You read. You're smart, savvy and aware. So I'm sure you know that online reviews are not always legit. This article
delves into an interesting aspect of review fraud, an aspect that is near and dear to all us readers and bloggers. Some of us old bloggers have a permanently skeptically raised eyebrow regarding epublishing/self-publishing. "Why not just blog?" we innocently ask. "Oh. Right," we answer ourselves, "you want to make money from writing. Why give your words away on a blog when you can pimp them out via self-publishing? Well. Good luck with that, then."
People are desperate for online publishing success and paying for glowing reviews because the glut of epublished books has created a drain on the market - it's flooded with too much crap, the good stuff gets lumped in with the crap and ignored. It's the best of times, it's the worst of times. Hence the desperation for reviews which can lead to higher rankings and higher sales numbers.
Which brings some bloggers' attitude full circle. Some of us aren't in it for the money. Some of us do not have delusions of grandeur. Some of us are "just" bloggers. Lowly, "not doing it for the money" bloggers. We're not getting rich, but we're pure. We're WYSIWYG. No fake reviews, no filthy lucre. It's part of the reason I don't use AdSense or sell adspace or profit from my blog in any way. It's mine, all mine, and I can post whatever I want. People can choose to read it, or not, but because money never changes hands, no one owes anyone anything tangible or intrinsic. There are no obligations to be met, so there are no resentments. If you don't like what I post, oh well, I don't owe you anything, you came here of your own free will, I didn't charge a penny, not even click revenue. If you do like what I post, for free, would you pay
to read it? Yeah. Me neither. Hence the beauty of blogging. It's there, it's free, if you like it great, if not, oh well.
I don't begrudge Todd Rutherford
, in fact I applaud his marketing insight. He saw a huge opportunity - a need for marketing - and capitalized on it. Marketing baby, marketing. Let me be clear on this: I don't agree with faking anything, especially when it involves duping the public. His methodology was flawed. The flaw was his lack of discrimination, which I presume was fueled by greed. Gee, where have we heard that plot line? Oh, right, pretty much everything Dickens ever wrote. But. The foundation of his idea was solid. There is a need for valid
marketing in epublishing.
Sure, most ebooks are cheap, 99¢ - $2.99. Not a huge investment, so if it's crap, oh well, delete. And most of us have plunked down money, $10 or more, on a physical book that we didn't enjoy. We have our favorite authors and we pony up the money for their latest books, we support them financially via buying their books because they have given us enjoyment in the past, we trust them to take us on another fun/insightful/scary/whatever adventure again, so we spend the money on their books. When they let us down, we're disappointed. We regret spending that money. We are more hesitant to buy their next book. We'll get it from the library or borrow if from a friend. If the author wins us back into their good graces we may buy their next books, dismissing the "bad one" as an experimental phase.
a buyer beware industry. It's wholly subjective. Ever tried to return a book you hated? Try it sometime. I did it once, for the experience of it, to see what would happen. It was the above-mentioned situation. I spent $19.95 plus tax on a book by an author I thoroughly enjoyed in the past. So certain of the author's talent and eager was I, that I bought the hardcover version a few days after it was released. I raced home and spent a weekend reading the book. I toughed it out from cover to cover because I believed in the author, I believed that somewhere the plot would turn, the characters would gain some depth, the prose would be more insightful, and the first couple hundred pages that sucked would be worth the effort and time it took to slog through them. You know, like Great Expectations
. No such luck. Because the book sucked. The book really, really sucked. It sucked so badly that it was on the sale table shortly after it was released. I bought the book on a Friday afternoon. I spent the weekend reading it. I felt so duped, so resentful of the author, the editor, the agent and the publisher, so mad at myself for spending the money on the book that I spent my lunch hour on Monday trying to return the book. I had my receipt, the spine was still in perfect new condition and it still had that new book smell.
"I want to return this book," I asserted to the book store clerk.
"Um, is there something wrong with it?" the clerk asked.
"Yes. I could list specifics but I won't waste our time. I'll abbreviate my complaints: It sucks."
"So, you want to return it because you didn't like the book."
"That's right. That, and I was duped by the author and the publisher's marketing team. (pointing to the prose on the back of the dustjacket) This is not
a 'gripping, insightful yet wonderfully witty tale of career malaise and social paradox.' It's a boring, pointless whiny rant about how life sucks. Duh. I can read boring, pointless whiny rants on blogs, for free. Technically, (pointing to the back dustjacket flap) that bit about 'from a masterful storyteller' part is true, the author has
proved himself to be a masterful storyteller in the past, which is why I bought the book. But this
story is not masterfully told. I'll debate whether there's even a story being told in this book."
