EXTRA ETHER: Buying Book Reviews – Still Admire John Locke?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Deirdre Gogarty, Darrelyn Saloom, My Call to the Ring, Glasnevin Publishing

Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee…As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

That’s the New York Times’ David Streitfeld quoting Todd Jason Rutherford, who, Streitfeld reports, commissioned 4,531 glowing and completely bogus book reviews at the now-inactive GettingBookReviews.com.

The story, The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, describes what Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader is calling The Next Great Promotional Tool for Self-Published Authors. Writes Hoffelder:

If you’re a self-published author who is still struggling to get noticed, now might be the time to swallow the rest of your pride, jettison your code of ethics, and start buying reviews. (Hey, everyone is doing it.)

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Deirdre Gogarty, Darrelyn Saloom, My Call to the Ring, Glasnevin Publishing

John Locke: “Ready to roll.”

The part of Streitfeld’s article that grabs Hoffelder’s attention is the revelation that the self-publishing icon John Locke used Rutherford’s service to generate false reviews for his books.

Writes Streitfeld:

One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in (John Locke’s book) “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” …Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 (reviews) 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 (2010) e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”


Streitfeld writes:

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.”

But additionally:

He also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.

That last detail strikes Chad W. Post as particularly rich. He writes, in John Locke Paid People to Buy His Books [Last Laughs Laugh Best]:

Oh, John Locke, you tricky little man! So not only did you pay for positive reviews, but you paid for people to buy your books! That’s both dishonest, and a bit desperate seeming. Granted, you’re still a millionaire, and I’m sitting in a library trying to convince freshman to take translation classes, but well, I have my dignity.

Locke confirms his participation in all this to Streitfeld — 300 bought reviews before Rutherford’s fake-review operation was exposed by another author-client who didn’t like what she got for her money.


Kerfuffle in the Industry! the Industry!

The coverage has set off what one wise observer terms a kerfuffle, potentially pivotal but also relatively contained: we cannot be all that surprised.

As a publishing contact in New York says to me, Amazon is, really, “the only game that counts big-time for self-publishers.” As far as distribution channels go, Seattle is the mountaintop.


Traditional-publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin in his new post, Things to think about as the digital book revolution gains global steam, positions Amazon as the key engine of the digital dynamic. He’s not writing about the review-buying scandal, but about the contours of a profoundly upended business:

With all due respect to everybody else, the primary driver of this change (print to screen) has been the efforts of Amazon.com. They made the online selling of print books work in the US and then provided the critical catalyst — the Kindle — to make ebooks happen. Other players — Barnes & Noble and Kobo with their devices and the publishers with their sales policies — have crafted their strategies primarily in response to Amazon. They are participants building out a market that Amazon first proved existed.


Incensed about this new “thing to think about as the ebook revolution gains global steam,” Edward Tenner is at The Atlantic, reacting to Streitfeld’s stark revelation of a review-buying and -selling.

In Will Paid Reviews Bite Amazon Back? Tenner writes:

Amazon has a dilemma. So far the system has been working, but what happens when players out themselves? Even last year, detractors were calling it Spamazon. Could there be a tipping point of credibility?

This drops us quickly into one of those bottomless rabbit holes we see open up from time to time as a feature of the “freedom” of technology.

The “democratizing” of content on the Internet, as it’s touted by some, suddenly looks less attractive when users realize they’re the victims of ruthless, orchestrated, profiteering liars.


Amazon’s model relies on reader judgment as a substitute for the traditionally vigorous competition among publishers, writers, retailers, and critics. Of course there is favoritism and bias in that system, but also lively rivalry, in which best-sellers from Gone with the Wind to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have ultimately been recognized after multiple rejections. Paid choruses of praise like Mr. Rutherford’s make the established system, flawed though it often is, appear a more reliable alternative.


A ‘wide range of responses’

As he frequently does, Jason Boog at GalleyCat pulls off an entertaining twist on the issue, creating a list of Major Bestsellers with More Than 150 One-Star Reviews.

Boog starts with this assertion:

While paying for book reviews creates the illusion of a perfect book, true bestsellers will generate a wide range responses from readers.

He then lists his one-starred best-sellers. I’ll show you the Top Five here, the first being especially gratifying to some, I’m sure, emphasis mine:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (3,665 one-star reviews)

2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (717 one-star reviews)

3. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (456 one-star reviews)

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (432 one-star reviews)

5. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (248 one-star reviews)

Despite the fun of that switch-around, the issue of these paid reviews — Streitfeld says Amazon has taken down some if not all of Rutherford’s — presents a coin with tails on both sides.


The obvious commercial issue

How does any market handle this kind of perversion of a key advertising and marketing instrument?

Nate Hoffelder can almost be heard chortling behind the satiric headline on his own follow to Streitfeld’s Times piece, his “Next Great Promotional Tool for Self-Published Authors.”

Hoffelder readily writes of how glad he is that the Rutherford faux-review “service” was shut down by the revelations of some of its own clients:

Once Rutherford’s service was exposed to the light of day, it was dead. The writing blogs took up the torch of shaming him into shutting down, and then Amazon took down some of his reviews and Google cancelled his Adwords account (so he couldn’t buy advertising).

Along the way, however, it’s worth pointing out that self-publishing authors aren’t necessarily the only bad apples here. What’s to have stopped a traditionally published author who wanted to gin up her or his sales of a newly listed book with a splash of gushing, fabricated reviews?


The issue in publishing

Some people will, of course, rush to blame this on Amazon. Having developed the consumer review to be such a key element of retail, Seattle does, of course, need to work to discern and cut the legs off scams of this kind. The company is, I’m sure, the first entity to know this.

But this is not Amazon’s fault.

This is the fault of feckless writers whose relation to what most of us know as the world of literature is so warped that they’re willing to hack the system this way. It’s bad enough when some writers make nasty agreements with each other to “trade” good reviews of each others’ work.

These people have little to do with the world of legitimate traditional publishing or self-publishing. They damage the art and the business for their own gain.

Locke, as his role in this is given to us by Streitfeld, appears to have been a happy customer of Rutherford. Having e-mailed Rutherford in 2010 that he was “ready to roll” with the false reviews he bought, he seems unapologetic now for using such a mechanism to build his now-discredited “success.”

Locke has confessed in the Times to contravening Amazon policy. If you enjoy writing reviews of shoes, you may want to keep an ear out for the sound of another one falling.

For now, we’re left with this echo — shabby chatter in the hard-surfaced tunnel of a digital reality — from Streitfeld’s article:

“Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” (Locke said). “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

| | |

Tell me what you think. Is there any case in which buying reviews can be appropriate? Do you know a writer who has bought reviews? If so, how does that writer justify it?


Join us Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com for Writing on the Ether, presented this week by Ether sponsors Deirdre Gogarty and Darrelyn Saloom, authors of My Call to the Ring:  A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box.

And check out Reading on the Ether, our updating look at books mentioned in Writing on the Ether. Not an endorsement program, just a handy way to keep up with recently noted books.

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
Posted in Writing on the Ether.


  1. You ask if there are any circumstances in which buying reviews is appropriate. What about Kirkus Reviews, which charges nearly $500 to review a self-published book? And why, for example, shouldn’t an established, popular book blogger charge money for a completely honest review? I think we may see the rise of paid book review sites, but they will have to adhere to strict ethics if they are to be successful (actually reading the book being one of the requirements.)

    I am right at the beginning of my self-publishing journey, and so far I have not bought a single review. I certainly wouldn’t want to follow the John Locke route, because buying fake reviews will, as your article shows, come back to bite you. (By fake reviews I mean reviews that give no indication that they were paid for.) I would be OK with an Amazon review that clearly revealed it was a paid-for service, if such a thing is possible under Amazon’s TOS. After all, traditional publishing has had the services of paid reviewers for many years, and “buys” the attention of well-liked reviewers with free books and such (Amazon Vine, anyone?)

    Like most self-publishers, I have sent out free copies to a couple of people I’d really like a review from (although I’ve been careful to state that there is no obligation to review the book). I expect them to disclose, as a conscientious book blogger must, that they received a free copy. I always disclose where I got the book in my own reviews.

    I have not asked friends, family and fellow-writers to leave glowing reviews anywhere. That practice ALWAYS rebounds because savvy readers can spot the insincerity a mile off.

    The result? My reviews are growing very slowly, but at least I know they’re real. When my critique partner left a rather too nice review on Goodreads, I asked her to change it to disclose our relationship, and she came back with a more open and honest version. I understood her good intentions, but I don’t need validation from my friends. I would rather my writing stood up by itself, even if that means it’ll take me a long time for my fiction to reach a profitable stage.

    Naive? Perhaps. But I hope I’ll never end up in the virtual pillory like John Locke. In the long term–the span of a writing career–it’s not worth it.

    • Jane, it sounds to me as if you are taking prudent, sensible steps to mount a “clean” approach to marketing your work, and this is, of course, the only kind to pursue. Good for you on working so carefully on it.

      Kirkus Reviews, by the way, do function differently in some significant ways.

      The key difference is that they are clear about being a paid review service. The kind of thing Locke and others have engaged in was posing reviews as voluntary consumer comment. The Rutherford service described by Streitfeld at the Times did guarantee positive, five-star reviews. Kirkus benefits from decades of presence in the industry, too, they are a known company within the industry, a part of the trade apparatus — not a below-the-radar outfit creating fraudulent review material in contravention of a retailer’s (or FTC’s) policy.

      Personally, I’ve never been pleased that Kirkus is a paid service. Nevertheless, its structure and process are different from what’s being discussed here, and they’re completely open about what they are.

      Thanks for commenting,

      • I’ll start by saying I haven’t read Locke’s work, so I can’t comment on the work itself, but I will ask this: if the books had been poor, would the good reviews have mattered? I mean, he buys 50 reviews and they’re good. Then, if people read it, and hate it, won’t they post bad/refuting reviews (given that they are the folks who’ve read the reviews to find books to read)? So, to say his succes is somehow “fake” seems, less than correct to me. Or am I wrong? Do the reviews have more power than fans and readers?
        I see no problem with ARCs for reviewers. That makes sense. Just like in my line of work, textbook companies send me exam copies so I can decide if I want to use the book in a class. They never charge me (I just have to verify that I am employed by the school), and I don’t think that the free book taints my using it in a course (they also send me books at random based on what I’ve ordered, so lots of freshman comp books). So, the ARC is totally different than a shady paid review. Most reviewers–bloggers esp.–probably couldn’t really afford to do timely reviews (right around the release date) w/o ARCs.
        Anyway, this whole thing is ugly because it makes so clear how easily people are swayed. A review says it is good, so we think it is good (and maybe even continue to do so when we read it, based on the suggestion). It also shows us just how much uncertainty is publishing right now. Gate keepers of some sort will show up, it’s just going to take a while to figure out who they’re going to be, and how we’ll be able to recognize them.

