Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Catch 22 of Great Reviews: Thanks, John Locke!

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

This week we learned that John Locke—one of the first indie authors to sell a million books—paid for hundreds of reviews at a now-defunct paid-review site that didn’t require its reviewers to read the books, just to crank out the stars. Because the story made the NY Times, one expert estimates that a third of all Amazon reviews are fake.

This pisses me off, breaks my heart, and makes me—and the other terrific and honest indie authors on this site—look bad. That is, if we have too many great reviews.

GalleyCat weighed in on this issue with this blog post, listing several bestsellers that each have more than 150 one-star reviews. The point of the short piece is that real bestsellers have lots of bad reviews as well as many good ones. The unspoken point is that books with too many good reviews and few bad ones must not be a real bestsellers, that those reviews must have been paid for or written by marketers or friends.

I resent this! Without good reviews, you’re treated like a hack and can’t sell books. Too many good reviews and not enough dogs, and you look like a phony. Obviously some authors—and publishers—resort to these tactics. But many of the books on Amazon’s bestselling and top-rated lists come by their reviews honestly.

I know I did. Dying for Justice is the top-rated novel on two of Amazon’s lists—police procedurals and mystery series—with 54 five-star reviews, 8 four-stars, and 1 one-star (idiot). Not one was paid for or written by a marketer. My sister claims she wrote a review, but she loves my work. And I can’t find it, if she did. And I have many great reviews in print magazines—Mystery Scene, Crimespree, Spinetingler, and RT Reviews—to support those online "amateur" reviews.

Yes, I gave away the book on Goodreads, with the idea that readers would post reviews, but I took my chances that they would be in my favor. And yes, I asked readers in a blog to post reviews for the book—but always with the caveat “if you read and enjoyed the story.” I don’t want or need fake support.

Here’s a question for GalleyCat: If a book with a lot of fake five-star ratings wasn’t good, wouldn’t a lot of honest readers start to give it bad reviews? You can’t fool everybody forever. No author has that many loyal friends or fake online IDs—except maybe Stephen Leather, another example of how some big-name indie authors are making the rest of us look bad.

And I have to throw in one more issue. The site that Locke used was clearly corrupt. Reviewers were directly paid to crank out good blurbs without even reading the books. But what about sites like Book Rooster? For a $60 admin fee, the site lists your e-book internally, then their unpaid reviewers sign up to receive and read books of their choosing. In exchange for free books, they write honest reviews.

This process seems fine to me, and I used the site for The Suicide Effect, my least-read book, just to get some reviews. But there was no guarantee of how many reviews or what they would be. It was just an opportunity for exposure, and I got lucky, mostly. But now I’m wondering if that was a mistake, just because the exchange of money (for the administrative fee) might make people lump the service into a paid-review category—even though no money goes to the reviewers.

What do you think? Have you read John Locke’s work? Does he deserve his success? Are you skeptical of any books with almost entirely good reviews? Do you think Book Rooster is a legitimate service? Should Amazon take Locke's work down to show it's serious about the trust factor for customer reviews?


  1. This makes me even more proud of all of the Amazon reviews I've received for Red Tide, and the independently published reviews as well. They become more precious because they are genuine.

    One of the other factors that brings deceit to reviews some buyers might trust is the fact that authors will establish false identities to write favorable reviews for their books. SAY WHAT???

    Amazon is on the cutting edge. I would applaud them for taking the step to take down Locke's work, but what might that cost them? And where do they draw the line? If anyone can figure out a way to bring a little legitimacy back to reviews though, it will be Amazon.

  2. I think the only way to bring integrity to the review system, particularly on the big sites like Amazon and Goodreads I'd to have a required check system of how you received the book. I think Amazon has started to do this with the Amazon Verified Purchase" so you know at least the person bought the novel. But you could have other categories... Paid reviewer, Free Influencer Copy, my mother who loves me and will never say a bad thing.

    There should at the very least disclosure... Just like political ads.

