What Money Can Buy

How would you feel if you worked at your craft for tireless years, and then in your eleventy-somethingth round-the-sun lap, someone bought their way into the cubicle next to you?

It’s likely that you would experience any number of unpleasant feelings. Confusion. Anger. That pulled-taffy feeling of jealousy and resentment. Which is normal, because if someone bought their way into something you’d worked hard for, it’s only natural that you would be upset. It undermines your sense of worth in your work, and jabs at your diligence with a pointy stick.

This week I’ve come across a few blogs discussing the practice of self-published authors buying positive reviews to make their books look better on Amazon and other digital marketplaces.

There are services that offer a number of reviews for each threshold of money.

When I heard about it, I sat there bewildered for a minute. Then I felt lumpy anger roaming around under my skin. And then it dissipated and left me feeling rather hollow.

I realised that I find that practice outrageous.

Outrageous, adj. Capable of producing outrage and prickly unhappy feelings.

I find it so on two different levels.

As a Reader

I don’t want to be lied to. I think it’s a fair assumption that you don’t, either. When I’m looking for a book to read, especially a self-published book, I want to read honest reviews. I want to see reviews by real people who had real reactions to the book. Which is to say, people who didn’t get paid to say something nice about it.

In an effort to explore the world of digital publishing a bit more, this week I’ve downloaded a few ebooks onto my phone. One was a non-fiction book by the fabulous Nicola Morgan (Write a Great Synopsis), and two were fantasy novels.

Both of them had five stars. One of them was indie published, the other was put out through a traditional publisher in print and Kindle edition.

I read some of the reviews for the indie book, and they were all glowing. They said it had an explosive start. That it would lick your boots and kiss your arse. Oh, wait. Not that last thing.

The book itself? I noticed major grammatical errors in the first two pages. It started slow, threw too many characters into the mix, and I didn’t make it through two chapters.

I’m sorry to say it, but it wasn’t worth the price. And it was free.

The other book was NOT at the top of Amazon’s fantasy ratings. I had to hunt for it on the recommendation of a Facebook friend. I downloaded it and started reading, and I had this “ah” moment of thankfulness where I was utterly happy to have gotten it. It was well-paced from the beginning, had an intriguing concept, and I wanted to keep reading — even though I seldom read romance of any kind, even fantastical romance.

The first book? I felt cheated. This author likely didn’t pay a review service, but she probably did have her friends and family write great reviews for her. And while that’s not as much of a sin against my time as the other, it’s still misleading.

As a reader, I want to know reviews are legitimate. When my books come out, I want people’s honest opinions. I’ve come to love negative feedback (or at least criticism, not STFU scribbled on my manuscript in crayon). It makes you better.

And that’s nothing compared to how I felt…

As a Writer

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not wealthy. I’m several thousand clicks away from wealthy. Spouse and I struggle to make ends wave at each other from opposite sides of the room, let alone meet. If you have the ability to pay your rent or mortgage on time every month and money to buy what your family needs, you’re better off than we are.

I’m not saying this to get pity. We’re working on it.

I’m saying it because, in the event that I end up self-publishing anything ever, I will be starting from scratchity scratch. I’ll have to save for months to pay for an editor and cover designer. And probably have to work 40-60 hour weeks even to do that. So it grossly offends me that some writers are paying for reviews. Essentially paying for their position on Amazon’s rankings. Paying to be a bestseller, or at least to get partway there.

Indie publishing was supposed to level the playing field, but people who offer reviews in exchange for payment are making a mockery of that idea. Indie phenom John Locke has publicly stated that he bought heaps of reviews. He spent over $1000 doing so. That might not sound like a lot of money to some people, but to someone like me who has negative disposable income, it might as well be a million.

Read the article here.

It’s hugely upsetting to me to see people doing that. It strikes me as dishonest, and rather akin to a student from southeast DC working her whole life to get into Harvard and then meeting a kid whose parents are trustees and couldn’t NOT get into Harvard. Yeah, I know, that’s how life works. It sucks. But it has no place in the writing world. I’m aware that some books with lots of merit have gone unnoticed for a myriad of reasons, but authors shouldn’t have to already be wealthy to succeed more.

