Author, Book Reviews, Marketing, Opinion, Promotion, Publish

Do you believe all’s fair in love and publishing?

If you’re an author, you’ve probably been reading about the NY Times “book reviewers for hire” article by David Streitfeld. If not, it’s the first link listed below this post. In that article he talks about a man named Todd Jason Rutherford, who ran a lucrative business selling enthusiastically positive, but fake, book reviews. He ran ads on Craigslist to hire reviewers, who soon realized they could write more reviews—and make more money—by not actually reading the books, but just skimming the text or Googling  to learn enough about the book to fake it.

Streitfeld also reveals that John Locke, the author who became the first self-published writer to sell a million Kindle ebooks through Amazon, bought 300 of those reviews. In addition, Locke requested that those reviewers purchase their copy from Amazon, so the reviews would have the “Verified Amazon Purchase” tag to add credibility.

That’s three hundred five-star reviews! Think about that. How much do you think 300 glowing 5-star reviews would increase sales? I have some great reviews and ratings, and though a few of the early ones were from family members and friends, the rest are not—and I didn’t pay a cent for any of them.

Yes, I know publishing is a business. Locke and others like him are undoubtedly smart businessmen. But as much as I’d like to make money, I’m conflicted and can’t look at my writing strictly as a profit-making product. I can’t subscribe to the all’s fair in love and publishing mindset. I’m proud of my writing. I think it’s worth reading. I want the opinions of readers to be genuine. I don’t want someone buying one of my books based on misleading reviews. I don’t want to deceive readers to make a dollar.

In reading about this issue, I realized this is another black mark against self-published books. Those of us who’ve chosen that path have already faced prejudice, mostly from other publishers and authors who consider self-published work synonymous with poor quality. Now, if readers think they can’t trust reviews of our books, we’re even more disadvantaged.

I also learned certain groups of self-publishers (and small presses?) trade positive reviews of books they haven’t read, as in, I’ll give your book 5-stars, if you give mine the same. Some time ago, I got caught up in the “marketing ploy” of trading clicks on descriptive tags on Amazon. Though tags only help readers searching for books, not influence their buying, it felt dishonest, and I took my book off the list the next day. I know we self-publishers are at a great disadvantage in getting our books noticed, but I would rather mine get noticed honestly and for the right reasons.

If you’d care to read more about this issue, follow the links below, but I have two questions for you. Do you read reviews or, at least, consider the rating before buying a book? And do you think it’s unethical for authors/publishers to pay people to write positive book reviews?

45 thoughts on “Do you believe all’s fair in love and publishing?”

  1. These are all things I not only suspected at the beginning of my writing exploits, but many of these things I also witnessed first-hand. Knowledge of these practices made me a very frustrated and disgruntled writer. I even gave up writing for while, knowing I’d never be comfortable doing these things myself. In the end I made a decision steer myself away from those who found no shame or dishonor is duping their perspective fans.

    Fair warning though, Linda, if you don’t play their games you will be snubbed by those who do and, unfortunately, those are (often, not always) the self-published authors who are getting the most attention and are the most valuable contacts when networking.

    Normally I’d be the moral police, here. But I’ve decided I can only police my own conscious and others can not or will not be swayed in their way of thinking, nor will they cease these unethical practices. And yes, I believe that readers are starting to catch on to these “marketing maneuvers”, which makes your word of mouth advertising far more important than ever before.

    Personally, I’ve become extremely cautious in my reviews. I now review only books by people whom I’ve had no direct contact – it keeps me honest. I also rate books fairly and evenly:

    1 star – hated it, poorly written, poorly developed,
    2 stars – it was good, but flawed in several ways,
    3 stars – I liked it and it was well developed,
    4 stars – I liked it a lot, it was well developed, and I’d personally recommend it to others, and
    5 stars – The cream of the crop – all the requirements of #4 and I’d read it again!

