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July 18, 2014

On Trolls and Fake Bad Reviews

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

We've all read about the abuse of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I'm not talking about soliciting your friends to write glowing testimonials for your books, or buying five-star reviews in batches from paid review services. I'm talking about people who post bad reviews for revenge, punishment, or intimidation. And there's a lot of that kind of thing out there, from angry readers one-starring ebooks whose prices they deem too high, to academic authors employing fake names to slag their rivals, to (alleged) packs of bully reviewers on Goodreads (Goodreads actually changed its review policies in response to this perceived problem).

I recently had the chance to experience review abuse for myself.

On June 29, one- and two-star reviews started appearing on the Amazon page of my 2012 novel Passion Blue--nine in all, over a period of less than two weeks. (I've pasted in screenshots below.)

Beyond the unlikelihood of nine genuine one- and two-star reviews appearing in succession over such a short period of time (the most recent review before that was five months ago), my brand new reviews shared a number of characteristics that suggested fakery. None were from verified purchasers. Most were from accounts that never posted a review before or since. None included any details to suggest they'd read the book, but all were unanimous: it sucked horribly. I mean, it REALLY sucked. Two of the reviewers were so traumatized that they had to take to drink. One wished for death.

Before this, Passion Blue had two one-star reviews and two two-star reviews. One of the one-stars is kind of unfair, since the person admits they didn't read the book--but the reviews are all real, or appear to be. It never occurred to me to challenge them--or indeed, to respond to them at all.

Responding to genuine negative reviews is a mug's game. Bad reviews go with the territory; if you're going to put yourself out there for the reading public to judge, you've got to be prepared to deal with them--and that means letting them go and moving on. Authors who can't resist the urge to strike back are more likely than not to wind up looking like fools (there's a list of some of the more notorious incidences here.)

Fake bad reviews, though--that's another story.

Amazon's little "report abuse" button is useless, but if you contact customer service with a complaint (you can do that here), they are pretty responsive. I had an easier way to manage this than most, because I'm an Amazon Publishing author. The outcome wasn't totally satisfactory, since they left two of the reviews up--one that appeared after I made my complaint, and the first one, which is maybe the most over-the-top one ("[The book] would make the Devil himself cringe with horror") but also the only one that isn't obviously from a fake account (though most of this person's reviews certainly look fake).




So who's behind this review fakery?

Well, if you're a regular reader, you may know that I (along with other anti-writing scam advocates) have my very own troll. Trollbaby likes to target me directly, though lately they've been harassing my Twitter followers with spam tweets like this one:
I can't prove Trollbaby is my review faker, but fake reviews are certainly their style. (If I'm giving you too much credit, Trollbaby, please forgive me.)

Here's Trollbaby's "book," by the way. Aren't they clever punsters?

Product Details

EDITED TO ADD: Just hours after putting this post online, I heard from an author who was recently hit by a one-star attack very much like mine. She thinks that a scammer I did an expose on recently is behind the attacks, and what she says makes sense. I may have given Trollbaby too much credit after all.

32 comments :

Cindy Amrhein said...

Well I'd say there is something stalkerish about that.

Snarky Writer said...

I haven't read Passion Blue but now I want to just to see what all this flailing and wailing is about.

Anonymous said...

I am sad to hear there are fake BAD reviews. I only once wrote a bad review - several of us from my book group did for 2 reasons - it was the most badly written book we had read in 18 years as a book club - but we STILL wouldn't have given it a bad review except that the page was littered with OBVIOUSLY fake GOOD reviews. I guess we just have to go by "real" professional reviewers. Sorry this happened to you - glad you wrote about it.

Pat Dilloway said...

That person clearly has issues.

Petrea Burchard said...

"Evil is necessarily stupid." Was that Heinlein?

Miss Lila said...

Well, this sucks--bad reviews are easily the only ones I pay attention to on Amazon anymore; it's usually easy to gauge how much I'll like something based on the type of problems other people have found.

It goes to show how petty people can be sometimes.

adan said...

You've a lot of courage Victoria, sorry all that's happened to you, and glad you're telling us about it; all the best wishes (for all of us).

