Looks Like Astroturfing, Quacks Like Astroturfing…

I got a book recommendation in my e-mail from someone I have friended on Goodreads. Okay, that happens occasionally. I click through to check out the book.

What I see is that only one other person I know has reviewed it, and they’re just boinging because it’s out, rather than talking about the book itself. There are a bunch of reviews from people I don’t know. Okay, I can work with that, usually, and with a 4.65 average rating with over 50 ratings, that usually means a pretty awesome book.

Except there’s a weird sort of uniformity about these reviews. The very first one has links to a bunch of vendor pages where you can buy the book — who besides the author ever does that? — and some animated GIFs, and a lot of generic squee. And hey, there’s another review a ways below that with… links to a bunch of vendor pages. Same format. o_O Lots of generic squee, and quite a few “OMG I got my ARC!” type comments. Some mentions of a coming blog tour. Very little actual discussion of the book itself, of parts people like or dislike — you know, the useful stuff that shows up in a useful review.

Huh, smells like a street team.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with a street team. My understanding is that the term came out of the music business, where a street team is a group of people who hit the streets in a town where a band is coming to play a gig soon. They talk up the show, put posters up everywhere, make it look like there’s a lot of buzz and excitement about the band, make people want to come hear them, make it feel like the show’s going to be awesome fun and everyone should be there. Street-level marketing. Oh, and the street team is usually paid, even if it’s just in T-shirts and show tickets and stuff.

A lot of writers are using street teams now to build up buzz about a new book. They form a group of fans who are willing to go out and generate buzz when a new book comes out, fans who are usually paid in free books and maybe some swag. And seriously, if a writer has enough fans to form a street team, that says something about their writing right there, so that’s cool so far as it goes. Having a bunch of people read your book early and post reviews right away, whether on Goodreads or Amazon or their blogs or anywhere else, can certainly help build buzz, and that can be a good thing.

But I read Goodreads for reader reviews. Information about the book, posted by readers who’ve read it. When I see that the whole first page of reviews looks like it was written by people who are all focusing on the squee rather than the useful info, when I see a bunch of readers who put up a great rating with “review to come,” when I see a bunch of not-really-a-review reviews that look like they were all written from the same press release…? I get the feeling that these aren’t actually reviews. They feel like coordinated buzz put up by a bunch of people who are all following the same set of instructions. (Seriously, how many individual reviewers put up multiple links to a book’s buy page on multiple vendors? And to see that twice in the first handful of reviews…? [eyeroll])

Having a bunch of individuals — not Capitol-R Reviewers who own or contribute to a review site, but just-folks type readers — put up reviews is valuable because readers like me like to see what individual readers have to say about a book. People go to Goodreads for grassroots book reviews, written by individuals who’ve read a book and are reviewing it. When what we find is a bunch of cookie-cutter reviews that sound way too similar, with lots of squeeage but very little info about the book, reviews that all seem to be cribbing from the same info packet? That doesn’t look like a grassroots response — that looks like astroturfing. It feels fake, it feels manipulative, and it doesn’t make me want to dash out and buy the book, or even put it on my to-buy list.

I’m ignoring that book I was recced. If I hear about it again in the future, if I see people I know — who’ve actually read it — talking about it, saying what they think, discussing bits they liked or disliked, then I might buy it later. For right now, though, all I know is that a bunch of people were handed some kind of crib sheet and instructed to go out and squee. My immediate response is negative, though, and any future buzz I run into about it is going to have to overcome that.

I can see street teams working. And heck, maybe there are readers who’ll see someone they don’t know post, “OMG this book is awesome! I heart it so much!! Five stars!! Everyone has to buy it!!!” and will immediately run out and get it. I’m not one of them, though, and I suspect there are a lot of readers like me. If I had a street team, I’d ask folks to actually read the book, discuss what specific parts they liked (and even disliked, if any), and maybe throttle back on the squee some. Because new-release grassroots buzz should at least look like a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm, rather than a carefully coordinated release of marketing push. In my opinion, anyway.

No sale. Try again next time.


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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.