Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers

Here’s the background: Indie e-publishing phenom John Locke, famous for being the first indie writer to sell a million ebooks on Amazon.com, has been outed in the New York Times for having bought a large number, if not most, of the positive reviews that propelled his success:

The Best Reviews Money Can Buy

If this were just a scandale that concerned John Locke alone, I wouldn’t care about it, and I doubt if very many other people in the indie e-publishing scene would, either. But the problem is that it casts indie ebooks in general, along with their writers, in a bad light.

You only have to scroll through the comments to the New York Times article to find a lot of people piling on, saying that incidents such as this demonstrate that indie ebooks are crap, that authors have to pay people to say nice things about, and that’s why they don’t buy them. But not just there; Salon.com chimed in with a painfully accurate assessment:

“…employing a service that dishonest and cynical demonstrates a bizarre contempt for the reader. It casts the writer as a producer of widgets and the reader as a sucker who probably won’t complain if the product doesn’t live up to the hype, because hey, at least it was cheap. Books, in this scenario, become flea market trash…”

And how’s the Twitterverse discussing the matter? Here’s a couple of typical comments:

John Locke paid for positive reviews, according to NY Times article. Now, my question is: How many other authors pay?

and

John Locke, self publishing success, paid for over 300 reviews. I have no doubts many huge self pubs use this service.

So there you have it. Locke promoted his indie books by paying a scummy “review” mill for its services, in order to gain a commercial advantage over honest writers who didn’t pay for such fraudulent reviews. But worse, with that having come to light, readers are naturally wondering about the positive reviews for every indie writer’s ebooks. Can they be trusted? Or, cynically, how much did the writer pay for them?

And of course, Locke knew that this was dishonest behavior on his part. That’s why he left the whole arrangement of paying for fraudulent positive reviews out of his how-I-did-it book on how he became the first indie writer to sell a million copies on Amazon. If he didn’t know that there was something wrong with paying for those bogus reviews, and that people would look down on him for having done so, then why did he conceal it?

Bizarrely, some people have already attempted to come to Locke’s defense in this matter by insisting that the bogus paid-for reviews had nothing to do with his ebooks’ success, but that it was actually due to the whole “loyalty transfer” concept that Locke touts in his how-I-did-it book. That’s the bit where he wrote such a compelling blog post — on how much he loves both his mom and Joe Paterno — that people read it, decided he was such a wonderful guy for saying such nice things about Mom and JoePa, and immediately went over to Amazon.com and bought a million copies of his ebooks.

Even getting over the weirdness of Locke being perhaps the last person in the US to publicly express admiration for Joe Paterno — the blog post is still available here on Locke’s website — this whole “loyalty transfer” concept has been pretty well debunked. How likely is it that any significant percentage of a million ebook sales resulted from a blog posting that only generated 43 comments on the website? And a lot of those comments are just spam that Locke hasn’t bothered to scrape off. Here’s a couple:

I have recently installed aluminium windows and doorways in my completely new houses. It is definitely the best path to take, not only do they look nice but because I live in a high crime region I feel safe. They are the best for stability. My family unit love the new installment.

And from somebody who signs himself “Cheep Viagra Pills”:

Hi there, I found your website by way of Google at the same time as searching for a comparable matter, your web site came up, it looks great. I’ve bookmarked to favourites|added to bookmarks.

Yeah, I just bet those guys, after commenting on Locke’s admiration for Joe Paterno, hurried on over to Amazon.com to buy some of his Donovan Creed thriller novels.

In actuality, the only evidence in support of Locke’s “loyalty transfer” concept is the number of ebooks he sold. Naturally, he’s going to say that it was “loyalty transfer” that did it, and not the huge number of fraudulent positive reviews that he purchased, which he concealed from readers of his how-I-did-it book.

But that’s beside the real point. What’s actually important is the damage caused to honest indie ebook writers by Locke and other writers purchasing fraudulent reviews. There’s a battle going on right now, to demonstrate that indie ebooks are as good and even better than traditionally published print books. The battle is being won by indie writers self-publishing compelling, well-written ebooks which garner genuine positive — and unpaid — reviews from actual readers and not desperate shills recruited from Craigslist. As the comments to the New York Times article indicate, it’s going to be a long battle. We don’t need dishonest writers, willing to do anything to promote their books, raising doubts in readers’ minds about the reliability of the reviews they see on Amazon about our ebooks.

Amazon.com is, of course, a for-profit business. Amazon needs to protect the perceived integrity of the review system by which its customers decide to purchase an ebook or any other product. It would be in the interests of Amazon as well as indie ebook authors for it to come down hard on writers who make the unfortunate decision to purchase fraudulent reviews. There’s already a lot of suspicion about the validity of reviews on Amazon; it doesn’t need more fuel to be thrown on that fire by one of its big indie e-publishing success stories being outed in the New York Times, and everywhere else that picks up the story, for fraudulent paid-for reviews.