Renee said...

Trolls are like dodgy publishers ~ they are so bored out of their uneducated and uncreative minds this is one of the few ways they feel better. It should not, however, be allowed as it really amounts to bullying and there are laws about deliberately trying to stop people from buying your products for no genuine reason. At the end of the day, especially this week, gosh I wish people would find some grace.

Sheila Lowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila Lowe said...

I recently offered a free download of one of my books for 4 days and advertised through BookBub, etc. The result was 117,083 downloads, which has so far led to 260+ reviews, mostly great. The 20 or so 1 and 2 stars smacked of the sort of trollishness that you describe, with several admitting that they did not read What She Saw before commenting. Interestingly, though, other commenters started piling on to one of them, admonishing "Booklover" that to stick to reading religious tracts, lol. One person wrote an entire short story as a comment, featuring Booklover meeting up with Death and being judged for her judgmentalness. It was great!

Sandra Wendel said...

I think readers will rely less and less on reviews once they finally figure out the reviews are often not genuine, are solicited by the author, and prone to stalking like this unfortunate incident. At least, I hope so.

S B James said...

I myself am starting to pay less attention to reviews that are obviously fake or ill-thought-out when looking at a book I might buy. It is a pity that some people cannot seem to discern fake reviews from real ones.

mad said...

The really clever trolls leave reviews on Google Play because Google give precedence to their own sites. One "reviewer" who I think was actually a competitor, gave my book a 1-star review on Google with the words "Bah. Lame." Sales immediately began to drop all across my retail sites. I knew the review was fake because I had not sold any books on Google Play. After complaining to Google they eventually took it down, but the person just created a new fake profile and reposted. It's like whack-a-mole.

Priya Sridhar said...

Trolls are definitely people that have too much time on their hands, and I can't believe this one would be such a jerk. I'm sorry that they plague small authors like us, for petty reasons.

Alen said...

can you reply to the bad troll reviews with something trollish from an anonymous profile?

Victoria Strauss said...

Alen--

I have two thoughts. One--why bother? Responding to troll reviews is a waste of time; it accomplishes nothing and brings you down to their level. Two--never assume being anonymous on the Internet is a guarantee of not being found out. And if you are found out, you'll look like a jerk.

ChulaSlim said...

I'd like to echo this comment. Once during the time I was just starting out in the writing game, I posted a review refuting some of the comments of another reviewer. Bad Move. The review I posted has since become the most popular review of the book. It is the first one displayed on the site and I'll never live it down. Bottom line, don't respond to reviews!

Frances Grimble said...

Yes, I've experienced bad troll reviews. Some people troll because it makes them feel powerful. One person posted an incoherent rant right after I disagreed with him in an online discussion. Because I self-publish I've also had a couple of situations where the person who bought the book from Amazon wanted to practice extortion--removal of the negative review in exchange for refunds or freebies of other books. I'm not giving in to that.

Frances Grimble said...

I should add that when I say refunds, the person bought the book from Amazon but did not want to return it to Amazon, they wanted me to send them money.

Earth Angel said...

Wow that's definitely stalkerish. And my first thought was The Write Agenda too!

Just as a note though, it seems you have the same link twice. The comment about "there's a list of some of the more notorious incidences here" links to the Washington post article about the Goodreads policy being censorship. :-)

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks, Earth Angel--I've corrected that link.

Victoria Strauss said...

I'm happy to report that Amazon has removed the two remaining fake bad reviews. All my bad reviews are now legit!

Frances Grimble said...

Victoria, do you think Amazon removed them because they read this blog?

Victoria Strauss said...

I really doubt it, Frances. I think it's because I asked them to reconsider leaving the reviews up, and also because a number of people clicked the "report abuse" button.

Steph Barnes said...

Wow... I knew there was some rotten people out there but surely they have better things to do than make fake accounts to write negative reviews. This is the first time I have heard of people doing this and it is horrific. It can be potentially damaging to new writers who are just getting started.

Anonymous said...

