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The New York Times on the Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy

August 28, 2012

There’s a recent article on the New York Times about the shady business of buying Book Reviews called “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy“.  This is a pretty crucial read, I think, if you’re an author today.  And it paints a pretty stark picture of what I think is a fairly dystopian underworld that supports and undergirds the digital self-publishing revolution.

In many ways, the story it presents – that of sulf-published authors eager for a little fame and some positive acclaim for their work pay money for good reviews – is an unsurprising one.  Despite policies on Amazon and other sites against this kind of thing, there aren’t, to my knowledge, a lot of mechanisms to enforce this and prevent insincere, pay-for-play reviews.

It’s unlikely I’d have to actually answer this question, but in case it’s not clear: why should authors be worried about a system where some can purchase positive reviews in order to buff their sales?  Because it’s one more barrier to entry that keeps authors from being legitimately successful based on the quality of their work.  You want to be successful, and get a lot of sales of your hot-new-ebook?  Then be prepared to pony up for some positive buzz.  Strike that.  Be prepared to pony up for some artificial, fake positive buzz.  In short, it is profoundly unfair, and a market inefficiency to boot.

It could be argued, I suppose, that there’s nothing different from paying for positive reviews and paying for a cover artist or paying for an editor’s services.  It’s all part of the cost-of-doing-business.  It is different, though, because those fake reviews are deceptively positioned as the genuine opinions of actual readers: they’re supposed to be a stamp-of-approval from one reader to another, and signal that a book is bona fide.

But, truth-be-told, I’m no big fan of authors having to pay for all the services that go into producing a quality book in the first place, either.  I recognize it as a necessary precondition: something you have to be willing to do if you’re going to self-publish.  But there’s still a huge problem with that: it also necessarily excludes authors of limited financial means from entering into the market on a level playing field.  I’ve toyed with different ideas for how to deal with this situation - how to level the playing field for self-publishing aspirants so that those without financial backing but with tons of talent can still make a splash - but I haven’t seen any solutions rise in the marketplace, yet.  There’s Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is only likely to work if you’ve got an established audience (this has been the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen to date).  I take that back.  There is a mechanism by which established authors of limited means can try their work out and get the services they need to polish their book (though it may at times be a tad inefficient): the traditional publishing industry.

And so, this is how it goes.  The article suggests that its protagonist’s business (that of Mr. Rutherford) is no longer extant – having been discovered and effectively shut out by the likes of Google and Amazon. But I’ve no illusions that this isn’t still going on, in some form or other, with other players in the same roles.

And I think it’s a curious scandal, and one that needs more attention, that Mr. John Locke – he of the first-to-sell-a-million-ebooks fame – is implicated in this article.  Mr. Locke, it turns out, was a big-time customer of this positive-review-mill: a fact which he apparently carefully neglected to mention in his how-to book on self-publishing, How I Sold One-Million E-Books

This is not to say that others didn’t achieve their success more legitimately: by genuine readers reading, liking, and reviewing their books, gratis.  But it’s a painful revelation that Locke, and undoubtedly others, achieved their fame and success in such an underhanded way.

But there’s the rub, you see.  Even this scandal aside, the digital self-publishing revolution is still a pay-for-play system, inasmuch as the best-quality-looking covers and the best editing and the best copy-editing and so on will all cost an author money: doing this well isn’t free or cheap.

This is, of course, part of why I still prefer the “traditional” approach for myself.  I have no fan-base to speak of (the readers of this blog notwithstanding, their numbers cannot support a novelist’s career).  I cannot afford even the legitimate the costs of e-book production, let alone afford to buy black-market reviews.  Traditional publishing offers, at present, my best, and most legitimate, chance at success.

Still, I know the traditional path is not for everyone.  I just hope that new, better models arise that allow authors to spread the word about their digitally self-published e-books.  If I think of anything that just might work, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Some other views on the scandal:

K.W. Jeter says “Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers” – the problem with Jeter’s argument is that it seems like he’s trying to suggest that John Locke was an isolated case; but considering the huge amount of money Rutherford was making on this scam, that’s clearly not true: Locke was far from alone in this practice, and there are by necessity many more self-published authors like him, or else the facts in the reporting are wrong. Jeter clarified his thoughts (with quotes from his post) in the comments and it looks like my reading of his point was too narrowly focused on his reaction to Locke; I must apologize for misreading and mischaracterizing his post. It still bears pointing out that obviously, based on the numbers Rutherford was pulling down in his scam, John Locke was not alone in soliciting Rutherford’s services.  Whether Locke or one of the legion of others who used Rutherford’s services, the result is the same: a debasement of the utility of reviews for self-publishing authors.

