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Why You Might Not Want to Trust that Five-Star Review

Amazon reviewThese days, just about everything gets reviewed online—books, movies, blenders, smart phones, restaurants…. Consumers are better informed than ever before when making a purchase, aided by hundreds of generous strangers who have taken the time to give this product or that product a certain number of stars, leave a snarky comment, or “Like” it on Facebook.

Except it turns out those strangers might not be so generous. In fact, they might just be getting paid to write those reviews, and in many cases the reviews are actually penned by the product’s marketing department, albeit posted anonymously.

This phenomenon of “paying for reviews” was in the news this weekend. The New York Times ran a story in its Sunday Business section titled, “The Best Reviews Money Can Buy,” detailing the rise and fall of an online book review company,, that at one point charged $499 for twenty online reviews of a single book, and $999 for fifty.

On Monday, Shelf Awareness followed up the Times article with an editorial of its own, saying, “The problem of paid reviews has risen because in the digital age so many books are being sold online, where consumer reviews have become exceedingly important, and self-publishing has grown dramatically, leading authors to do anything—even pay for positive reviews—to get attention.”

In a related story, published two weeks ago, Cornell University “has been developing sophisticated automated methods to detect [fake reviews], based on analysis of the text.” In some cases, a $5 investment nets a product two positive reviews from quick-typing entrepreneurs.

This phenomenon of paying for reviews has coincided with the rise of self-publishing and the soaring popularity of e-books. On many bookselling sites, especially Amazon, reviews drive sales to a significant degree. The more positive reviews a book garners, the more it sells, so an investment of $999 could easily pay for itself and more as the reviews accumulate and the author’s book marches up the bestseller lists.

Is paying for reviews a morally bankrupt practice, or is all fair in love and bookselling? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below.