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Self Publishing, Lies, and Fake Amazon Reviews

By / August 29, 2012 / no comments

I’ve noticed that “self publish” seems to be the new buzz word in digital town. It’s very hard to miss this fact when Amazon.com is trying very hard to push their whole digital self publish model. Every time I go to check out the latest cool Japanese dog toy gadgets on the Amazon marketplace, I’m practically bombarded with Amazon self published “success stories” all over the place.

Case in point: Amazon.com’s homepage now:

 

Geez, I wonder what Amazon.com is trying to push here….

 

So, I’m going to share my perspective on the whole thing.

 

Just Because You Can Type Doesn’t Mean You’re a Writer.

According to a recent survey, over 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them and that they should write it — that’s over 200 million Americans who feel some impulse to write something for an audience. I’m not even going to guess what this figure adds up if we start polling other countries or if it’s simply an “American thing”. Regardless, just because you feel you have a book in you, doesn’t mean we want to read it.

Which brings us to Amazon.com — the world’s largest online retailer and certainly the number one go-to source for all things books — including reading reviews about books to make an informed buying decision before purchase. Amazon has been rapidly integrating their Kindle marketplace into their general book section merging regular printed books with self-published digital only books; it makes sense from a financial standpoint — Amazon makes more money directly from kindle-only books since they cut out the middle man publisher. There is no distinction made between self-published and traditionally published. Which would be fine if there were not so many damn self-published books flooding the marketplace now.

Back to the 200 million potential American authors. The problem is that with the ease of the epublishing and the made-to-download Amazon kindle marketplace, it’s incredibly easy for every one of those 200 million potential “authors” to “share” that book with the entire world. That’s fine, except the marketplace is already exceedingly crowded with books both you and I don’t ever want to read. The whole self publishing revolution is muddying the waters even more with many of the books displayed on amazon, kindle-only versions (self published).

And with more than a few self-published authors trying to hype up their literary brainchild through fake reviews, the consumer-review system that the majority of people use to select their next read would likely collapse under the weight of all those fake reviews, if it has not already. But more about fake reviews later.

Quality Can’t Be Bought

I’m generally not a fan of self published works, finding the quality of the work (usually) much lower than books published through the traditional means. In fact, even for self-published authors who have, in fact, written quality work that’s on par with traditional work (and have actual transitioned from self-published to published on the strength of their writing and sales) suffer from complaints about spelling and grammar.

Every single day, unpublished fantasy authors inundate my mailbox with requests to review their work and post a review on bestfantasybooks.  I literally can’t go a single day without this inevitable flood of requests for bestfantasybooks to review these undiscovered masterpieces.

A while back, just to be nice to these struggling authors, I would agree to review said works. And you know what, I don’t think I ever completed a single read through. I never actually posted a review of any self-published work I’ve reviewed, since I had absolutely nothing positive to say.

Yes, I know there are some unpublished/self published authors that are just as good or even better than their published counterparts. But on the whole I’d say the ratio is pretty small — *most* self published works are terrible. Say what you want about the traditional publishing model, at least it provides a pretty good means of filtering out the good from the bad, the bad from the “I’m going to pluck my eyes out if I read one more word” terrible or at the very least, providing a minimum standard of readable writing quality. You can at least expect books published by reputable publishers to be (generally) free of grammar and spelling errors and with the story plot (somewhat) congruent. Yes, there are some mistakes, but on the whole, you can expect properly published books to be of acceptable quality.

It’s A Business, Silly

I’m not a fan of the self-publishing industry because I see it just as a straight business: enterprising companies are offering a service to a group of desperate writers who’d part with a kidney or two for the chance of seeing their words eyeballed by a real audience outside of the mom, grandmother, and sister.  For every “50 Shades of Grey” success story tossed around on Amazon like a bad acne infomercial, there’s probably a 100,000 so broken dreams. If you are a struggling author and opt to go with the self-publishing model, fair enough, but please be realistic about your chances of success — you may be better off struggling through the traditional route (i.e. going through a publisher, even if it means getting rejected 50 times before your manuscript is accepted) than taking the shortcut path. Now because Amazon.com is selling delusions to the biggest group of writers out there (unpublished writers), a hunky dory heap of previously-binned manuscripts that should never see the light of day are going to end up on the Kindle marketplace.

