ideas into the mix.


The Amazon list is hugely influential, indeed it's one of the main ways booksellers and media determine what books are "moving" and thus which books they should pay attention to. It's not the New York Times bestseller list, but it's the next best thing.

And Amazon, you see, ranks books based on their sales over the previous 24 hours. This means that it is possible, through coordinated action, to hack the system by getting a large number of people to buy the book at the same time.

worldchanging_a_users_guideIs this cheating or simply taking advantage of a loophole in the system? It’s still happening. I have no idea if this was the first but I’ve seen others, especially self-published authors, asking their readers to do much the same. You work with what you’ve got.

Interestingly Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century has now garnered 55 reviews on Amazon: 5-star (32), 4-star (10), 3-star (4), 2-star (1) and 1-star (8). Maybe they should have asked all the people who bought the book to post 5-star reviews at the same time.


In her article Cyberbullies’ Amazon-bombing hurts us all Dr. Carole Lieberman defines Amazonbombing this way:

It’s the new and virulent cyberbullying that occurs when “gangs” of vengeful marauders target an author by posting a barrage of scathing reviews, despite not having read the book.

I had not heard of this before with regards to Amazon but I had heard of something similar happening on Goodreads so this was no surprise. In this case it was Lieberman herself who was the subject of the attack:

I had never heard of it until now, when the five-star reviews for my latest book, Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them and How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, were eclipsed by more than 100 one-star vicious reviews overnight, literally. Why? Because my recent quotes about violent video games causing desensitization to violence and increased aggression hit a nerve with the large gaming community, which retaliated by maliciously using this new cyberbullying tool.

Her views are contentious, yes, but was Amazon the right place for these people to vent? Clearly not. That said, when I last checked there were still 135 1-star reviews there.

Sock puppetry

In an article entitled The Hand That Controls the Sock Puppet Could Get Slapped The New York Times defined sock puppetry (or ‘socking’) as “The act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one's self, allies or company”. According to Wikipedia sock puppetry can take on several different forms:

  • Creating new accounts to avoid detection
  • Using another person's account (piggybacking)
  • Logging out to make problematic edits as an IP address
  • Reviving old unused accounts (sometimes referred to as sleepers) and presenting them as different users
  • Persuading friends or acquaintances to create accounts for the purpose of supporting one side of a dispute (usually called meatpuppetry)

sock-puppetAlthough there are some legitimate uses for alternative accounts—e.g. contributors using their real names may wish to use a pseudonymous account for contributions with which they do not want their real name to be associated—where the intent is to create a false impression, either positive or negative, then this is a no-no. Their article Signs of sock puppetry is especially interesting because it first addresses the reasons why people would resort to this technique. And it’s like any crime; there are occasionally extenuating circumstances. But it still doesn’t make it right.

A perfect example of sock puppetry is the book Hacker Hunter by Christopher Keenan which, at the time of writing, now has seven 1-star reviews. That was not always the case. The first review, P A Berg, says it all:

In all my years as a customer at Amazon, I have never ever returned an item—not a physical item, not a book, not anything. There is a first time for everything.

Let me start by saying that I am absolutely positive that the vast majority of the 284 (current) reviews for this book are planted. First of all, I have never seen 284 reviews that are almost all 5 star, with not one single 1-star review (mine is the first). Second, look at the names of the reviewers—extremely generic first and last names. Whereas, many "real" Amazon reviewers do not use their real names, but some variation or their name or a completely made up alias. Amazon needs to look into this issue and address it.

Clearly Amazon sorted him out. The interchange on the Amazon forum is entertaining too if you have the time.


I’ve also seen this one used in two different ways:


This has nothing to do with books but I thought I’d mention it anyway in passing. Wikipedia defines it as “Formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behaviour.” In the UK this technique is better known as "rent-a-crowd." Essentially though it’s nothing more that propaganda. And if the (upright) politicians are doing it you can bet anyone else who can afford to do so is too.

Whatever happened to a fair fight?


This is from The Verge:

VIP Deals, an Amazon merchant, has been caught offering customers a refund in exchange for five-star reviews. A report in The New York Times yesterday detailed how customers that purchased a $9.99 (reduced from $59.99) leather case for the Kindle Fire received a letter with their case. The letter offered to refund the cost of the order in return for the customer writing a review. The merchant also dropped a subtle hint on which score was expected, stating "we strive to earn 100 percent perfect 'FIVE-STAR' scores from you!" The ploy seemed to be effective, with 310 out of 335 reviews rating the product 5 stars.

You can read a full article about it in The New York Times.

The Verge calls this practice astroturfing later in the article but I’m not sure they were using the term correctly. It does, however, bring us onto the subject of paid reviews. Try typing ‘amazon book review’ into or just click on this link. The one I liked was I will write my own or submit your review and give 4 or 5 stars and of course like it, tag it and upvote... for $5 That’ll confuse the buggers—chuck in a few 4-star reviews. This is what the user around86 offers.