The book store clerk rolled his eyes. "You can't return a book just because you didn't like it."
"That's not why I'm returning it. I'm returning it because it sucks and it is not what it was marketed to be. I'm returning it because 1) it's a faulty product and 2) it was falsely advertised."
I'm sure book store clerks get a lot of this sort of thing. Or maybe not. But that was the point of my exercise. I'd never attempted to return a book after I read it. I always put the onus on myself when it comes to disappointing book investments. I reason with myself, "There is a library...you don't have to buy it...it's your own fault for spending the money..." and that's that.
But this was different. I took it as a personal insult to my intelligence and good nature. I gave the author a weekend, a full two days, of my life. And I gave up $19.95 plus tax. I realize the author only gets a fraction of the cost of the book, but to us, the consumer, the price of the book is paid for wholly by us.
I didn't get a refund for the book I hated. The store manager gave me a coupon for 15% off my next purchase. The insult to injury came when I couldn't even give the book to my local book swap store. They were flooded with copies and were not accepting any more. Yes. I couldn't even trade the book for an paperback book from the '70s. It was that
You may be thinking, "Should have waited for the online reviews written by people other than the publisher's chosen few..." Not necessarily. The online reviews for this book, even now, several years later, are generally positive. I don't know anyone in real life
who likes the book, and since this book's publication many people I know in real life are wary to invest in what that author has since written. I presume the author has such a devoted following that there are several readers who will applaud anything he writes simply because he's their adored darling of choice. They will support the team, even, especially, during a losing season, and write positive online reviews in defense of their star player. And, perhaps, some or many of those online reviews were written by "someone" paid to submit positive reviews.
I'm a trained and experience marketer. I get it. I understand. You want to move inventory. But. I also hold myself and other legit marketing professionals to a high level of ethics. If you don't stand behind a product, don't market it. If you have to pay for fraudulent, positive reviews, the product is flawed and shouldn't be marketed. Take it back to the drawing board, work out the problems until you have a product that merits legitimate positive feedback. From there the marketing takes care of itself.
Which brings me back to the point of the NY Times
article on epublishing review fraud. Epublishing is great, power to the people, write on. There are some hidden gems to be found "these days" and I'm in full support of the medium. But. It's creating a false sense of talent which leads to a false sense of entitlement. There may be a few people willing, and happy, to pay a couple bucks for a book on the pros and cons of making necklaces out of dominoes versus mahjong tiles, or a personal account of life as a geologist in Newfoundland in the 1960s. And that's great, that's a couple bucks more than the authors had before they published their books and for the people who were chomping at the bit for books on those topics, it's a glorious dream fulfilled. A win-win situation for everyone involved.
But. A little encouragement can be a dangerous thing if desperation and/or greed set in. The author thinks, "Hey! I sold four copies! People like my book! I'm an author! I'm gonna quit my job because I'm an author, now! How can I sell more books?!" Their thoughts turn to two things: Writing more books, and marketing. They decide to focus on the books they've already written, because, heh heh, writing books is hard. But marketing is easy! They know it's easy because everyone knows marketing is easy and because there are tons of ebooks on marketing! It's a serendipitous moment for new e-authors. They invest the profits from their book on, what else? ebooks on marketing. They get all hopped up high when they learn inside tips and tricks to making money with ebooks. (I'm rich, I'm gonna be rich I tell you, rich! dancing in their heads) They don't stop to consider that the person who self published those ebooks on marketing are just like them: Trying to make a few bucks via epublishing.
Yes. There really is one born every minute.
And this is where things take an ugly, unethical turn down a slippery slope. Their ebooks on marketing told them they need a lot of positive reviews on their book. They try to get their friends, family and coworkers to submit positive reviews on their book. Great! Three positive reviews! Awesome! The money's going to start rolling in any second! When it doesn't, the author starts Googling and finds marketing resources for ebook authors. Most of those resources are review writers. For a fee, the reviewer will write a positive review. The more naive ebook authors may honestly believe these reviewers are reading their books. (I'm cutting slack, being generous, not making assumptions about IQ.) So we'll take the author out of culpability for fraudulent reviews. (I'm cutting slack, being generous, not making assumptions about IQ.)