Everyone is rah rah about the whole Amazon Kindle digital market place, which I do admit offers some interesting publishing options, for the truly talented or the already published and branded authors out there. Unfortunately, the truly talented are few and far between and most of the self published fantasy I’ve had the displeasure of reading, deserves to be binned. Sorry, just because Amazon lets anything with a pulse that owns the copyright publish something, doesn’t mean it should ever be read.

The Dark Lord of the Publishing World: Vanity Publishers

Vanity publishers — these are the truly evil operations out there and the worst of them prey on desperate authors who are finagled into actually paying sums of money to become “published”. One of the biggest self publishing scams is to entice writers to submit a manuscript for publishing (aping the whole traditional route to publishing). However, unlike the traditional publisher where the response is usually negative, the answer given by these companies is always “yes, we will publish you work.” At this point, the publisher claims they will subsidize the costs but require the author to pay 60% of the publishing fees — usually something outrageous. The writer, overjoyed that a publisher had accepted his or her work, fails to realize that this is simply a scam — you are not really published but simply having a vanity publisher charge you per copy published. So beware — if you want to have a vanity publish done, fair enough, but just make sure you know what you are getting at the end of the day.

These days there is no dearth of books to read; time is valuable and why would someone go out of their way to read and risk wasting their time reading a self published ebook instead of paying less than 10 bucks for a traditional book? Perhaps if there is a good amount of hype behind the book, but outside of this, the average person won’t take the risk.

Now, I do feel self publishing offers some compelling opportunities for traditionally published authors, however. If you are a well-known author (even more so if you are a big name in a genre, say like Brandon Sanderson or Steven King), you can write a story and “self publish” it digitally and probably make an absolute killing, completely avoiding the publishing middle man. But you have to have the name and reputation first — something that generally requires you to break into the published world first then develop a large readership before this becomes a feasible option.

 

Trust the Negative Reviews, Not the Positive

Hype sells.

Which brings me back to one of the previous points: the average reader will be highly reluctant to read something self published unless there is hype behind it — and one source of hype are amazon reviews. What’s the first thing you look at when you are scoping out a potential new read? Check the Amazon reviews. We’ve all done it. But can you actually trust those reviews? Ideally, these are unbiased reviews written by random people who have actually read the book. But what if those reviews were written by the author, friends and family of the author and, gasp, even companies that specialize in writing fake reviews to generate hype. Wait — there are companies that do  this? Yes, as this New York times article point out, there’s a whole dark side to the review business that companies are capitalizing on.

A few years ago, I wrote a post blasting the Amazon review system as unreliable. There were several authors that became famous for writing a hideous number of glowing fake reviews (Robert Stanek being the most famous). The problem has only grown worse I fear, with more and more authors embracing this scheme. The rise and popularity of self-publishing has only made this worse. You’ve paid some fly-by-night basement publisher to “publish” your masterpiece or you’ve put your proud work on the Kindle marketplace. What’s the next step? Write (or hire a company) a bunch of fake 5 star Amazon reviews to hype up your work (the more the merrier), maybe pay a few sketchy blogs to rave about your book, then sit back while the sales roll in. Not all self-published authors do this of course, but I’m sure there are quite a few desperate enough out there to seek this dark path to financial success. There are a number of  self published “best sellers” out there who have done just this and have, eventually, used this to springboard themselves to real success.

Case in point: Amazon’s top posterboy’s for self publishing — author John Locke (who even wrote a best selling “How I Sold One Million E-Books”) — reportedly purchased over 300 fake  reviews from the site gettingbookreviews.com. Opps, looked like Locke forgot to include this chapter in his  “How I Sold One Million E-books.” Go have a look at John Locke’s fake amazon reviews to get an idea how the whole thing works. Hey, maybe even buy a few of his books while you’re at it, just as long as you realize that most of the positive, glowing reviews are complete bullshit, written by publicity firms.

But maybe this is just restricted to a few bad apples — authors for whom the bottom line is the buck itself? Surely most of the authors out there wouldn’t stoop to the level of tricking readers with fake reviews made from hired PR firms or created sockpuppet accounts. Eh…maybe not.

