Until very recently I worked in advertising. It’s a robust business, even during the worst of times, and I would get frequent recruiting calls. About two years ago a headhunter got in touch with me to discuss a very lucrative opportunity at a start-up business. Their work product? Paid online reviews.
Recall, this was during the Groupon craze. Groupon has since proved itself to be exactly the scam many of us always suspected. (I have to buy a coupon and then I can only use it if 40 other people also buy it? Really? The financial risk for this discount is on me???) But it had one thing going for it: great writing. Groupon’s mailings were like little comedy sketches, bits of clever doggerel that arrived in people’s inboxes daily, entertaining them and convincing them to pony up $10 to purchase a $50 off coupon for a group massage across state lines.
The business that called me was hoping to use the same technique—humor, excellent prose, tiny little O-Henry-like stories—to sell paid “customer” reviews to businesses, services and people that get rated online. Like, oh say, writers whose books are lagging on Amazon.
This is nothing new. Over the years I’ve received maybe two dozen emails from writers I know, begging me to come up with an anonymous profile and write favorable reviews of their books. In a couple cases I did it because I’d read and truly loved the novel in question. In one, I complied reluctantly because the person making the request was at the time my boss.
Last year I read a novel that had gonzo reviews, everywhere. On Goodreads and Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But 50 pages in, I was puzzled. The story was weak and the characters not only unbelievable but a little dull. I could not imagine why so many people had crowed and praised and awarded it five stars. Finally, I went on Amazon and began matching up reviews: the premier top-of-the-fold review of the novel I was reading had been written by another novelist and, sure enough, when I checked out her latest publication, there was an equivalent over-the-top adulatory review written in return. I found at least five I’ll-review-yours-if-you’ll-review-mine postings before I quit. Then I put aside what was a very poorly-written book.
The company that called to hire me had a plan to get around this rather transparent chicanery … by providing reviews written in a myriad of different voices by people who genuinely don’t know the author (but also have not read the book). I probably would have been quite good at it. Of course, I turned them down flat.
Now, I must admit that an author in this breathless, post-publication phase can become a little wild for validation. You stare at the Amazon page with its single (completely kosher and unsolicited) review and you start to get itchy. Other just-published books are racking up a gazillion, gushing friends-reviewing-friends five star posts. Several are no doubt paying the company whose cushy job I turned down. But then there are a couple new releases so good that serious book lovers are taking the time to read, sign up for an Amazon avatar and compose a thoughtful paragraph or two.
I’m stubborn. It’s tempting to send out an email to my writer friends (many of whom read The Forever Marriage in manuscript), asking them to pad the site with a few “seed” reviews. But I won’t. Because the only kind of review that really matters is the last: words from real, live readers who feel moved to comment by the book itself.
I personally guarantee that if you’re reading about The Forever Marriage online, the review is legit.