There's a lot of ground to cover here, you might want to get yourself a cup of tea before you dig in...before I start hashing out these issues, I want all 4 of my readers to understand how these issues mesh with my own life.
I used to run a new bookstore. I was given HUNDREDS of book in my 5 years managing that store, and since I felt it was unethical to sell my promotional copies (regardless of the fact that many, many people do sell them) and so when I was done with books I didn't want to keep, I gave them to friends and donated them to non-profits that could use them.
While I'm certain that when publishers gave me those books they hoped I'd give them an enthusiastically positive review, I think they were mostly disappointed. (I'm a picky reader) Several times my reviews made the back of the book in it's ARC form (advanced reader's copies for other booksellers) and a few of my comments made it to the big screens at sales conferences for all the sales reps to see. I landed some great authors for my store because I was such a passionate fan of their books. I mention this so you know I was no slouch when it came to writing a good review for a book that inspired me.
Now I own a used bookstore, and I have this blog here. I have a policy (which I share with every single author and publisher that chooses to send me promotional copies of books):
1) I will NEVER sell the books they send me in my store, even finished copies.
2) I will read the books they send me (or read as much as I can if I hate it)
3) I will send feedback to the person who sent me the book, good or bad
4) I will post positive reviews to my blog. (Because I don't have time to write up a review saying "I didn't like this" unless I REALLY didn't like something)
In a stunning twist, I'm not completely unable to get promo books from the big publishers any more. (One came right out and told me "you'd probably sell them"). Because I run a store with used stock. A few smaller publishers have been wonderful about sending review copies of books, which brings me to the next point:
I love free books. I mean, I love that there are sources for free books, because I'm not exactly living large as a bookseller. I know that many people feel that price is the driving factor in their reading. I see tons of posts on Amazon and elsewhere stating that free e-books are great and people shouldn't waste money on paying for books. The devaluation of our authors is a topic for another post (but it's on my radar and it makes me angry) but I can see how for some people the dollar amount factors into their enjoyment of a title. This doesn't work for me, personally. How much I paid for something doesn't add or subtract from the quality of the writing and the story, though. So while I do think that some reviewers are biased by the gift of a free book, I'm really not.
Now here are the various issues that prompted me to write about all of this. First there was a huge internet conversation about an author who admitted that not only had he created fake online personas to write glowing reviews of his own work, he'd created accounts under fake names and under names of real authors who were unaware to stir up controversies and back and forth conversations to create more media buzz. Many authors were appalled, some made similar admissions. Enter Jeremy Duns, who is my favorite person in the world today. CLICK HERE to read the Huffpost article about his "outing" of RJ Ellory, another fake review poster. Then other stories started to leak out...like the one about the people who paid a "publicist" to write positive reviews of their books and post them on Amazon. Or THIS where a woman has been exposed for accepting thousands of books each year, reviewing as many as ten books on Amazon in a single day (all favorably, by the way) and then turning the books over to a family member to sell on half.com. And everything I talked about in the whole first part of this post is there so I don't have to tell you why I find all of this disgusting and insulting. Amazon, by the way, throws their hands up in the air and points helplessly to their "hands off" review policy. If you want to read more about ANY of this, you can follow links within these articles I linked to, you can Google "Sockpuppet reviews". But I have plenty more to say about this so I'm not wasting any more time laying out the basics.
I have no use for authors who pay people to write reviews, write their own book reviews (seriously, how drunk or egotistical do you have to be to think this is a good idea?) or for reviewers who aren't reading a book carefully and then speaking from their heart about how that book made them feel. As a poor bookseller, I'm enraged to see that some reviewers are selling their promo copies for money. I've been just sitting around, having all these feelings by myself for a week now. And then today two things happened that flipped my switch over to "sharing my anger with the world". First, Jeremy Duns tweeted that he wondered why he was talking about all these issues when it seemed that the people in power weren't listening. Second, in reviewing Mr Duns past tweets to link to some of these articles I saw a back and forth between him and a woman who took huge issue with his "outing" of fake Amazon reviewers. A lot of it bugged me, but the winning quote came from the woman who said to him: "Where does it say on Amazon that you have to read the book to review it?"
So, Jeremy Duns, I've got your back, for whatever that's worth. There's no way to fight the machine of Amazon, nor the machine of the big 6 publishers and their massive marketing. There's no way to argue with the morally bankrupt author who refuses to call out a fraudulent reviewer, she's probably hoping some of the fraud makes it over to her neck of the woods. But we can all refuse to let a faulty review system guide our purchasing. We can all keep loudly telling everyone within earshot how appalling this entire extended situation is and we can refuse to purchase books by authors who have been caught padding their own reviews. And all of you can go read these articles, educate yourselves (try THIS) about how to spot fake reviews and when you see them on Amazon, flag them as "unhelpful". I sent Mr Duns a message earlier today via his website, and I ended it with "You will still have your integrity and I'll still have mine" and at this point, that feels an awful lot like winning.