Bad Author Behavior As A Response To Bad Author Behavior… Is Still Bad Author Behavior

So, this weekend we learned that out in Book Land exist these people– aka opportunists, aka “human vultures” — who will gladly make a buck selling good reviews of e-books even though they haven’t really read them. We learned that they can make fat bank in the process, which means we also learned that they are rolling around in the fatty grease of a robust client base. Lots of authors have plainly paid for a glowing review, which casts the entire review system (which is already of dubious value in terms of their effectiveness with readers) into a big question-mark-shaped hole. And we can all be sure that, deserved or no, this is going to reflect more prominently on self-published authors above all others, right?

Right.

(For the record, I have never once paid for a review good or bad. I’ve paid for sex from a Czech hobo, I’ve paid to have various implements removed from various orifices, I’ve paid to have those who have left me bad reviews killed in the streets like the gutless curs that they are, but I have never once paid for a review. Thank you to those who have left reviews regardless of my not giving them a big bucket of money.)

Here’s the thing: this is scummy behavior. We know that. We can all see it. There’s no integrity there. No dignity or honor or any of those other words. (Okay, admittedly, my first response was, We can pay for good reviews?! and then I started whipping out my debit card, but cooler brain cells prevailed.) More I thought about it, more it got under my skin. I was suddenly mad at both the guy who sold these reviews and the many clients of this type of service (reportedly including schlocky self-pub uber-guru John Locke with his e-book HOW TO SELL A FRAJILLION E-BOOKS AND ALSO A SMALL PORTION OF YOUR SOUL).

And then I calmed down. Because, really, who gives a shit? Assholes are assholes. They’ll always be out there. I’m not saying you can’t do something. You tweet a little snark, you point people toward the hypocrisy (“Please everybody note the scumminess of this thing”), you maybe write a blog post or contact Amazon to see what they’re going to do about it. But what you also start to see are the torches and pitchforks coming out. You start to see people leaving bad reviews in response or otherwise piling on. This happens with lots of bad author behaviors — remember that Greek Seaman self-pub author? Her meltdown was easily eclipsed by the authors who came out of the woodwork to condemn her and run her out of Publishing Town on a rail. I’m not saying she didn’t bring that kind of response upon herself. She did.

But hey, remember LendInk? The piracy witch-hunt that turned out to be no such thing?

Right. Oops.

What I’m saying is, bad author behavior in response to bad author behavior is…

…wait for it, waaaaait for it

…still bad author behavior.

Trust me. I’ve done it. I’m not proud. But I’ve been there with a rusty pitchfork in my hand, braying for some kind of Internet Justice to be poured upon the heads of the offenders like hot tarry pitch.

But what the hell good does that do?

Here is what I’m suggesting:

Let it go.

Dwell on it for a little bit. Talk about it and continue the conversation when it’s productive. But then put it in a drawer. Lock the drawer. And get back to work.

Because all this stuff serves as a distraction and doesn’t do much to change your fate for good or bad. Whether John Locke did or did not pay for reviews matters little to my actual life. It doesn’t change the reviews I’ve gotten (or not gotten). It doesn’t change what’s in the pages of my books. It doesn’t adjust my deadlines (“Oh, you’re forming a lynch mob against that guy who sold positive e-book reviews? Here, let me move your deadline back a week, soldier”). I’m not saying we don’t have a right to be incensed. Nor should we ignore problems when they affect us or otherwise poison things about our industry.

But we should be careful not to respond to bad voodoo with more bad voodoo. Just because we see another child on the playground acting like a little ass we don’t get to do the same.

Because then the terrorists win. Or something.

40 comments

  • You make a good point, Wendigo. All of my (10 or so) reviews have been spontaneously lavished by genuinely moved readers. Paying for good reviews sucks, and makes us all look bad. However, I have a life and need to keep moving. I dont have time to care about this for an extended period of time.

  • I try so hard to stay out of this stuff. Mostly, cuz you wanna know why? I’ll probably meet the person I bitched about at the next con.