        • Hi, Emily,

          I think the quality of Locke’s work is suddenly — and tragically — immaterial. His success may not be “fake,” as you rightly point out, but it is discredited. Meaning we can’t TELL if his work could have succeeded as it as if he hadn’t bought (300, actually, not 50) reviews. His ethical torpor has undone him. That’s the point.

          And per the ugliness you speak of, yes, exactly. What we cannot allow to happen is for this kind of thing to become acceptable or even “well, everybody knows it happens.” Wrong. We need it to stop — to the degree we can sway human nature — and the community as a whole has to address it as utterly unacceptable.


          • The Problem is not the review content, it’s the number of reviews and the average rating of the reviews. These effectively push you on the top of the amazon book shorting system when searching or viewing book categories and genres. More reviews and higher rating average, contribute to this. You buy exposure with the number of fake reviews and you are stealing that exposure from other writers. Other writers are damaged by unfair practices like this. Customers getting tricked is only one part of the equation. Even 300 reviews push you to best selling writer status in terms of exposure. Locke stole readers from other writers of his genre.

            On the other hand, this is something publishers do all the time. They buy exposure in stores, exposure they steal from others, and it’s legal for them as far as I know, it’s legal. When we see 100 copies instead of 5 copies we assume the book is selling well, and we are effectively tricked about its quality. The strong and powerful publisher always wins.

      • I wasn’t trying to knock Kirkus in particular (although for $500 I would expect a more rigorous review than the ones I’ve seen them produce) and I agree that they are upfront with their pricing and procedures. In fact, I predict that more serious paid-review sites will emerge as book bloggers burn out from sheer book overload and self-publishers seek genuine input.

        I think the bottom line is that writers should be careful what they pay for. We have a responsibility to make sure nobody is engaging in shady online practices on our behalf, which means carefully checking out any service we hire.

        • Right, careful what they pay for AND completely resist the tendency to start accepting shady practices as OK. I think I’ll be doing more about this latter point Thursday in Writing on the Ether. Thanks again,

  2. Why is this being framed as a “self-publishing” phenomenon? It’s endemic to the industry. Lone authors have to buy what bigger publishers already have set up, including those favorable reviews. But to point this out, or call those publishers out on it, would be rocking the boat.

    • Correct, Helen. And I am unafraid of pointing this out.

      We do not know publishers to “call” on it. But is it possible for traditionally published authors to buy reviews? Of course.

      And this is why I include in my writeup:

      Along the way, however, it’s worth pointing out that self-publishing
      authors aren’t necessarily the only bad apples here. What’s to have
      stopped a traditionally published author who wanted to gin up her or his
      sales of a newly listed book with a splash of gushing, fabricated


      • Porter, to be clear, I’m not coming down on you.

        I’m coming down on the Times for writing this and the slant they have on it. It’s being framed in the same way the New Yorker and the University Literary “LIttle” Magazine segments are framing the same thing. Don’t you see it? This is a frame job on Indie. Because when authors go Indie, they’re stiffing the whole legacy system. So then we hear the arguments: these books aren’t edited, they aren’t proofread, they don’t have nice covers, the designs are bad, nobody bothers to review them, oh and the authors are stupid, untalented, and ugly to boot.

        Those are all lies, even the “ugly” bit (well, for the most part). The legacy system is threatened so a whole class of writer has to be attacked. The best analysis I have seen on this Times-Legacy hatchet on Indie was from Russell Blake: http://russellblake.com/rigged-reviews/

        So I’m knocking the Legacy Gang (you know, the ones who offer a “generous, and maximum” $7500 advance for a book that on Amazon makes the author’s rent every month for sixteen months counting), the ones who have been hatcheting out on Indie non stop, who love the outmoded “Self-Published” term and love even more to say it with a denegrating sneer (only proving to all the rest of us that they’re bigoted and discriminatory and hopelessly behind the times).

        You, I like you. Keep it up. The future of publishing is in all this we have here, not in the outmoded Legacy Gang and their high-profile smear tactics. Which they probably bought.

  3. I read the NY Times piece and your post correctly states that Locke said he wasn’t asking for favorable reviews, but honest reviews. However, most of the tweets going around (like the ones you inserted) are stating that he paid for favorable reviews, though the NYT piece said the natural inclination would be toward favorable ones since that’s what most of the reviewers were used to writing AND many didn’t have time to even read the book. Yes, of course he should’ve included it in his book, and it does answer that HOW THE HELL DID HE DO IT? question a lot more simply (besides the claim that it was his .99 price point and aggressive self-promotion.) I may have had a bit of respect for him if he’d included that in the book so we knew the true methods he used. And he did manipulate the Amazon algorithms big-time. I only have one ebook that is consistently recommend by Amazon, therefore it’s my bestseller, so I know how powerful that can be, but it appears it’s based on sales, not reviews, because it hasn’t had a new review since last summer. So it’s likely him asking them to BUY it there that catapulted it. And some people just simply don’t leave reviews, period, whether they loved or hated a book. (Time?) Bottom line: what he did was gross and we’re going to see a lot more of those types of things because when it’s all about metadata and hits in a crowded marketplace, people will figure out how to work the system. He just got found out. It will be interesting to see if people stop buying his books. And for the rest of us, I suggest we throw a party on that SLOW BOAT FROM CHINA marketing method we’re using. Might as well enjoy the journey. Cheers!

    • Thanks for the note, Malena. One interesting aspect of this, remember, in Locke’s case, is that to put this element of what he did into his book, he would have had to expose it to Amazon — the policy of which forbids this practice. My guess is that the only reason we know it now is that Rutherford, the former honcho of the paid-review site, revealed to Streitfeld at the Times that Locke was one of his best customers and even provided the email Streitfeld is quoting. With this in hand, Streitfeld could then confront Locke — as he says, he reached him in Kentucky — and this is when Locke admitted to doing this. The point being that even if he’d thought it was appropriate to concede to such fraud (that’s what this is, fraud) in his book — which would have been quite stupid — he also would have been found out by Amazon, which, as I was saying, forbids this on its site.

      • Okay, you got me. He couldn’t be truthful, but it does point out a larger issue of whether or not Amazon should have something to click and report how the person got the book besides just the certified purchase because MOST of the big books by the big 6 send THOUSANDS of books to reviews to build buzz and get those precious early reviews on all the sites.

        No, they aren’t asking for anything favorable, but they do want coverage and that’s why the books with “bigger buzz” tend to have hundreds of EARLY reviews on Goodreads. GR reviewers do sometimes say they got the book early supplied by the publisher but not always. My point is, indie pubs and self-pubs don’t have the time or money to send out that many arcs. I’m not sure what the answer would be though the word “paying” for does seem to be indirect vs. direct in the case of early buzz…*ponders* *refills coffee*

  4. Honestly, John Locke’s tactics reek of desperation. Sure, he’s a millionaire. But he’s also a hack–and now an *exposed* hack. I suppose that’s all well and dandy for someone who just wanted to game the system. But for those of us who approach writing as an art (yes, it has a business side, but ultimately it’s an art), this just comes across as pathetic. Frustrating, yes, but also just pathetic. I can’t imagine any of the writers I personally know and respect doing this.

    • No, happily, Adriana, I don’t think I know anyone, myself, who would stoop to something like this. Many of us are watching, too, to see if Amazon takes action against Locke, since he couldn’t have confessed to a direct contravention of their policy than in the Times. Should be interesting.

  5. Wow. I mean…wow. Until this whole story came out, I was sailing along blithely thinking that all these reviews were perfectly legitimate, and wishing I had more for my own books. And all along, all it would take would be money. Who knew?
    Unfortunately, reviews at booksellers and Kirkus aren’t the only ones for sale. When I queried a Christian fiction newsletter about getting my traditionally published novel reviewed, I was quoted a price for the service. Sort of disappointing.

    • It is disappointing, Richard, and all tied to the gradual pull-down of journalistic standards across the board. Much of what passes for criticism today in news outlets is consumer reviewing, not true criticism. This and many such changes, however, have been driven by advertising, representative of what the public/readers want. At bottom, the whole question of product/service review has gone over to a commercialized model and the results are in our faces, as you’re describing. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Thankfully (in regards to John Locke), I have not been “cultivated” as a fan in any manner. I read the original article too. As an new Indie author, I am going it the “slow boat to China” route – to quote another commentor. One organic review at a time. True, that’s not getting me higher up in the Almighty Amazon Algorithms in this decade, but as Porter Anderson said….”I have my dignity.”

  7. I would only consider it appropriate to buy a review if the intent was to have an honest review in hand when all is said and done. That means you’re paying someone you can trust to be honest, or who acts as a broker to obtain honest reviews. Rutherford was not that guy.

    It occurs to me to worry, now, that Amazon might be thinking to hire freelance writers as a type of reviewer corps. Authors using Createspace can buy reviews from these folks, which Amazon will promise to deliver and which will be honest reviews. Some may be favorable, others not. You take a chance either way. Speculation, of course, but, hey, it’s another way to monetize an aspect of the industry! the industry! You never know who’s going to try what and when these days.

    Chuck Wendig wants us to forget about it. Sure, take a stance if you feel it’s warranted, but ultimately, just let it go. Don’t respond to bad behavior with bad behavior, he says.


    K.W. Jeter does a good sum up of his own, and pulls a gold quote out of a Salon.com post:

    “…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…”


    That bizarre contempt is what makes me say that buying a review is never appropriate. Even if we could somehow guarantee that the review would be honest, a fair assessment, unbiased and all that, even then it would amount to treating our most valued customers (i.e., all of our customers), the readers, as dummies to be pitched at.

    As I said in my comment on K.W.’s post, writers are not producers of widgets. We make art. If we’re good, we make good art. And while everything can be reduced to strict commodification, that in no way means that it should be. Writing that is treated solely as a commodity may have started out as good writing, but it is instantly cheapened and made undesirable, for me, if it is pitched to me like any other piece of “Look what I made! You need need need to buy it! Now Now Now!”

    What’s next? Will books end up on shelves in the “As Seen on TV” store?

    • Right, Aaron, I can’t see it as ever appropriate to buy a review,

      Mind you, my bias is as a 30-year journalistic critic (Village Voice,
      CNN, Dallas Times Herald and others) and Fellow with the National
      Critics Institute.

      But what my experience tells me is wrong here is the “who is boss?”

      If the author pays the reviewer (even through a middle man like
      Rutherford), the reviewer is working for that author. That’s not a true
      review. That’s fraud.