Maybe I’m taking it to personally. Maybe I’m just feeling like I got kicked in the shins because I’m an avid reader who wants to have an honest idea of the quality of the books I’m about to read and because I’m a poor adult who grew up a poor kid, and I’m sick of the way money opens doors to people who aren’t necessarily the most qualified. Maybe I’m a nincompoop who just isn’t working “hard enough” to make millions and I should grab my bootstraps and be rich already.

But I find the practice of buying reviews outrageous either way.

What do you think?


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on September 4, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! There are so many talented authors out there struggling to get noticed and others who just pay for a little lip service and they sky rocket. I’m so against this too.

    I also dislike novels that are poorly written but somehow rise to the top because of who the author knows *cough* 50 Shades of Grey *cough*. Although in that previous example, it doesn’t help when people read utter crap and promote it as though it were a work of art. (note: I never actually read the books but have reliable sources that have confirmed it’s poorly written.)

    Okay now I’m just ranting…sorry about that 😉

  2. I was reading a newsletter that focuses on the world of self-publishing and one of the advertisements intrigued me so I clicked on it and was horrified by what I found.

    Get paid to read and review books! Self-published authors will pay you to read and review their books but wait, it gets worse! They pay you in Starbucks gift cards!?

    After the initial shock wore off I clicked on some of the “reviewers'” profiles to see what sort of person would subject themselves to this system.

    Guess what? They were average people, a lot of them cat enthusiasts, not that there’s anything wrong with that, they seemed like nice people caught up in a very shady business. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” comes to mind.

    Maybe they love all the books they read, maybe they have no taste, or it doesn’t bother them that cat and dog are misspelled on page two.

    Maybe we should remember that for as long as publishing has existed as an industry, reviews have been bought and paid for, either with wining and dining or with cold, hard cash, and maybe we the readers and writers have been a bit naive about the business of publishing.

    It was only a few years ago that I learned about publishers paying for coveted shelf space in bookstores. Now they pay for Amazon reviews, ah technology!

    The internet just gives a level of anonymity to the whole process. A third party takes care of the payments and gets their cut, Jane Doe gets her five dollar gift card for her review, the author sells her e-book and makes her 15 cents, and the reader suffers through another terrible self-published book.

    I agree with you Emmie, and I try to take comfort in the old saying that the cream always rises to the top as I’ve heard people repeat over and over again in the publishing world.

    It’s just annoying and unfair that the wealthy have a leg up on everybody else.
    What happened to meritocracy?


    • I guess I should clarify that what I find morally abhorrent is paying to have someone give you GOOD reviews, whether it’s a traditional publisher doing it or an indie author doing it. It skews the system.

      I’m too much of a cynic to really believe in a meritocracy, but these stories are upsetting. It siphons off some of the hope I have to make a living doing what I love unless I somehow come up with thousands of dollars to be anywhere near the pack.

  3. THIS: “Maybe we should remember that for as long as publishing has existed as an industry, reviews have been bought and paid for, either with wining and dining or with cold, hard cash, and maybe we the readers and writers have been a bit naive about the business of publishing.” ~ Eleni

    Nothing new under the sun, my dear. And what’s the difference when you exchange reviews with a writer-friend? Famous writers do it all the time for debut authors.

    I’m not condoning the practice that you describe (paying for *good* reviews). I review books on one of my blogs, and subsequently post those reviews on GoodReads, and sometimes Amazon and SFFWorld.com. I don’t get paid. I do get ARCs. And most author’s offer their books to me in digital format for free (before I get a chance to tell them I want to buy their book). So, would you consider that getting paid? The reviews I write are not necessarily glowing nor our the authors promised a good review. They get my opinion and that is all.

    As a reviewer, I give honest feedback. And no matter my feelings for the author, if I can’t give the book at least three stars, i just don’t review it.

    However, it does seem that the practice you describe is on the rise and from now on, I may have to decide to read a book based on its sample pages rather than its reviews. (Huh. Maybe I should stop wasting my time reviewing…)

    • Reviews of books and films are important, but they shouldn’t be skewed according to compensation — that’s all I’m saying. I think I know you well enough to know that someone giving you ARCs wouldn’t influence the way you reviewed a book and that you wouldn’t give it a five-star, glowing lump of praise unless you really believed the book was worth it. The book I referred to in my blog was crap. Maybe a step or two above crap. But it had heaps of five-star reviews that, after reading a couple chapters didn’t even make sense.