    See, like, I’ll be at Worldcon on Thursday and you’ll be there and if I bitched about you then it might be awkward.

    Unless you forgo pants. Then it’ll be awkward, but not because of me.

    So you have my vote for no pants.

  • I find the free review exchange just as despicable. I won’t name names, but I know a few indie authors with publicity sites that seem to have 600 4 or 5 star reviews as soon as their book is published. Okay, cool, you wrote a great book and a lot of people like it. Plus, you did your job promoting your work before release. Kudos.

    Except it’s a lie. This is where those Amazon peeks inside the book betray the asshole traitors to our indie lit world. I’ll read a few passages–sometimes it doesn’t even take that long–and realize, “Hey, this book is cliched vomit with a glittershit cover.” But because the author happens to run a publicity site and has lots of sway in social networking, desperate wanna-be’s post 4 and 5 star reviews in the hopes that the author will do the same for their shitty forthcoming book. I doubt many of these reviewers have even read the book.

    It’s enough to make authors like myself storm the internet with literary guns blazing. But I don’t. That would also be very bad author behavior. So, I just eviscerate those ink-defilers in fiction and call it a day.

  • I don’t think leaving negative reviews to “counter” the fake reviews is the answer, but I also do not think this is an issue that deserves being “let go.” Locke–and other authors using these types of services–are gaming the system. We need Amazon and other online marketplaces to be more vigilant against this type of behavior. Consumers getting pissed about it is just step one.

    • “I don’t think leaving negative reviews to “counter” the fake reviews is the answer, but I also do not think this is an issue that deserves being “let go.” Locke–and other authors using these types of services–are gaming the system. We need Amazon and other online marketplaces to be more vigilant against this type of behavior. Consumers getting pissed about it is just step one.”

      Consumers being pissed is different than authors being pissed, though. Authors lighting up the torches is just another flavor of bad business.

      Like I said: I think it’s good to have the discussion. And the “let it go” is more an issue of “personally,” like, internally, let it go. Drop the anger and move on. There’s a great many things in this world to be angry about and some ill behavior on the part of one or several authors shouldn’t take up too much intellectual real estate. IMHO, YMMV, etc.

      — c.

  • Well said: “Because, really, who gives a shit? Assholes are assholes.” At the end of the day, all it comes down to is writing the best book (s) you possibly can and taking legitimate steps to build interest among readers who want to read what you’ve written.

    I’m just curious about Amazon’s next steps: are they going to strip Locke of his rankings the same way the Tour de France will be stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour wins? Or do his ratings get an asterisk like Bobby Bonds? Or have we as writers gotten to the point where we already suspect 50% of those glowing 5 star ratings some people get are fake (because after all, we can take a peek at most of those books through Amazon’s preview).

  • I think we all agree it’s bad. Even the people who do it will tell you it’s bad. Self-publishing already has a pretty damaging stigma to get over and this certainly doesn’t help.

    On the flip side of that, it’s frustrating as hell, having a novel sitting on amazon with zero reviews. It’s like that episode of South Park with the kid who has no Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be “that guy” who is the only Facebook friend. Getting the momentum rolling is a huge task when nobody knows who you are.

    It’s noble to say “I am going to let my book earn it’s reviews through its own merits and integrity.” But the sound of crickets feels pretty deafening after a while.

  • Seems a reasonable position to me. This is the first I’ve heard of this, but I’m sure I’ll see plenty of it on the twitter. I’ve got to say – my first reaction is – complete and utter lack of surprise.

    I mean, I never really thought about it before but if I had I think I would have just assumed this sort of thing was going on. I’ve also assumed there are lots you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours reviews out there in self pub land where people write glowing reviews of author friends books in exchange for same regardless of whether or not they actually read them or liked them. Also, I’ve assumed that some of the “indie” community support any and all “indie” work sight unseen just because it’s indie.

    I might be wrong about these things, and maybe I’m too cynical ,but given how easy such things would be to do and the fact that plenty of people are prone to scummy behavior it really shouldn’t surprise that something like this happens.