Chuck Wending says “Bad Author Behavior… Is Bad Author Behavior” – Chuck would have us shrug it off… but he’s wrong and we shouldn’t.  Why?  Because if problems like this are not railed against they become the norm, they become systemic: and then that becomes just what you have to do in order to get published.  Self-publishing becomes an ugly caricature of itself, a pay-for-play slum.

Fellow writer/blogger Jo Eberhardt opines.

More links to come as I encounter them…

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2012 2:43 pm

    This is a fine piece and I obviously agree with the points you make in it regarding ebook promotion. But just as a factual matter, I don’t see how you can state “the problem with Jeter’s argument is that it seems like he’s trying to suggest that John Locke was an isolated case.” I repeatedly make it clear in my blog post that I don’t believe the problem is just with John Locke. Here’s some quotes from my post:

    “What’s actually important is the damage caused to honest indie ebook writers by Locke and other writers purchasing fraudulent reviews.”

    “We don’t need dishonest writers, willing to do anything to promote their books, raising doubts in readers’ minds about the reliability of the reviews they see on Amazon about our ebooks.”

    “It would be in the interests of Amazon as well as indie ebook authors for it to come down hard on writers who make the unfortunate decision to purchase fraudulent reviews.”

    “I wouldn’t initiate a petition addressed to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, urging him to yank the ebooks of John Locke or other dishonest writers and to permanently close their Kindle Direct Publishing accounts”

    Other than that, more power to you in addressing this issue.

    • August 28, 2012 2:47 pm

      Fair enough. I read it as mostly singling out Locke, but the quotes definitely prove that maybe my reading was too narrow. I’ll edit the offending line. Thanks for chiming in. :)

      • August 28, 2012 5:05 pm

        Thanks for keeping the discussion going. And of course, your math is absolutely correct; Rutherford’s income from his “service” certainly confirms that he had a lot more customers than just Locke.

        Which certainly raises another issue: why isn’t Amazon doing anything about the gaming of its review system? In a lot of ways, that’s more disappointing than finding out that there are dishonest writers in the world (I pretty much already knew that). By not stripping Locke and other dishonest writers off the website and closing their KDP accounts, Amazon is essentially sending a message to writers who might be thinking of going over to the dark side: “Sure, go ahead, take your shot at gaming our system. What’ve you got to lose? It’s not like we’re going to punish you or anything, and in the meantime, you might hit it big like John Locke.” How are honest, hard-working writers, who abide by Amazon’s TOS, supposed to feel about that? Other than that Amazon and writers like John Locke are playing them for fools.

      • August 28, 2012 5:26 pm

        Yeah, that’s exactly the problem. However, I can see it a bit from Amazon’s perspective, too. They can shut down John Locke now that he’s been exposed (although I doubt they will… clearly if he’s selling well he’s a cash-cow for them)… but from a practical standpoint I don’t see how, technically, they can identify fake or disingenuous reviews in the future. Rutherford’s system made it such that he was even able to put up “Amazon Verified Purchaser” reviews. But I wholeheartedly agree: this gaming of the system makes it more difficult for all writers to succeed in self-publishing by effectively shutting out those authors who either can’t afford to participate in expensive pay-for-play good reviews or who refuse to participate based on their being in possession of a moral compass. And it’s tough for readers, many of whom already don’t trust reviews… they may end up looking for some other touchstone for quality. Seeing as how you’re a pretty big name, though, I’m sure your thoughts on the matter will have a bigger impact overall than mine.

        > Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2012 21:05:30 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

  2. August 28, 2012 5:54 pm

    Wow – I just skimmed the original article you referenced.

    What I want to know – why the heck am I not charging money for my reviews? I actually read the book! And offer my honest opinion!

    Oh, but that’s the point. They don’t want my honest opinion…

    It’s a dirty business, that’s for sure. I guess that’s why most folks I know do not put much stock in reviews on Amazon or anywhere else (and, after reading this, I guess I’ll have to do the same). They read the blurb and sample pages, then decide for themselves.

    • August 29, 2012 8:29 am

      I have to say, I think sample reading is probably one of the better means of learning whether a book is going to be to your tastes. That, and getting a good pitch directly from the author (I can often tell from the way an author talks about their own book whether I’m going to like that book or not).

      > Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2012 21:54:20 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

  3. August 28, 2012 8:00 pm

    I don’t have a lot more to add, other than to say thanks for keeping the conversation going. In many ways, I agree with Chuck Wendig — in order for this conversation to be fruitful we need to “let it go”. Not let go of the facts or the sentiments, just let go of the anger. Because angry people do stupid things, and what the world doesn’t need right now is more stupidity.

    • August 29, 2012 8:16 am

      See, I disagree. Angry people don’t do stupid things. Angry and misinformed, lacking in understanding, uneducated about the issues, or ignorant people do stupid things. People who are accurately educated and informed while also angry are in rather very short supply, but are also more motivated to fix the problems they’ve discovered. Informed anger is the kind that’s cool and calculating, focused and directed. When Chuck Wending references the LendInk fiasco… that’s a prime example of ignorant anger. It’s just not comparable to discovering that a large number of immoral authors are gaming the system and buying positive reviews. How is getting righteously indignant at this gaming of the system “bad author behavior”. This isn’t an appeal for calm, rational action. It’s casting aspersions at those who are indignant about this discovery by painting them as just as bad as those who’ve done some, yes, very stupid things and equating the ignorant and misinformed take-down of LendInk with those who are angry with this discovery but who are so far proposing no specific or direct action that I’ve seen, other than calling on Amazon to find a way to fix their system. Trying to draw that link between these two very different circumstances, that’s a slimy thing to do, in my opinion, and I’m offended by Wendig’s aspersions. Frankly, it makes me question Wendig’s motives… Still, even assuming his motives aren’t tainted, I take it as evidence that he’s not thinking clearly about the problem.

      > Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 00:00:53 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

      • August 29, 2012 9:03 am

        I don’t really agree, but I do 100% support your right to have your own opinion on your own blog. My disagreement is probably in the semantics of your word use, however, rather than your sentiments.

        Anger, by definition, is a strongly felt, hot emotion characterised by a desire for wrath or retribution. People who are angry generally respond with a fight/flight reaction, not a “cool and calculating, focused and directed” way.

        That kind of action requires people to stop feeling angry. Certainly, it helps to hold on to the sense of “wrongness”, but angry people don’t generally make good decisions.

        I’m more than willing to put it out there that this isn’t true for you. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t have a well above average IQ and the Emotional Intelligence to be able to feel anger and still perform in a rational, logical way. But that’s not how the “average person” tends to operate.

        As much as you may think I’m being “slimy”, I agree with Chuck that the LendInk debacle was mostly caused by angry people reacting on instinct — on fight vs flight. Rather than waiting 24 hours to calm down and investigate with a cool head, they took righteous action when they were angry. Most of the people involved probably regret their actions now that their anger has faded. But that’s the way anger affects many usually-rational people.

        I agree that we should be looking for ways to prevent pay-for-play scenarios. However I don’t think anger is the best emotion to have when entering into those discussions. Because an angry mob is still an angry mob, whether they’ve got torches and pitchforks or twitter hashtags.

        …and now I’m going to lay off the argument and let you disagree with me as much as you want. :) At the end of the day, we both agree that bought reviews are a terrible thing, and something should be done about it.

      • August 29, 2012 11:45 am

        I’ll go on record then as saying that I believe there are different types of anger. But then I basically said that in my previous reply. Most anger, I’ll concede, is of the irrational and/or uneducated and ignorant type. But not all, and there are examples in history of righteous and proper anger. Need I Godwin myself and reference World War II – and the righteous anger felt by many Americans and others around the world at, first, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and, second, at the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps? The anger that led us to war never really waned (not while the war waged), and while the results of the war were terrible, ultimately the war itself (and attendant anger) was justified and the right course of action. Rather, doing nothing would have been wrong, as countless more innocents would’ve died otherwise. One could contrast this sharply and distinctly with, for example, the trumped-up accusations, aspersions, lies, and deceits that led the US into the debacle in Iraq in 2003. Treating the two as being of a piece simply because they’re both wars and because anger led to those wars neglects the true underlying facts of the two different situations. There, now I’ve gone and gotten all political.

