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…


Friday Links to Chew On

So I had a couple links I wanted to pass on before they grew stale.  But they didn’t fit the theme of the occassional series I do on “Tidbits of Inspiration”.  And then I remembered I’d done a pretty large link-dump recently, and I realized that I had a good name for an occassional series of posts in which I dump links on your poor, unsuspecting readers.  And so, I give you a small helping of “Links to Chew On”:

  • Author Myke Cole shares some of the rules of writing that he’s learned: He’s got 18 rules in all, and covers writing habits, style, genre, promotions and publishing.  The rules are pretty amusing, and you should check them out.  I’d say they’re a pretty complete set of rules, and if you’re a writer you’d do well to consider them.
  • Author Brandon Sanderson is Self-Publishing: And… it looks like big news, sure.  A major epic fantasy best-seller, the author who is finishing acclaimed author Robert Jordan’s magnum opus, is eschewing traditional publishing for self-publishing!  The End Is Nigh!  Except, well, not really.  When you actually read the news, you’ll find that it’s not quite that earth-shattering.  All Sanderson is doing is taking a couple novela-length stories he’s written and published elsewhere and binding them up in a single volume.  And after reflecting on it, I recalled that a lot of traditionally-published authors (though few as big-named as Sanderson) have been doing similar experiments.  Still, it is worthy of note because Sanderson is such a big name.
  • Pre-reject your own work: It saves time and heartbreak.  And it’s fun!
  • Respect Your Fans: An interesting article that makes what I think is an important point: if you want loyal readers, then you need to respect your fans.  The article explores some of the history of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fandom and how connected and engaged those fans are – and how that connection and engagement feeds back into the development of the genre.  There are some interesting counterpoints to this idea that aren’t fully explored in the article but discussed somewhat in the comments, too.  Anyway, worth the read.
  • Speaking of Fans… Here’s a pair of articles about setting up and using a facebook fan page.  I, myself, do not have one, and I won’t bother with one until I have published some fiction in a professional market or instead decided to self-publish and thereafter earned more than the sales I could count on two hands.  But hey… if you’re already down those rabbit holes, maybe you could use a fan page?

Anyway, there are some links for you this Friday…  Have fun!

Data on the Ebook Revolution

I’ve said before that I’m a data-hound.  I don’t like airy statements that lack any real numbers to back it all up – I prefer solid statements based on actual, verifiable data.  There’s a lot more of the former than the latter in discussions of digital self-publishing and ebooks and related topics.  So some new, solid data on industry trends is a real treat for me.

  • Pew Internet on the Rise of E-reading: The study shows that one-fifth of Americans read an e-book in the past year; those who use e-readers read more and are more likely to purchase books than to borrow them.  This research gives a good sense on the direction of the broader market for e-books and how things have evolved.
  • Dean Wesley Smith and Mike Shatzkin each comment on the data unearthed by the Pew Internet survey.  A key take-away is that e-readership is growing.  But there are some surprises in there as well: like the fact that e-reader owners are still more likely to be reading a print book than an e-book.
  • Self-published Author Lindsay Buroker argues that more authors are making a “living” self-publishing than you might think.  To back up her claim… she points to a small number of authors who appear to be doing well (i.e. anecdotal data).  She goes on to offer advice for making it big based on doing the same thing that these folks are doing….
  • But then along comes a new survey from Taleist on self-publishing that will disabuse you of the notion that there’s easy-pickings gold in them thar hills. Continue reading

Quality vs. Speed

During my MBA, one of the problems that was often discussed is the tension between having quality information with which to make decisions versus having timely and fast information with which to make decisions.  In an ideal world, your information is both timely and accurate.  It’s hard to make good decisions unless you have information that is both accurate and timely.  But in the real world, there is a trade-off between timeliness and accuracy.

I offer this by way of analogy.  This holds true outside the world of business and MBAs as well: in whatever field of interest or endeavor of human activity, there is always a tension and a trade-off between the quality of something and the speed it can be done.

Author Dean Wesley Smith, who has become something of a self-publishing advocate, talked about this in a recent guest post gig he did on the “Fictorians” blog.  I found it interesting, then, that he took a stand against one of the most commonly-cited positives for new authors to choose self-publishing over traditional publishing: speed.

The argument goes this way: traditional publishers suck because you write a book and then a publisher accepts it and then it’s like two years before the book comes out and before you sell a single copy.  Or, you self-publish and the book is out tomorrow and you’re selling like hotcakes.

And hey, I can dig that argument.  I mean, yeah, two years is a long time after you’ve already invested whatever into writing that novel in the first place.

Which gets to the heart of Dean’s argument: you did invest time and learning into writing that novel, didn’t you?

Continue reading

Logic Error

There’s a lot of bad logic out there.  In the debate between those advocating for digital self-publishing and those advocating for traditional publishing… there’s more than a fair share of bad logic. 

I was intrigued by this infographic on “Rhetological Fallacies” recently linked on a daily link roundup of one author I follow.  These are argument logic errors.  So, keep that in mind as a basis for where I’m going next.

I get around on the internet, occasionally.  I follow a lot of blogs – some more closely than others.  That’s background.  It is, therefore, that I happened upon a blog post by aspiring author Tom Simon.  I’d followed a few of his posts before, ostensibly because something he posted once interested me.  But this one, in particular, smacked me as… well… Keep that link on Rhetological Fallacies in mind, will you?

Mr. Simon does a lot of posts with short quotes from various things he finds interesting.  Often, he’ll indicate that some quote or another is, in his estimation,wise. 

