Can you trust the reviews you read?

I mentioned briefly in last week’s post that authors have been hiring other writers to review their books and sometimes even to bash the competition. (This happens for reviews of all types, in fact, from hotels to toaster ovens.) Media coverage of this issue has been growing lately–see this revealing expose of the practice and this equally eye-opening explanation of how to detect faux reviews for details.

Since Judaism has an idea of geneivat hadaat–misleading knowledge as a form of theft–you’d think that the Jewish book world is immune to it. However, Jewish publishers and authors do buy reviews. Often, the review appears on an “advertorial page.” Perhaps this isn’t deceptive after all–it’s marketing, not true reporting–and so permissible under law, Jewish or otherwise, but the casual reader usually doesn’t know the difference.

Why is everyone making a whoop-dee-doo about this? Because people look at reviews for guidance about how to spend their money. Consumers expect reviews to be sufficiently objective to weigh the pros and cons of the product in question. Can you count on a review being objective if the author received money for it?

On the other hand, if an author sends you a copy of their baby (ahem, I mean “book”), then it’s clearly hurtful to turn around and bash the book publicly. If they are making the effort to market themselves, they want to protect themselves (hence payment offered for positive reviews). I can understand that authors are afraid to gamble on whether the people they ask to read their book will heap praise on it or tear it to shreds. However, we still get knocked back to my point above–consumers expect reviews to be trustworthy.

I’ve been approached recently by several different people to write reviews of their books, partly because I’m an author, partly because I’m a blogger, and partly because I (briefly) used to be paid by a magazine (not an author, not a publisher) to review books. Some have offered money, some have not. I’ve reviewed a few of these books, but I made some rules for myself so that people can trust my evaluations.

Rule #1 – I will accept money from a magazine or newspaper that prints a review, but not from the author or the publisher of the book.

Rule #2 – If you provide me with a free copy of your book, either in print or digitally, I will read your book. That’s all I can promise.

Rule #3 – If I like it, I’ll review it positively. If I don’t, I will not backstab you and write a bad review. However, I won’t write a good review about the book either–I just won’t review it at all. (So far, I’ve only refused to review one book sent to me this way.)

Rule #4 – If I have more than a passing acquaintance with the author, I’ll state it in the review.

I hope that others will adopt these rules, or similar ones, so that people can trust reviews again. After all, I’m a consumer, too.

One thought on “Can you trust the reviews you read?

  1. This is a very timely post and I like your rules. For others interested in the subject: there’s been much to-do about the yelp postings for a Florida restaurant President Obama visited last week. People are posting faux reviews based on their politics.

    NPR also did a story this a.m. on Morning edition


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