The pay-for-reviewers, like Todd Rutherford
, then, bear the brunt of responsibility in perpetrating the scam. Yep. I used the word. Scam. But. As I stated up front, I'm not begrudging the enterprise. They are filling a need, providing a service, and if authors are a) desperate enough to believe the reviews they're buying are legit, and b) consumers are stupid enough to think all online reviews are legit, well, you know, if you can profit off them, well, that's capitalism, baby. I do not ascribe to that type of marketing, the lack of ethics makes me nauseous and frustrates me because it makes all marketing professionals look bad. Pay-for-reviews is an enterprise based on lies. Period. But so is a good percentage of merchandise hawked online. Buyer beware. Is Todd Rutherford any different than any other snake oil salesman online? I don't think so.
Unfortunately, though, the people involved with marketing pajama jeans or miracle cures for baldness in the form of spray paint are not creating legions of "authors" who honestly believe all they need are some positive reviews and their writing careers will skyrocket. At worst, they're creating a questionable fashion choice by a few women or giving false hope to men willing to spend another $39.95 on creating the illusion of hair. There's a far more sinister result from the eBook reviewers' scam. I have no idea how credible any of the eBook reviewers' backgrounds are - maybe they do
know a lot about writing and prose style and editing and have legit comments - but once they sell positive reviews, they lose all credibility. Everyone involved loses credibility. When everything merits 5 out of 5 stars, everything reviewed devalued. When everything is special, nothing is special.
And meanwhile, speaking of devaluing, the epublishing world is flooded to the brink with crap. Which is the point of blogs, for crying out loud! Blogs are where you post badly written crap, or niche crap, or manifestos, or how-to processes for making/fixing off-the-wall items. I don't want to pay
to commiserate with someone like me, I want to read their blog. I don't want to pay
for instructions on how to repair my parents' circa 1967 blender. I want to go to a blog or YouTube posted by someone like my dad. The second money changes hands is the second the whole spirit of community is lost.
The message is clear: Someone's looking to profit from their words, they're pimping out their thoughts and/or knowledge, and if you won't pony up, you're not going to get to read the words. Okay, maybe "pimping out" is a little harsh. Okay a lot
harsh. But you know what I mean. If someone is a truly talented author or has a great knowledge-base, and the drive and patience to get legitimately published, without the aid of get-rich-quick scams, that's great. I fully support their endeavor.
Unfortunately a lot of eBooks I've read to date are not great. Some would make great blogs, and I would read them if they were blogs. But they're not. The authors want me to pay for their words. And I don't want to do that. No matter how good or bad the reviews, fake or otherwise, there are some (a lot of) words I will not pay to read. And I presume most other people are the same way.
ePublishing has brought vanity presses to the masses, and that's not a good thing. It instills exaggerated senses of ability and accomplishment and that leads to an exaggerated sense of entitlement. There may very well be a Confederacy of Dunces
lurking in a 99¢ eBook somewhere, in fact I suspect there are several lurking "out there," but they don't need to buy fake reviews. And they shouldn't have to fight for download ranking with "books" that barely qualify as blogs. It's not just up-and-coming or hidden-talent authors who suffer. Credible authors' works are devalued because, gasp, their publishers
dare charge more than 99¢ for the download of their latest work. And they're not spending their marketing budget on pay-for-positive-review scams. (at least we presume not, we hope not, we choose to believe not)
Maybe I'm cynical. Maybe I spent too many years in marketing. Maybe I am a savvy consumer. Or maybe I just have the ability to reason. I have never taken online reviews seriously...except the negative ones. If
I read online reviews, I head straight to the negative/lowest rating reviews. I find it fairly easy to discern between someone with unrealistic expectations and someone who has legitimate feedback, so I can weed through the "I hate everything" types and glean insight from the legit feedback types of reviews. Consequently, I find negative reviews are the most helpful to me. I consider them "buyer beware" notices. If someone doesn't like a book because it's too sarcastic for their taste, there's a good possibility I might love it. If someone doesn't like a book because it's not up to par with the author's past works, well, I'll get it from the library at some point way in the future when I'm feeling charitable or bored.
Ultimately, the consumer is the one who has final responsibility in all this. I don't condone the lack of ethics in pay-for-review scams, but - presuming it's not children buying eBooks - anyone buying anything
based solely on positive reviews deserves whatever buyer's remorse they get.
And. There is a possibility for a silver lining. If enough readers get burned by purchasing highly rated books that turn out to be awful, that will, eventually, lead to a more discerning eBook crowd. That, in turn, will discourage not-so-great authors, who will then go back where they belong: Blogging. And hey, there's always AdSense. There are bloggers who make money, even more than 99¢, via pimping out their blogs to ads, which is a bigger win for everyone involved. Readers read for free, writers can choose to pimp out their words, or not. Win-win for everyone except pay-for-review scammers. Job done.