Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shill the Sock Puppet

No, Shill is not a cute and cuddly child’s toy. Shill is the name given to fake book reviews in order to boost sales or give new titles a ‘jump start’ over the competition.
Although I have written about this topic many times, I see that others are now finally starting to catch on – and they’re not happy about it! Both reviewers and authors have started to recognize ‘shill’ reviews and the people who write them; the Sock Puppets.

Outside of publishing, ‘shilling’ is a serious (and illegal) practise. It is most commonly seen at public auctions and on eBay, where either the seller himself or family members and friends place fake bids in order to up the final selling price.
In the publishing world, ‘shilling’ appears to be perfectly normal and acceptable. Fortunately, the worm has turned and the public are now beginning to identify those books with fake or ‘shill’ reviews.
How do you spot a shill review?

They are those books that suddenly have a plethora 5-star reviews when the content is actually diabolical. Also, the reviews come from people who invariably have ‘reviewed’ only one book – yep, the one with all the phoney 5-star reviews. Most of these ‘sock puppets’ come from social networking sites and are often ‘friends’ of the author.

The public are now coming to realize that new book releases with a bevy of 5-star reviews are probably shilled (fake). The problem is this: there are some books that really do have a bunch of 5-star reviews from different and genuine reviewers; so shilling really has put the kibosh on the whole idea of online reviewing and muddied the waters.

Also, some of these books receive these amazing reviews on the day of publication, even when the book is a novel of some 100,000 words, making these shill reviewers incredible speed-readers as well. However, some of these reviewers may have been given ARCs (advanced reader copies) for reviewing before the book was actually published, so this can skew the results even more as some of the reviews may actually be genuine. But which ones are they? How would you know which reviews are real, and which are phoney?
Also, consider this: Should family and friends review your books?
“Sure! Why not?” I hear you cry. But . . . are your family and friends likely to give your new book a poor review? Of course not. So, is it therefore ethnical not to reveal your relationship to an author whose book you have reviewed? It’s a tough one.

Should you write in your review, “FYI - I am the author’s mother”? Would you? Would you be honest enough to state that are a close friend or family member of the author of a book you have just ‘reviewed’? And did you really read the book, or did you merely automatically give it 5 stars because it’s your friend’s book?

While there are solutions to this deplorable practise, I do not see them being put into place in the foreseeable future. If you visit any online bookstores - Amazon included - and read the reviews there, you will soon realize that these reviews are neither monitored nor edited, and anyone can write almost anything they wish about any book. Barnes & Noble are particularly bad about allowing shill and garbage reviews from Mr & Mrs ‘Anonymous’.
If you have free books available, these automatically become targets for lunatics and morons to write garbage about your precious book; ‘reviews’ which are almost impossible to have removed and which can cause considerable and long-term damage to authors, especially new writers.

So now we have a problem. How do you find good books to read? It seems that we can no longer rely on ‘reviews’ as many of these are phoney and misleading. Do we just have to take a chance based on the book’s cover image and its short description? Or should something really be done by the online distributors to stop shilling and the Sock Puppets?
One plus point about traditional paper publishing – the reviews were genuine and written by real, traceable people. Not any longer . . . now everyone is known simply as ‘anonymous’, which could mean the eight-year old living next door, or your friend, or your mother or even Aunty Jane. And Aunty Jane always liked you, didn’t she . . . ?

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