      Exchanging reviews with a friend is something else entirely — and if a friend of mine wrote a book I couldn’t stomach, I wouldn’t review it. I’d try to help him or her fix it. Hopefully before it got published. I don’t know much about indie publishing, but I do know about brand, and publishing a crap book under your name damages your brand, and people won’t buy the next. So if it was a friend, I would try to help them improve it for the sake of the brand they sell to readers.

      And I do find it upsetting that buying reviews is a common practice in the world at large, not just in publishing. Every once in a while, though, stuff like this pops up and socks me in the belly again. It makes me depressed for a day or two, and then I ignore it and move on. Today was just that day where it really got to me — probably because of the election year and all the absurd other things I’ve been seeing slowly eroding my sense of human dignity.

  4. I agree with you! I want a honest review when I am buying a book. Since I have a Kindle, I always download a sample of a book before I purchase it. This has saved me from spending my hard earned money on a lot of crap! 🙂

    • Yeah, that sounds like the best option to me. I still haven’t found an indie novel I really like (of course I don’t have a Kindle, and reading on my phone is obnoxious, so I haven’t exactly been donning safari gear and wading into the Amazon trenches), and 90% of the ones I’ve tried to read have turned me off. The notable exception is Nicola Morgan’s Write a Great Synopsis, which is brilliant, well-edited, and spins like a top on polished marble.

  5. Emmie, as has been pointed out above, ’twas ever thus … it’s part of the rather unattractive underbelly of the publishing world. The good news is that there are choices … especially for indies. Carefully research the bloggers who focus on your genre and request interviews. There are many fine, respectable sites but it does take time to sort through them. IMHO, a good reviewer is one like tmso above who simply does not review poorly written books. I don’t review books on my blog but rather interview authors and share their personal stories. When I read a book I enjoy I will post a review on Amazon and Goodreads but they are strictly based on my personal enjoyment. I hope that people who review my work do the same.Every assessment of our work is helpful, as you point out. We learn and grow from constructive criticism. Once we put the work out there we should be prepared to hear whatever opinion someone wishes to share … at no cost. I believe Amazon has a policy now of removing any review if they discover there was a charge.
    Don’t be discouraged. The cream does rise to the top … and thank goodness for the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon. Ooops … I feel like I’m blathering now …

    • No, not blathering. You’re right. And Amazon HAS changed their policy, for which I tip my hat to them. I believe they also busted several successful indie authors for reviewing their OWN books under (multiple) pseudonyms, which is something else that’s just plain immoral. One of the authors was very popular, and I read a blog by one of his fans who was incredibly upset at the lack in judgment. The author said he’d had a “lapse” in judgment — for four straight years that he was doing it. Ugh.

      That said, I wish people would just be honest. It would make a lot of the world better. That and trust their work to stand on its own, as well as be cognisant of when it doesn’t and be willing to learn to fix it. Essentially, that’s what I see paying someone for reviews as a short cut to — people don’t want to admit that their book may have serious faults, and they’re unwilling to LET the cream rise to the top. Because they’re afraid theirs will sink like a stone.

  6. Thought you all might be interested in this guy:

  7. I completely agree. Have you heard that one author made up names on Amazon and wrote his own reviews!? It seems sad to me that people can’t trust in their own work – surely if it is good enough, then you’ll get the good reviews on its own merit. Paying for them just strikes me as having so little faith in your own abilities.

    • Yeah, dude’s nuts. Like…delusional nuts.

      I think the people who pay for positive views (note qualifier) are insecure in their work, but also they probably believe their work is the bomb-diggity and they don’t WANT anyone telling them otherwise. I’d like to see a psychologist’s analysis of something like that, haha. I have a more respect for authors paying for reviews if they allow the reviewer (or encourage them) to give an honest opinion, even it it’s one star. That said, so many authors have great work and don’t have the money to pay people to read it, so the whole thing strikes me as unfair. Like, you know, life. Ugh.

      It makes me want to research all the sudden millionaires and find out how many of them were already financially soluble before they started writing.

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