The Paid Reviews Scandal and What it Means for the Future

James Scott Bell

There was a dust storm of no small size this past week with the revelation that million-selling-self-published phenom John Locke had paid a service, the now defunct, to generate a slew of reviews for his books. “I will start with 50 for $1,000,” Locke wrote to the service in an email, “and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more. I’m ready to roll.”

News of this transaction did not generate positive reviews in the blogosphere. Porter Anderson covers much of the reaction here.

Needless to say, writers who have been doing it the old fashioned way—writing the best books they can, building readership based on quality over time—were not pleased. One of the notables, Lee Goldberg, posted an Amazon review for Locke’s tome about how he sold a million ebooks. Lee’s review is now at the top of the book’s page. Here is the review in toto:
There is a key piece of advice crucial to his success that he left out of this book: pay readers to leave fake reviews. In an interview with Locke in today’s New York Times, he admitted that he paid for 300 reviewers to heap praise on his books, a sleazy promotional technique that seems to have worked for him. Locke admits to buying reviews because “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful, but it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.” I have some advice for Locke on a more honest and ethical approach he might want to try: Actually write good books. That’s how to build an audience. You do not gain readers, or recognition, by swindling readers into buying your books with fake praise. It’s unethical and shows a startling lack of respect for your reader.
But what should be done about it? What can be done about it? Lee Goldberg would like to see Amazon take down all of Mr. Locke’s positive reviews. I doubt that will happen, as Amazon is based upon systemization and not individuation. In other words, it is not good ROI (return on investment) for Amazon to police reviews.
If they delete Locke’s positive reviews, wouldn’t they have to go after all the other paid-for reviews? It would be too arduous to do so.
Thus, Amazon will likely leave this to the free market of ideas. Lee Goldberg has already contributed to that market. He posted his review, asked readers via Twitter and other social media to “like” that review, and it has rocketed to the top. If it were a malicious, unfair comment Lee made, John Locke could complain and probably have it removed. But as it is based on fact (Lee had the good sense to reference the NY Times) that probably will not happen. (Note: I have quoted from Locke’s book in other places, citing what I find of value. Those parts still hold. It’s just unfortunate they may now get overshadowed by this mess.)  
We all know the public review process is open to abuse. But it does not seem that there’s much that can be done directly. Maybe over time, more and more readers will catch on and that will make reviews a less essential way to assess a book’s worth. It’s too bad, because real reviews will suffer taint, too.
If that is so, what’s the alternative? How is a reader to make a choice amid these shenanigans?
I think the simplest way, the best way, the only true way is this: Educate and encourage readers to read opening chapters. Stress the downloading of samples, or the “Look Inside!” feature on Amazon. Or post your first chapters on your website.
Anything to get the reader to see the actual writer in action. Doing his writer thing.
Then the reader can make an informed choice. Case in point: I’m not much of a dystopian fiction fan, but after making the acquaintance of Hugh Howey in this forum, I downloaded the sample of Wool. I found the writing so strong and the premise so compelling that I bought the whole thing.
Isn’t that the way it should work?
What do you think the fallout will be from this scandal of paid reviews? What, if anything, can be done about it?

26 thoughts on “The Paid Reviews Scandal and What it Means for the Future

  1. I’m not surprised he bought reviews. I’m pretty sure he flat out states in his book on selling e-books that he’s not that great a writer. So it wouldn’t be much of a leap to buying reviews–at least not to my mind.

    As to fallout–I understand how people would be rightfully shocked and flabbergasted, but I don’t perceive a lot of trust in reviews anyway. So while he may have done irreparable damage to himself (or not–we live in a forgetful world), I don’t see it sinking reviews any lower then they already are.

    But perhaps I’m biased, since I never placed much stock in reviews to begin with.

  2. I hope the fallout is that readers place less trust in reviews. Surveys consistently indicate that the top two reasons readers buy books are 1. personal recommendation and 2. author recognition. If a friend recommends a book, I’ll buy it; if I read a book and like it, I’ll buy more of that author’s books. (Reviews tend to rate below price and jacket description.) Good writers want readers to sample their wares. if I can’t hook a reader with the first chapter, I need to go into real estate. If what has happened here makes readers place less trust in reviews, so wary they want to test drive books before they buy them, that’s a win for good writers. It will help the professionals rise to the top in the tsunami of ebooks for sale.

  3. Thank you for addressing this subject here. I think using fake or phony reviews is extremely lame. It’s not something I’d do. However, we shouldn’t be shocked and dismayed that there are shills out there jucing the crowd. It’s been going on for a looong time: think tech stocks and a certain social media IPO.