    I've not read Locke's work but like Peg...I'm very thankful for each of my reviews for Proof. Though some did receive a free copy...I didn't pay for any and some that did get a copy gave a 3 star review. You know... I still did ask those people to stay on my list for Poison (where they get a free copy) because they gave an honest, thoughtful review.

    Great post, LJ. A lot to think about.

  3. As I posted elsewhere: I thought it was his covers selling his books :-)

    Most of us cannot pay our own families to review or even read our books!!

    I wish Amazon would take away all written reviews and only use a star system. I think we've all had our negative reviews and even those from someone who obviously did not read the book.

    I personally pay little attention to reviews when buying a book. I'm more apt to go to the author's website and read about them; search inside the book at Amazon; hear about the book from someone whose read it; or find the book description interesting and fascinating.

    It would be nice if Amazon removed those paid reviews of Locke's, but not his books. By the way, are the books any good?

    He obviously gave up insurance sales for book sales. And his choice is not the most ethical way to do it.

  4. You're right, Linda, taking down his paid reviews is more reasonable, but maybe more difficult. And as I pointed out, if a book is legitimately bad, fake reviews won't sustain it. So he must be a decent writer...just prone to unethical short cuts.

  5. LJ, I've never paid for a review and never will and I also resent those who've given reviews a bad name. But I do encourage folks who have read my books to post reviews because, frankly, that's one of the best ways for books to be found. Books with NO reviews are invisible to amazon, and hence to readers, unless the reader knows to search for specific titles. So while some authors can say they'll leave it to fate and have patience for readers to find and like books, I can't do that. I have no problem if authors use "rooster" type services--the big-NY-publishers also do this and pay a fee to post books that does NOT go to reviewers. *shrug* I like the "look inside" feature that pretty quickly tells a reader if reviews are outright fakes or not.

  6. All of this is so upsetting and frustrating to authors like us who've earned every positive review we've gotten because we've taken the time to produce a quality product that delivers value to the readers.

    Unethical practices like this question and degrade the value of all legitimate, hard-earned 4- and 5-star reviews. Upsetting and frustrating. I hope Amazon finds a way to address this and try to level the playing field for those of us who've toiled and sweated to produce the best possible book we can, one that has earned and deserves every positive review it receives.

    The "Amazon verifed purchase" is a good idea, but sometimes legitimate readers have gotten the book from the library or a bookstore. Or, in case of e-books, if they don't have a Kindle, they've purchased the PDF directly from the author's website.

  7. I've only read Locke's "How I Sold a Million Ebooks..." Most of the advice seemed to be to build a core group of readers and basically milk them for marketing and publicity. He doesn't mention paying for reviews.

    This is a distressing revelation. I knew that some authors have set up aliases on Amazon so they can give their own books glowing reviews. I suppose I knew, in theory, that someone would be willing to write wonderful things about any book for the right amount of money. I just didn't know it was so prevalent.

    LJ, your payment to Book Rooster doesn't seem like it's in the same league at all. There's no guarantee of ANY review, much less a good review. What about Kirkus? You can pay for their reviews, but again, a good review is not guaranteed.

    I haven't paid for any reviews, but I have gotten a few (stressing a FEW) reviews from my Goodreads giveaways, and although they've been positive, they haven't been 5-star stellar. Most of my reviews are in the 4-5 star range.

    So now I guess I'll be labeled some kind of hack who paid for people to say nice things about her. I've only got 11 reviews of Hit or Missus and 15 of Freezer Burn, so apparently, I'm not hiring enough shills...

  8. Its amazing to me that Authors are paid to write books and even those who don't, earn money from the sell of the book, but Reviewers that LOVE to read full and actual books are not worth their time. Isn't this america where time is money? There is a true craft at being a Reviewer and I've reviewed many books, some I loved, liked and didn't like at all. But I was compensated for my time, lets face it you can't make a career out of being a Reviewer like you can an Author. What happened to respect for both sides? There are good people and shady people in any industry. Authors don't like to pay for reviews because they fear they won't appreciate a truthful point of view - which might be good or bad. Dealing with a Review company who hires solid book lovers is the key. Nothing in life is FREE and that goes for everything - If I take the time to read the book away from my day, the act of a small fee for that shouldn't be an issue. I see all of these ideals as very narrow and one sided. I love books, read every single page, I'm motivated to do a good job when an act of appreciate awaits and my honesty is taken seriously. - Book Reviewer

  9. Anonymous: There's nothing wrong with being paid for reviews, as long as the money is coming from a publication or website and not the author, and the money doesn't influence the review.