I’m personally not given to witch hunts — I wouldn’t initiate a petition addressed to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, urging him to yank the ebooks of John Locke or other dishonest writers and to permanently close their Kindle Direct Publishing accounts, and I probably wouldn’t sign such a petition if somebody else came up with one. But at the same time, I wouldn’t shed many tears if Amazon.com did take such actions. These are adults who hired the service that provided the fraudulent reviews, and they knew what they were doing.

15 thoughts on “Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers

  1. Tom Dupree says:

    I agree. Purchasing a positive review is cheating. End of story.
    (Unless you’re in politics.)

  2. sj says:

    At first I was angry when I read the story in the NYT yesterday, but then it made me a little sad. What’s the point of continuing to write honest reviews of things I love (and don’t love), if someone else gets paid to write a fake review which then calls my own credibility into question?

    This is one of the reasons I’m still uncomfortable asking for a review copy, and would prefer to purchase my own books for reading.

  3. John Dozier says:

    And publishing houses and record companies don’t “buy” reviews with freebies (lunch, liquor, books, records, etc.)

  4. El afán de lucro es demasiado tentador, la honestidad, el orgullo por lo bien hecho han desaparecido, ahora sólo importa el dinero, dinero, dinero. ¡Qué lastima!

  5. [...] and John Locke’s “success”,  is getting a lot of attention. I had to comment on this blog post about it, because I think it’s a larger issue than “should indie writers not be total [...]

  6. It’s a terrible problem, all right, much as “all 5-star” reviews from review exchange schemes, and maybe not much more dishonest, even for money having changed hands. If Amazon required paid or other bogus reviewers to label the review “This review was paid for by the author” or “This review was provided in exchange for a review from the author,” I think the practice would soon come to an end. The problem, to me, seems to be how could they enforce that?

  7. Tony Hursh says:

    Isn’t Kirkus operating a bought-and-paid-for review service? Granted, they don’t guarantee a positive review, but they will keep the review private if it isn’t.

    That seems to me to differ from what Locke did only in degree, not in kind.

    • Kirkus takes advantage of authors by charging them for something trad publishers get for free. That is a “different” scam because it separates authors from their money (remember the money flows to the writer mantra). However, it is clear that the Kirkus program IS paid. There is at least transparency. Kirkus reviews are not promoted as spontaneous customer reviewers. Locke not only paid for reviews, he asked people to buy the copies off of Amazon specifically so that the reviews would show up as “verified purchases.” He was trying to hide the fact that the reviews were paid. There is willful intent to trick the customer into thinking that the reviews were actual customer reviews. Therein is the problem.

      • Tony Hursh says:

        “However, it is clear that the Kirkus program IS paid.”

        It’s clear to those of us who are familiar with the setup, but it is it clear to the readers that this “Kirkus review” was purchased by the author, and that an unfavorable review can be put down the memory hole? That’s my concern.

        Of course, the trad publishers never went out of their way to publicize unfavorable Kirkus reviews, either.

  8. [...] Of course, plenty of people already believe that most four and five star reviews on indie books are from friends and family or otherwise fake. This is also the point that K.W. Jeter makes in his take on the whole issue. [...]

  9. alanbaxter says:

    The practice of giving away free copies for review is an old one and a good one. Reviewers do a good thing, essentially for nothing. If they’re prepared to write an honest review in exchange for a free book, good for them. We need more of that. Asking people to give you honest reviews, even paying for an honest review, is not a problem.

    Paying for a guaranteed good review, from somone who doesn’t even read the book, is blatant lying and deceiving.

  10. As someone who depends on truthful reviews both as a consumer and as an author, I view the selling of 5-star reviews in bulk as far less respectable than prostitution. If I met John Locke, I would spit on him.

  11. “Loyalty Transfer” is crap. I bought Hugh Howey’s “Wool” based on reviews. In that stack of positive reviews is, almost predictably, a review accusing the other reviews of being fake. Fotunately, in the case of “Wool”, I found the positive reviews to be accurate.

    I would like to see some of the larger websites, like i09, run reviews of indie books- BoingBoing has done a few. I wonder if the reliance on customer reviews on Amazon is due to the lack of reviews by the more established websites.

  12. [...] Jeter says “Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers” – the problem with Jeter’s argument is that it seems like he’s trying to [...]

  13. I’m not a huge fan of John Locke, and i’m definitely not an apologist for any of his approaches to book marketing, most of which i find kind of puerile. But i think it’s worth pointing out that the NY Times article makes it pretty clear that Locke didn’t appear to be shopping for any kind of don’t-bother-reading-my-book-just-give-me-a-positive-review service. At least that’s what i read in the piece, from the Locke emails that are directly quoted:

    “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”

    Mr. Locke was secure enough in his talents to say that he did not care what the reviews said. “If someone doesn’t like my book,” he instructed, “they should feel free to say so.”

    I think there are two distinct issues here — paying sock-puppet shills for positive reviews in order to game the review system, and paying someone to get books into the hands of professional or semi-pro reviewers because the sad fact is that many average readers (even those who like a book) won’t bother reviewing it. I’m personally not a fan of either approach, but i only find the former tactic reprehensible. If other people find both approaches dishonest, i totally respect that opinion, but i think it’s still useful to acknowledge the distinction.

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