    I confess that the reviews of Locke’s Million Seller book influenced me to buy it. Those reviews said the book was helpful and inspirational. I read it and found that to be true. Much of what he said was about marketing and drawing attention to your “product.” Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the atmosphere around paying for juiced product reviews is pretty lame. ‘Nuff said. Now John has to live with it.

    As with most things, you take what’s useful and leave the rest. And you move on.

    Sample chapters move me to press the [BUY ME] button, or not. After that, you’re on your own. “Put your money on the table, and drive it off the lot.”

  4. As a reader I don’t tend to give too much weight to reviews. I’ve read books that literally had 1 star reviews stating they were the worst book the reviewer had ever read, and really enjoyed them. On the flip side I’ve read bestsellers with 5 stars across the board and found them lacking. So I reckon it’s best for each reader to form their own opinion, and if this makes more readers do that then it will be a positive outcome.

    Of course, none of this will affect the people that just buy a book because, with the advent of the £0.99/$0.99 ebook it’s just so cheap, without even reading the blurb and then post negative reviews when they don’t like it.

  5. Once more, its ‘buyer beware’ I’m afraid.
    For new/mid-list writers, its disappointing because it taints an available avenue of promotion, but, as others have stated here, the reviews don’t hold much sway with readers anyway (They don’t with me).
    Which brings us back to selling books the old fashion way; creating interesting cover art/design to catch the readers attention, write compelling back cover copy, and capturing readers with the opening section of your story.

    I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Hope everyone is enjoying their Labor Day weekend.

  6. Speaking of contrived reviews, I found someone on Twitter who was posting their progress on Goodreads for my upcoming young adult book to be released in Dec, Indigo Awakening. This person rated my book with 3 stars even before she claimed to have finished it. No review, just a rating.


    Since my book is about psychic teens, she might have used her third eye to read it, but authors paying for fake reviews or readers fabricating them to draw attention to themselves devalues all reviews. What’s left to do is exactly what you suggested, Jim. Read excerpts & the book jacket copy, download a sample or try the Look Inside feature, try word of mouth recommendations–then make up your own mind.

  7. The thing is, I don’t know of many authors who haven’t paid for a review in some form or fashion. There are review services that will review a book for a fee. There are also book giveaways in which the author gives fans a free copy of the book in exchange for reviewing the book. Thomas Nelson has BookSneeze, which makes pretty much all of their new books available for free in exchange for a review. Even if we draw a line between those paid reviews that the reviewer is required to give a good review and those they are not, paid reviews will tend to be favorable. I’m sure we all like the ideal of a reader purchasing the book and then liking it so much that they want everyone to know about it, but the fact is that the publishing industry ideal is to sell more books.

  8. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear about reviews being bought. I’ve been watching the black hole they’ve been turning into for a long time. A lot of indie writers are probably introverts, and promotion is like this huge gorge they to get across to get sales — and it’s freaking hard!

    It doesn’t come naturally — things would occur as common sense to an extrovert don’t occur to us. The other day I suddenly realized that I had all these writing credits, and I kept thinking people would find them so I wasn’t saying that I had them. I have to really push myself and make sure something — anything! — gets into the end of a blog post so people know what I’ve written. So I can see how paid reviews would draw people — all they have to do is plunk down the green stuff and word gets out without them having to get out of their comfort zone.

    I’ve seen the terror from writers if they don’t get a 5-star review. They can’t figure out how to promote their book, it isn’t making sales, and a 1-star review is like death. It’s not, “He didn’t like the book” — it’s “OMG! Everyone’s going to see that 1-star review and they’re not going to buy the book.” And they’ve got no plan B.

  9. Amazon at least has reviewers signing in so they can’t review anonymously any more, but when my house discounted my first series to $.99 for 2 months, I found out about a thing happening on B&N’s site where anonymous reviews are allowed. Apparently kids have taken to meeting at certain book titles to chat each other up or mess with the book’s rating by giving it 1-stars or 5-stars & leave silly comments. I got hit with a bunch & called B&N’s attention to it so they’d be aware people were messing with their system, but never got a response. After my house put the books back to a higher price, they’re still selling really well so I wasn’t adversely affected, but reviews can be strange.

  10. This isn’t that much different than having your mother, your wife, your best friend, and all your employees post reviews. (assuming that you can count on your mother for a 5-star review). Part of the problem is that the reader doesn’t know who the reviewer is or their connection to the author.