It is of great importance to have good reviews to boost your books sales so that you can gain more revenue. The most important thing is that the review is graded according to your book quality. For 5$ I will like your book, tag it (create new tags if necessary), and write my own review or submit yours (if I agree with the review you wrote). Before submitting my review I will show it to you so that you can review it ;)

Since I had to tidy up her punctuation I’m not sure I’d rush to use her. Her photo’s nice. She looks pretty. You can trust pretty people. Right? Or what about kapsco1?

I will review Your Amazon Kindle Book The Correct Way for $5

One Or More Of Our 25 Kapsco Book Reviewers will BUY your kindle book for up to 9 or DOWNLOAD it when you have it in the KDP Select Promo For Free – And give you a unique book review with these added features – Create a 5 Star review using direct references to the book, Add up to 5 tags of your choice, Amazon Like the book. If your book costs more THAN 99 CENTS – Use Our Add On Gig

The “correct way,” eh? That must be kosher.

But putting all the fiddlers and swindlers aside for the moment, let’s ask: Can you trust any reviews?

What do you think the average star rating is online? Apparently it’s 4.3 out of 5. This article, On the Internet, Everyone's a Critic But They're Not Very Critical, gives a whole pile of other stats. In the article Elizabeth Chiang makes the important point:

Being more negative is something that comes with practice, says Elizabeth Chiang, a 26-year-old financial consultant, who posts a lot of local business reviews on Yelp. When she began writing them in 2006 she was easily impressed by the wide variety of bars and restaurants in New York. "I thought everything was awesome," she says.

But after reflecting upon her reviews, she realized recently "it's kind of meaningless if every one is great." Now Ms. Chiang writes a review only after trying a restaurant at least twice, and has lowered her average to a 3.6, on about 250 write-ups. In a recent review, she said that one cocktail tasted like "listless, ennui-crippled sugar water."

I think this is true of all of us though. We have just finished a book, have enjoyed it and so go online and give it 5 stars. And then never look at the book again until we’re packing in a cardboard box to go be taken down to the charity shop.

At best reviewing is a flawed art. I am flawed individual but I do my best with what I’ve got to play with. I do take reviewing seriously, though, which is why I write such long ones because I do try to be fair to everyone. That said I’ve never panned anyone yet. I wouldn’t. If a book was that bad I would simply not review it. I’m sure it’s a confidence thing with me. I use the passive voice way too much.

JaniceThere are those who suggest that the critic is a dying breed. Perhaps a certain species of critic is—the ones who like to hear the sounds of their own voices—but I think there are plenty willing and able to take up the slack. In her article How to Write Good Book Reviews When Publishers Toss You Their Worst Janice Harayda gives some good commonsense advice for writing reviews. If I was to offer a single piece of advice it would be this (it’s essentially her #5 and #6): Write in your own voice because as soon as you put on an affected I-know-what-I’m-talking-about tone, for me at least, you’ve just lost a huge chunk of your credibility and you can be damn sure that someone who really knows what they’re talking about will come along and put you in your place.

Let me leave you with a quote from Ruth Franklin who was awarded the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism. This is from the talk she gave:

Book critics and novelists are separate species who nonetheless need each other for their own mutual benefit. It’s obvious why the reviewer needs the novelist—not just any novelist, but a good novelist, even a great one, to challenge us to rise to his or her level. But the novelist also needs the reviewer: not just as a vehicle for advertisement, but as an enforcer of standards. If we speak only to praise—and my children can vouch that I’ve never been guilty of that—then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless. Not all books are worth reading; some are dull, some are poorly written, and others can actually have a pernicious effect on our culture. It’s the task of the critic to champion books that deserve to be championed, and to take a stand against those that have the power to harm. And anyone who doesn’t believe that books have the power to harm is not taking them seriously enough.


Art Durkee said...

You know that I believe that every writer ought to write an occasional review, good or bad. However I do think that writing too many reviews can sour ones own writing. It can take you away from your real work, if you indulge too often. So when I say occasional I mean it.

It's hard not to be cynical about online reviews, especially positive ones. But it's also not that hard to tell which reviewer actually read the book, and wanted to report their honest response. I don't find it hard to figure out who is shilling or astroturfing, because everything they say is generic rather than specific. Generic praise means zero at the best of times.

I find myself mostly writing reviews about things that have positively impressed me, these days, because my own post-illness sense of mortality and time pressure have allowed me to stop finishing things I don't like. Life's too short to waste time reading books I don't like. I'm honest enough not to review those books, though. That too is a waste of time. Why write a long thoughtful review of something i was indifferent to? My own opinion matters not at all to anyone, so I'd rather spend that time writing something that interests me. That's one reason I post only occasional reviews. If I do review something, you can be certain I wasn't indifferent to it. Otherwise I wouldn't bother.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I can think of other versions of that Amazonbombing stuff, the second definition, at least. In the first case it was movies with gay subject matter - haters will organize and downrate movies like 'Brokeback Mountain' on sites like IMDB until their star ratings plunge.

