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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