    The other problem is a review is subjective. I post reviews all the time of books I love, but that doesn’t guarantee that you will love the book as much as I. There have been many 5-starred books that I’ve read and thought huh? Whether those reviews were paid for or not, I have different like and dislikes than the reviewer.

    The other conversation this week was Sue Grafton’s comment on self-publishing that led Forbes to write an article suggesting a prediction of having a “review board” of sorts to weed out the good self-pub from the bad. Maybe this review board could be the standard to set all reviews for. Is there a way to monitor reviews as legitimate and accurate? (I doubt it)

    If an author is seeking reviews, they could ask for no better than the reviewers for How to Avoid Big Ships. The reviews posted for this book might be the funniest things I’ve read.

    And lastly, I agree with you, Jim. Hugh Howey’s WOOL is fantastic and he deserves all the 5-star reviews he gets. Great writing=great reviews=success.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  11. i agree with most of the responders. i learned a long time ago to not depend on reviewers of art in any form….books, movies…..or most importantly, the sculptures that cities place somewhere prominently, in the name of ‘art’. i gotta agree some money is passed under the table on that issue. kathy d.

  12. I have to confess one of my dirty little secrets. A couple of years ago when times were really tough I worked for a pay for play review house. Here’s how it worked:

    1. Depending on how many reviews a writer “ordered” the book was sent out to us in ebook form. There was also an author’s summary sheet with a short synopsis, names of characters, etc.

    2. We were told we could read it or not read it, that was our choice.

    3. There was always a disclaimer that if you couldn’t “honestly” give it a 5-star review you could bow out. Oh yeah, you also didn’t get paid.

    4. Then we returned the review to the house to be posted under one of their accounts or occasionally posted it ourselves.

    I didn’t last long, about a month. It was too much like telemarketing and I didn’t like being a shill. I gave the books a solid skim as well, so it reduced my fee to a below minimum hourly wage. I got to where I could pick out the sockpuppets from a mile away, most reviewers didn’t even bother using the character names. I’m sure they had templates:

    “The book takes you on a magical adventure into a fantastic land where you will lose yourself. This books was just fantastic and I hope the writer puts out a sequel (that I will again be paid to review).”

    As for me, when I look at book reviews I look how the bell curve falls. I read a few 5-stars (OMG This book changed my life!) and scan the 1-star (usually bitching about price, language, or some other snotty pretension) and then let the sample chapters be my guide.

    You can’t stop sockpuppeting only report the abuses like Jordan did.

    That snakepit known as eBay is the same way. I got into an argument with a customer on my non-ebay webside. A week later he went on ebay, bought a number of very low cost items, left 20 negative reviews and 20 one-star ratings and then filed a claim for a refund when I hadn’t shipped in 24 hours. And, no, eBay did nothing to help me except to put ALL of my receipts into escrow for 30 days pending investigation of me as a sleazy seller.

    It is the way of the net, still the wild west.

    • Wow. Am I naive. I’ve never asked anyone to review for me. No one in my family has ever reviewed my work, but buying reviews is outrageous.

      I would imagine getting paid for a review would be tempting for the reviewer, but paying for them is all kinds of wrong.

      I’m glad you mentioned this, Terri. Wow.

  13. Back in the old analogue book days, I knew several authors who enlisted and funded an army of friends to pre-order their books at bookstores known or suspected to report to the NYT List. I’m talking wealthy folks who spent tens of thousands of dollars (about the price of a full-page ad in the NYT) to all but guarantee a spot on The List for the on-sale date. After that, momentum carried them the rest of the way to millions of dollars in earnings.

    I think it’s unethical, but hey, this is business and their books sell way better than mine, so who am I to talk?

    The point is that people have been gaming the system for years. Given the cynicism that is at the root of so much of the self-publishing movement (no, not all of it!), I think the biggest shock is that people are shocked–shocked, I tell you!–that this sort of stuff is going on.

    John Gilstrap

  14. Terri, thanks for that look “inside” the paid reviews game. Fascinating. Wild West indeed, but maybe someone will figure out how to form a computerized posse to clean things up. But until then, writing well is the only way to go.

  15. I do wonder how big a part reviews play in actual, real-world decision making. In a survey last year by Smashwords, on how readers discover ebooks, by far the biggest slice was word of mouth and recommendations. That was followed by purchases because the author had become a “favorite.”

    That’s the good news in all of this.

    The survey results can be found here.

  16. A while back bloggers who accepted payments for their “reviews” went running scared when the IRS changed something about the regulations regarding them. To get some action on Amazon, a simple statement could be required on each Amazon review, indicating whether payment was accepted for the review. If that statement is enforceable by the IRS, that could have a chilling effect on the whole trend.

  17. Kathryn, I like that. Just a checkbox as to whether or not you were paid to do the review. Now, most would lie, but that kind of thing catches up to you eventually.

    Amazon does have the ‘verified owner’ checkbox which helps to pick out the sock puppets a bit.

    If I am leaving a review on an ARC or comp copy, I state that up front. “I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of XYZ from the writer/publisher/agent and . . . ” Depending on how I got it, if I really think an ARC stinks, I have returned it to the writer with a thanks but no thanks note.


  18. Instead of repeating this, here’s a blogpost I’ve written that puts Locke’s 300 paid reviews in perspective:

    Someone here as said that they don’t know of a single author who hasn’t bought a review, and tried to equate book giveaways with what Locke and others did. I don’t know of a single traditionally published author who would consider buying a review, fake or otherwise, and trying to equate offering books for review to paying for fake reviews is beyond ridiculous.

  19. Exactly, Dave. Netgalley & ARCs are a way for publishers to generate advance reviews, but from the criteria I’ve seen them use for netgalley reviews, they only make sure the reviewers have solid blogs & aren’t just asking for a free book. Asking someone to “guarantee” a good review in exchange for the value of a free ARC or a $10 ebook, not only doesn’t make sense, it would be an insult to the ethics of both parties.

  20. Jim, I always knew there was some kind of black op these writers were doing in order to achieve staggering sales over a very short period of time. And I’m talking about authors who have sold up to 40,000 books in their first sixty days while claiming to have done NO promotion.

    When you ask them how they accomplished this remarkable feat (and I’ve asked quite a few of them), their answers are eerily similar: “Just lucky, I guess.”

    Now we know what they were all doing.

  21. I downloaded John Locke’s book on “How I Sold…,” a couple of months ago. The book’s reviews did not convince me to buy it—selling 1 million books on Amazon convinced me. His success meant that he was an expert on marketing books. $2.99 was a deal. Locke indicated that Twitter was his most effective sales tool, and he outlined a tricky system. In short, his tweets drew potential readers to his website, where he blogged about subjects that made him, as a writer, interesting to readers. Ultimately, many bought his books, and gave him great reviews, because they liked the way he wrote.

    Could I do this?

    I set up the website, and began a blog… but kept putting off the tweeting. My heart was reluctant to participate. Now I know why, and I’m relieved that I didn’t waste a chunk of my writing time trying to figure out how to snare a million strangers in cyberspace with infinite five word blurbs.

    Buying reviews sounds a lot easier.

    Why did Locke fail to mention the paid reviews? Well, he was—and is—in the business of selling books. But, if he had been honest, he could have propelled start-ups of legitimate review firms that could compete to review indie writers’ books. The best businesses would employ credible reviewers (those with actual names, and credentials.) Amazon, B & N, etc. could validate them. The reviews would be objective and reasonably priced, so writers could buy them from more than one firm. (A Kirkus review is too expensive because of their monopoly.) Are paid review firms any different from credit rating agencies that are paid by the banks they rate?

    After Locke quits defending himself, maybe he could start a Paid Reviewer, and let me in on a deal for $2.99.

    Sella Pals

  22. I really don’t like the idea of buying positive reviews. Too fake, waaaay too fake. But I do not equate that with giving incentive’s for reviews in general. I regularly give away my books on Amazon, via their KDP Select program. It makes good business sense. When I give it away for a day to two, my sales generally take a major boost for two weeks following and ratings go pretty high.

    I also have a giveaway once a year for everyone who reviews any of my books in that calendar year, a free Kindle Fire this year.

    Am I buying reviews? Sorta, I guess. Am I buying good reviews? No, its random, no guarantee who’ll get the prize. I have received plenty of 4 & 5 star reviews but also a few 1 & 2 stars. decides who gets it, not me.

    Want a chance to win a Kindle Fire? My new novel MIDNIGHT SUN and my new novella BLADE OF HEARTS are both free on labor day. Gettem’ free, leave an honest review and be entered to win.

  23. has become the largest marketplace for books, but the original democratic intent of its book review process might be seen as devolving into anarchy. Is it time for an exploration of where the Big River is taking us?

    Please visit The Big River Review. Please forward as appropriate.

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