Sunday, September 09, 2012

Book industry scandal: paid and fake reviews

I posted about this on Murderati earlier in the week, and am not crazy about the idea of getting into the topic again, but I know a lot of readers of this blog don't have time to read Murderati, too, and I wouldn’t be doing my job as an author community blogger NOT to report on the scandal du jour (or de semaine, or du mois, probably.)

The subject is paid and fake Amazon reviews, and the internet is burning up with outraged posts, petitions, and condemnations against several authors:

- Stephen Leather and Roger Ellory and Sam Millar for creating sockpuppet accounts to praise their own books and trash those of competitors.

- John Locke for paying for at least 300 Amazon reviews and then – what I personally find even more reprehensible – writing a book on “How I Sold a Million E Books in Five Months” and charging $8.99 for it, while OMMITTING the fact that he paid for at least 300 Amazon reviews, which surely had a great deal to do with his sales success.

I’ve linked to some main articles below so you can catch up.

Go read here and here and here and here, and then if you feel like discussing, meet me back here.

There is a lot of sadness and discomfort mixed with my own outrage.

I like Roger Ellory very much as a person and I actually agree with his own reviews of his books, they’re some of the best crime fiction I’ve read in recent years.  Why he thought that he had to pump up his already stellar reputation by creating fake reviews and trashing other fine authors like Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham is beyond me.

Except that it’s not.

I have done many stupid, regrettable things in my life, and paid dearly for those things, too. Usually when I have been completely out of my mind with – something – grief over a dying parent, grief over the loss of a loved one or a loved project, fear over my financial situation, fear over just about anything.

As completely unchristian as I am I can’t help thinking of that little verse about “she who is without sin” and “casting the first stone.”

It’s very easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of  - well, anything, really, but publishing is what we’re talking about - and do stupid things we wouldn’t ordinarily condone or be caught dead doing ourselves.

When we can see other authors blatantly gaming the system: racking up success after success by faking reviews, publishing fan fiction that skirts or crosses the line of plagiarism which turns into a series of multimillion dollar bestsellers and a major movie deal, hiring other authors to write books for you and slapping your name on them while grossly underpaying the authors who actually WROTE the books - there’s a huge temptation to jump on one of those bandwagons because, hey, everyone’s doing it.  And while I’m able to flatly say that the above practices are wrong – what about tagging parties?  What about asking friends to bury nasty one-star reviews by clicking “unhelpful” on Amazon?  Is that gaming the system?  Is it wrong?

BUT - even as I am remembering that I'm fully capable of doing stupid and condemnable things myself, I do very strongly believe that we authors have to police ourselves as a community.  We need to talk, to debate, to develop standards and be able to say when required: This is wrong, this is duplicitous, this is unacceptable.

Whether that will stop the behavior, I have no idea.

But I also believe authors are for the most part an empathetic and moral lot.  I really do believe that.  I hope that all of these authors who have been caught out and are being held up as examples will take all this furor and censure to heart, self-correct, make appropriate amends to anyone who has been wronged, and go on to use their influence to do better. Much better.

So far Roger Ellory seems to be the only one of the four authors in the spotlight willing to step up and say, "I fucked up," but I hope that the others will, too.

And I would hope that friends of authors who are drifting toward moral gray areas would be the first ones to speak up and say - WTF - what are you thinking?  Stop that shit NOW before you do somethiing you'll regret for the rest of your life.. 

I SERIOUSLY hope that my author friends would step up and say it to me.

I hope we ALL will. Because we need to remember how easy it is to get caught up in the desperation of trying to make a living at this very tenuous profession and how easy it is to fall into behavior that serves no one.  We ALL need a little help from our friends.

So, I have a lot of questions today. Were you aware of the blazing heat suddenly surrounding this issue of paid and fake reviews?  Are you feeling outrage about any of this behavior, and if so, or if not, what are you feeling? Do you believe that given all the success ladled on cheaters, you have to cheat to remain in the game?  Or do you believe in karma?  Or do you believe that a belief in karma is the modern opiate of the masses?

And here’s another question – who should be policing reviews and author behavior, if anyone?

And another - how do you feel about one-star reviews in general?  Would you post one? Do you find them accurate and helpful?

- Alex


Attorney At Large said...

I've posted one star reviews, generally when there's been a bait-and-switch (excerpt/marketing doesn't match with the book) AND the book is riddled with errors. I can't forgive more than one or two copy editing errors per book, and I really can't forgive fact-checking errors. Personal failing.

That said, I find one star reviews useful, too. Sometimes what's pointed out in a one star review (e.g., "this book wasn't about X, it was about Y") makes me purchase a book I wouldn't have, otherwise, because the marketing/blurb/excerpt was off.