  • What bugs me is the hypocrisy involved in some of this stuff. Some of the same authors throwing fits over reviewers leaving bad reviews on a book they didn’t like enough to finish are the ones paying for good reviews knowing that the reviewer didn’t even care enough about their novel to START reading it.

    Writers should care enough about their final product not to make it a scam, and if you’re paying for reviews from people who will praise a novel they’ve never downloaded nor cracked the spine on, that’s scamming your potential audience with faulty information.

  • Kevin — I’m at the point that I suspect most of the 5-star reviews. I don’t know if it’s just my cynical nature, or what. It might be that I recognize some of the names from some of the indie author chat boards, and I know that the author and the reviewer know each other. Now, whether or not the review is genuine I can’t say. The reviewer may have genuinely been just seconds away from spontaneous combustion because of the warm feelings this book gave them. I doubt it, but whatever.

    I have this awful pride thing that gets in my way. I want to succeed. I want to have my books continually sell and make me enough money that I can quit this day job I’m at now and live with my wife and kids on a very large boat staffed by people willing to do anything to get close to me. That, or I want to be successful enough that people want me to speak on panels at cons. Either will do. I’m not there yet, and it sucks. But when I do get there — and I have to believe I will, otherwise what’s the point? — I want to know that I did it because people genuinely liked my stuff well enough to leave a review, or to tell a friend, or to buy multiple copies of all my books to hand out to friends like candy. I wouldn’t be happy if success came because I tried to game the system. But maybe that’s just me.

  • The funny thing to me is it’s often the 3, 2, and 1-star reviews that sell a book for me. The middle review that’s well-written enough to discuss the good and bad of a book, and seeing what people really seemed to hate (i.e. Chuck Wendig is a potty-mouth and should not be allowed to spread his poo! One star for you, oh peddler of fuck! (Loved the Mockingbird trailer, btw!)) often reveals that I just might like something. That combination of actual reviews praising something, and lower-rated reviews matters to me. “Okay, some people hated this book because the villagers don’t welcome these newcomers in with open arms…that sounds interesting to me,” got me to pick up Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer. Not the good reviews — the reviews that knocked it as being uncomfortable and distant and not entirely defined.

    When I see an indie book with 100s of 4 and 5 star reviews, but very little negative reviews, it’s usually safe to say you can read the first few pages and determine the reviews were bought or they recruited a lot of friends to praise the book. For me, it’s not even worth caring too much about.

  • Interesting piece and discussion. I am the owner of a review website. I have never had anyone offer to buy a review from me. We are known for being brutally honest about reviews. The only thing I have ever said to my reviewers is don’t be mean spirited. You can something is crap without taking personal swipes at the author (or producer, director, etc.)

    As a writer of reviews, I almost prefer writing a review of something I didn’t enjoy. Why? Because if something is good, really good, I don’t want to spoil the potential enjoyment of the readers.But if a book (or movie) is bad, then I start writing my review with the premise that I can’t spoil it, because it was already “bad.”

    I do know authors that will blurb for other writers without having read the work. I don’t know what they get for it, never called them out on it personally. I just tucked the information in my brain and said I will NEVER trust a blurb from so and so again.

    When I started reviewing about 10 years ago it was for a site that required I give material at least a 3 of 5. It happened that the first two books I read were of a higher caliber, but I never reviewed for them again because if I think something is bad, then it is my duty as a reviewer to let readers know. Especially in the small press world where books are often in the range of $30-$50. If I lie and someone spends $50 on a book that I know is bad. . . Well that is wrong on many levels.

  • Geez, I wish the economy were better. People wouldn’t be willing to put together believable reviews for a buck a pop if there were any other reasonable way to make a living. Knock on wood, the spam reviews will devolve into auto-generated broken English once the employment picture gets a bit better.