      The standard journalistic model is that the reviewer works for the news
      medium and is responsible to its readers, not to the people critiqued.
      On Amazon, that translates to the reviewer working for her or his fellow
      customers, not for the people critiqued.

      Your point is right. This is a way of defrauding one’s readership.

      Thanks, as ever, for reading bringing good comments to the table.


      • I’ve been reading (and, to be honest) skimming through your replies here. The employer/employee relationship you point to really is the crux of it all. This has me worried about the state of things in publishing, far more than it did just two days ago. Fingers crossed we come out, if not like a rose, then at least smelling of something better than this.

  8. Not sure if “appropriate” is the right word to use here. The real problem is the credibility issue: I can’t imagine a single product, cause or situation where it would be justified and inspire trust. (Assuming, of course, disclosure of the fact that it was a paid review.)

  9. Porter, nice job rounding this all up, as always. I’ve been curious to see the Etherial take on this issue since the NYT article appeared.

    To answer your question, I don’t think there’s ever a case when buying reviews is worth it. And that’s not just because I can’t countenance something that would be against my FT (newspaper) job’s ethics policy in my fiction writing. I want to be able to live with myself. It’s why I specifically told my mother to please not review my first book on Amazon after it came out. Would I like to be in the top-selling ranks on Amazon? Absolutely. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and if the price of success is buying reviews, I’d rather be one of the eternally hopeful self-publishers who sells a few hundred copies of each book and nothing more.

    • Hey, Jennie,

      I’ve just been disparaging a lot of people’s mothers’ reviews of their work all day, LOL.

      Exactly. And you understand this and are a big enough person and writer to want to honor your readers and your colleagues with reviews free of parental and other bias (let alone payment, which is simply anathema).

      I’m surprised to find how many folks I’ve encountered today want to fudge this business in one way or another. They keep trying to say, “Everybody knows you can’t trust these reviews” — as if that made fraud OK.

      And the phrase “conflict of interest” seems to have no currency in the wider wash of folks responding here today. It’s odd for me because I’ve been a professional critic (Village Voice, CNN, Dallas Times Herald, the American Theatre Critics Association, the International Theatre Critics Association, and a Fellow with the National Critics Institute) that I’ve thought more people who read reviews surely understood critical/reviewing theory better than they do. The idea of fairness, neutrality, and accurate representation of motive is alien to so many of them.

      It’s more discouraging, in a way, than the instance of Locke and others who worked with Rutherford. It tells me how far down the slippery slope we are, ethical positions largely immaterial for most people. Maddening.

      But thanks for writing and reading — and for your fine stance. May you sell far more than a few hundred books!


      • Thanks, Porter. My biggest challenge has been that when I look at reviews for my book, I now know most of the people who posted them. But with one exception, I know them because they either became fans of my writing when I was only writing fanfic or they are local writers who bought the book, liked it and made a point to talk with me at the local writers group meetings. Part of me says “yeah, those are friends.” And another part says, “They’re only friends because they liked your writing in the first place.” I haven’t figured which side of the line those types of reviews come down on yet. 😛

        I’m glad (and somewhat depressed) that I’m not the only one discouraged by the slippery slope. I get a lot of emails from other authors who have gotten a bad review and want a group of us to post good reviews and downvote the bad review. I’ve refrained from expressing my real feelings on the topic in a reply and instead just ignored them. I figured that went into the “don’t burn bridges” category. I’m starting to wonder if instead it’s just enabling bad behavior.

    • I agree with you on this, but not all of it. I was shocked that John Locke purchased reviews. I don’t agree with that approach. Not one bit at all! I love his books, but now my love for them has been tainted. However, I also don’t agree with the assertion that it’s “wrong” to have your mother or friends write a review for your book. Here’s why, so bare with me on this, even though I know you won’t agree.

      I’m a successful self employed sports therapist. When I started my business, I asked my friends and relatives to promote me. They were my reviews. I asked them to help me get the word out that I’m excellent, worth the money, and that I will drastically alleviate aches, pains, syndromes, and physical limitations. Once I started to get a lot of clients coming in, I wrote an article for a local health magazine about the results I’ve had with two of my most physically difficult clients. What did this do for my business? It GAVE me business. I was booked with clients in only 6 months time, which is unheard of when starting out in my industry. Usually it takes a year and a half to three years. And, I was an excellent therapist and changing my client’s lives, drastically alleviating their chronic pain. I still do so to this day.

      I didn’t just buy an office, sit back, and “hope” that clients would walk through the door. That’s the worst marketing plan to date. If you put your book online and hope that people will buy it without reviews and without a plan to self promote it, then you are seriously mistaken when it comes to running a successful business. There are very few businesses and authors, for that matter, who do well without ever promoting themselves or using their friends and family to help kick start them. It’s a rarity.

      And this is what angers me with writers. They poo-poo their own work. Stop that! Your work is the best work out there and you better act that way. And you most likely have a well-written, excellent story, and I hope you make sure people know this.

      It takes action and self promotion.

      If I didn’t have my mom, relatives, and friends to help me (and continue to do so), then I wouldn’t have had the jump start that I did. It’s called “community”.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts. I hope I didn’t step on any toes.

  10. I could see paying for reviews or giving away book copies in exchange for a review (advancing position on the TBR list), but those reviews need to be honest ones. I wouldn’t object to critics receiving free event tickets or restaurant meals either, so long as their reviews remained unvarnished.

    • The point to check, Phoenix, is who does that reviewer/critic work for?

      If a restaurant critic at the times takes a free meal, that critic is not writing for the restaurant. The critic is writing for a news medium and owes her/his allegiance to the readership/viewership/whatever of that medium.

      If you, yourself, pay a reviewer, that reviewer is then working for you. That its very different, and it’s wrong in terms of how reviews are meant to work.

      The test is who is a reviewer working for. And this is why the FTC (and Amazon) forbid a reviewed party paying a reviewer. Any fiduciary relationship means that the reviewer now is working for the reviewed. That’s fraud. It’s not a fair and balanced review, it’s a paid job.

      Get the distinction?

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

  11. Apparently, the writing, the point of WRITING a book, doesn’t even reach a low rung on this totem pole. Brings to mind a bunch of stuff for me-from the theme of the movie Amadeus-to the fact that I am sick and tired of proclamations that “real” writers MUST have blogs and twitter accounts to prove their writing validity.

    • We are, yes, Bernadette, in a very, very tortured terrain right now regarding creative work vs. marketing and the positioning of the writer as an actor in her or his own sales-relation to readers. Much of this will be clarified and stabilized in coming years, but not right away. The digital dynamic is going to continue to feel more an incursion than a boost at many times for a while. Hold on to what you believe is your best course and try to keep as open a mind as possible to the suggestions and developments around you. It’s all any of us can do.
      Thanks for reading and commenting,

  12. Theaters give comps to reviewers so they’ll come to their productions, and hope the review is good. I’ve seen a lot of performers/directors make fools of themselves kissing up to the reviewers. That does not guarantee a “boffo!” review. The reviewers are paid by their media outlet, not by the theaters.
    But this is…well, beyond the pale. I’ve heard rumors of this for a while, but now that it’s out in the open, it’s worse than I imagined.
    I’ve started reviewing books, films and plays on my blog. I request ARC’s of the books and no one’s turned me down. All I promise is to read it for consideration of a review on my blog; I make no promises of the review actually being written, much less it being 5 star. I’m considering asking for a comp to see a new play, but it’s a small nonprofit theater and I may just buy the ticket to support their efforts.
    I’m also about to send out the ARC for my first ebook, not for reviews, but for blurbs. I’m a little on the fence about this, to be honest, Porter. It’s not that I expect a lot of negativity; it’s just because I’m not used to having my writing critiqued by those who aren’t in my writing groups. This is new,and I just have to get used to it.
    All we have is our integrity, and life is full of temptations to take short cuts. That said, I hope to God I don’t pay so much attention to reviews when my books come out.
    “Easier than building an audience.” So is making a pact with the devil (and damn, Porter, I just had a flash of “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”).
    Trust but verify.

    • You’re right, Viki, that there’s no parallel to the tradition of journalistic critics being comped into events they cover (I have had this service for most of my own critical career) and actually paying people to write guaranteed positive notices of work in a non-journalistic setting. Apples and oranges.

      (One reason for the comp tradition was simply expense. At the height of my critical career, for example, I’ve seen more than 200 professional events and performances in a year, and the cost to a medium for two tickets to so much becomes prohibitive. I did, however, work for years at one newspaper that had a policy of paying for every ticket as an added proof of no-allegiance to the artists we were covering.)

      The use of ARCs is fine, this is the same as the comp ticket to a performing-arts event. As long as you’re handling it as you are, without a promise even to review, let alone to review positively, then you’re on firm ground. Your allegiance is to your audience — whoever reads you — not to someone you review. That’s always the point here. In its cleanest interpretation, the problem with paid reviews is that they make the paying author the client — not the readership (or in Amazon’s case, not the shoppers). Once a supposed critic (and these are consumer reviewers at best, not true critics) is beholden to the entity he or she reviews, its’ all over.

      I do think blurbs are a problem, but not because of an author’s nervousness about being read (you’re on your own there, Viki, lol) but because the I’ll-scratch-your-back nature of the tradition is, in my mind, suspect. There is, however a long history of this, of course, and as a few of us including Jane Friedman were saying several comments ago, blurbs are not known to be paid. (I’m sure a few awful such events have occurred, but for the most part, they’re collegial assistance, one author to another.)

      Funny. I have no musical theater tunes whatever in my head. :)

  13. Porter, I’ll see your comment on Kirkus and raise you. The only reason writers buy those reviews from Kirkus (at $425 a pop!) and the only reason readers respect them, is because of the reputation of the original Kirkus, respected for its (sometimes scathingly) honest reviews. They are degrading their own brand. Their claim that their reviewers for self-published books adhere to the same standards as reviewers of published books would, if true, make for a pretty strange business model, since honest reviews would pan all but a handful of self-published fiction. Instead, even in overall negative reviews, their reviewers tend to look for something, anything to praise–something that the writer can use as a blurb.

    As for Amazon, now that we’ve seen how easily those reader reviews are gamed, I think they have to act to protect the system’s integrity. One way would be up the ante for writers: those caught engaging in paid-review shenanigans get kicked off the site.

    • To take your Amazon comment first, Barbara, I agree. I was just saying to Ed above in a comment that I think Amazon has to respond to this in some way to show its good faith in terms of enforcing its policy and protecting the efficacy of its review system. I’m very interested in what may come of this — Seattle is really good, and they know very well how central this component (the customer review) is to their position on the market. I won’t be at all surprised if we hear something relative to Locke and the overall policy, maybe both.