In another case, at the consumer business ratings site Yelp companies that discriminate against gays have taken big hits to their ratings as people from far & near log in to criticize and downrate.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Art, I’ve found reviewing helpful. Knowing I’m going to write about a book makes me take greater care when reading and, of course, when you add in the research I inevitably end up doing I’m often able to see things that I wouldn’t have thought to look for had I just read the book and left it at that and that prepares me for the next book by that author now I have a better idea how to approach their writing.

I do get offered books that I might not necessarily have chosen myself. Since I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with a few good publishers this usually means that the book is still a decent read and I think it’s done me the world of good not sticking to what I would buy myself. The downside is that I’m not the fastest reader and so I don’t have the time I would like to read books in addition to those I review and I do have several books on my to-read shelf that have been lying for longer than I would like but books don’t go off. That’s something people should remember.

I do agree that it’s usually not hard to see where a review has been written by someone who hasn’t read the book. It’s just a crying shame that there are people out there who take a force for good and spoil it for everyone. I’m not a cheat but what are principles worth when others are beating you left, right and centre? I can see why people would fight fire with fire. I don’t ask family and friends to bump up my reviews. I have mentioned my lack of reviews on my blog and a fat lot of good that did me. You cannot force people to review your books, not even your friends. I’m not even that sure given what I write that another half dozen good reviews on Amazon would make that much difference. What would I wonder? Twenty? Fifty?

And, Glenn, when it comes to people deliberately organising to bring down a book or a film like that I have mixed feelings. On the surface I want to get up in arms and say that they’re abusing the system but if someone is that homophobic they don’t need to have seen the film to know how they’d think about it and I suppose they have just as much right to record their opinion as anyone else; there’s nothing stopping an equal number of gays going in and trying to redress the balance but once we get to that stage we’ve lost the plot. These issues are worthy of debate but they should take their opinions to an appropriate forum and slog it out there, not on a review site. Maybe what Amazon needs is to do the same as Smashwords, only allow reviews by people who have bought the book from them. That, of course, is still open to abuse but when people have to start paying (even 99¢) that might be enough. Not sure how IMDB would manage that though.

The bottom line here though is that we now cannot simply look at a star rating and assume that that means anything. And as far as ‘reviews’ go that are only two or three lines long—just ignore them.

Marion McCready said...

A timely post, Jim, with that author, R.J. Ellory, hitting the headlines for writing glowing reviews of his own books on amazon! Strange behaviour for him though considering the number of books he's sold, I guess enough is never enough.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is depressing, Marion. A part of me gets it though. I’d love to say that I’m above all this subterfuge but I did think seriously for a couple of minutes about paying for reviews because the sites I looked at talked about “honest” reviews and that piqued my interest before commonsense kicked it. It’s getting people who have read a book to realise the importance of voicing their opinion in a place that matters and I’m as guilty as the rest here. I post my reviews on my blog and (eventually) on Goodreads but I’ve only posted one on Amazon because the author (or it may have been the publisher, I forget) specifically asked me to. I really don’t think in my case it makes any real difference. Amazon is interested in quantity. The publicise the popular and how does one determine popularity? It’s a numbers game. I doubt anyone will discover my book simply through trawling through Amazon looking for interesting books.

Anonymous said...

On the strength of that 5-star assessment I've ordered 'Milligan & Murphy'!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Dick, I hope you let me know what you think of it. Reviews are all well and good when you can get them but most books go out into the world and you never hear from them again.

Ken Armstrong said...

Interesting stuff. I must confess I was pretty uninformed about any of this until it all kicked-off in the last few weeks over on the 'T' place. Some fairly well-known names have been throwing loud accusations at each other.

I must also confess that reviews on amazon books have convinced me to splash out on more than one occasion. I feel a bit silly about now.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Ken, I really should have posted this when I wrote it—which was about four months ago—and then I would’ve been ahead of the crowd for once. Reviews can only go so far. All you have to do is listen to the likes of Mark Kermode or Jonathan Ross both of whom have very specific tastes. I heard Mark Kermode saying only yesterday that The Exorcist is the greatest film ever made. In … his … opinion. And he’s entitled to it and he probably believes it. I don’t like horror films. He and I are never going to agree. And that’s fine. Now Barry Norman and I agreed regularly. So if he recommended a film I’d not heard of I trusted his judgement. And I’d like to think that people feel the same about my book reviews. I often review books that I wouldn’t’ve bought and I give my honest (and honestly subjective) opinion. You know, you just know that if a book is over 500 pages I’m going to moan about it. The day I say that a book needs to be that length you better rush out and buy it. Maybe the Bible but even there you could lose whole chunks of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and no one would care. Besides it’s not really one book, is it?

I can see though how authors could reason with themselves and find some justification for posting fake reviews. Feeling powerless is horrible. I can sense the frustration in many authors’ posts and comments: If only you read my book you’d know just how good it is. I feel that way and I was genuinely hurt when certain people I asked to review Milligan and Murphy politely declined. I resisted the urge to write back and beg but a part of me wanted to.

Ping services