I'm late to weigh in on the kerfuffle over paid reviews and using sock puppets to write your own reviews. So I figure you already know why it's happening.
I understand why authors pay for reviewers and use sock puppets. I sympathize, even. There's so much out there to distinguish yourself from -- it's a sea of people screaming for attention, waving promotional flags, and shooting off rockets. The deck is stacked against you, and it's a huge deck.
A blogger posted recently that he was struck by how he can't trust any online review of a product, when he thinks about it. And that's true. Who are you going to believe: fifty reviews on Amazon, or your mother saying "I couldn't put this down"? My mother and I don't always like the same books, of course, but there are a lot fewer variables involved in deducing whether I'd agree with her than whether I'd agree with fifty random people who may or may not actually exist.
It made me think of Pandora. Pandora.com uses a "genome" (Music Genome Project) to analyze the music you tell it you like, and introduces you to new music based on that. It's done a good job on me, overall. It figured out that I like David Bowie, on its own, and it introduced me to a number of musicians who I wouldn't have found otherwise. It's had trouble figuring out why I don't like Led Zeppelin, but I have trouble explaining that in any case. (I ought to. I just don't. Pass the Pink Floyd, please.)
For example, here's why Pandora said it picked a particular Celldweller song for me: Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features house roots, four-on-the-floor beats, electronica influences, danceable beats and affected backup vocals. Now, I don't know what those terms mean in a technical sense, but Pandora's right. It's a track I like.
Maybe we need a system like that for books. TvTropes has been kind enough to create a definition for nearly every story element under the sun, so the "genome" exists already. We just need a way to tag stories appropriately and software that takes your profile of likes and matches you up.
Because I have as much trouble finding books I like as anyone else. In all the upheaval that ebooks have brought to the publishing world, there's one definitely good aspect: the free samples. I've downloaded dozens of free samples of ebooks, and I've bought exactly one of them. There's a second that I've been meaning to buy, but my physical TBR pile is a big enough problem.
If people are worried about the honesty of the reviews they're seeing, I can be rigorously honest about why those dozens of samples failed to sell me their books. But I'm not here to be a grouch.
LOL: look for my new blog, Book Grouch, wherein I will beat up your sample... submit your sample and wear your honestly earned bruises proudly...
So: if we can't trust online reviews, is there a better way? Or is risk simply a part of life?
In other news, I am blogging about self-publishing over at Unicorn Bell this week, so see you next Tuesday.