      I cannot say whether you’re right about Kirkus degrading its brand. I haven’t read their reviews of self-published work. I have seen one comment today, however, saying something rather the opposite of what you’re saying, Barbara — that Kirkus is very hard on self-publishers and that most of its reviews of self-publishers are quite negative. I think this is going to take some time to shake out as I imagine Kirkus is still evaluating its new-ish offering to self-publishers. In a way, it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it refused to touch self-published work, the self-publishing authors would be angry about that, of course.

      It is odd, that in the end, the original format of journalistic criticism (I have been one for 30 years, I should disclaim) may have been the better scenario, despite its faults. Critics paid only by the medium in which they publish are there for their readerships, not for the artists they cover. Alas, as we know, the digital dynamic has severely diminished the presence of this tradition.

      Thanks for commenting,

  14. Wow! All I can think is that if the reviews weren’t that important, why pay for them? They clearly mattered enough that a black market of sorts emerged. This adds to the murkiness of Amazon reviews, which I honestly didn’t trust all that much to begin with.

    Perhaps Locke’s book has some great advice. All that I know is I’m glad I didn’t buy it now!

    • So am I, Ed. I almost did being a newbie working on my debut novel. I would not trust any advice coming from someone that would be so dishonest. Of course I want my first book to sell, have exposure, but I want it to be based on merit, not bribery. I have a blog where I review debut authors. Sometimes I have bought the ebooks and sometimes they were comped to me. That does not bias my opinion either way. I base my opinion only as a reader. I do not proclaim to be a critic or anything other than what I am, an avid reader and debut author who hopes to find some gems along the way. :)

      • Indeed, Rebecca, just to jump in here, I’ve seen one suggestion today that people who DID buy Locke’s how-to book and trusted it should demand he pay them back for it. An interesting idea. :)

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Yes, I’m rather glad I’ve avoided Locke’s work, too, Ed, though I never imagined he could be perpetrating a fraud on his own readers and Amazon, of course.

      I hope that Amazon’s folks are reassessing their customer-review program in light of this revelation. Jan O’Hara, for example, has suggested a set of questions a reviewer would have to answer (at least cancelling the excuse of “I didn’t know I should declare a relationship with the author, for example, and requiring reviewers to go on record as “clean” or face the consequences).

      I’m also watching carefully to see if Seattle makes some response to Locke in specific — since the man has confessed to contravening policy in the New York Times. If Amazon doesn’t in some way censure this, then its policy starts to look awfully flimsy, I’m afraid.


  15. Wow, what a debacle. It seems to me that the only remotely sensible and dignity-preserving “paid” service out there for self-published books is PW’s. In their case, you’re not paying for a review — merely for a quarterly supplemental listing (the efficacy and fair pricing of which is, of course, up for debate), which puts you in consideration for a review (I believe 25% of all books submitted receive one). This has actually worked quite well for some authors — witness memoirist Laurel Saville’s success at being picked up by Amazon Encore after her book was featured in a PW self-pub review.

    • Hi, Jenn, thanks for jumping in.

      I agree with you, the no-guarantees even of a review, let alone a positive one from PW does begin to look remarkably good by comparison to this scandal. I’m finding today, too, that many writers seem confused about Kirkus’ reviews and how they work (particularly now that Kirkus has started offering a version of its service to self-publishers).

      In the best scenario, of course, paid reviews simply wouldn’t be anywhere in the equation, under any circumstances. One unsavory effect of the digital dynamic seems to have been what many people interpret as a kind of anything-goes attitude, as I was saying to another commenter — sometimes it’s ignorance on the part of newcomers to the business, other times it’s a wanton flaunting of convention to “hack the system” as much as possible while things are in such disarray.

      Either way, it’s a difficult, complex time and we’re running into ethical quandaries on all sides, as you know, not just in review issues.

      Thanks for reading and for your comments!

  16. And on the issue of traditional publishing’s role in the pay-to-play arena: Are book blurbs compensated? I’ve seen this allegation floating about, but have no idea (even as a traditionally published author whose first book garnered some lovely ones). I do know that judges in some high-profile literary contests are (hence the steep entry fees).

        • From what I understand about blurbs, they are seen by authors as a way of paying back; they were helped by blurbs from more established authors, and now they should do the same for the newbies. Now that, to me, is a fairly healthy approach, even if the results sometimes come across as a tad insincere.

          • I can agree with both Janes on the blurb/payment question. While there may have been some shady exceptions, I believe authors who provide blurbs do so free of charge as a kind of collegial assist to each other. (I’m not, by the way, condoning the practice — I’m not sure I like it very much, but it has, of course, a very long-standing presence in the publishing world. Some writers, in fact, have decided not to provide blurbs, feeling that the tradition was getting a bit out of hand and that requests for them were taking too much time to handle. An interesting, if tangential, issue here.)

            Thanks, all,

  17. I have a lot of trouble seeing how this doesn’t violate the FTC’s Endorsement Guides which require that any financial compensation paid to someone providing a review of a product must be disclosed by the recipient or else each side is committing a deceptive trade practice. I don’t have any skin in the game here and am certainly not giving legal advice in a comment to a blog but if there’s anyone who bought any of the books that had the fake reviews they could maybe sue either the provider of the reviews or the author of the book that paid for them (but not Amazon who would be blameless legally). They could also alert the FTC who would probably love a great test case for this kind of thing.

    The sanctions for violating these include that you have to pay as a fine the amounts received as a result of the deceptive trade practice.

    • Hi, Legal Minimum, there is a reference to FTC rulings in David Streitfeld’s piece in the Times that makes me feel you’re completely correct.

      Not only do the actions in this scandal — admitted to by both Rutherford and Locke — fully violate Amazon policy, they also, as I understand it, do indeed run counter to the FTC’s guidelines. I’d be surprised if the FTC isn’t looking at this, and I’d like to see it take up the issue of customer review and how its efficacy is tested (or not) as a specialized topic. It needs that.

      Thanks very much for reading the Ether and for a valuable comment.

  18. How curious, Mr. Anderson. My previously posted comment–on-subject and perfectly reasonable–has been deleted. Why would that be? Don’t you encourage commentators?

    • Hello — I’m moderator/owner of the site, and I can’t find any record of your previous comment. (I’m instantly notified of all comments on the site when posted.) Seems like the system “ate” your comment. My apologies. We welcome you to give it another try.

      • Curiouser and curiouser. My comment posted, at least on my screen, then wasn’t there when I checked back later. I’ll try again (luckily, I’m in the habit of saving). Thanks for your graciousness, Jane, and thanks for hosting the discussion.

        • And yet again. My re-post passed the catcha, showed on the screen briefly, then disappeared upon refresh. But this one does show. Huh. Maybe it’s an omen from the Writing Gods, a sign that I should quit wasting time and get back to work?

          • Oop. There it is. Guess it just took the proper propitiations and sacrifices. Why the weird line breaks, though, is a mystery.

          • Yes, I do believe I’ve not only read but responded to your comment now — and yes, I noticed those odd line breaks, too. (And sorry for not being faster, meetings all day, now trying to catch up with many folks’ good points. I do find times on other sites when my own comments appear to run afoul of simple glitches in the Discus system and are apparently “eaten,” as Jane suggests. Sorry for any inconvenience, thanks again for commenting — as you see our stack of comments growing, surely it’s clear that we do indeed encourage the participation of readers. :)

      • My comment disappeared too. Not the first time. I don’t know if it’s because my blog is with Blogger and there’s an incompatibility with WP, or what. Trying to see if this will make it through.

        • I’m seeing this one, Anne. So sorry you’ve lost one. I’ve actually taken to copying my comments (just a right-click copy) before hitting “post” for those moments when Discus seems so perversely hungry.

          • Thanks for the tip. I’ll do that next time :-) I lost the long one, but I think I’ll reconstruct it on my own blog on Sunday.

  19. I could write a 5-page essay on ways authors incur a sense of indebtedness in reviewers and bloggers, so that you’d despair about the degree of fairness and objectivity that’s even possible in the industry! the industry! (Based upon what we know from medicine and doctors who said they wouldn’t be influenced, but inarguably were.)

    That said, paid reviews–without transparency–are a whole different level of ethical trouble. Putting aside the issue of duped fiction-readers, I know authors who made career decisions based upon Mr. Locke’s non-fiction book and his advice, which handily omitted mention of “data” manipulation. I wonder how they’re feeling now.

    As you noted, I doubt very much that self-published authors are the only adopters. I see Mr. Rutherford’s Twitter handle has only benefited from his exposure, since his follower count is up since that article broke.

    Lastly, book reviews could benefit from required disclosure of conflict of interest. (Personal relationship, comped review copy, payment for evaluation, etc.) If there’s any evidence of bias, the reviews themselves could stand, with transparency about the conflict, but they shouldn’t be factored into the star system.

    • I also review, and if I’m reviewing a friend’s book I always state the relationship. Even if it’s just an online “friendship”, I think the reader should know anything that might make my review just a little kinder than it would otherwise be.

      • Exactly right, Jane. And no need to describe what impact that relationship may have on the review, let the reader of the review decide that (as I was just saying to Jan above). Just state the relationship and off you go. Perfect.

    • Hi, Jan and Jane (Steen), thank you both.

      Yes, Jane, I, too, have made my own relationships to authors I reviewed at times on Amazon clear in the reviews (the same for musical artists I’ve worked with in the past) — it’s simply rightful practice. But in a period of such profound upheaval as the industry! the industry! is undergoing, there are many folks participating who simply have no experience of proper ethical action. Granted, it may seem perfectly obvious to some of us that you make any connections clear, but the more I watch amateurs (Jan will have an issue with me on the use of the word, lol) flood the business — the Internet-inspired entrants without previous publishing or journalistic experience — the more I see stark and often shocking ignorance and disregard for such points of good behavior. The bottom line in this element of what we’re discussing being that everyone is NOT arriving with the same understanding that more experienced (let alone professionally based) members of the community are deploying. At times, I think we’re not looking at chicanery but simply not knowing. Think of it this way — in a population full of people who still don’t understand that in a “balanced” news story you allow both parties to have their say, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that there are people who don’t understand that you also lay out your connections and biases.

      My footer on these columns, for example, makes it clear that I’m a Fellow with the National Critics Institute and thus extremely sensitive to good critical practice. To me, even that — though I see it as a positive rather than negative disclaimer — is important to put across.

      Jan, I’m with you in that I’d love to see Amazon’s and others’ review formats include required checkoffs that might handle certain important disclaimers. For example:
      Do you know this author personally?
      Have you accepted any money for this review?
      Have you accepted a free copy of the book (or other IP) you’re reviewing?

