Dear authors: real customers can always tell when you’ve had friends review you. They glow so hard they make the sun look dim.
— Insatiable Booksluts (@thebooksluts) November 19, 2012
So, another author outed himself and his fragile ego the other day. With much eye-rolling, I clicked over to the incident in question, a one-star Amazon review that he was a-chirp about on Twitter. The review itself was pretty mild; I contented myself with merely verbally slapping down a friend of the author, who told the reviewer to just “say nothing” if he had nothing nice to say. Out of curiosity, I clicked through to see what his other reviews looked like.
All four- and five-star reviews. Of course. And I could tell that most of them had been written by his friends.
“But Susie, how could you tell that they were written by his friends? What are you, some sort of wizard?”
Friends who write reviews for other friends have obvious tells. Sorry to burst your bubbles, authors, but it’s true, and nothing puts me off buying a book faster than when it has a ton of good reviews written by people who obviously know the author. At the risk of making smarter friend-reviewers (yeah, right), let me enumerate some of the ways that I, a real live consumer of books, can tell that someone did you a solid by reviewing your book.
Glowing review, light on details. Now, not everyone is a super-detailed reviewer, but when you see a book that has loads of overly-gushing reviews that don’t really talk about the book at all, it’s a sign that you may be reading a friend-review. These reviews often read, “GREAT BOOK! I couldn’t put it down! I am a new fan of this author! I will read every book he ever publishes forever!” or “I was captivated by THE FIRST SYLLABLE. [Author] has a truly unique talent. He will go far! Highly recommend!” It reads like a review your grandma would write, right before she gives you a quarter and tells you to buy yourself some candy down at the dime store.
Refers to the author by name, awkwardly–sometimes just by first name. If you read a lot of reviews, like I do, you start to notice little patterns that happen in friend-reviews that don’t happen elsewhere. One is that a lot of friend-reviews go out of their way to talk about the author by name. I saw one earlier that actually just called the author by their first name, as in, “You need to read Bob’s book! Bob is the best!” That’s just a little familiar, isn’t it, for an author you never supposedly met?
If you read other reviews by actual consumers, you find that they don’t refer to an author by name as often (unless it’s an author with a huge following… that wouldn’t be the case here). Sure, they do sometimes, but it’s generally more focused on the book than the author. As in, “I like this book because… ” and not “This author that most people have probably never read RULEZ MY SOCKS OFF ZOMGGG. I am a FANGIRL/BOY/THING.” If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the name thing pops up more often in friend reviews because they’re reviewing FOR the author, and not reviewing the actual work as an objective consumer, so they’d naturally talk about how much they like the author. Which is great; I’m glad the author has friends, but that has nothing to do with whether I want to buy the book.
Lots of people who say, “I wouldn’t ordinarily read this kind of book, but . . .” When your book has fifteen reviews and at least 20-33% of those reviews start off this way? Those reviews just got friendzoned.
Their criticism isn’t real criticism. We’ve all been in that job interview where your potential future employer asks, “SO, what’s your biggest weakness?” We also all know that only a lying kiss-ass says, “Durr, my biggest weakness is that I’m a workaholic and too much of a perfectionist.” Yes, those are huge weaknesses of a potential employee. Jerk.
Friend reviews have the same thing going on. “My only criticism? I wish the book was LONGER!” “I only wish that there were ELEVENTY-BILLION MORE BOOKS JUST LIKE THIS ONE.” No you don’t; those aren’t real criticisms of a book besides. Almost nobody thinks any book is perfect. If you can’t come up with a single, solitary, baby thing that you can say about it that isn’t just good but OMG THE BEST!!1!, I’m calling friend-review on your ass.
The review gives vague praise about things that customers may not even care about, without addressing things that customers do care about. “This book is fast-paced!” “This book poses questions that beg for answers!” “Wacky! Creative!” “This story had incredible twists and turns; you never knew what was going to happen next!” Yeah, okay. What about the characters? I don’t give a crap if the book is fast-paced if the characters suck. I don’t look for “wacky” or “questioning” in a book, either. I mean, if a book has those things and they’re appropriate to the book, great. By themselves, though, they’re not high on my list of “I must buy this book right now” priorities. Twilight had lots of “twists and turns,” and it was a steaming, glittery pile of vampire poo.
The reviews read more like marketing copy than thoughtful opinions. So, you’ve been asked by a friend to review their book. You want everyone to read it, right? Because you like your friend. So you write a review trying to convince people to read your friend’s book, and that’s where you make your first mistake.
Very few objective readers will be that invested in a single book–certainly not many readers, in the case where you see review after review urging you to buy a copy of some unknown book. Am I really to believe that, out of a handful of reviews, over half of people who randomly, objectively read your book thinks that “everyone should buy this book!” and that it’s “a must-read!”? You must be pretty good, if that’s the case; most authors don’t get those kinds of percentages of superfans. Or maybe you just recruited your friends who already like you. Hmm.
(One review actually read, “this is a novella from the mind that brought us TITLE.” Is this a book trailer or a book review? I don’t even.)
Why does all of this matter? Because marketing is based on trust, and you just violated my trust. Those are just a few examples of review content that tells me you’ve had friends reviewing your work. And while, again, I’m glad that you have friends, of course your friends are going to say that they like your book, whether they did or not–or whether or not they even read the damn thing after they bought a copy. Having friends review your book, and do it so obviously at that, makes me suspect that your book probably isn’t very good–and even if it is, I’m still going to steer clear because you have tried to rig the system in your favor. It’s dishonest. It’s a breach of trust.
So fucking stop already.
What about you guys? How do you feel when you read reviews that clearly came from the authors’ friends? Are you less likely to buy, or do you not mind? Tell me what you think in the comments below!