Adaddinsane said...

I know Roger Ellory personally as well, and I must admit my first reaction was "there is no way he would have done that".

But if, as you say he admitted it, then I'd say "that's just like him". Well if you're going to make a mistake like that the best thing you can do is come clean.

He worked for years helping addicts and people with other problems while he toiled away on his books - 23 unpublished before he got his break. (His wife took the first call from the publisher who wanted to publish his work - she thought it was a wind-up after so many years of failure.)

He's a very decent guy who did something silly - and I suspect most of us have been there. Just not quite so publicly. (And for that, we can be grateful.)

Gayle Carline said...

I've never given a 1-star review. Don't know if I ever would, but I've learned to never say never.

Making up names to give yourself glowing reviews seems kind of sad, like you have no friends on the playground or something.

Making up names to give other people bad reviews is more like playground bullying. It also runs against the grain of everything I've encountered as an author. I'm not competing with other mystery authors. Readers typically don't confine themselves to An Author as much as a genre.

Yeah, the whole sock puppet thing is sad and stupid, but I don't know how much more immoral it is than having your family and friends write reviews. And generally, when I look at reviews, I can tell who read the book and has an honest appraisal, and who "loves" the book because they're the author's mom.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Attorney, TWO copyediting errors deserve a one-star review? OMG. I don't believe I've ever read a single book that would pass that test.

You can't know how authors tear their hair out over working with copyeditors. I've gone back and forth for a week trying to correct errors only to have the copyeditor turn in the OLD draft, without my corrections - and have it go into print.

I think you're being incredibly harsh, given the reality of the situation, which is that authors don't have as much control as you think...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Addad, I felt the same way. What he did goes beyond silly, but I suspect Roger will go a long way to make amends.

Unknown said...

I think one-star reviews can be exceedingly helpful, provided they point out issues the reader had with the book and are not just "OMG this book sux!1!!"

I haven't published anything yet, but I can imagine the stress an author feels trying to publicize their book and draw readers. With Amazon being the powerhouse it is, you can't ignore Amazon reviews. It's sad that some authors felt the need to create fake reviews for their books, but like you said, who among us hasn't made a mistake?

I'm not sure how you could police reviews to keep this from happening. I think readers just have to take things with a grain of salt, and try to get reviews from a variety of sources.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, I hope the great sockpuppet scandal will make everyone think a little harder about how we want to do business.

On the one-star review thing - I don't give them because if a book is a one-star I don't finish it. I don't understand why anyone would finish a one-star book - life is way too short, and there are so many GOOD books we'll never be able to get to!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lara, to tell you the truth, I'm not much worried about authors leaving one-star reviews. I think the number of authors who do is very small (I could be wrong, but)

I do think Amazon reviews have become another form of Internet trolling, though. Anyone with a grudge has a way to vent revenge, anonymously.

Ellen said...

Very generous and honest response. I'd read just a few sentences about this scandal and, while I wanted to find it deplorable, I actually found it regrettable and understandable in nearly equal parts. When the stakes appear so high and the currency appears so cheap, it is easy to understand the temptation. And as you say, it would appear to be part of a continuum of behaviors, many of which (tag a review? thumbs-up a rating?) didn't even exist 10-15 years ago. Also, I am thinking of dead stupid things I've done simply under the influence of chronic sleep deprivation, let alone big life challenges.

Don't know if I'm even answering your questions, but I really appreciated the article. And Alex, you should feel really good knowing that the more you help educate other writers, the better everyone can do using the legitimate resources that exist.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ellen, you're so right - the means didn't even exist - just a few years ago, let alone 10. A lot of it is a new form of internet trolling and flaming. Anonymity is usually a big factor in bad behavior. Sleep deprivation is up there, for sure! ;)

And thanks for the props. I HOPE I'm helping educate... that's why it's what Locke did: charging for advice that wasn't the REAL method he used - is what angers me the most.

Catherine said...

Hi Alex,
I like the way you've handled this touchy subject. I think the "new" technology takes a lot of getting used to - and making mistakes is a large part of that.

And I agree, the writing community needs to continuously discuss these issues openly.

Thanks for the discussion.


Anonymous said...

Alex, while I agree we've all done dumb things, what I find really numbing is Ellory posting bad reviews to other authors. That's stepping way over the line for mine. If there's a price to pay for that sort of shit, then he should pay it. Sock puppetry is just gaming the system, and it's sad but understandable, but white-anting other authors - that's just mean, low and nasty. I don't think you should be making excuses for him for that. It is my understanding that it was going on for 4 years, not a momentary lapse. That means a high degree of premeditation.
And don't even get me started on John Locke, I'm going to ask Amazon for my money back. And thanks for the post - good stuff, as always.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I don't feel any outrage over authors doing this. Given how fast the Internet is changing the nature of self-promotion, it can be so easy to slip up and make a mistake. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can hold their hand up and admit they messed up.