      It’s not that some people wouldn’t lie about this — they would, of course. But if Amazon then detected that they’d answered this type of question in bad faith, it would have completely compelling reason to take sharp action against such reviewers (as in ban them). It would also be a way to start training the unaware — the folks I’m talking about above who actually do not know of these issues — that these ARE crucial parameters in a valid review setting by forcing them to confront the questions.

      Lastly, I still believe we’re awaiting some sign of how Amazon might react to John Locke’s confession in the Times that he has directly contravened the retailer’s policy. I hope we do see something along those lines from Seattle.

      Your point about people who have trusted Locke’s material about building a career is poignant and tragically right. It’s disgusting, really. One wishes for the equivalent of excommunication from the writers’ community at times like this.


      • Are you going to die of shock? Because we’re in complete agreement about the mechanism to identify conflict (hierarchically, even) and afford some protection to the consumer, while educating reviewers about potentially shady practices. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to cover everything. i.e.”Have you accepted a free meal at the hands of this author or their publisher in the last three years?” But at least it will be closer than where things lie at present.

        Jane Steen, that’s smart of you. After I did a few reviews without disclosure of the relationship, and it didn’t sit right with me, I learned to do the same.

        Now I’m wondering if I should include a disclaimer on all the WU interviewees when I’ve read their book for free, even though I’m not advancing an opinion? Et tu, Jan? Hmmm. Food for thought.

        • Frankly, no, I’d say in the case of interviewees for Writer Unboxed, that’s the same as an ARC for review. Perfectly accepted and reasonable in the world of coverage. If at any point for some reason — and I can’t even think why this might happen — you felt that the free book was a payment of some kind, then yes, you might want to disclaim. Otherwise, nah, whether you’re writing a review, a feature, or an interview, you’re doing a BETTER job for having read the book and the provision of that book to you free is perfectly correct.

          I was just writing to another commenter who was asking how to handle things, what we need immediately is for anybody who reviews something to OPEN the review with a quick, simple statement of relationship, if there is one. NO need to defend the ability to be fair. (Not impartial. Critics are never impartial, that’s impossible in human nature. They are, to their best ability, fair.)

          So a review should start:
          “Disclosure: I have a cordial collegial relationship with Jan O’Hara as a colleague in publishing, a fellow contributor to Writer Unboxed, and a frequent correspondent via social media.”
          Then write the review. No need to do this “…but this in no way means I’m biased about her work,” etc., etc., etc., which is completely unverifiable and useless. The nature of the relationship is all that’s needed. Then the reader of the review can decide whether the relationship mentioned has an impact.

          Make sense?

          • Yes, that makes sense. And I think that fits with what I’ve been doing, since I don’t review so much as invite readers to make their own decisions about a writer and book based upon the interview itself.

            Thanks, Porter. Good conversation.

  20. Come on everyone- what level of moral soul searching does this require? None. Paying for reviews is wrong. Simple. Just like borrowing too much money to buy a house you can’t afford. Wrong. I don’t care that the publishing landscape is changing – some things remain the same. If readers like your book then let them say so. But paying someone to write a good review? For god’s sake….

    • Thanks for reading and commenting on the Ether.

      I know what you’re saying (and I agree). I do think that times of upheaval — as the digital dynamic is creating in the industry! the industry! — tend to make some folks feel that everything is suddenly up for grabs, all usual bets off … these transitional phases become new testing grounds for old principles.

      If this is the case, we have to hope that the ethical underpinnings hold. It’s a difficult time.

      Thanks again,

  21. I read the Times article and
    its many comments with great interest Sunday. One of the commentators was
    English chick lit author Michele Gorman, who wrote about the paid review issue
    a month earlier in her blog. She says: “A book
    review blog offered me a ‘favorable/good or even excellent review’ in exchange
    for $95. I said no, thanks, and when I exposed their practices, they threatened
    to sue me and ruin my reputation amongst reviewers.” Several other bloggers
    took up Gorman’s exposé. Some of Gorman’s commentators said they’d received the
    exact same pitch. ChickLitGirls.com then got into the act, responding in the
    comments with silly threats in comically poor grammar. Even if the “service”
    were totally legit, would you want an idiot reviewing your book? http://michelegormanwriter.blogspot.com/2012/07/should-bloggers-charge-for-reviews.html ChickLitGirls.com is now shut
    down, presumably because of this dust-up.

    On another note, I’ve
    worked as a paid reviewer of books and theater–paid by the publication, of
    course, the old-fashioned way. Theater is a brief evening, but doing a proper book
    review is a time suck, requiring hours to read the book, then write a
    penetrating, honest, entertaining (did I mention brilliant?) review. I soon
    dropped book reviewing altogether. Couldn’t afford it. By the way, no editor I
    ever worked for even hinted what I should write, as in “they took out a big ad,
    please love it.” Just not done. Yes, the tickets and books are always comps–that’s
    so much the norm that it’s never even mentioned in the review. Not a big deal.

    Now, as we all know,
    there is an astounding glut of fresh-minted books competing for bandwidth,
    while trad journalism is KO’d and flailing. Amazon, the feudal lords of
    internet commerce, offers the new model of “just real folks” reviews. Payola
    schemes are inevitable. While Rutherford and ChickLitGirls have crashed, there
    are and will be others. We need something else for honest, real reviewing. In
    that light, Kirkus Indie doesn’t look too unreasonable if a self-pub author has
    money to gamble. Their $425 charge is fair, assuming their reviewer actually spends
    time on the book. What they provide for that is clearly stated. From what I
    hear, the majority of Kirkus Indie reviews pan their self-pubbed books, earning
    the predictable sputtering ire of enrolled authors. The real problem, IMHO, is
    that Kirkus Indie seems to be completely ignored by the professionals who use
    Kirkus. So far.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment and for reading the Ether!

      I agree with you, it seems that the Kirkus self-publiished review program is still trying to get its legs. In general, I’m seeing a lot of confusion today among respondents to Extra Ether in terms of the Kirkus program and how it stands next to such an outright scam as the Rutherford / Locke thing at the center of this scandal. In point of fact, I’d rather writers be wary than just jump right in, but I think Kirkus — and Publishers Weekly — may have some work to do on getting their services out more clearly into the market.

      Thanks again,

      • I’ve asked around amongst my colleagues and learned today that a Kirkus Indie reviewer earns a whopping $50 per review, while Publishers Weekly pays their reviewers $25. Many other publications don’t pay at all. Jeez. This is not a sustainable model, so I take back what I opined above. Think how many hours it takes to read a book (800 pages, anyone?), then write and polish the assessment. The reviewer would earn more picking grapes or cleaning floors.

        Meanwhile, I’ve confirmed that a good Kirkus review does indeed remain rare, while stinkers abound and never see the light of print.

  22. I’m a self-published author who has had NO commercial success. I considered buying reviews and decided it was deceitful and would not reflect an honest evaluation of my work, as painful or joyous as that might be. The John Lockes of self-publishing have figured out how to make money; have they figured out how to write well and create a body of work with lasting impact? I’ve never read a John Locke book so I’m no judge. Ultimately it’s the story that counts and whether people want to read it. Certainly from an ethical perspective buying reviews seems a little dicey.

    • More than a little dicey in my opinion, Sharon, and I applaud you for steering clear of the temptation of buying reviews. As you’re demonstrating right here, in Locke’s case, it does nothing but make you suspicious of the quality of his work without even seeing it. Once you know he has resorted to this fraud — and it is fraud — then it’s immediately hard to care about his work, isn’t it?

      My best advice is stay the course, work the established, ethical channels, and continue to honor yourself and your work with that path. Because once your “success” depends on a lie, as Locke’s does, then it’s no success at all.

      Thanks for reading and commenting on the #Ether!

  23. Yikes. Thanks for the detailed expose. I self-published a novel last year. Submitted the book to legitimate reviews in the newspaper and got a fair review. The next step (and scariest) was my book club reading it. A veteran group of ex-reading teachers with high standards, I receive a very good review and honest feedback. Several book clubs have picked it up based on the original newspaper review and eventually the review I received from PW Select.

    One of the hardest things a writer has to do is to let go of their work when they send it out and take what comes in. It’s hard as a self-pubbed author to get the word out, but I have relied on my local indie bookstore and others and libraries to exposure the book the old fashioned way. It’s hard work, but that’s the writer’s life. It’s just a wild west show right now.

    • Sounds to me as if you’re taking the honest, serious route, Janet, and you’re right, it’s one difficult road. Congratulations on handling forthrightly and all the best with your work. Thanks for reading the Ether and commenting!

  24. I’m surprised at this tempest in our teapot. Surely everyone knows that if all the reviews are 5 star they’re either paid for or friends of the author. If there’s a smattering of 4 star reviews there’s a smattering of a chance those reviews are honest. If you find more than one review that’s 3 star or below then at least some of the reviews are honest.

    As I book buyer I’ve learned to read reviews for content, and also to see which reviews are voted up. Amazon has repeatedly banned the most egregious phony review mongers, but it’s simply impossible to catch them all.

    Book publishing doesn’t hold a candle to the travel industry when it comes to vote buying. Trip Advisor is notorious for its shills.

    AOL Travel offers 10 ways users can spot a fake review. Perhaps this can provide some guidance in the current kerfuffle.


    • Thanks for the link to the AOL Travel sidebar, Thad.

      I can’t say that because travel is worse than publishing, this is only a tempest in a teapot. I disagree with you.

      I think it goes to the heart of the diminished role of criticism. (I have a great deal of professional investment there since I’m a 30-year journalistic critic.) And it goes to the faltering soul of publishing.

      As I was just saying to another commenter, it’s not enough to say, “Well you have to take it all with a grain of salt and everybody knows these things can be really shoddy.” That excuses nothing. And what a lousy attitude. (I don’t accuse you of that attitude, but I’m dismayed to find it in some others.)

      We should expect authors, our fellows in publishing, to encourage and support only genuine, freely expressed, unbiased reviews of their work and, at the very least, clearly laid-out conflicts of interest where they exist. When your mother “reviews” you, I want to see her say in the very first sentence that she is your mother. She can then do the usual five paragraphs about how her parenthood has no bearing on her opinion, but I will know she’s a liar because in most cases mothers love their kids. And thus I have had a chance to know that I have encountered a consumer “review” that actually is as biased as anything a good parent might write about a beloved child’s work.

      That’s the least we owe each other. And we owe our readers — our customers — much more.

      John Locke and others who used the Rutherford service have defrauded their own readers. This is fraud. That’s not a tempest in a teapot to me, though I respect your right to downplay it any way you feel is appropriate.

      Thanks much for reading and commenting!

