When is  a review....not a review?

Getting a good book is important.

After all, books, stories, films are a big part of our every day lives and have shaped them, probably more than we realise. I mean, think of a great book you've read (or film you've seen) that really resonated with you, perhaps even changed your outlook on life. I could list a number in my case. (Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Masters of Rome etc.)

Bottom line: we definitely want to know that when we go shopping for a good book, we're reading genuine reviews, by genuine reviewers. The question is, though, how do you spot the fakes and the fakers? 

"A fake review is simply this: an opinion on a book that is a deliberate lie"  

The controversy

Recently, an article came up on a blog posted by an anonymous user who claimed to work at Fiverr.com. It singled out an author (who is, as far as I am concerned, completely legitimate and possesses a high degree of integrity) for a whole raft of abuse. It also named 30 other very prominent authors, that along with her, had conspired to get "fake" reviews in order to boost their book sales.

It must be incredibly hard to put a whole chunk of your life into creating a great book, only to have someone to deliberately trash both it and your own integrity for no apparent reason. Some of the authors named like Melissa Foster and Hugh Howey have responded very gracefully (read Hugh Howey's response here).

What is a "fake review"?

As a reader, this sounds like an odd question to ask - pretty much, because the answer is obvious.

However, since a lot of comments are going round the blogosphere on this, so I thought I'd give my own two cents because to me at least, a fake review is simply this: an opinion on a book that is a deliberate lie.

What is a deliberate lie? Here are three examples right off the bat: 

#1. The Sock Puppet. 
Where some (a tiny minority) of authors create "sock-puppets" - a fake online identity they use to review their own books positively and trash the competition (i.e. other authors).

#2. The back-hander
Where the author (again, a minority) have prevailed upon someone (be it for money or friendship) to post a review about something that this person a) hasn't seen or read and b) isn't giving their own, honest opinion on.  

#3. The Hater
These are a lot more common. Where a reviewer has a personal beef with the author and so takes the opportunity to systematically trash their book by posting negative 1 star reviews (and sometimes using several fake online identities to do it multiple times) on a whole host of different book sites.

"Are paid-for reviews an example of fake reviews? Not necessarily. If the reviewer is giving their honest, unbiased review, then in my view, it is still legitimate."

Is a review fake if the author paid a reviewer to review their books? Not necessarily.

Do bona-fide reviewers charge?
Reviewers aren't dumb; they're time pressed.

They can be very picky about the books they read, and yes, some reviewers do charge for their time. However, because they are being paid to do it, the presumption is that they will give a fake review. For this reason, some authors choose to steer well clear of paid-for reviews. 

Others have chosen to go down this road, and it's not necessarily unethical - provided they've done it the right way.

Is there a right way to get paid-for reviews?
Isn't getting a paid-for review a classic example of a 'back-hander'? Not necessarily.

It can be a legitimate road to travel provided the reviewer has been allowed to give a genuine review (even a negative one).
In other words, the reviewer a) must have  read the book and b) must have given their honest, unbiased opinion on it. 

After all, consider film critics. They're paid to review films - and like any other critic or reviewer they can get it right as much as wrong. However no-one would suggest that they are being paid to give a good review.

And that's really the point.  

"Check out multiple book sites."

Bottom Line: Is this book worth reading?

My advice to readers is simply this: check out the book across multiple sites.

It's a great way to see a whole range of reviews from different people - professional reviewers, readers, friends and family (yes, they post too) and haters (who, if they put the same thing in multiple places, you can see and ignore).

After that, make up your own mind. Read a few sample chapters. Then, if it gets you going, take the plunge.

Final Thoughts

Last: when it comes to buying a book, don't sweat the small stuff.

We're not talking about getting a mortgage, buying a car, or using up your child's college fund. We're talking about spending a few dollars/ pounds and buying a book.

Happy reading.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This month, I am looking at a book that has gripped me and millions of others. It's also set to be a massive blockbuster when hits the big screen in November this year.

The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire is part of The Hunger Games  trilogy, an awe-inspiring YA dystopian epic that has sold millions of copies and has also captured the imagination of a generation. Superbly written, the trilogy has an  almost  fanatical  following amongst readers of almost every age and background, all of whom identify with  the story and characters and often for markedly different reasons. 

"This book is superbly written. 
I identified with so many of the characters."


The Hunger Games. Set in the ruins of a future North America, the  starving and brutalised citizens of Panem's twelve districts are
ruled  by the small, wealthy elite of the Capitol. Every year, in penance for a long-ago uprising, Panem's twelve districts must
each select two children to be sent to the Capitol. There, in a televised pageant known as the Hunger Games, all twenty four
must fight to the death until only a lone survivor remains. When 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister's place in the Games, she's sure that she won't come back alive. However, Katniss has always been a survivor, and will defy both
the odds  and also the Capitol itself in order to survive. However, this doesn't pass unnoticed and even as a victor, there will be a terrible price to pay....  (YouTube Trailer here)

In The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire,  Katniss Everdeen's survival and public defiance of the Capitol have sparked unrest across the country. Katniss has become a visible symbol of resistance to the Capitol's authority but with the lives of her family hanging in the balance, she must now act exactly how the Capitol want her to. Forced to participate in the  annual Victory tour, Katniss has no idea of the Capitol's plan to quell the unrest, one which will eliminate any sign or symbol of rebellion. However when  the 75th annual Hunger Games are announced, their Capitol's intentions become clear. Katniss, along with the other victors, have been selected for the Games and all of them must go into the arena again...  (YouTube Trailers #1 here and #2 here)

The Hunger Games Phenomenon

Many people have identified with the characters of The Hunger Games and for many different, and contrasting reasons. 

