The illusion of truth

A storm has broken out over the New York Times article The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.

The article describes a short-lived organisation known as which offered self-published authors paid-for book reviews—and lots of them—all penned by proprietor, Todd Rutherford, through multiple online personas. He described them as "marketing reviews, not editorial reviews". 

The NYT goes on to comment: "consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet."

This is not new, as Richard Curtis’ excellent blog on in 2009 explains. 
If Amazon Reviews are Meaningless, Why Are Authors Paying to Have Them Written cites another organisation that offered authors "a completely honest review" for $15 or even 500 reviews for $6,500. 

Much of the literary world responded to this flagrant deceit of readers with loud condemnation.

With many folk from traditional publishers using paid-for reviews as yet another stick to beat self-published authors with, in some cases it's hard to pinpoint if publishers are more angered by the moral issues these have thrown up or by the fact that these authors have manipulated the system to propel their books above more "worthy" traditionally published books.

And let’s not forget, there are a few publishers who have forked out seven-figure deals for said authors—and several of these writers have themselves openly admitted sock-puppetry and gleeful manipulation. A few publishers may be feeling quite uncomfortable in this knowledge.

Clearly there is no justification for authors paying for reviews—it is a fraud being perpetrated against the paying public. However, perhaps traditional publishers should pause for a moment of quiet reflection and humility? I doubt any established publisher would be as gauche as to pay cash money in return for book reviews but they do have a more subtle, codified model of rewards for reviews, from free books to parties.

It's worth remembering that reviews have always been a commoditised market, as commentator Brett Sandusky argues: "I find it hard to take it when I see people talking about [paid-for reviews] in such violent terms. It's not new. It's just morphed. [Publishers] building relationships with reviewers and bloggers and inviting them to events is a form of commoditised market for reviews.

"And virtually every single one of them is engaged in some sort of kick-back, benefit or other form of currency giving to reviewers."

Unless this process is totally transparent there will always be grey areas, but one thing is for sure, publishers are certainly not beyond reproach.
So who can book-buyers trust? 

Must we really now fall back on what Curtis described as "the publishing establishment's phalanx of critics, endorsers and other literary gatekeepers"? The same folk that the web has been disintermediating and we were led to believe the democratisation of the web meant were no longer needed.

Has the golden era when peer reviews were to be trusted now gone? Are we now part of an online world rigged by conmen and shysters?

I pause to direct you to this article detailing the far murkier side to online manipulation, by author Jeremy Duns. I think we find ourselves in something of a no-man’s land: unable to fall back on the "literary gatekeepers" and unsure how to move forward.

We now must surely turn to Amazon et al to implement systems to eradicate ‘sock puppet’ reviews altogether and draw a line under such fraudulent deceit.

The digital retailers have a responsibility to their customers. As do publishers who need to be much more transparent about the networks they use for reviews and publicity.