        My point is, really, that there’s a big difference, and the issue isn’t anger. I think that’s a red herring. The issue is ignorance and irrationality versus rationality and education. I don’t make the claim that what happened to LendInk is defensible, or anything short of “bad author behavior”. What I take exception to is treating my own indignation – and the indignation of other authors, many more with far more skin in the game than I – as being of a piece with that sort of mindless mob mentality. I think there’s anger, but no… there’s no mob here. There’s no surprise and shock and amazement. There’s no insta-frothing-at-the-mouth. And Wendig’s casual dismissal of those who are indignant with phrases like “bad author behavior” and advice like “Let it go… put it in a drawer. Lock the drawer. And get back to work.” And disingenuous gems like “Whether John Locke did or did not pay for reviews matters little to my actual life.” Because if you’re a self-published author – an honest one – or someone considering self-publishing then this does affect you – as I illustrate in my post – by creating a systemic problem that forces authors to pay-up for the positive reviews. His claims that this doesn’t affect us and that we should shrug it off strike me as at best off-key and ill-thought-out. That’s why I thought it was “slimy” to tar indignant authors with the same brush as those who took down LendInk. I still think that’s a slimy rhetorical tactic.

        Basically… if Wendig’s beef were with author anger and doing stupid things, he wouldn’t be advocating for no action at all. He’s not calling for calm. He’s not calling for rationality. He’s calling for doing nothing. And at the end of the day, that’s something else entirely. To me, that makes this not about anger and irrationality.

        All that said… I’m sure you’ll disagree. I think our disagreement centers on a semantic point about the nature and definition of “anger”. Be that as it may, I don’t think “anger”, however you define it, is the real issue, here. Anyway, I’ve said my peice. Substantively, I think we’re mostly in agreement.

      • August 31, 2012 2:12 am

        How about I just agree that we’re mostly in agreement? :) Yes, I think it’s semantics that our disagreement centres on, and I agree that “anger” isn’t the real issue. I don’t agree with your take on Wendig’s piece, but, you know what? That’s okay. Because we all approach issues like this differently.

        Also, can I just say that it’s nice to be able to disagree and not deal with anger-fuelled invective. :)

      • August 31, 2012 8:56 am

        Yes, it’s nice to be able to disagree and not have someone question my intelligence or judgment. But as for Wendig… my problem is that he doesn’t call for calm and rational thought and purposeful considerate action after a cool-down period or anything like that. That’s why I said the issue isn’t “anger”. He’s not warning against taking action while mindlessly angry. He’s arguing against taking any action at all. And to support his argument he makes reference to one instance of some authors who took angry action while they were horribly misguided, misinformed, ignorant, and angry about what they were acting against. The only meaning I can pull from that is that he thinks that taking any group action on any such issue is always like that: misguided, misinformed, and ignorant. And I take exception to that. In this case, which is very different, it has been revealed that some authors have been acting unethically, taking advantage of problems with the system – and this was revealed by a credible source (the New York Times). This isn’t some baseless witch-hunt. When he advises no action and uses the example of a baseless witch-hunt as his reasoning… the only way I can see, personally, to interpret that is that he believesany action on this issue is likewise a witch-hunt. And I think that’s just wrong. If that’s not what he believes, I think he really screwed up his messaging.

        > Date: Fri, 31 Aug 2012 06:12:15 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

  4. August 29, 2012 1:08 am

    What it ultimately does is devalue the whole system of “reviews” on Amazon, at least for books. In the short run, they make more money. In the long run, those five-star reviews will sell fewer books. It’s like the spate of fake “memoirs” a few years ago. After that, I’m sure all books classified as “memoirs” were viewed with more suspicion.

    And if the idea of “ignore the five-stars, look at the four-stars” catches on, the fake reviewers will start to write four-star reviews. But I can’t see how Amazon can really stop this, whether or not they want to. Even if they shut down the ones who got caught (which obviously they should), the money was made, and some newer writers will figure it’s better to make some money fast than perhaps not make any at all. And, for a while they’ll be able to.

    • August 29, 2012 8:26 am

      As a technical matter, I’m not sure what, if anything, Amazon can do. But yeah… it makes all positive reviews, ultimately, suspect. But playing a game of illicit-review-whack-a-mole is probably not going to be effective.

      > Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 05:08:24 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

  5. August 29, 2012 10:38 am

    A much more through treatment of the same concept I posted on earlier in the week. I think the time pressures of a Kickstarter campaign will exacerbate all that you describe.

    Let me ask you though, especially in regards to market inefficiencies, arent many of your points equally applicable to more legitimate forms of advertising?