16 year old Katniss Everdeen is certainly one of them. While most teenage girl heroines priorities revolved around looks and boyfriends, Katniss' are more straightforward: she has to keep her family alive. Brave, indomitable, self-reliant, Katniss is a
born-survivor. Like Stieg Larsson's Lizabet Salander, Katniss is also loner but unlike Salander, one driven not by rage or
bitterness but an innate humanity and a desire to protect. She is prepared to give up her life to defend others, and it is exactly
this quality that makes her so compelling. 

However another reason for it's popularity may be because of it makes us simply re-evaluate the world around us. The  books aren't intended be allegorical but it's impossible to avoid comparing our own world with Collin's nation of Panem. In it, we see the divide between obscenely rich and desperately poor, and with it, how both can corrode and dehumanize. We also see where the obsession with wealth and celebrity leads (in the end, to the complete absence of compassion and negation of humanity).
The need to survive, escape poverty while retaining our humanity are things that all resonate with us, especially in today's harsh economic times. And yet with it, too, there is the constant pressure to conform, and to be popular. In the Hunger Games and Catching Fire, these are taken to their logical extremes. For children selected to participate in the Games, staying alive isn't just confined to the arena but plays out in TV chat shows. In them, contestants need to attract wealthy sponsors who will help them survive, while the rest of the Capitol bet on which ones will die. In this context, being good-looking and popular, isn't just  important, its literally a matter of life-or-death. 

However in Catching Fire, Katniss isn't the only one who has to choose between survival and retaining her humanity. Both in the arena and out of it, all the other characters must now make their choice and decide exactly what they are willing to sacrifice. In doing so, we are propelled along with them and, so much so, that their struggle becomes our own.

Last Word...

I treasure this book - in fact, I treasure the whole trilogy - because it combines all three things that I really value: superb writing, a superb story that makes you think and  characters one can really, truly identify with. 

If you buy any books this year, my personal recommendation would be: make it The Hunger Games.

Whoever heard of a self-published best-seller?

It may be surprising but you probably have heard of one and just not realised it.

Let me give you three examples: Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking and EL James.

These three started out on the self-published/ indie author route and all of them became very successful. Moreover, after making it, they didn't have to worry whether or not a publisher would pick them up. In fact, the big publishing houses approached them with lucrative deals. In Howey's case, his publishing deal was just for the print version - he retains the e-book rights and sells those directly.

"Readers follow Authors not Publishers.
The average reader doesn't know and doesn't care who published the author's book.
The reader just wants a great story, and a well-written, professionally-produced book."

Now these three aren't simply exceptions that prove the rule. 

Nor, in fact, is it a guarantee that going down the self-publishing or indie route will make you rich. (Like traditional publishing, it won't. In fact, 95% of authors generally don't become best-sellers, no matter who publishes them.)

However Howey, Hocking and James prove a principle and it's this: becoming an indie best-seller is possible. In fact, even some traditionally-published authors are now turning towards the self-published/ indie route as well. It's one worth checking out.

What I learned at BEA

Back in May, I went to BEA (Book Expo America) and as part of my trip, visited a lot of stands and authors.

BEA is a terrific event. Unlike the LBF (London Book Fair), Publishers and Indie Authors give away their books to readers in order to help build awareness and a fan-base. I think that's a great idea.

For myself, I had great fun carefully picking 30 books and spending my last few days in New York after the fair, picking which to take home with me. My method was fairly straight-forward. I gave each one a go, skim-read the first 50 pages and in the end, picked just 2 books I considered compelling-enough to cram into my luggage. The rest were given good homes with friends who are avid readers.

However, the whole thing made me stop and think.

"The only story a reader really wants to read is a great story that's well-written.
The only brands the reader cares about is the Story and the Author. That's it."

You see, even though all the books I read were written well (or in some cases, very well) that alone wasn't enough to get me to want to continue them. More to the point, I didn't care who wrote it or who published it, so long as I got a great story.

Traditionally-published authors can produce great stories. And so can Self-Published/ Indie Authors. 

And that's exactly the point. Most readers have no brand loyalty to a publisher, why should they? Indie or traditionally published
doesn't matter any more.

It's the story they want to read. In fact, provided the book is well written and professionally published, readers really don't care  who publishes them. 
As a reader I really want to see the high street bookshops endure and thrive. They're cool, they're useful and frankly, I think we'd all lose if they went bust. 

But here's the thing - I find it easier, quicker and cheaper to go online bookshops and buy there. (Not to mention, that going online can be way more fun and informative too).

More to the point, this is exactly why high street book stores are closing down. So, what can the bookshop chains do to get us to buy in a store rather than online?

"Readers don't owe book chains a living. 
Book chains need to give us a reason to buy from them." 

Take Waterstones...
In the UK, Waterstones has just had a major restructure in its stores that has sadly seen many branch managers let go. Their Managing Director has said that the company's emphasis will now be on selling more books (and therefore selling it's way out of trouble). 

But how exactly?

I mean, how are Waterstone's going  to: 

a) get me to take time out of my day and get me into their store in the first place and
b) persuade me that I'll get a better deal buying from them then buying online? 

I'll tell you something - right now, they don't offer me any compelling reason  to go visit them at all - and I say that as a customer, and someone who buys print books. 

What Are They There For?
I think Waterstones, like other major brick-and-mortar book chain stores really need to look at themselves in the mirror. 

They need to work out why people should visit them, and once they have, provide an experience that consumers will actively want to have and pay for. And it's a challenge, no doubt about it. But if they don't figure what special place they need to occupy in our hearts then they will eventually disappear - and we will all be the poorer for it.

Anyway, what do you think?