  25. I’m shocked by the outrage and surprise at all this. I’m glad to see that some others are too, such as Thad below. The key distinction for me is that Locke requested that the reviews be honest. So why then are these reviews “fake” or “phony?” He bought reviews. Sure, I’m guessing most of those reviews were skewed toward the positive by the nature of the service giving them.

    while I’ve never used such a service, I’ve asked friends and family members to post reviews. (Most of my friends and family still like me.) And I’m positive those reviews where skewed as well. I’ve “traded” reviews with other indie authors, mostly on an informal basis (due to my fear of reading a really horrible book and then having to tell the author I can’t post a review of it and why). Still, how many of those reviews aren’t skewed by the fact that indie authors hate to slam or discourage other indie authors?

    Other articles and posts have dealt with this effect quite thoroughly lately. Online reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt (to say the least). Everyone knows this.

    If I have an eBook giveaway asking that readers please take the time to post a review, is that buying fake reviews? or is that simply making an ask? If were to reject every review from someone I’d done a favor or bought a coke, I’d be screwed.

    It seems to me that the review selling services are just taking the next obvious step in meeting a demand. That step has been so bold that everyone has woken up to demonstrate their outrage. But it smacks of people with a desk-full of stolen office supplies from work complaining about someone taking their computer.

    For my part, I’ve decided to never ask for anything less than honest and to do my best to never give anything (a review) less than honest. (Although, I must admit I’ve fudged some reviews that should have been three stars up to four in order to take the cowards way out.)

    • David, here is the mechanism of critical review that I believe you’re missing.

      The critic does not work for the artist/writer/company he covers.

      The critic works for his readership. In journalistic settings (in which I’ve spent my 30-year career as a Fellow with the National Critics Institute), the critic works for a news medium and its readers/viewers/listeners. In whatever setting a reviewer is working, the implied covenant with a reader is that the reviewer is on the side of the reader of the review, not of the person reviewed.

      When you pay for a review — especially from a service that guarantees a 5-star positive review — that reviewer is not working for the reader of the review, the customer. That reviewer is working for you. Therefore, in the understanding of who a reviewer is, the servant of the consumer, the reader of the review, that reviewer is now a fraud. That reviewer is no longer there to offer an untainted view of the book/performance/whatever, but to offer a rave about it because you have paid him to do that.

      You don’t have to accept this as the axis of understanding on which critical review functions. But it IS the understanding that exists in the world at large, even in a day when journalistic review is becoming a rarity (in which it is fully clear that the critic belongs to the news medium and not to the reviewed party).

      Once you have allowed your buddies to jump in and say you’re great, your mother to say your book is the best thing she’s ever read, and a paid reviewer to say he saw God when he read your prose, you have defeated entirely the purpose of critical review.

      It is not enough to say “everybody knows this.” Everybody knows that some people steal from stores. This does not make it OK. “Everybody knows this” doesn’t make the faux review from your mother worth a damn. It is worth nothing. In fact, it is counter-productive because unless she announces she’s your mother, that review is fooling consumers who might buy your work because this apparently unbiased consumer said it was good — they don’t have a chance to know it’s your mother, do they?

      Now, in the case of Locke trying this fig leaf of saying to Rutherford that he wanted people to review his stuff up or down as they saw fit, it means nothing. As a defense it lasts five seconds.

      Several reasons:
      Rutherford is there to deliver positive reviews
      He guarantees it.
      He pays his people to write five-star raves.
      He wants Locke to come back and buy more. (Which he did, a total 300, according to Streitfeld, after starting with 50.)
      Locke can say all he wants about “honest” reviews, but it’s pretty clear from the comments of the “reviewer” Streitfeld talked to that some of them weren’t even reading the books. This was not real criticism in any sense of the word.

      It is fraud. It is defrauds the buyers of a book who believe they have been led to understand its quality by people writing honestly and without any compensation for anything they might say. This is the reason that the FTC, and Amazon, forbid a fiduciary relationship between a reviewer and a reviewed party. Because it’s bogus. It’s not what it appears to be — the “fair and balanced” review.

      I’m sorry, actually, that you have such a dim view of the process here and its potential that you’d dive for the sham of “everybody knows this” and slide around with the idea that friends and family are OK reviewers. They are not OK. If they review you, they need to announce at the very top of the review what their relationship is to you so that the consumer has a fighting chance to understand that you’ve been “reviewed” by a thoroughly biased person.

      I don’t, actually, believe you don’t understand this or know it’s right. But it’s my pleasure to go over it for you.

      Thanks for reading the Ether and for commenting. All the best with your work.

      • Yes, I understand the point. And I understand the difference between a professional critique and reader review. I am not defending immoral behavior. I am defending the right for a reviewer to post his or her opinion of a book he or she has read.

        I will not defend Rutherford or Locke. They crossed a line. Everyone can see it, thus the outrage. What took me aback was how righteous everyone got about Amazon reviews. Unless an author has reported every suspect review they have gotton from someone who may have been tempted to skew their review for personal reseans, they have no moral grounds.

        I think it impractical (to say the least) to police reviews in such a manner. Sure, I could tell my mother to not post a review (personally only my sister has, and she was critical because she thinks I’m nuts). But over a half of my reviews come from people I have met over social media. Should these people not be allowed to post a review because they have come to like me professionally. Is it only okay for complete strangers to post a review? Of course I take this too far, but where do we draw the line?

        • Gotcha.

          Here’s what we need to think about. The folks you know from social media, perfectly fair game to write reviews, of course. BUT it would be super of them to mention at the very top of their reviews, “I have an acquaintance with this author via social media…” etc., describing things any way they needed to be accurate. Maybe they’d want to go on to say, “we chat quite a bit and I think of David as a friend as well as a colleague.” It’s up to the reviewer who’s the only one who knows how much that relationship (however “virtual” it may be) might impact what they feel like saying about your work. There are folks I know only through social media, for example, but I think I know them so well — or at least have such a close collegial relationship — that I’d actually be uncomfortable reviewing them. Others, not a problem, but I’d want to declare that.

          In short, “drawing the line” is really just being transparent. Just saying this is the deal, this is who I am, and here’s what I thought. Some people feel compelled to go on at some length to write things like, “But my relationship with this author has no effect whatever on the way I look at his work,” etc. But I find those efforts tend to backfire, at least for me. The more I see somebody try to tell me they’re being fair, the less I believe them.

          So I prefer just a simple statement of relationship — then let the consumer decide whether motherhood or best-friend-forever-hood or barely-know-him-hood or can’t-stand-this-guy-hood has any impact on the review.

          We don’t need to defend ourselves as “impartial.” That is, actually, not possible. (Journalists know this, lay people don’t.) We can never be impartial. Humans are creatures of opinion. What we can be — or not, if the relationship is too close — is fair. All we want from a reviewer is fair.

          So. You state your relationship to the reviewed party as it is. And then write the review in a way that you think is fair. And you’re done.

          Make sense?
          Thanks again, David.


          • Porter, Thanks so much for your post, and your careful comments to people.
            I have a question I haven’t seen addressed so far (or I simply missed it) … How do you feel about Kirkus Indie Reviews? The author pays for a review, and Kirkus does the review, with no guarantee of a good one.
            I’m just starting out in self-publishing, and of course can’t “jump” onto the radar of media so quickly. Kirkus is well recognized, but has paid Indie reviews for people “like me.”
            If I paid for a review from them and put it on Amazon saying “Kirkus Review,” would that be unethical?
            – Laura

          • Hi, Laura –

            No, there’s nothing unethical about the use of a Kirkus review. They’ve been around for decades, and their nature (paid) and procedure (no guarantees of what you get) are well understood, precisely because they’ve always made these parameters starkly clear. The self-published-review offering is quite new for them, probably about a year old or so, but it follows closely the pattern with which their (also paid) reviews of publishers’ releases are handled.

            The distinctions, then, are the known factor of the payment on a Kirkus review AND the company’s strict insistence that the review you get may not be to your liking. Those points and the long, industry-familiar track record of Kirkus sets its reviews in a distinctive light, and it’s fine to use them.

            That said, be sure to consider the fact that if the review isn’t positive you will have spent a considerable amount of money for something you probably won’t want to use on Amazon or elsewhere. While this is the dilemma of the Kirkus process, it’s also what gives it credibility.

            Hope that helps.

  26. I haven’t paid for reviews, unless you consider entering a contest that included a review, which ended up with the reviewer slagging off for seven paragraphs how much she hated my main character, Marci . . . Burn. (Especially since the main character is named Micki.) I did not win. But for authors who say they specifically tell their family and friends NOT to post reviews, what the? You’re kidding right? Have you not heard any of the 32 kajillion times the mighty Porter Anderson has sounded off about ether clutter? I have badgered my family and friends, (surely it counts for something that I was more uncomfortable than they were, and I said five Hail Mary’s afterward), but most of them are reluctant readers, (look at me, calling them out with no fear of reprisal!). They’re not super great at leaving reviews, either. Clearly I need new friends!

  27. This comes as no surprise. It’s been going on for quite some time – in fact it’s a strategy encouraged by self-appointed self-publishing gurus. And a service offered, for a fee, by said gurus. Does it annoy the hell out of me? Me and my little self-pubbed self who does not pay anyone, ever, for a review? Hell yes.

  28. I don’t often comment on the ETHER posts because they’re so full of information that I have to crawl off for a few days to digest everything and then I feel stupid coming back to comment on old news. As the others have said, kudos to Porter for doing this…and on a regular basis!

    This buying of reviews, or hacking into the system as you called it, reminds me of the issue of athletes doping. I think it’s completely inappropriate and is just another form of cheating, of circumventing the system instead of relying solely on one’s talents and hard work.

    • Looks to me as if you’re holding your own just fine, Teresa, with no crawling off needed, lol.

      And yes, there are parallels to athletes doping — that’s another case in which something is supposed to be what it looks like (athletes competing on strength and smarts) and it’s actually something different (drug). Here, we have what should be reviews by consumers who have no connections to the authors involved — and instead, the reviewers have been paid to say good things about John Locke’s work.

      As you say, completely inappropriate. Right.
      Cheers, and thanks for commenting this time!

  29. Why do people feel conned by John Locke? It’s a $0.99 book for crying out loud. And that is exactly what it’s worth. His books are short, odd, funny and cheap. I never read any of his reviews. I bought a couple of his books when I had a finite amount of time but not enough for a real book. I had a laugh and chucked it aside.

    For $5, look at RE McDermott’s Dire Straits. He has real reviews by real people (including me) and a great book. The same goes for Giacomo Giammatteo’s Murder Takes Time. These guys are writing books better than Big 6 authors without the proper credit. But look at their reviews, they’re from fans.

