Welcome to the draft Australian Women Writers blog site. This site will host the AWW challenge in 2013. As a test post, author Annabel Smith was kind enough to upload her discussion on the latest scandal in the online reviewing world – a piece which also appeared on the AWW Blogger site this morning. This is the second piece on reviewing by Annabel, whose book Whisky Charlie Foxtrot will be published by Fremantle Press in November 2012.

Sock puppet – image in public domain

Annabel writes:

In 2011 John Locke became the first self-published author to sell more than a million copies of his books on Amazon Kindle. He then wrote How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months, a ‘how-to’ marketing guide for other self-published authors. However, he neglected to mention one of his key marketing strategies – paying for five-star reviews.

Few people would argue that by providing a forum for ordinary readers to publicly express their opinions about what they read, the internet is having a significant impact on the world of books. But what happens when the systems that allow ordinary readers to review books are abused? Recently there has been a spate of scandals exposing reviews which flout Amazon’s guidelines stating that reviews should not be posted by users with either a financial interest or a competing book.

In a New York Times article outing the disingenuous practice of paying for reviews, it was revealed that reviewers who work for services such as Todd Rutherford’s (now defunct) GettingBookReviews.com are so poorly paid that they don’t even read the books in question and are further discouraged from being truly critical by having their fee reduced for a less than five-star review.

Perhaps even more shameful than paying for rave reviews is the practice known as ‘sock puppeting,’ in which writers create fake online identities to praise their own books and rubbish those of competitors. British crime writer RJ Ellory recently prompted outrage in the literary world when he was caught writing ecstatic five-star reviews of his own works, and low-rated pannings of his rivals’.

Some readers and writers are calling for sites like Amazon to tighten up their reviewing systems; others believe it is a case of ‘caveat emptor’, or buyer beware. Australian blogger Bernadette calls for real consequences for authors engaging in ‘morally bankrupt’ practices, in her post on Reaction to Reading titled ‘Hit ‘em where it hurts’:

…what if it wasn’t worth the risk for authors to engage in such practices? What if the cost was more than a fake apology or a few public tears? What if there were real and material consequences?

She applauds the stance of Jon Page, President of the Australian Bookseller’s Association, who has stated he will no longer stock books by authors found guilty of sock puppeting. She advocates an agreement between booksellers and bloggers not to support the works of any writer proven to have engaged in anonymously criticising their rivals’ works. Furthermore, she suggests such writers should be denied consideration for awards.

The New York Times exposé of GettingBookReviews.com quotes a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who estimates that one-third of consumer reviews on the internet are fake. However, on the Guardian blog, Paul Laity suggests that due to the incredible volume of reviews on the internet ‘only a tiny fraction of them can be corrupted’. What the real figure is we may never know. But on Twitter and in the blogosphere, readers are expressing their loss of faith in the system: ‘[Reading] samples via my kindle and just being downright suspicious is my future, I guess,’ said a crime fan on Stuart Neville’s blog.)

On Twitter, @bkclb, whose mission is ‘linking independent writers and publishers to adventurous readers,’ asked ‘Is book reviewing broken? If so how do we fix it’? Certainly, readers may be more choosy about where they read their reviews in future.