ETHICS: Can You Trust Online Book, Product Reviews?

  • By David M. Kinchen 

Do you believe the online reviewer or your lyin’ eyes? Wait a minute: you haven’t laid your eyes on the book or product under review, so they can’t be lyin’! A product review can be your best guide — or can it? I’ve contributed dozens of book reviews to, and I try to be as honest about the book as I can. I’ve even reviewed products like the now discontinued Flip video camera, a product I use. It has limitations, but all in all it’s a wonderful video camera.

I saw a story in the New York Times ( about a man named Todd Rutherford who made a very good living a few years ago writing online book reviews for authors who went the self-publishing route.

From the above referenced story:

“A few years ago, Mr. Rutherford, then in his mid-30s, had another flash of illumination about how scarcity opens the door to opportunity.

“He was part of the marketing department of a company that provided services to self-published writers — services that included persuading traditional media and blogs to review the books. It was uphill work. He could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement manifesto or one more homespun recollection of times gone by. There were not enough reviewers to go around.

“Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

“In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

“There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.”

Is what Rutherford did ethical?

I didn’t have any fixed opinions — and I might even be guilty of a conflict of interest since I’m an online reviewer myself — so I turned to a good friend, who has both a law degree and a master’s in religion for his views on the ethics of the relationship.

Here’s his response:


“In this intriguing New York Times story we see a natural, if unethical, outcropping of the zany world of online reviews, in this case book reviews. Mr. Rutherford saw a wide open market, a felt need for positive reviews for aspiring authors, and filled the gap. According to the story, here’s Rutherford’s spin on his services for unknown writers:


“Mr. Rutherford’s insight was that reviews had lost their traditional function. They were no longer there to evaluate the book or even to describe it but simply to vouch for its credibility, the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls. A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.


“That is not ‘Mr. Rutherford’s insight.’ That is his justification for inventing fake reviews. Human beings have an infinite capacity for justification, especially when it comes to a project that enriches them personally. Rutherford knows that this is going to be controversial when discovered, so he has to come up with an excuse, in this case, that the purpose of book reviews had changed. They are now just marketing tools, which everyone accepts, like the blurbs on the back of a book cover, promoting a given book. In short, no one takes them as actual endorsements by an actual human being.


“What poppycock! Neither Rutherford nor the publishing world can just change the age-old definition of a book review. Maybe the publishing world wants to pretend that blurbs on the back of book covers or ‘reviews’ such as Rutherford cranked out like a Chinese factory worker are just marketing tools. However, the reader isn’t necessarily in on this scam at all. Many of them, especially the vast majority who have no connection to the publishing world, believe, however naively, that those who review or recommend a product, book, or film have actually absorbed its content.


“Rutherford’s reviews are not based on that kind of substantive absorption of the product. Like a student reading Cliff’s Notes, he reads just enough to “look” authoritative in his “reviews.” But even the lazy student reading Cliff’s Notes doesn’t have the moxie to hold themselves out as someone whose opinion of a book you should heed. They just want to scrape by and pass a test.


“Rutherford has been busted, clean and simple, and now gets to contemplate his intellectual dishonesty and temporary roaring success by selling RVs. When anyone in his region starts to see online recommendations from ‘satisfied customers’ about his RVs, they are right to ignore these reviews, too, and laugh.”


* * *

OK, what do you think? Are online reviews useful or are they seriously suspect? Feel free to email me or comment on this site in the place provided.


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