Love for Sale

A new wrinkle in the criticism debate (for an old wrinkle, see my last post, “Criticism Then and Now,” on my “Imagining the Past” blog): according to last Sunday’s New York Times, it’s now possible to buy a favorable book review. Or at least it was, until the operation the Times was profiling folded. But I imagine some other canny entrepreneurs have now stepped into the breach.

The Times article focuses on a now defunct website called, run by a guy named Todd Rutherford. Rutherford was slaving away at a company that provided services to self-published writers, trying to convince traditional media and blogs to review their books. It was, needless to say, an uphill battle.

Then inspiration struck: why not just write the reviews himself—and, if the author wanted, guarantee that they’d be favorable? Soon Rutherford was raking in $28,000 a month and hiring others to churn out raves.

It’s a brilliantly simple idea. But it’s also a pretty disheartening one. As a reader, I like to think that the “reader reviews” I see on Amazon are reliable, at least in the sense that they’re an actual reader’s honest opinion (no guarantees, of course, that I’ll agree with them). And as a writer, I’m not exactly thrilled to hear that I’m competing against authors who are buying dozens, if not hundreds, of glowing five-star reviews.

Rutherford argues that eventually the situation will correct itself: if “real” readers buy an overhyped book and find it lacking, they’ll eventually post “real” negative reviews, and the truth will out. Or, if the book actually has merit, they’ll post “real” positive reviews. The purchased reviews only serve to draw attention to the book, like any other marketing device.

But there’s a problem with that argument: as Mr. Rutherford himself admits, the manipulability of the system is bound to make readers skeptical of positive reviews. “Where there are 20 positive and one negative,” he told the Times, “I’m going to go with the negative. I’m jaded.”

Great. Suppose an author has a slew of positive reviews, and they’re all genuine? Will anyone believe them? And if they don’t believe them, why would they take a chance on the book and find out for themselves whether it’s good or bad?

Sure, there have always been you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours reviews, even in the most reputable publications. And authors have long recruited friends and relatives to post favorable ratings on Amazon (I plead guilty to that, although I’ve only done it after someone seems to express genuine enthusiasm for the book). But this is a whole different order of magnitude.

It’s another instance of the chaos that computerization and the Internet has inflicted on the publishing industry, or what used to be the publishing industry. To some extent we’ve gotten rid of the cultural gatekeepers. You no longer need a publishing company—you can self-publish for a minimal cost, and e-publish for an even more minimal one. And you don’t need to cajole book reviewers into paying attention to your book. For a few hundred bucks, you can just buy a bunch of five-star encomiums.

Certainly there were injustices under the old system. There were worthy books that never got published, and worthy books that never got reviewed. Now we can let a thousand flowers bloom, and they can all get great reviews. But we won’t be able to tell which ones actually smell good and which ones are stinkers.

I’m not sure where this leaves readers who are searching for a good book. Perhaps they’ll have to rely on recommendations from friends, which many do already. And perhaps they’ll grow so wary of Amazon and other crowd-sourced review options that they’ll head back into the arms of the cultural gatekeepers. Or maybe something new—something both open to unknown writers AND genuinely objective—will arise.

In the meantime, what’s a writer to do? The same old thing many have been doing for years, I guess: keep writing, and try not to think too much about reviews.

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