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Book reviews: too nice and maybe also too fake?

Book reviews have gotten some negative press this summer. 

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According to an excellent expository piece in the New York Times, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” Todd Jason Rutherford made a small fortune selling positive reviews of self-published Amazon titles. He started his website, GettingBookReviews.com, in the fall of 2010. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes the Times’s David Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

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Orders started pouring in for good reviews and Rutherford quickly realized he couldn’t produce all the reviews himself. “How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.”

“Before he knew it,” writes the Times, “he was taking in $28,000 a month.”

Rutherford’s business was eventually outed and forced to stop churning out paid reviews – but by then Rutherford has flooded Amazon with scores of phony reviews (4,531, to be exact) by folks looking to make a quick buck, the vast majority of whom had never even opened the book they were reviewing. 

Amazon has said it took down some, though not all, of Rutherford’s paid reviews, according to the NYT piece. Still, Bing Lu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully one-third of all online reviews are fake – and it’s nearly impossible to tell the fake from the real.

And though many users never put full stock in online reviews, literary or otherwise, this latest news has us wondering what to trust.

(For the record, Rutherford is now selling R.V.s in Oklahoma City and says “he is now suspicious of all online reviews – of books or anything else. ‘When there are 20 positive reviews and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,’ he said. ‘I’m jaded.’”)

So what’s a reader to do?

Use smaller and more traditional outlets. For some quick feedback, turn to smaller, more specialized sites, like Goodreads or Librarything, where you’re more likely to find genuine reviews by trustworthy readers.

And don’t forget the traditional book review (we won't be shy about mentioning the reviews provided right here at CSMonitor.com/Books), those literary appraisals maligned by writers like Woolf and Poe, and which may now be making a comeback thanks to Rutherford and company.

“[I]t ... seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review,” writes the Guardian. “Reviews in, say, newspaper book sections ... are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books…Yes, there’s only one voice rather than the wisdom of the crowd, but these critics are convincing, independent, entertaining and trustworthy enough that, time and again, they are paid to offer their opinion.”

“And not in the way that Todd Rutherford was paid, by the authors of the books themselves.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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