OPINION: How false reviews are a baaaaad thing

Posted on June 6, 2013


In many respects, reviewing is the life blood of generating sales of books. A good review by a noted reviewer can boost sales. Similarly a bad review by the same can damage sales. With the advent of the Internet and e-books, the reviewing function has dispersed much more widely than before. For example, anyone can start up their own blog to review books. The behemoth of online sales of literature, Amazon, sees reviewing as incredibly important. Loosely speaking, the more positive reviews of a title on Amazon, the more sales that will be generated. But how do we know if the reviews are genuine?

As someone who has been a formal book reviewer, I am aware of just how many books are out there competing for reviewer attention. As an author, I am equally aware of how difficult it can be to get reviews done.

There are two broad groups of false reviews of concern to me: (i) authors deliberately posting false reviews to benefit themselves; and (ii) authors purchasing fraudulent reviews.

Best-selling UK crime author, RJ Ellory, was caught out creating false ids to post brilliant reviews on Amazon about his own work while canning the work of others. To his credit, if he has any left, Ellory was quite open after he was caught out, freely admitting what he had done and profusely apologising. Nonetheless he had still gone out on multiple occasions, quite deliberately writing false reviews and canning the work of others (which would not have been done in any altruistic sense) i.e. it was not just a once-off ‘spur of the moment’ event.

Not long after Ellory was uncovered, another author, Stephen Leather, as well covered elsewhere, publicly admitted to similarly creating false names and identities to publicly endorse his work. Leather also defended himself by claiming that ‘everyone does it.’

Why would an author deliberately post a false review? To attempt to generate more sales and thus receive a financial benefit. And if so much as one sale is realised as a direct result of one of these false reviews, then the author has directly benefited in a material, financial manner by a direct lie. Am I the only one who senses the vile stench of fraud? Of course proving sales have directly resulted from those false reviews is another matter entirely and probably more or less impossible.

A question arises from that activity which I have not yet seen addressed elsewhere. What is the publisher’s role if one of ‘their’ authors is caught out falsifying reviews? I do not believe any respectable publisher would support authors in such behaviour. But what should publishers do if one from their stable is caught in the act? Surely there is a case here for contractual arrangements with dire penalties for authors engaging in Ellory-esque behaviour?

Now what of this purchasing of reviews?

I had come across references to being able to purchase reviews but had no idea of how it really worked. Then someone brought my attention to an advertisement from newbooklaunch.com advertising for reviewers for a paid review function. Intrigued, I applied under a pseudonym I had previously used for writing purposes. Jerry Olsen from newbooklaunch.com confirmed that yes, I would be paid for posting reviews. Quite specific instructions followed via email:

“Here is the first book that we are going to have you post a review for [deleted] Please click the “Like” button and buy the book. Then send the receipt to [deleted]. In 24-72 hours (we have to vary them a bit) I will send you a review to post along with instructions. As soon as you send back the link to your review, you will be paid.” [emphasis added]

So there it was – confirmation that I would get paid for simply posting a review (on Amazon) that was written for me.

What was the book he was offering to pay me for posting reviews I hadn’t written? One Night With A Pleasure Pro by JC Spears. I checked Amazon just before typing this paragraph and that title had 88 reviews with an average rating of 3.7 stars out of 5. Exactly how many reviews were products of Olsen’s work? I doubt we shall ever know. But it is hard to see Jerry Olsen of newbooklaunch.com offering to pay people for posting reviews written by others for purely altruistic reasons. It is therefore an entirely reasonable assumption that JC Spears had quite knowingly paid for this service of false reviews. Incidentally the negative reviews were very negative. I know which I would be more inclined to believe regarding a book about a mind-reading sex therapist.

Now Amazon publicly takes a pretty dim view of any such manipulation of their review system, removing falsified reviews as identified or even possibly worse (although it took long enough for them to actually start doing anything about it despite plenty of complaints going in). So how do purveyors of ‘made-to-order’ reviews avoid Amazon’s wrath?

Enter probookreviews.net. As is quite clearly discussed in their F.A.Q. section, after acknowledging that purchasing of reviews is against Amazon’s terms and conditions (i.e. you’re not allowed to do it with Amazon), they highlight the methodology by which probookreviews.net assures authors that they will not be caught by Amazon. In other words, pay probookreviews.net the right amount (it would seem to be surprisingly little) and they guarantee reviews will be written and posted on Amazon with 99% of reviews either 4 or 5 star reviews and Amazon will not know you have purchased them.

Once again, am I the only person sensing a stench of fraud and corruption?

So why is this all such an alleged problem? Put it this way – rightly or wrongly, anything said by either used car salesmen or politicians is widely distrusted. Do we want all book reviewing having the same sort or reputation? Do we want the reputation of authors and publishing in general tainted by that same brush? Do we want to see the unethical, the fraudsters, receiving benefits, even if just short-term?

How do we combat this? I have drawn up my little list of ‘commandments.’

1.    Authors – don’t do it! There are enough successful role models out there to learn from such as Rachel Thompson who do not engage in such stunts.

2.    There are legitimate and quite price competitive organisations out there that can provide ethically sound means of increasing exposure of your work. One example is Orangeberry Book Tours.

3.    Openly ridicule those who provide these dodgy services. For some reason, indignation does not seem to work as well as laughing at them.

4.    When someone has been legitimately caught out in such behaviour (and much more than just having suspicions) then boycott their work. The more we lessen the benefits of being an unethical a-hole, the less the incentive for them to go there in the first place.

5.    Join the call for legal action. Write to your MPs, Congressmen or whatever they are called in your jurisdiction. The actions of dodgy purveyors of made-to-order reviews are definitely in need of legal review and Attorneys-General are a definite good starting point.

6.    Authors – DON’T DO IT!!