    • August 29, 2012 12:06 pm

      Yeah, I don’t really see Kickstarter as a viable solution to the problems of the current marketplace, because of certain limitations there. But on the question of this “buying reviews” versus more legitimate forms of advertising, I hint at this in my post, though I don’t address it directly. (One could accept the thesis that “cover art” is a form of advertising, though.) And that’s that there is a real, cognitive difference between something that has been labeled and circumscribed in a manner that makes it clear it’s a form of advertising (which includes things like cover-blurbs both of the “this is what this book is about” variety and the “I’m a popular author and I read and enjoyed this book” variety) and something that has been labeled a “review”. The latter category has the express implication of both honesty, independence and editorial integrity that the former lacks. And that’s an important and meaningful distinction.

      > Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 14:38:43 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

      • August 29, 2012 1:42 pm

        Very good about what a “review” really is (and is not). That’s why I put it in quotes before.

        When I was writing about movies back in the 1990s, I wrote a lot of short recommendations. Basically one or two paragraphs, quick plug with a few details.

        I also wrote some real reviews (those are the ones I’ve posted on my blog). Those have some thought and (I think) analysis behind them. Not the same thing.

        There’s the aspect of honesty and integrity which you refer to (I guess I don’t have to mention that I didn’t get paid for any of this), but there’s also the aspect of having something worthwhile to say about a work of art, beyond the basic “see this” or “don’t see this.” I wrote one thing on Amazon, and it was definitely a “plug,” not a “review.”

      • August 31, 2012 8:46 am

        Yep. You know, though… I don’t have a problem with getting paid to write a review. What I have a problem with is who does the paying. If an author or publisher pays for a review – even if the author/publisher says they want an honest review – the reviewer is nonetheless compromised because they’re indebted to the author/publisher. (Theoretically this could work if the reviewer felt they had most or all the power in the relationship… but it still has the appearance of impropriety.)

        > Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 17:42:07 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

      • August 31, 2012 10:40 am

        I agree, the issue is not getting paid or not, it’s who does the paying. I’m sure Roger Ebert makes a good living, but when he raves about a Scorsese picture it’s good to know his paycheck doesn’t come from Scorsese.

        I would dismiss any review paid for by a publisher or author, not because i think the reviewer is crooked, but because there would be no way to tell. To use an example from business: as I’m sure you’re aware, compliance rules are not just designed to prevent improper behavior, but also to remove the opportunity for (and even the apperaance of) improper behavior.

  6. Scott permalink
    August 29, 2012 12:43 pm

    I can see the appeal to paying people to review your work, but for me it’s more a matter of ethics – anyone who reviews an ebook (or anything, really) should have at least read it. All of it. And do we really want someone we have to pay to review our works to actually review them? Of course, that’s not completely on target here – if you’re willing to pay someone to place a review, you’re probably not that concerned that you had to.
    As far as the expense to publish something well, it actually seems pretty easy to do so nowadays! Maybe too easy, actually, which is leading to a glut of bad writings, but that’s an entirely different topic you’ve touched on before. Granted I’ve only published one thing so far, and that a play not a novel, but I found using Smashwords.com to be incredibly helpful, almost necessary, if I was to get that first published piece ever done. I DID pay for a cover artist, but at $50 (I think that was the price) it wasn’t really that expensive. And frankly, anyone typing up a manuscript is most certainly doing it on a computer with basic graphics capabilities that with a little study could put out a decent cover themselves.
    The new trend towards indie/ebook publishing is obviously taking the industry completely by storm, and it’s exciting and encouraging to me, as a want-to-be author, to be able to enter the fray easily!

    • August 31, 2012 8:40 am

      I’m okay with a review of a book that didn’t finish the book, but I’d like honesty in the matter. A phrase like “I wasn’t enjoying this book at all; I couldn’t even finish it” can be a pretty useful statement – though ideally that should be followed up with some detail about why a book wasn’t enjoyable to that reader. As for self-publishing: yes, it is easier, now, than ever. And if you’re so inclined you can just throw something up online and call it a day. But I think there’s a lot more expense if you want to put out a very high quality product (which is the only thing I, personally, would be interested in if I self-published), which would include some heavy editorial input, high-quality art and design on the cover, interior design, and so on. All of that costs money. It’s not strictly necessary to self-publish, but increasingly it seems to me to be an important part of the process to do it well.

      > Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 16:43:09 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

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