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

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…

Another Perspective on Amazon as Publisher & Bookseller, Plus a Contrarian View on Disruption in Publishing

I can’t seem to stay away from articles about disruption and disintermediation in the publishing industry, and especially those about Amazon’s role in it.  So here are a few articles of potential interest, and some comments on them.

In “The Trouble With Amazon“, author/publisher/consultant/etc Thad McIlroy opines about Amazon’s recent foray into vertical integration and publishing.  In this article, Thad suggests that the real danger Amazon presents to the publishing industry is not their mucking about in the publisher’s playground, but their bread-and-butter core business of bookselling.  The problem, he suggests, is that Amazon is systematically devaluing books.  His article includes this painfully true zinger:

Writing has become badly debased when a $4.99 e-book is thought overpriced, but people will line up at six in the morning in front of an Apple store to pay $499 for the skinny tablet to read it on.

Thad outlines a number of other problematic practices of Amazon – censorship, remote deletion of books, contrarian e-book format support (and opposition to industry-accepted standards), and so on.  All of these problems boil down to one over-arching concern: market power.

Thad concedes that “Amazon does not have a monopoly on selling e-books”, though it has much of the power of one, and then suggests perhaps Amazon is an “oligopoly”.

This is where I part ways, somewhat, with the article. Continue reading