Paying for Reviews Robs the Reader

Haven’t had much to post about of late, but this week an interesting article popped up in the NY Times about the fact that some authors have used review services to bolster their sales. It’s caused a bit of a stir, mostly falling on the side of annoyance or downright anger. It’s basically a function of gaming Amazon’s review system to push sales and rank of ebooks. Sounds rather sketchy (and it is).

The primary example used was that of best-selling author, John Locke, a thriller writer who has made a name for himself in self-publishing selling $1 ebooks and doing rather well for himself by it. He’s managed to get a traditional publishing deal out of it as well. In that regard, good for him. He took what was given to him and made it work and found success. However, I think this speaks more to a faulty system than any mean-spirited trickery on the author’s part.

If you sell on the Kindle, your major route to success lies in hitting the top of various lists. Getting noticed in the sea of books is a self-published author’s goal. You have to get on people’s radar in order to get bought. It doesn’t matter how good your story is. If nobody sees it, the quality is rather irrelevant. The way Amazon works, spiking sales numbers will stick your smiling mug up on the top or near the top of any number of lists. There are a plethora of categories (more so than I would’ve thought possible, and allocated to books in sometimes odd and mysterious ways) that one can get noticed on. Mainly though, one wants to hit the more general lists. The less specific, the broader your reach to readers. A certain number of sales may garner you on the epic fantasy list. A few more and you hit general fantasy. Do really good and you make it on to more general overall rankings.

What John Locke did, and many I’m sure have tried to duplicate and perhaps have, is to pay people to get his book off of Amazon, read it and post a review. There are some fairly obvious problems with this model. The main one is that you get a book with tons of reviews with no actual validity. You have no idea if the person actually read the book. Getting paid to review, incurs a potential obligation or expectation to say something good about a story you may not have liked. You get sales rankings that are basically fake. These are not sales based on interest, word of mouth, or anything at all related to how good the story may or may not be. It’s akin to corporations playing musical chairs with their accounting to make themselves look like they’re doing better than they actually are.

There’s nothing illegal or against the rules about any of this.  It is deceptive. It’s not an entirely honest method for garnering readership. I can’t really fault Locke for doing this. If I had five grand to toss out there and pay 500 people $10 to buy my $1 book and hopefully read it and then post a review for me, I might be tempted. Because the thing with books is that sales beget sales. As a reader, I might see this book I’ve never seen before, suddenly at #3 on the thriller list that I’ve never heard of before. I’ll check a few reviews and see that they’re almost all positive. For a buck? Hell, I’ll check it out. I might even like the book. Is anyone the worse for it? If you’re duped into trying something you like, is there a problem with that?

You could say it’s just another form of what publishers have practiced for years. Let’s face it, reviewers generally review because they love books and love to talk about them.  If you get in with a publisher and get free books form them to review on a regular basis, that kind of rocks. Will they keep sending them to you if you dis on them all the time? Well, no. It’s kind of a “be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you” sort of arrangement. Again, not a strictly dishonest approach, but it’s also rather deceptive. Works for the author, the publisher, and the reviewer, but it fails the reader.

As a reader, I don’ take kindly to being tricked, duped or deceived. I want only one thing in a review, and that’s honesty. Thoughtful honesty. Read the book and give an honest, informed opinion of the experience.  If you tell me you can get paid or get kickbacks or whatever (from a pub or author), and not have your opinion subtly shifted in the direction of a more favorable response, I’ll cry “bullshit.” Psychology of the brain doesn’t work that way. Your objectivity is skewed automatically by entering into such a relationship. There is no switching off that influence.

For me personally, I don’t pay much attention to reviews of books (other than my own of course). There’s no trust in a system that lacks any sort of transparency about where the opinion is coming from or why. When significant stories like this crop up, it only reinforces that opinion. I’d like to know reviews are honest, but I can’t. It really can’t behoove the industry to have general, public opinion about reviews be that they are pointless because people are being paid to give good ones. We authors rely to some degree on having reviews help us with discoverability. When someone doctor’s the books in order to gain advantage, it’s disappointing. Don’t game the system simply because you can. It’s not cool.

I don’t know that I would’ve ever bought any of Locke’s books, but knowing he used these methods to influence his success, he goes on the list of never buy or recommend that author. And on that note, Amazon? Fix your damn review system. There has to be a way to minimize the impact of this kind of behavior. Don’t let the joke of one of our major avenues to discovery continue. It’s embarrassing. And that goes for anyone else who solicits opinion in a manner that skews objectivity. Is honesty of process really that damn difficult to deal with?

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2 responses to “Paying for Reviews Robs the Reader

  1. These so called ‘Black Hat’ marketing tactics are the kind of things that dubious web marketers would use to promote their dodgy products (you know those websites that would teach you how to make 50 bucks, but first you had to send them 50 bucks to find out how).

    Its disheartening to see it begin to spill into the e-publishing world.

    I think the only way around this, is to not just rely upon the Amazon Review system, but to also check for blog reviews, reviews at Good Reads and other places. And try to get a more rounded opinion of the book however you can.

  2. This practice STINKS. I thought if I read a review that had an amazon verified purchase next to it, then I could trust it. But you’re saying that they may have been paid externally to buy it… grrrrr…

    I don’t know how this system could be ‘fixed’. And that makes me angry. In the end though, the reviews only get me so far. I have a kindle now and don’t purchase books without reading the sample first. But things like this explain why some of the most awful books end up in the top 10 of some of the lists I visit.

    Frustrating!