But I would rather get honest reviews, myself, whether good or bad. Every author should be constantly striving to improve their craft, and sometimes you need some bad reviews to find out how to do that.

Unknown said...

So, what about solicited book reviews, paid for book reviews, or even fake reviews. "Duplicitous" –meaning behaving dishonestly in order to trick as many someone’s in as many languages as possible – seems at first blush the perfect word. But is it really?

Since the 1950s Madison Avenue Account Executives have been arguing that “pseudo truth” is not only acceptable to the modern consumer, it’s expected. One look at the advertising done via any modern medium to sell anything street legal tells you that that philosophy still dominates. Advertisers and marketers argue that it is only “duplicitous” if someone is actually deceived. Well, according to the well paid ad-men and ad-women round the globe – and most of their successful great grandparents – no one is. They claim we all know that those guys on TV pushing drugs aren’t really doctors, those aren’t their real orgasmic patients, that the study was done by the seller for big bucks, and that any really bad news has been tucked under the rug using a bulldozer. They say we really know that the politicians, movies, and toilet bowl cleaners their making household names aren’t “must haves” endorsed my Mother Theresa.

More directly to the point, when the hell did book publishing houses of yesterday develop a conscience, genuine ethics, and the belief that we’re all trusting dupes? It’s sure news to me. I never believed for a minute that those back of the book endorsements were the products of honest unpaid scholars, major institutions never seeking a back scratch, or the work of isolated Tibetan monks in total denial of any and all quid pro quotes. Oh, but now publishing has gone John-Q public, and worse, Inde 500 NASCAR Amazonian. Are we really all gasping for breath because the independent folk are starting to behave like the Big Six houses of illrepute? Well duh – don’t all you guys writing you too can learn to write books keep singing the old school song – “hey stupid, it’s a frigging business?”

Why do I suddenly get the sense that we’re all whores bitching our brains out because that that cheap tramp on that other corner didn’t really do all those dudes pimping her talents at Joe’s bar. I mean – whoa, look out – some alien from another planet might actually get fooled into thinking she’s high toned and fail to use a condom.

What do I really think; I think we’d better clean up the fracking theaters around the World, before we start worrying about the candy wraps dropped by three bad actors off Broadway.

Kameko Murakami said...

I've never given a one star review, for the same reason you give yourself: why waste time finishing something that you're just really not enjoying? Do I want to force myself to keep plodding through some terrible piece of fiction, or would I rather spend my time plowing through these Harry Bosch novels I've got stacked up over here?

I try to take online reviews with a grain of salt the size of Oliver Platt's head. I find five star and one star reviews to be equally dubious... although I have given a few five stars out myself, so I'm apparently covered in hypocrite juice over here.

It probably makes me a terrible self-marketer of my work, but I can't imagine faking reviews or begging my friends or family to toss me a big thumbs up on everything I do. I'd rather have honest reviews that are thoughtful and could help me to perhaps better gauge what an audience would like from me in the future, rather than just patting me on the head and giving me a cookie.

Although, to be clear, if anyone wants to give me actual cookies, I'm so there.

Tyler Tork said...

Personally, I pay some attention to the number of stars, but I'm more interested in what the reviewers say. A non-thoughtful review doesn't influence me -- at least, I like to think so. But I don't think most people are like me.

Paid reviews are nothing new, of course; they're only getting more attention now. Using such services is reprehensible, but I think the sites that host the reviews also bear some responsibility for failing to take better measures to stop them.

If an account is posting reviews for more books than they could plausibly read, that seems like a red flag. A little textual analysis could identify likely paid reviews -- and if a lot of them come from the same account, that's a sign that you should shut the account down and remove all of them (or better yet, make them visible to the reviewer and to nobody else).

I also doubt people getting paid $5 each, or whatever it is, take the trouble to write totally original text for each one. That should be easy to detect.

If people rate reviews as unhelpful, that should affect more than just the review rated. It should affect the rating of the reviewer.

I'm sure people who study this stuff have more ideas about stopping it. Ultimately it's a question of how well the site is serving the customer. It's a shame there isn't more competition in this space, to make it easier to boycott a given distributor until they clean up their act.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Cath, yes, SO much of this is about the new technology, I think.

Technology and anonymity. Not a good combination.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Colin, believe me, I am NOT trying to defend ANYTHING any of these four did.

I just have to look at it from the point of view of how I need to do better as a person, and how I can hopefully help the community do better. Outrage is appropriate but not practical if it's not followed up by practical action.

And in Roger's case, I was making the point that he is the only one of the four so far to even acknowledge wrongdoing. I hope he will do more than acknowledge it, but make real amends - and as I said, I tend to suspect he will.

Ruth Madison said...

This issue makes me heart heavy.

I feel disappointed and hurt because I did buy Locke's book about book sales and now I know that he lied to me.

Trying to tear down competitors is so surprising. Maybe it's because I write in a very small niche, but I do my best to lift up my competitors. My readers want more and more and I want them to know that they can come to me for honest recommendations of other book like mine that they will enjoy.

If I write a one star review (I've only done it twice), it is very well deserved. In any review I write, I'm very careful to explain exactly what I thought was wrong and to also give examples of what a book did well.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

So the site was down most of the day because of a GoDaddy hacker called ANONYMOUS. Strangely in keeping with the theme du jour...

It will take me a while to catch up on the posts, so bear with me!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paul Anthony Shortt, I agree - but I've also noticed a distinct difference between honest bad reviews and what I'll call "revenge reviews".

It's way too easy to use the review system to vent over something that has really nothing to do with the quality of the book supposedly being reviewed.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Not a fan of 1 star reviews. Many times, reviewers will rail against the author's personality or philosophy. Or, they'll complain about the book's price. I really hate reviews that are just personal attacks.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paul, I think the outrage is because some AUTHORS are behaving like businesses. Despite what Mitt thinks, corporations aren't people, and people aren't corporations, thank God! The authors I know FOR THE MOST PART are incredibly supportive and generous. I sure don't want to see any slide some other way.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kameko, I'm with you - the Harry Bosch novels are an EXCELLENT reason no one should ever finish some book they're NOT enjoying!

There are some reviews that really do give a sense of what readers are responding to in a book, good and bad - those are a true joy.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tyler, those are some fantastic practical suggestions about improving the effectiveness of the review system. From your mouth to Amazon's ears, I hope!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ruth, I think Colin has an excellent suggestion above - ask Amazon to refund the money you paid for Locke's book. It's a very strong message to Locke and to Amazon as well.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Handy/Craft - yes, exactly my feeling - a lOT of one-star reviews seem to be personal attacks.

Marcia James said...

Alex -- I'd heard about the sock puppetry, but not in the detail you provided. I can understand (although I've never done it) an author giving his own book a 5-star review. As you said, there are troll reviewers who delight in being as snarky as possible. And it's difficult for an author to have a good review rating, if several of these unpleasant people decide to give your book 1-star ratings.

As you mentioned, authors are blamed for so many things beyond our control -- including typos, bad covers, and book pricing. Many readers believe we're all making big money, so they feel as justified being nasty about a book as they do about Tweeting about a rude Macy's sales clerk. But the level of review nastiness this year seems so over the top, that it's understandable an author might want to try to balance the ugly comments with Likes, Tags, and good reviews from friends and family. For example, I've heard of two different incidents in which a reader left a review that said basically, "Not only did I hate her book, but I went to her website, and she's fat and ugly, too." Who wouldn't want to balance that vitriol with positive reviews?

I worked for my local newspaper and wrote several reviews of fellow authors' books. If a book wasn't my cup of tea, I didn't knock the book; I pointed out which group of readers I believed the book would appeal to. But many readers don't take their very subjective likes and dislikes into account when panning a book. I've heard of readers who have given 1-star reviews to books featuring red-headed heroines because they prefer brunettes.

I can't imagine ever giving a 1-star review. And while I can understand why an author would anonymously give his own books 5-star reviews, I think it's reprehensible for an author to deliberately give fellow authors' books 1-star reviews to possibly increase the ranking of his own books. To me that's ugly and close to unforgiveable. And I do hope that karma comes into play, smacking down those authors who would deliberately hurt another author.

Louisa Mack said...

Alexandra thanks for your sane and balanced input to this topic when there is so much insanity around. It's too easy to blame and condemn but it isn't helpful. The publishing industry is changing so fast and authors need to work out how to make it work for them while still keeping their soul intact.

Noelle said...

This sort of thing has been happening in the music industry for years. While I was working in the industry in Nashville word got out that a certain record label had sent someone into the stores to buy all the copies of their up-and-coming new country singer (who shall remain nameless, but who is now incredibly rich and famous). The increased sales shot her into stardom and the label profitted from that greatly. The general public was never aware of it. I thought it was SO wrong, just as I think it's wrong for authors to write fake reviews of their own work. However, I'm left wondering how many people really make it completely on their own talents, without using any sneaky tactics to promote.

Noelle said...

PS - How did it become known that these authors were doing this at Amazon?