A look through Amazon.com’s current best selling fantasy books reveals a number of kindle-only published authors (read: self published). I’d posit here that every single genre is flooded with self-published books merged in with the traditionally printed books. A quick look through the review on these self published books show hoards of nearly flawless 5 star reviews and many garnered very rapidly. These self published books are getting more reviews and better ratings than some of the best fantasy books in the genre! When the average rating for a new, self-published author that literally comes out of nowhere with a 100+ 4.5-5 star reviews, you have to be more than a little suspicious. Fortunately, my suspicions seem verified. Research by Bing Liu, a data-mining expert from the University of Illinois, found nearly 60 percent of all the millions of product reviews on Amazon.com are 5 stars while another 20 percent make up 4 star reviews. That’s 80 percent of the reviews that are between 4-5 stars. Real Amazon reviews they are certainly not.

There’s a lot of controversy about Amazon actually encouraging this indirectly through their policies — they certainly don’t do too much to stop it. And why would they? The fake-consumer review model makes them money and is a huge driving force behind many of their product sales. Amazon exists to sell things and they will only clean up their act if their sales are threatened (unlikely to happen since fake reviews drive more sales). There’s rumors that Amazon, in some cases, had deleted negative reviews. There are even reports that their top reviewers are offered kickbacks and free stuff for positive reviews (big surprise there!). It’s good that a lot of mainstream sites are starting to realize that the whole Amazon review system is rotten to the core.

Now, I don’t mean to beat on the self published authors — I’m sure struggling, traditionally published authors face the same temptations and  I would speculate that a number of them likely have paid for or written fake reviews.  In fact, here’s one successful mystery author who openly admitted to using fake sock puppet accounts to publish fake reviews. And when it comes down it, it’s hard to resist the lure of cold hard cash in exchange for artistic morality. When 20-50 glowing 5 star reviews can mean the difference between grinding away at a day job you hate or drinking lattes all day while you pound away writing your next masterpiece at home, one can see why fake reviews can be the right financial decision.

Unfortunately, it’s cheating the system and ripping off the readers. Indie ebook authors are already between a rock and hard place when it comes to proving that indie books are just as good as traditionally published books. Locke’s fake review scandal has done quite a bit to set the whole movement back a few years, though it just reveals what most discerning readers already suspected.

I for one absolutely detest the whole fake review phenomenon. And it appears that many other readers are upset about the whole fake review chicanery going on (see the comment section). The fake review phenomena doesn’t just apply to Amazon — but any system that allows the public to submit reviews. A personal example: A few weeks ago, I looked up some TripAdvisor reviews while on vacation in Asia about some new Indian restaurant. Based on the reviews, I visited the place only to find it was absolutely the worse Indian food I’ve ever had — the food was so bad, it was not even Indian. When I went back to the TripAdvisor report, it became pretty obvious the owner employed fake reviews and was obviously making money from clueless tourists because of it.

I think self-publishing has a long way to go to clean itself up and it’s certainly far more corrupt than traditional publishing. It’s common to find self published authors who have made it big suddenly proclaiming the death of ‘the Big Six’ publishers, but most of these authors habitually churn out low quality books that don’t actually deserve to be published. Their real model of success (despite whatever BS they tell you in their inevitable “How I Made a Million Bucks Selling Ebooks”) is to pay for reviews that sucker people into buying the book. Are there some legit self-published authors who have made it without this sort of shenanigans? Yes, but they are in the minority.

Self publishing is here to stay, I think, for better or for worse. There are some compelling opportunities, but also some serious problems with the current model. I highly doubt traditional publishing is going to vanish any time soon, especially when the alternative is a rigged system that rewards authors who take the “sell by any means necessary” route, pushing out  low quality, unedited works and selling them by finagling the public with fake reviews.

I don’t know about you, but when I check Amazon.com reviews, I straight away skip the 4-5 star reviews and jump straight to the 1-3 stars — these are the honest and likely the (only) legit ones.

Here’s a bonus tip for the road: When determining if a review is credible, take a look at the reviewer’s history: check what other reviews they’ve written, the total number, and the ratings given. If something looks suspicious, you’re probably dealing with a shill reviewer.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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