You can buy paid reviews in batches from paid services?? I didn't know such a thing existed. See, I knew traditional publishing was as crooked as a snake.

Anonymous said...

It has become rampant on amazon across all products.

Vincent Zandri, Noir Author said...

I have to say, I'm just reading this article now, but my novel Everything Burns was chosen as a Kindle First last month. Initial reviews were great with smattering of bad ones that seemed genuine. Then, one the first Sunday of the month, I received maybe 12 or 13 one and two star reviews almost in a row. It was enough for me to lodge a formal complaint since many of these reviews were clearly from folks who hadn't read so much as a word of the novel. There's was even the must imitated, "worst book i have ever read review." granted, because of the program, we gave away something like 250K books, and freebies will always invite nasty reviewers, but I feel I was clearly the victim of abuse...

Omer Winstedt said...

I'd ask the author:

You mean to say you imagine that a negative review of a book could only come from a "fake blogger" or "fake review" source? Nobody could actually believe your chosen reviewed book is a 1/5 star read?

I would agree that a review giving 1/5 or 0/5 stars based only on the price paid, that's not a review of the book but a review of the pricing.

I would also agree that when someone's review faults a book for not being what the reviewer assumed pre-reading, that's a non-review as well, and shouldn't be judged as a real review.

But what are you going to do? People who write for publication and especially paid publication, they are going to be appraised by those who read them and even those who never have. That's what happens when you create a public persona around your authorhood, that's what happens when you write for notoriety or pay. You can't avoid it.

Honestly I don't see why the worry over some vanity publication getting a negative review. If your writing is solid, you don't need a reviewer to verify that. And if you do need a reviewer to verify it, you're probably not writing very well.

If you think lousy reviews are a new phenomenon limited to the internet/blog/e-review era, I would sincerely urge you to track down a copy of Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, you can find it via Dalkey Archive Press. You'll see that bogus reviews were commonplace even 65-70 years ago -- and even from what one would have considered reputable review sources at the time.

Victoria Strauss said...

Omer--

Of course I don't automatically assume that a negative review must be from a troll or a fake reviewer. I think I make clear in my post that bad reviews go with the territory--if you're going to put yourself out there, you've got to be prepared to get them, and when you do get them, you've got to be prepared to suck them up. As I also pointed out in my post, Passion Blue had several one- and two-star reviews before this incident, and it didn't occur to me to challenge them. (All my books, in fact, have a smattering of bad reviews, and it hasn't occurred to me to challenge those, either.)

This situation was different though. Nine one- and two-star reviews appearing over a period of two weeks, none from verified purchasers, most from accounts that never posted a review before or since, all attacking me personally or attacking the book without any details to suggest they read it--just a tad suspicious of some kind of organized campaign.

At any rate, Amazon agreed, and those reviews are gone. My other bad reviews--genuine reviews from real people--rightly remain.

John Kok said...

I don't want to hurt anybody's feeling, but I find it very difficult, personally, to write a positive review. Luckily, I rarely write book review, but when I get a chance to review a sci-fi movie, it's always scathing, my review, because I always find things that don't make sense (like traveling in a few weeks to distant planets on ion-propulsion and some such).

One more thing...I come from Germany, and in my days (I live in France now), the scathing review was the norm, and it was a national past time, people wouldn't want to read anything else but put-downs ("Verrisse" in German). I very much regret the fading of the put down, they were so much fun to read.

Anonymous said...

Book reviews should be done by people who have actually purchased the book or at least read the book, and the review should be based on the content as opposed to the authors character. Amazon has become a happy hunting ground for trolls to stalk writers they don't like and leave scathing reviews that are defamatory and lack any kind of critical review in the traditional sense of the phrase. What's worse is Amazon ignores requests to have these types of "reviews" removed. When it is obvious and apparent that a reviewer displays a trend for trolling a specific author leaving character assassinations and otherwise bogus reviews, Amazon should be compelled to remove both the reviews and the reviewer per their own terms of use. Sadly, they rarely do the right thing. Bamboogrove is a troll reviewer on Amazon who engages in this tactic frequently.

 
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