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Shelf Life: Judging a Book by Its coverage

Online Reviews Can
Make or Break Today’s Authors

By Nick Bergus

Being a writer has never been hard. The only requirements are occasionally jotting down some words and talking about yourself at parties.

Being a good writer, however, has always been tough, demanding open-a-vein-and-bleed dedication.

Being recognized as a good writer with even a modicum of commercial success carries the additional requisite of luck. Each step along the way entails an increasingly tense symbiotic relationship with reviewers.

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, where a review can make or break an author’s career, only covers a couple dozen titles in a typical week. Even if a writer has made it through the gauntlet of securing an agent and a publisher, she might still find the reviews and the praise for her work in short supply.

There are, of course, places other than Publisher’s Weekly and the like to read book reviews. Today’s online consumers rate everything — books, ovens, cars — often right next to where other consumers are shopping. These reviews are usually more visible and, for better or worse, more influential than those from high-profile reviewers.

While the flaws of everyone’s-a-critic reviews are numerous and well-known, lots of four- and five-star ratings can drive sales. And a lack of such attention can kill a book’s visibility in online stores full of titles from unknown authors.

Online reviews are especially important to the success of self-published books (either print or digital), which have become easier to produce and, at $10 per download, lucrative for authors. Jeff Bezos,’s CEO, bragged at an event leading into holiday season that out of the 100 best-selling Kindle books, more than a quarter were self-published (and Amazon is selling more e-books than printed books).

With so much more riding on online reviews and praise, writers have started patronizing services that offer to write and post reviews online. For $20 to $100, writers can commission reviews that are more likely to, ahem, accentuate the strengths of their work. Some review clearinghouses have churned out thousands of fake reviews. Experts estimate that a third of online reviews are commissioned or written by the author or are otherwise fake.

We readers are, of course, used to such glowing morsels extolling a book’s deft writing or life-changing narrative. We’ve been spoon-fed these positive, commissioned assessments for years, long before the Web created a market for them. They’re called blurbs. Perhaps readers will eventually get used to reading between the lines of commissioned online reviews in the same way they have with the blurbs on the backs of book covers. Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission, which requires online endorsements to spell out any financial relationships between reviewers and producers, will figure out a way to enforce its guidelines.

At the end of the day, this whole thing seems like a good argument for staying offline and befriending your local bookseller.


Nick Bergus is a multimedia producer and freelance writer based in Iowa City.

Photo Igor Shypitsyn/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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