    Everyone has their own rating system, and I won’t fault those who give 5 stars to a book that they liked, simply because they liked it, However, because of the practices you’ve mentioned, I’ve become wise enough to read reviews only as a way to determine genre and personal interest. I don’t think I’m alone, but I do think the damage is already done in some ways.

    Dang – long comment again.


    1. Oh, and to clarify – I do write a detailed review of the book (without spoilers) when assigning a star rating, which is why I am slow to review a book, and why I try to stick with reading books in my own and preferred genres.


    2. Love your long comments, K., you know that. 🙂

      Yeah, it became obvious to me early on that the playing field was not level. I almost joined one group of self-published authors until I realized I would be expected to rave about the other members’ books. I don’t have time to read books that don’t interest me, and I don’t offer an opinion on a book I haven’t read, nor will I rave about a book I feel is, at best, mediocre.

      Thanks for the warning, but I’ve already experienced snubbing. That’s why I wrote that post a week or so ago, saying I don’t expect to ever be on a best sellers list. I know I’m not playing the game. And I know the game players don’t consider me an equal. I don’t care. I know I have the talent to compete, but I don’t have the other things it takes to be in the “in crowd.” So, I’ll just let my books stand on their own, and I believe they’ll reach the readers they were meant to.

      You read on a different level than I do. I’ve rarely REVIEWED a book, I usually just offered my opinion on why I liked it. I generally don’t even rate a book I can’t give at least 3 stars to. Of course, I read so little now, the point is practically moot. I guess it’s all moot if no one pays attention to reviews and ratings anyway. 😦


      1. I second that – Let the books stand on their own! And you’re probably right about how reviews are becoming moot with all the white noise these unethical practices have generated. I do a lot of research before buying any book that was self-published after the Y2K – first and foremost I read the free sample, but worse yet, now you have to actually research the small presses too, due to some very unethical practices going on there. Don’t get me started. LOL.


        1. Wow, the internet is buzzing with bloggers having their say on this topic, K. Unfortunately, the traditional publishing industry is bolstering the idea that only self-publishers do this and that’s because their writing is so bad they can’t get legitimate positive reviews.

          One question: why the qualifier “after the Y2K”?


          1. Because as a reader I’m a writer’s worst nightmare. I’m informed also as a writer. LOL.

            There are several reasons why I wait, but I’ll address the main reason. The Y2K mark has more to do with a book “seasoning” than the actual year 2000. I’m not much of one to rush out and by a book based on it’s initial popularity. I’m reading books right now written in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

            With my reading list being so long I’m able to wait for a time and see if a novel has any long-term impact on my genre. I do read for enjoyment, but I also read as a writer. I value books that have something to offer in the terms of craft and genre bending.

            As you know the genres I prefer are king and queen of speculation, authors are testing new ground almost daily. Much of that writing falls flat, confuses the reader, pushes the limits too far. By waiting for the cream to rise to the top, I can spare myself a lot of agony wading through the messy bogs.

            The truth is we write what we read. The other truth is that all trends tend to run a route of full circle. I’m very specific in the books I read, because I’m very specific in the books I write and when the time comes, when the style, tone, and content that is my passion returns to popularity, I want to be one of the best who had taken the time to mold my ideas, and my craft. I believe that is what makes an author more than a momentary blip on the radar.


          2. Do you realize how much you intimidate me, K? I’m just glad I don’t write in your genre. 🙂

            We write what we read means I’d better get back to reading. I’ve now written two novels that verge on a genre I don’t read, so I need to switch it up for book three. I read (most often) contemporary fiction, character-driven, and that’s how I’d like to “brand” my fiction.

            I admire your patience. I wish you a status of icon rather than a blip!


          3. HA! There is absolutely no need for you to feel intimidated at all! It is my knowledge of how little I know and how much I need to improve that keeps me in this constant state of study. In fact, if I ever reach a point of confidence in my ability to craft a good story, I will then need to tackle the bigger issue at hand, which is editing!