    As far as helpful reviews for readers go, airy generalities don’t really do the trick so discerning readers are unlikely to fall for it. The problem is that Amazon and other marketplaces seem to include reviews in their listing algorithms. That makes it harder to find good books. Unfortunately, if an online marketplace cracks down on fake reviews it won’t be because of the blatant dishonesty. It will be to take out the middlemen and tap into that money through some sort of paid placement scheme. Sort of like they do in bookstores.

    Meh. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The trick has always been and always will be to write good books that excite an audience enough to get word to spread. The channels of communication will change, but I don’t think product reviews from strangers were ever much of an influence.

  • I sometimes “sensed” this problem, but had no idea you could literally pay for reviews. I do know I’ve busted some big-time indie authors writing stuff that absolutely stunk. And yet they’d have twenty of thirty 5-star reviews.

    It always catches up with them eventually.

    But back to the point, I don’t think this article hurts indie authors too bad. Certainly not as bad as our greatest threat right now: The haste with which some are pumping out work.

    You want to kill your career for good? (At least under your real name?) Publish one bad book. You will lose every single reader for life. Period.

    We must all be careful, be diligent, and write well, and ultimately, if we do these things, then there’s nothing the Big 6 can do about indie authors.

  • Of course this practice is rife and, yes, some self-publishing gurus actually promote (good) review swaps and so on. It is all very, very tacky. I comfort myself with the knowledge that my own reviews are all unsolicited – even if they’re not so numerous or stellar as I’d like.

    However, publishing is a business and business is dirty. The big commercial publishers have for decades manipulated the best-seller lists and the reviews, and they quite blatantly buy space on those shelves at the front of book shops that the naive punter assumes are the shops’ recommendations, or best-sellers.

    While there is money to be made, there will be dickheads making it any way they can.

  • If I can convince affectionate Andrew to pay my way (cause I’m broke, not having hit Rowling status yet…I’m thinking next week, though), can I get in on the pay-for-hugs-fest?

    Really, it’s seems like bad author behavior is all I’ve been hearing about lately, and my queasy stomach can’t handle much more, but it certainly appreciated the belly laughing you produced in this here informative blogpost rant thingamijigy, er…whatever it was, I found it [REDACTED] hilarious and now feel a hug is in order.

    Oh! What about this… If Andrew comes up short, how about if I charge you a moderate sum for the hug? You know, not because I need the money or anything…fame and celebrity is just around the corner for me, ya know. 😉

  • I review books for a couple of sites. No one has ever offered me money! I do get the books free though. The downside of that is that I have to read the free books.

    I had already worked out that amazing restaurant reviews are generally written by the owners of the restaurant, but strangely I had never thought about it book-wise. We are the ethical people of the world, right?

    Chuck, I just read Shotgun Gravy. It made me feel all sad and uncomfortable. I can’t stop worrying about those people. It didn’t make me go to bed smiling all over my body. No five star review for you!

  • I have a buddy who published an ebook and then did the normal trolly rigmarole of twitter spam bots getting tens of thousands of followers and such.

    I have no interest in doing that, but I also feel like I’m looking out from the grime-covered sewers while he’s drinking champagne at the ebook/blogger costume ball. I may have my pride, but I like sparkly outfits, too.

    It’s painful feeling like you have scruples and being broke when so many without them are making bank. But it’ll pay off in the long run, right Uncle Chuck?

  • I never decide on what to read by ANY reviews, on Amazon or from any other source. All reviews are naturally biased due to the fact that they are all subjective.

    I’ll read a sampling of the author’s writing and a short synopsis, but never a “review.”

    I’ll often read reviews AFTER I’ve read a piece simply for the entertainment value.

    So, paid or un-paid… who cares?

    Same goes for those silly blurbs on the backs of paperbacks.

  • I am reminded of an XKCD cartoon wherein a tornado warning product got 5 reviews: 4 five-star reviews about the volume level on the warning siren; and one negative review that said simply, “Did not warn me about the tornado.” Product overall rating:4. Product overall success: 0.