    Disclaimer: I am not related to, nor have i ever met either of these writers. I heard their names mentioned elsewhere and read their books. The only money that has transferred between us was when I paid list price for their books.

    Peace, Seeley

    • I agree with you: I bought some John Locke’s books, loved them, reviewed them, gave them the 5 five stars I thought (and still think) they deserved. The value of a book has nothing to do with its author’s behavior.
      And I buy and read other people’s books, love them (or not), review them (or not).
      Before buying a book, I read the reviews, the bad ones as well as the good ones; then I download a sample and only then I buy the book. This way, I’m satisfied most of the time.

      • Claire, if you’re saying that the fact you like John Locke’s books in some way makes his fraud OK, then I very much regret your opinions in this matter and I believe you are flatly wrong. I don’t care whether you like the man’s work. His ethical assault on readers, on Amazon, on publishing in general, and on the reputations of other authors trying to sell their work online is inexcusable. Inexcusable.

        I don’t care if he’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. His work no longer matters. He has seen to that, all by himself.


        • I didn’t say I thought John Locke’s fraud is okay because it’s a fraud and I don’t like fraud. I said I loved his books, NOT the way he acted to have them reviewed.
          Let me say it another way. Say, you like a writer and his books. You find them good reading, well written and so on. Then, one day, you find out that this writer you so like had, some years ago, committed a felony, a rape, for example. What would you say?
          Would you say his books aren’t worth anything? Or would you say the author should be sent to prison BUT his books are still worth reading?
          That’s what I think and if you think otherwise, then I’m sorry to disagree.

    • Seeley, I’ve waited until morning to respond you, to try to take as much emotion out of my response as possible.

      The price of the book has nothing to do with this. Nothing.

      The point here is fraud, Seeley. Against you, against me, against John Locke’s readers and customers, against Amazon’s consumers, against Amazon, itself, and against the publishing world.

      If you don’t understand that, then nothing I can say here is going to get through to you and I won’t waste any more of my time or yours here, other than to thank you for your comment, however lame your opinion is.


    • Thanks, I’m glad you’re clear on the fact that this is a fraud perpetrated against Amazon (and in direct contravention of its policies) as against the readership and the “college” of writers, our wider community of publishing.

      At the same time, part of our taking of responsibility for these things is requiring retailers to respond to the best if their ability against such fraud as that practiced by John Locke.

      So we keep both our own and retailers’ feet to the fire. Publishing cannot afford to become known as a shady, poorly policed, fraud-ridden industry.
      We have a lot of work to do on this, it appears.


  30. I have been a freelance writer since 2008, working for a number of clients, most of whom were/are ethical. I knew that outfits like Rutherford’s were around even back then, so I am surprised that the press has just got around to reporting about it. I made the (faulty) assumption that this was one of those hush-hush secrets that no one dared speak about — not even the press. When an “Indie Millionaire” took off and the author’s books were mediocre, a lot of us in the freelancing field knew the specific strategies involved in getting those products to the tipping point at which they became wildly popular and profitable (to wit: there’s no “chance” behind it).

    Few and far between is the freelancer who hasn’t been approached by the scurrilous client with a dodgy proposal (trust me, there are more Rutherfords out there than you can begin to contemplate). And any self-pubbed writer with two brain cells to rub together knows (or should know) that there are only a few ways to promote themselves to this degree of success, and furthermore, all of these methods aren’t exactly ethical.

    I could say that John Locke isn’t the only indie author who’s figured this out, but that’s simply applying Occam’s Razor. Now that this scam has come to light, Amazon.com has to find a way to do damage control with dispatch, ferreting out people who have gamed the system, or else it will be mouse clicks away from being Google-slapped into non-existence.

    • I agree with you, Lisa, wishing only that some of you who knew of these scams didn’t go to the press much earlier and enable some revelations of the kind we’re getting now. As a community, we have to stand loudly against this and stop turning a blind eye or assuming the thing to do is to stay mum when we see bad practices. The less centralized and more creatively dependent (on authors) the digital dynamic makes the business, the more forcefully we’re all going to have to insist on correct, above-board practices — and, yes, that includes requiring our retailers to address these issues with every algorithmic and other effort they can bring to bear on them.

      Thanks for your input, much appreciated!

      • Porter, if I can hunt down the names of the other pay-per-review sites (a lot of these are listed on “black hat” forums), I will definitely let you know of them — and where to find them. You can contact me via Facebook, if you have more specific questions about how they work.

  31. A sad state of affairs.

    However you look at this, it is corrupt. It is a writer getting desperate and turning to old school ways to con the system

    I wonder if John Locke will remain the poster child of self-publishing after this.

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Hey, Matt,

      No, it’s doubtful Locke can survive this. One-star reviews are stacking up on his how-to book’s page with people rightly furious about the bought-reviews fraud he has perpetrated on his readers.

      And as a community, we have to be aggressively and adamantly clear that this sort of rip-off is not acceptable, not part of the publishing world, and not going to fly — neither from self-publishers nor from traditionally published authors. Nobody gets to defraud the readership and their colleagues this way, period.

      I’m thinking we’ll have more on this tomorrow in Writing on the Ether, it just represents too big a stage in the digital dynamic for us not to get collectively clear on it. So thanks for your input, means a lot.


  32. What worries me a bit is: how genuine readers will continue reviewing books? I mean, I always buy my own e-books, I’ve never been paid for reviewing and, some time ago, I started reviewing the books I loved.
    Of course, I’m usually giving 4 or 5 stars because, when I don’t like a book, I stop reading it and I don’t bother reviewing it.
    Now, with all this bad publicity, reviewers will be under suspicion, too: because, let’s face it: how can you tell a real reviewer from a fake one?

    • Very good point, Claire, this does indeed do damage to reviewing customers, as it does to Amazon, itself, and to the publishing world at large.

      John Locke has defrauded all of us. And you’re right to perceive a new impediment to being believed and well-read for earnestly reviewing readers.

      Thanks for your comment.

  33. Won’t buy them; won’t ask people to post them; won’t read them (unless my editor or a friend sends a review to me and tells me to read a review). Actually, hearing about this had me go gargle with some bleach to get the nasty taste out of my mouth.

    There’s a lot of things I’ll “forgive” authors, because I understand how difficult this business can be, but this makes me vomit in my mouth.

    • Kathryn, thank you for your disgust.

      I’m tired of having respondents ask me if this is “all that bad” or say “everybody knows this kind of thing goes on” as if we’re to accept it lying down.

      The publishing community has to stand against this crap adamantly and forcefully, so I appreciate your anger. Don’t let go of that, we need it.


  34. Hi Porter, it’s great to get sucked back into the Ether! And, wow–great subject! I just skimmed the comments. This obviously touches many writers.
    I think we all (as writers) need to draw a hard line on what constitutes success to us. If becoming a best-selling author, earning millions from our royalties, or gaining prestige are the only ways we’ll feel successful, we have to decide right now how far we’re willing to go to achieve that success. Will we still feel successful if we lie and cheat are way to the top? Because that’s what paid positive reviews are–lying and cheating.
    Ethics and moral codes define us. I want to be remembered as someone with integrity. Integrity isn’t something we can buy. Unfortunately, success is.
    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Brava, Jill,

      Being “remembered as someone with integrity” is the only way to go. And as a community we have to be aggressively hostile to this sort of scam on our turf. I’ve had too many people say things in the last 24 hours such as “everybody knows this goes on” and “I don’t think this is so bad.” Yes it is, it is that bad, and we have to be completely clear about, as you put it, “what constitutes success to us.” Locke, for example, has utterly compromised himself and discredited his own career. Remarkable, sad, and irreversible, if you ask me. We need to say that and loudly.

      So thanks, keep talking it. And great to have you sucked back into the gases! :)

  35. Pingback: Do you believe all’s fair in love and publishing? | Linda Cassidy Lewis

  36. Porter, I think we have to look at the root of this issue more critically. Who stands to gain if readers
    start to think that most Indie authors or authors with only one book or
    authors with low priced e-books have fake reviews? Why those publishers
    with higher priced e-books that are being undercut by these other
    authors of course. And why would they want to assert such claims?
    Because they are losing relevance in the minds of readers who have found
    some real gems in the below $3.99 e-book realm. Speaking of poor credibility, these are the same publishers currently involved in an antitrust lawsuit buy the DoJ for price collusion with Apple, by the way. Have some Indie’s
    cheated the system by inflating their reviews, sure. But you can’t build
    an audience who comes back for more and more on fake reviews. You
    either are or are not a good writer. Big Publishers thought they had
    cornered the market on good writers, but readers know otherwise and
    these types of articles are designed to push readers back into their
    clutches. We have to tell our readers to stand up for loving their purchases.
    Loving a book is not wrong. And too many writer’s are doing the right
    thing for us to stand by and let them lambast indie credibility.

    • Omar,
      Thanks for your input here, it’s much appreciated.
      I’d like to, in a sense, cut to the chase here and assure you that this is not a self-publishers’ problem — well, maybe in the perception that buying reviews is something that self-publishers do (another thing for which we can thank John Locke), but not in reality. As I point out in my write, a traditionally published writer can buy reviews just as readily (and as wrongly) as a self-published writer. I regret the fact that this seems to be assumed by so many to be a self-publishing issue, and it’s something I’ll be addressing Thursday in Writing on the Ether, the full weekly “parent” column of this Extra Ether.
      Thank you again for your input,

  37. Sorry to be late to the party. I’ve been surveying some of the reactions outside of our industry bubble. What strikes me, for what it’s worth, is that the comments threads here and there tell the tale. Mostly–whether we agree or not–this dust up is a yawn for book consumers. And, that yawn is the story. The traditional indicators or assurance of quality, for want of a better bit of jargon, are on the move and double-time. Traditional publishers used to do a passable job assuring this for readers. Now that everyone is a publisher, the barn door is off its hinges. My guess is that reviewers of any kind will need to be vetted to build trust and that other measures or quality will build on different measures. Tools, guides, aids, and trustworthy assurances of quality and relevance have never been more important.

    • Agree that the yawn may be the story — just as the public’s yawn over the collapse of genuine journalism has been that story for a decade or so, too, Peter. I think we need to do better this time and pay no attention to public yawning. The public can fend for itself (yawning) while the people of publishing (not yawning) work on this.
      Thanks much,

      • I agree. What I find so amazing is that there is any dispute about a question like paid reviews. But if self-“publishers” don’t see the issue as a concern and are happy to pay for false praise with the hopes of stealing some sales then what can one do. A few commentators on the NYT’s story posted elsewhere didn’t see any difference between paid reviews and reviews in publications where that took paid advertising from publishers.