The alleged wisdom in this recent post goes back to another comment on a recent Passive Voice blog post

On the subject of whether to publish traditionally or to digitally self-published, the quoted sage said this:

My attitude is to look at what happens if you make the wrong choice.

If you self-publish and you do something wrong, you can fix it. If the entire self-publishing industry implodes, you still have the rights to your work, so you can still go sell it to a traditional publisher.

If you go traditional and something goes wrong, you are completely screwed. You’ve signed away your rights, you don’t have control over how your work is marketed, etc., etc. If your publisher goes under, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of legal work for you to be able to re-sell that work, assuming you ever can. Is it worth to you to take that kind of risk in return for some editing and cover art?

If this is what passes for wisdom… I must weep.

Where do I begin?  Well… that’s easy enough: I’ll begin at the beginning.  And when I get to the end, I’ll stop. Continue reading

More Amazon Pricing Horror Stories

I wrote a while ago linking to a story in which Amazon had arbitrarily reset the price of an e-book published by a self-published author.

Today, I’m linking to another such story, this by established, traditionally-published author Jim Hines whose self-published book of short stories has been given the Amazon pricing treatment.

The punch-line?  Amazon has added a term to their Terms of Agreement that specifically absolves them of any liability for their own mistakes

As Jim Hines says:

I’m not telling people not to publish through Amazon; I am telling you to go in with your eyes open, and to understand that despite what the cheerleaders might suggest, Amazon is not pro-author. They’re pro-Amazon.

Let me second that sentiment.  I’m a long way from being in a position to tell anyone how to publish anything – I’m a long way from being able to publish anything I’ve written.  And I’ve consistently said that I’m glad that these new publishing options exist, insofar as they change the publishing paradigm sufficiently to tip the balance of power ever-so-slightly towards the favor of writers.

But were I in a position to self-publish something now, while I certainly wouldn’t discount the market position of Amazon, I’d make sure I put in the effort to make my book available in as many non-Amazon venues as possible, and to promote those venues, in order to try to insulate myself from getting the Amazon treatment myself.  Because to keep the balance of power tipping back toward authors, a singular publishing hegemony must be prevented.


Jim Hines has updated his thoughts on his experience with Amazon here.

And as Jim points out in the link above, it looks like Amazon has been in the news in other ways lately.  Here are some links of possible interest:

Amazon Removes Kindle Versions of IPG Books

The Author’s Guild on Amazon


Writer Beware takes on some of the recent Amazon news

Pyramid Schemes, Market Bubbles, E-Publishing and Me

When I was a freshman in High School, I was introduced to the concept of Amway.  At the time I was young, naive, and also legally incapable of owning and running an Amway business thanks, mercifully, to various child labor laws  But one-day soon, wouldn’t I like to be a part of an Amway business? The idea had a powerful allure: you put in “X” hours per week (where “X” is some number less than what you’d need for a part-time job) talking to “Y” contacts (where “Y” represents some seemingly-reasonable number of friends, family, and poor schlubs who you can rope into a marketing pitch session) and if only “Z” of them join (where “Z” is some number less than “Y”, but one which is nonetheless unachievably high because some number “Z-prime” of them, which assymptotically approaches 100% of “Y”, have already heard of Amway and aren’t interested) then you’ve got a solid foundation for a growing business.  If each of your “Z” business associates goes out and does the same, and each of their associates the same again, why then, in like no time at all you’ll be raking in megabucks without any further committment of your own time and resources.  You’ll be on easy street.  That’s the way they sell it, anyway.

This is, classically, what we call a “Pyramid Scheme”.  This post isn’t a dig on Amway – they make perfectly fine, if overpriced food, cleaning, and dietary supplement products – nor is this post even about Amway.  Amway is just the starting point, an anecdote, a part of a story about how I developed a healthy skepticism of “get rich quick” schemes and grandiose claims.  And it’s true you can defend Amway: their business is legal, and they do market and sell actual physical products.  But with Amway the whole idea wasn’t so much that you made money by marketing and selling Amway products.  The whole idea was that you got other people to market and sell Amway products for you, and then you make a cut of their profits.  More recently, I read an exposé that told how the only people who ever got rich from Amway were the ones who made and sold the promotional materials and the motivational videos and books and went on the motivational talk circuit.  No one ever made a mint selling overpriced Amway products.

I had loved ones inolved with Amway.  One day, we anticipated, I would join their “organization” and get involved, too.  And things would snowball from there and we’d all be rich.  My loved ones never got rich.  But they did spend overmuch, for a little while, on Amway products.  Eventually, they parted ways with Amway, quietly.  And with that, I was already better prepared for my next encounter with pyramid schemes and “multi-level marketing”.

Several years ago, before I met Dear Wife, I left Small Town, Southern State, USA to move to Big City, Southern State, USA.  (I am not a Southerner, but the South became my home when my military father retired in the aforementioned Southern State.)  I was hieing out for hopefully better job prospects and almost certainly better personal life prospects.  Both turned out to be true, thankfully (I have my current job, for instance, and I met Dear Wife.)  But upon arrival in the Big City and putting forth my resumé in various venues for the putting forth of resumés, I was contacted for an interview from an insurance and financial services company.  Insurance and Financial Services weren’t my area of interest, but I was pretty desperate at this point.  Of course, I did not turn down the interview.  I don’t know why the fact that the interview took place late in the evening didn’t tip me off that something was amiss. Continue reading