Damaging Influence

What’s happening with book ratings?

Do you use ratings to help you decide whether to buy a book? If your answer is yes, we need to talk about a worrying trend on book sites. I’m talking about online trolls, and their new hobby of tanking a book’s rating. There have long been trolls writing unfair reviews and leaving 1 star ratings with no explanation. Now they are organising groups.

I’ve previously written about the importance of reviewing books to support authors and help other readers. But dishonest ratings and reviews can also harm authors and mislead readers. So how do we spot them?

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The world of readers

Readers are a wide-ranging bunch. There are those who love reading yet keep their opinions on books to themselves. Readers who only leave star ratings and can’t be coaxed into explaining them. Those who knock off a star for every editing oversight, even if they loved the book. And those who only ever rate books 5 stars because they really love books. Which is adorable, and infuriating, in equal measure.

And then there are the readers who rate books based entirely on someone else’s opinion. These are sometimes books they haven’t even read. That’s how rating tanking happens. A group of people work together to tank a book’s ratings. Yes, some people actually do that.

Where is this happening?

Goodreads, as the largest book review site, has experienced rating tanking. But I’ve heard about trolling on other book sites. So be wary whichever site you use. 

Retailers are a little different. Many retailers have a review policy which catches a lot of dishonest reviews. Amazon has a verified purchase label for people who have bought the book from them. This only applies to written reviews though, you can’t see whether people who only leave star ratings have bought the book.

Tiktok seems to be the epicentre for organising rating tanking. As one of the fastest growing social media platforms, Tiktok is particularly popular with young people who like to jump on trends. The reading community within Tiktok is known as Booktok. 

Booktokers have, for some inexplicable reason, the power to influence book sales. I say ‘inexplicable’ because you do not need any qualifications, relevant experience, track record of picking winners, or any other credentials to become an influencer on Tiktok. You just need followers.

Influencers and the easily-influenced

This is not to say all booktokers are bad. Most of these book influencers care about reading. They help good books get visibility – and we certainly need more of that. But a small minority of booktokers are abusing their influence by encouraging their followers to leave unjustified low star ratings. The mind-boggling thing is that some people are actually doing this.

Some books have suffered huge drops in average rating following videos on Tiktok. Others have received poor ratings before they were even released. Authors sometimes provide advance copies to reviewers for the purpose of getting early reviews. Those reviews are supposed to be from individuals who have read the book. Not random people who could not possibly have got their hands on a copy.

I can only hope the Booktokers who encourage rating tanking have a very limited understanding of the book market. That they cannot comprehend the damage they are doing to authors’ careers and mental health. I can’t even imagine why readers would leave a dishonest rating. Surely the right to express your own opinion is a freedom to be cherished and protected? Why would anyone give that up to express someone else’s opinion instead? In such a damaging and hateful way?

I have to question whether these people are even real readers. Do they know where books come from? Do they understand that without authors there will be no new books?

When to review

I don’t want to put anyone off leaving an honest review. If you are ever unsure whether to post a book review or rating, here’s a quick test. If your review is a) based solely on the book, and b) entirely your own opinion, please go ahead and share it. Real reviews will help balance out any troll ratings. Authors, publishers, and readers will thank you for that. 

If it is not based on your personal experience of the book, please back away from the keyboard! Bad reviews and ratings, particularly large numbers of them, can cause the failure of a book someone has spent years working on. Authors earn far less than people think. Most of us rely on more than one source of income to survive. So one failed book can easily end a writing career.

What can you do?

Rating tanking is a type of trolling. And you don’t need me to tell you the damage trolls can do. So let’s talk about rating tanking, and use our own small measure of influence to make it socially unacceptable. Let’s encourage anyone who deliberately tries to tank an author’s ratings, to use their time more productively. Maybe they could read instead.

If you, or a family member, use Tiktok, I would encourage you to be very careful who you listen to. Anyone who rates a book 1 or 2 stars, and can only tell you one thing they didn’t like about it, is not an honest reviewer. Instead choose booktokers who provide balanced reviews. Those who recommend good books, rather than focusing on finding things to complain about.

If the average rating on a book site or retailer site seems low, read the written reviews. People who leave dishonest ratings are generally unable to justify them in writing. You can also look at different websites to see what the book reviews and ratings are like elsewhere. If ratings on a book site and a retailer are significantly different, tanking may be the reason.

The release date is also worth checking. If there are lots of low ratings for a book that’s just been released, that’s a red flag. Famous authors’ books do get pre-orders and their avid fans will read and review as soon as they get their copy. But their ratings are likely to be 5 stars. You don’t pre-order a book unless you are expecting to love it.

You can also look at any other books by the same author. Someone who usually writes great books is unlikely to have suddenly written an awful one.

Trust yourself

I know we shouldn’t have to go to all this trouble just to find something good to read. And I’m really hoping this new type of trolling is soon stamped out. In the meantime, just be aware, the average rating may not reflect the actual quality of the book.

For authors, dishonest ratings are a huge issue. They limit the number of potential readers that will see the book, and the number of places the author can promote it. But as a reader, if you like the look of a book, the rating doesn’t have to sway your decision. What anyone else thinks, or says they think, is less important than your own judgement.

What do you think? Would bad ratings put you off buying a book?

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You might also like: How to read a book review.

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