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.
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?