  2. Thank you for sharing this post. I think its important to the readers & the author to gain honest feedback on their books.
    I tend to judge a book by its cover & blurb, the ratings & reviews for me are an after thought. So i tend to judge a book by the book itself which is always good for the author.
    I can also see the need for reviews though & i can see why people would pay for them, but i don’t think i agree with it.
    The most valuable reviews are the real ones, it helps us authors to grow.


    1. You’re welcome, Georgina(?). 🙂 I didn’t mean to imply reviews are the most important way to judge a book, so thank you for pointing out that we should always read the blurb and sample pages. Some authors say they never read reviews of their books, so even an honest one wouldn’t help them grow, but I do read mine for that reason.


      1. Yes it’s Georgina 🙂
        That’s fair enough, I don’t think I would be able to stop myself from reading them!
        I hope a lot of readers will judge books on ALL the information they are given and not just the reviews, but I am aware it’s not always the case.


  3. I respect the way you do things, Linda, and I’d be in the same boat if I was self publishing. There is no way I would pay for reviews, and I could never be part of a group that posts rave reviews of the other writers books just because they are writer friends. I think it’s part of having integrity, and I guess I’d rather have that than money (at this point anyway!!! lol if I was relying on selling books to survive, maybe it would be different?).

    There has been a lot on the web this last week about these kinds of goings on, and to be honest the groups of indies who talk each other up, and congratulate each other and tell everyone how wonderful everyone else is just make me cringe, and have been whats put me off! How can a writer grow and develop if no one is actually giving critique or proper feedback? If all anyone says is ‘oh you’re wonderful!’? Not for me. If there were more indies like you, and I believe there are plenty out there I just haven’t come across them, it would seem like a safer environment. Call me crazy, but I’d rather a 3 star review that was honest than a 5 star that screams of hype.


    1. Thank you, Cassie. 🙂 Sometimes being ethical makes you the odd man out in business, but I don’t know how to be any other way—and I don’t want to learn!

      I don’t think you’re crazy, but I’d rather get a 5-star that was honest. 🙂 Now it appears all positive reviews will be questioned, so I guess they’ll have to start something new.


  4. I do look at reviews but soon learned it’s not always safe. I recently read a novel that had loads of five star rave reviews. The story wasn’t that bad but some of the writing was awful and it was obviously written by someone who’d never researched their subject – they went by boat from Dublin to Madrid!

    As an author I get a huge glow of pride when I get a 4 or 5 star review but then the odd 1 or 2 star reviews really hurt. That’s when I have to remind myself that what makes a good book is so subjective.

    And, yes, completely unethical to buy reviews.


    1. Hello, Huw, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. 🙂

      I’m curious, did you review the book with sloppy research? Reviewing gets complicated when you’re an author yourself, don’t you think?

      Oh, yes, those good reviews are what we pray for, and the bad ones hurt something terrible. But there are different degrees of those. The only bad review I would listen to is one written by a genuine reader who makes solid criticisms. The others, written by people who don’t like my genre and should never have read the book in the first place, I just roll my eyes at. The same goes for ones written by people who just don’t seem too bright. 😉


      1. Hi Linda. Yes I did review the book – although under a pseudonym and I did try to be constructive – pointing out the good aspects of the novel as well as the flaws. But reviewing other writer’s work always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable – after all, who’s perfect?
        I know what you mean about those who don’t seem ‘too bright’… or haven’t actually read the book properly. One reviewer (2 star I think) said they gave up part way because they were confused by the number of characters in the book. I added them up and came to about 8 main characters and a dozen ‘supporting cast’ – hardly excessive I thought.
        Another reviewer said I seemed to have ‘given up’ towards the end of the book and wondered if I was holding back for the sequel. Well, if they’d actually read the book they’d have known a sequel would have been totally impossible!


        1. Good for you, Huw. 🙂 I’m thinking about creating an “anonymous” Goodreads account to avoid the discomfort of reviewing under my author name.

          It’s puzzling how some readers miss key points, isn’t it? I swear I have at least one review written after reading only the first half of my book.


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