    In the case of the gettingreviews.com site, the reviewers were paid better for 5-star reviews and were not required to read the novels, which most of them did not.

  10. I"m very glad you responded. I appreciate your validation. I've heard of a new site coming that will offer what you are suggesting is proper. My parents always told me that the ultimate gig was to love to do something and get paid for it - I love to read and I have to say; under the right conditions, getting paid is certainly a bonus. I feel appreciated and respected for my efforts. - thanks again L.J.!

  11. I find it frustrating, too, that unethical writers are giving us all a bad name. It's such a struggle to get reviews, and then to have honest ones dismissed as probably fake is so insulting. I used Book Rooster and got 10 very well-written reviews by people who had obviously read the book, mostly 4 stars.

    I did a blog post a few months ago on "Reviews: Is Four Stars the New Five Stars?" My point was that people may start to trust four-star reviews more than five-star ones, as the assumption grows that most glowing reviews are fake.


  12. My point exactly is played out here - https://marshacanham.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/my-two-cents-on-paid-reviews/ its a two way street and you can't blame one reviewer for another!! Treat us individually please!!

  13. Thanks for commenting, Kris. I read your thoughtful post. I hope we find a better way to deal with this than to ask readers to give us 4 stars instead of 5, so it's believable.

  14. It is troubling, but not much of a surprise. There will always be those looking for the easy way up. I often wonder why people don't just use that energy to write a damn good book. John Locke is obviously a good storyteller (good reviews alone don't sell books). Is it a lack of self-confidence that made him do it, or in the system itself? Competition makes people take desperate measures.

    Both my books have been top-rated. The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted currently has more than 125 five star reviews and more than 65 four star--none of which were purchased and all of which were received through honest means. Like you, L.J., I can't help but feel my hard work will be tainted by the actions of a small minority.

  15. Incidentally--and possibly irrelevantly--The NY Times is reporting today that John Locke has signed a publishing deal with Simon and Schuster.

  16. Probably just best to forget about John Locke and other unethical writers and just carry on as we've been doing. It's certainly working for you two, LJ and Drew, and lots of other conscientious, hardworking, talented writers!

  17. Sadly enough, I think Locke has bought himself a place at the big table...all for the price of a few books. I certainly don't condone what he did, but you must admit that, being the first guy with the idea gave him an edge. The really bad part is that now everyone else will suffer for his lapse of integrity while he will benefit immensely. His next move may likely be to go on a crusade to clean up the industry that made him rich and famous.

  18. I am a reader. I read books based on books previously read by an author, reviews and or synopsis in newsletters and on authors websites. I also read sites like Fantastic Fiction.
    I never pay attention to Amazon reviews.
    That's only one readers voice, I hope there are more of us who shop around. Dee

  19. Although I purchase from Amazon, and sometimes look at reviews at Amazon, I always read the reviews at the blogs before I actually make a decision. Goodreads and Amazon are great for finding out what's out there, but for personal opinions on books I am not going to simply trust the anonymous users on sites. I would always trust my fellow bloggers instead of whom I know who have the same tastes as I do.
    On a side note, after devoting my free time for over three years to reviewing books, I wouldn't mind some compensation at this point. ;)

  20. I've never read John Locke's books, but after the NY Times article came out, I've sure read a lot about his methods.

    I'm cringing.

    And if fake reviews are as prevalent as some commenters now say, color me agog.

    As a reader I want to be able to trust that a review is honest and then make up my mind whether to buy the book. As a writer I want readers to be able to trust that reviews for my books are honest.

    As for those who buy and sell fake reviews, I give them a star rating of minus 0.


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