        • Couldn’t agree more, Peter, the confusion on what’s ethical in criticism has stunned me. I’m a trained critic, of course, in the jounalistic tradition via the National Critics Institute, with which I’m a Fellow, so I have to remember that I’ve got 30 years of formal experience in working with these subtleties. But nevertheless, you don’t expect to find ANYbody willing to say that this kind of fraud is OK, nor to compare such apples and oranges as you’re talking about.

          I’ll tell you where I think I see a line — one that’s not easy to mention, but it needs to be said: I’d be willing to bet that if we could sort all the “writers” who think these paid reviews are OK and the ones who don’t, the ones who condone it would be (1) people we would consider “amateurs” in publishing, (2) people with next to no experience in the world of arts and letters, (3) people who have very, very little investment or interest in good writing, in literature, in books as the cultural instruments we know them to be. I think we’d find that we’re looking at the swarm we all know is out there — the Internet-inspired upstarts who, in an unkind moment, we might say to ourselves have no business in our business.

          We know that people have jumped into “writing” on the idea (largely a fallacy) that they can make quick money by, as James Scott Bell puts it, “throwing ebooks up on the Internet.” They’re not real writers. And I think they come to us without real ethics. You have to be a part of the community to know why integrity and intelligence and decency are so important to publishing in these troubled times. I don’t think the people who engage in such fraud as this do know that.

          And I include John Locke in this. I don’t think he’s the real thing. He has defrauded Amazon, his readers, and us. And I think HE is the fraud.


  38. Even if paid reviews may violate FTC or Amazon or other rules, unless someone has broken a law and there are monetary consequences, no one will go after Locke or Amazon or anyone else. Is a book buyer going to sue Locke for the 99 cents they spent because of a fake review? Where and what are the damages? Ethical damages cannot be litigated except by the public.

    • Amazon, however, and the FTC have regulations against a fiduciary relationship between a reviewer and a reviewed party. We can hope to see Amazon uphold its policies in this, which will go a long way to prove they take the efficacy of their review system seriously.

      Thanks for commenting,

  39. I bought Locke’s book on the recommendation of a ghostwriter/author.

    As a reviewer with 800+ reviews, I know well the reviewing side and scams indie authors have tried. You name it: I’ve been bribed, threatened, flattered and even sued (Google me and the word lawsuit — it was a big deal). But never have I sold my reviews on Amazon.

    In turn, now as an indie author selling short stories on Amazon, I know the struggle to make it more than a trickle.

    In buying Locke’s book I thought, “I have a decent Twitter/FB following, plus a website, blogs, etc. I’m in as good of position as anyone. All I need are a few smart tips. Locke’s made it, so why not me?”

    Why not me? Ethics. I got ’em, Locke doesn’t. Simple as that. I read the entire NYT piece and wanted to throw up. I hope Amazon holds him to their rules. I hope also they chase the slime selling reviews on Fivver and elsewhere.

    • Anthony, thank you. As you say, ethics. You have ’em. And boy, am I glad. Keep them. And help us all think together — while remembering that this is not Amazon’s fault — how we can encourage the company to handle this correctly/ They must, as you say, hold Locke (and any others they can determine are working these scams) to their rules. This may be our next hurdle, trying to build enough consensus-momentum to ensure policies are enforced, our readers are protected, and our evolving marketplace is representative of the ethics we know are important.
      Many thanks for your input. I believe we’ll have more on this Thursday in the week’s full Writing on the Ether.

      • The temptation, understandably, is tremendous. At some point, we are all salesmen. I don’t want to be, not to the degree I feel I must be, as I’m ultimately a writer, not Herb Tarlek. I have spent this morning working on a mass email, a query to a literary agency, and reading up on how to do these things better. I feel I am farther from writing even as I get closer to it.

        Amazon’s trouble is clear: if they set rules, and they know one of their big sellers has flagrantly broken those rules, what should they do? Should they handle Locke with a hand slap, “Oh you naughty boy,” while milking his cow? Do they remove his books? What about lesser know authors? As I write, Locke’s books remain on Amazon. His book on selling books still is selling well. Reviews praising it continue to pop up. My review (not positive, as you might guess) strangely has found three negative votes.

        Perhaps Amazon is investigating. This takes time. How much time? A quick phone call, “Say, John, I’m reading some nasty press. Are you breaking our rules?” would do the job. Maybe they can add the line: “If you are found breaking these rules, we reserve the right to retain all unpaid profits, remove your books and the right to do business with us.” I don’t know, but their apparent passive response bothers me.

        There are gray areas of the purchased review game, but Locke’s not managed to dwell there. A person of good character looks to stay beyond reproach, but that’s not even close to Locke’s approach.

        The scams continue. I have had a few offers to even buy my Amazon reviewing account. A quick look at Fivver.com, for example, will find a bevy of writers very willing to sell 300 words for $5. Thankfully, most of the top reviewers on Amazon are committed to writing well, and writing with integrity. I maintain the (unofficial) Facebook page for Amazon reviewers, and am pleased that not one of our members supports review selling.

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  42. “Amazon must do something,” that’s the general opinion. There’s just one problem: nobody says what because, let’s face it, Amazon can’t do anything. False reviews are the bane of the publishing world but how can you avoid them?
    In fact, the only thing Amazon could do would be to remove the possibility for readers to write a review. But don’t forget the other web sites: Apple, Kobo, Smashwords etc.
    If some one has a good, practical, idea of what exactly Amazon (and the others) can do, we would all be grateful.

    • Actually, Claire, there are things they can do. The Amazon developers are among the best in the world and can detect many things. It’s to their advantage to clean up this customer-review system — which they championed and put on the map in modern retail — rather than let it become a discredited rock around their necks. So let’s give Amazon a chance. They’re a great, great company. I’d like to hold out for them to do the right thing.
      Thanks for your many comments.

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  48. Hello, I have heard that a publishing house can buy a ‘New York Times Best Seller’ status for approx $30,000, is this true? Or is it just an antipodean rumour spread by jealous, broke, self published indies like myself?

    • Hi, Aishah,

      Nothing I know of would indicate that status on a Times best-seller list can be gamed by a publisher’s outlay of cash, thankfully. Those best-seller lists are created through actual sales reports that are monitored each week for consistency.

      In fact, if you’ll look at this short item I had in a recent Ether (this is a direct link: http://ow.ly/dqa1A ) you’ll find a story you can click to by Tim Ferriss in which he talks at some length about how those lists are put together.

      Good of you to check on such a rumor instead of just falling for it, too.

      All the best,

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  52. Some of his friends are rallying around him. Konrath has made it his mission to try to obfuscate this into the ground. The question really is whether deceitful business practices are to be tolerated as part of the self-publishing community. According to Konrath, it’s fine that Locke bought reviews and had them buy his book, goosing his sales rankings. We also of course don’t know how many of his reviews were bought from other sources. I mean, we could always give him the benefit of the doubt, but why? He’s shown that deceit is a tool in his arsenal.

    But give me a break on the self-righteous bit about trad pubs being more ethical. How many of them “sell” books from their US company to a wholly-owned subsidiary like Harlequin allegedly did in order to cheat their authors out of royalties? That’s at least as low or lower than buying reviews. It’s Enron accounting to screw authors, plain and simple. I hear that may be standard operating procedure for them, and if you question it, your career vaporizes.

    Let’s just agree that when money is involved the snakes come out. That’s true of all businesses. There will be plenty of bad apples among self-publishers, just as there are plenty among traditional ones. To pretend moral superiority of one group over another is silly.

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  59. Pingback: Do I still recommend John Locke? No. | Holly Lisle: Official Author Homepage

  60. Personally I am not influenced by reviews of books, anymore than I am persuaded by movie or live theatre reviews. I don’t condone this gaming of the system, but I think this is a tempest in a teapot for readers. None of us was defrauded. Have we become such a society of sheep that we can’t buy a $.99 book without checking out what 6,000 other people said?

    The blogger and tweeter name-calling and posturing is reminiscent of the current political carnival atmosphere. Spare me the holier-than-thou attitudes, please!
    Locke didn’t sell over a million books simply based on those early paid reviews. At some point, as his books gathered momentum, honest recommendations eventually eclipsed the fake ones.
    When I am considering a book purchase, I read the description and inside sample. Then I buy or not based on those, plus the price. If it’s $.99, as Locke prefers to price his books, then why do I care what complete strangers say? If I’m interested, I’ll buy it. What do I have to lose but a dollar? If it’s a free promotion day, I have NOTHING to lose. If I’m not interested, then no amount of 5-star reviews or FREE promotions will change my mind.
    A personal recommendation from a friend with similar tastes MIGHT make a difference. But the marketplace is too diverse for me to base my buying decisions on what the masses may think or like. I believe the review system has its points, but people are giving it much too much weight in the greater scheme of things.
    He tried to game a system that has the odds stacked against authors just starting out. So, in essence, he lied. He violated Amazon’s TOS. He may run up against the FTC. But I still don’t see it as defrauding readers.

    Yet what about the reviewers who were paid to lie? What happens to them? Are you trying to tell me that they didn’t know what they were doing was unethical? Possibly. But who is to say what their reviews would have been without being paid? I’d be interested to know if, in their minds, they were getting paid to tell lies or getting paid to tell the truth. Either way, their reviews were tainted. I think there are plenty of places that culpability
    can be spread around. It doesn’t rest primarily with authors. If John Locke weren’t such a high profile writer, I wonder if there would be all this hullabaloo?

    Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT defending his actions. It was unethical what he did. But if you want to jump on unethical actions, there’s a city named Washington, DC, that is filled with elected officials who are masters of unethical behavior in both political parties. And those ethics or lack thereof have a greater and more far-reaching, more profound effect on voters and taxpayers than John Locke’s little $.99 books. Now THERE’S something to jump on the bandwagon over.

    Let’s keep things in perspective.

    • Deborah, thanks. This needed to be said, and thanks also for having the courage not to jump on Anderson’s train. (He ignored you, but at least he didn’t call your comment “lame.” LOL!)

    • Well said…its a game of selling not fairyland. Want to sell million books on your own….well then look for the best selling tactics… i believe there is some jealousy here from allot of good authors who don’t sell the numbers. Self publishing is a business first…you cant become a best selling author…without sales!

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  62. I do know writers who have on a much smaller scale purchased a fake review or two on Fiverr.com. And I know many others who resist the urge, but wonder, are they idiots? As one said, if others are buying reviews, am I swimming with ankle weights on to try and make it without them? All the writers I know would prefer that Amazon crack down and I think they could. My suggestion of how Amazon could reduce face reviews is at:


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  72. Its too bad there isn’t a service that will give honest reviews. I wouldn’t mind buying 20 reviews for a new book as long as they are honest because, face it, books with reviews sell better, even when they aren’t completely 5 star reviews.

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