    I gave up on using reviews as anything but procrastination facilitators after that. :S

  • This is, in my opinion, a tempest in a teapot. The traditional publishing industry *could* point to it as another reason to shun indies, except for one thing: they buy and sell reviews too. A Twitter friend has a small-press book out, and her publisher paid Publishers Weekly to review it. Of course, PW took the money & trashed the book.

    Before I go any further, let me say I haven’t bought any reviews for White Pickups, nor do I intend to. The honest 5* that was left on its Amazon page was better than anything I could have afforded, and it even pointed out a couple flaws (dammit! why didn’t I write that down when I thought of it?). 🙂

    But if you tilt your head to the right and squint, buying reviews (whether from PW or a review mill) becomes a marketing expense. I don’t have any confirmation, but a certain number of reviews (50?) is supposed to draw attention from Amazon’s algorithms and they start recommending the book. So even if you don’t read the reviews, they can serve a purpose.

    But buying a “real” review could be pricey. Factor in the hours spent first reading the book, then writing the review, and even at minimum wage you could be looking at a few hundred bucks. Like with any business expense, and writing is a business if you want to make money at it, you have to determine whether the expense is going to pay off. Upside: builds buzz, may get you better positioning in the Kindle Store. Downside: slimy, expensive, may not pay off at all.

    If I had any clout here, I’d recommend ignoring the whole thing and writing something that will rise above the crud, leaving indies in awe and publishers grumbling how they could have done better. Back to Scrivener now…

  • It’s no big surprise people are selling gold stars. When you read through four and five star reviews for “the latest bla bla must read” many of them sound generated by a computer program. What irritates me is that the star-snitchers tar all the stars. If I think a book deserves five stars I’ll give it five freaking stars.

    I don’t know how many stars my own books have on Amazon. You couldn’t pay me to even look…no doubt some people felt the urge to share the fact that they enjoyed my books and others thought they were rubbish. C’est la vie! What I love about Amazon reviews is that you can read the reviewers other reviews. You can see what they like to read and if you think their favorite books are crap then their “stars” are meaningless whether they earned money faking it or not.

  • Thanks for the sensible post, Chuck. Using Amazon customer reviews for paid blurbitude is pretty underhanded, but so is using Amazon customer reviews for self-righteous jihad. Don’t like what John Locke is doing? Tweet, blog, FB about it. (Then, as you say, let it go.) Don’t trash an Amazon buy page. Writing a “review” of a book you’ve never read for any reason disrespects the reader.

  • I am a freelance writer/copywriter and knew that ebook writers were buying positive reviews as far back as 2008-09. How is it even possible that the media has *just* caught wind of this? Didn’t it strike anyone as remotely odd when a mediocre writer suddenly took off overnight? There’s no magic or mystery to it; this can only be accomplished in one of a handful of ways, and buying reviews is one of ’em.

    But, I assumed that everyone already knew this. My bad.

  • “On the flip side of that, it’s frustrating as hell, having a novel sitting on amazon with zero reviews. It’s like that episode of South Park with the kid who has no Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be “that guy” who is the only Facebook friend. Getting the momentum rolling is a huge task when nobody knows who you are.”

    That’s what moms (or friends, husbands, children, siblings, etc) are for. Tell them to log on and give their honest opinion of your book, and it’s probably going to be on the nice side. All without paying fakes you don’t know.

  • That is just unethical. Unfortunately, a lot of ethics have been dismissed in the world’s transition to digital media. Unethical business never lasts anyway.

  • I think you make a very good point : “Whether John Locke did or did not pay for reviews matters little to my actual life.” Exactly. I think a good review on amazon.com com sells far less books than word of mouth promotion. I like a book ai tell my friends who read and tell their friends….. and on it goes. Or reviews from people on television, or in magazines. But then again, I must confess. I almost never read a book according to the reviews it gets. I choose what I read if recommended to me by someone who knows what I like. Or if it is by an author whom I like. Or, if it is on the list of a book club, even if it would not be something I normally read. Ultimately it is what is in the pages of the book that counts. An Author writes, a reader reads, and an activist takes up causes to be active against or for. Let us each do what we are best at and leave the rest to others.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds