The Paid Reviews Scandal and What it Means for the Future

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell 

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 GettingBookReviews.com, 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?

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5 Things Every Author Needs to Understand About Self-Publishing

@jamesscottbell

        
So now you are either self-publishing or thinking about self-publishing.
         Yes, welcome to the world of everybody.
         I have a question for you. Do you actually want to make some money at it?
         Here’s the good news: your ficus can make money self-publishing. Your cat, Jingles, can make money self-publishing.
         Of course, by money we are talking about enough scratch to buy some Bazooka at your local 7-Eleven. Or maybe a Venti White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks. That’s not bad. It’s something.
         But if you want to make some real dime, and keep it coming, there are a few things you need to understand.
1. You are going into business
         The authors who are making significant money self-publishing operate with sound business principles. Which makes many other authors as nervous as Don Knotts.


         “I’m just not wired that way!” they’ll say. “I want to concentrate on my writing! I haven’t got the time or inclination to think about business decisions.”
         But guess what? Even if you have a traditional publishing contract, you’re going to have to give time and attention to business, namely marketing.
         What if you spent a little of that same time and effort learning the principles of successful self-publishing?
         Of course, a lot of authors now want to go right into digital. Well, don’t do it until you fully understand that it’s a business you’re going to be running. That business is you.
         Learn how. The basics are not that hard. In fact, I’ll have a book out soon that’ll help.
2. Your mileage will vary
No one can replicate another author’s record. Each author and body of work are unique. Innumerable factors play into the results, many of which are totally out of the control of the writer.
If you go into self-publishing expecting to do as well as author X, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Instead, concentrate on being the best provider of content you can be. See # 5, below.   
3. This isn’t get rich quick
         In the “early days” of the ebook era, those who jumped in with both feet (Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, John Locke) and those who had loads of backlist (Bob Mayer) or caffeinated series ideas (Lee Goldberg) got some nice returns.
         Now, the future for the overwhelming majority of writers is about quality production, consistently and over time. A long time. Which is fine if you love to write. 
4. You can’t just repeat “buy my stuff” and expect to sell any of it
        
         We have left the age of sales and are now in the age of social. The way you market today is not by hard sell but by relationship. Even if you’re putting together sales copy, you have to think about how it offers value to the potential reader.
         What isn’t valuable is a string of tweets that are little more than “buy my stuff” or “please RT this” messages. Some authors think it’s a numbers game and repeating these messages will work over time.
         They won’t. They’ll annoy more people than they’ll attract.
5. It is first, and always, about the book
         I don’t care if you can out promote and out market anyone on the internet.
         I don’t care if you can afford to spend $100,000 to place ads for your books.
         If your book fails to catch on with readers or, worse, turns them off, you’re not going to do well over the long haul.
         Which is how it should be, after all. The quality of the writing itself should be the main thing in this whole crazy process.
         So you should concentrate a good chunk of your time, even more than you do on marketing, on a writing self-improvement program alongside your actual writing output.
         One of the reasons I’m conducting intense, two-day writing workshops this year is to take each and every writer who attends to that next level, where green is earned year after year.
          Now is the best time in history to be a writer. No question about it. The barriers to entry have been destroyed and opportunities to generate income have taken their place. But you have to think strategically. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, puts it this way: The biggest challenge faced by self-published authors, it’s not marketing, it’s not discoverability, it’s adopting the best practices of the very best publishers. It’s about becoming a professional publisher.”
       Of course, if you have trouble with that, you can always partner with your cat Jingles. 
Updates
We’re fast closing in on the Austin, TX 2 day fiction workshop, June 16-17. To get the special room rate, sign up with the hotel before June 1. Details here.
I’ve posted a new writing video on Agents. If you want to know what a pitch session feels like, tune in
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