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Paying for that five-star Amazon review

August 27, 2012

John Locke. The author. Not the dead guy/smoke monster from LOST.

John Locke is a first. Before him, no one had ever sold one million self-published e-books through Amazon. Not even Amanda Hocking. When he reached the magical one-million copy mark last year, he became yet another strike against the New York publishing establishment–a plucky do-it-yourselfer whose talent and persistence won him the kind of fame we’d all like to achieve.

With all those positive reviews, who could question the guy’s success?

As it turns out, Mr. Locke purchased a lot of those reviews. According to a story in Saturday’s New York Times, Locke is one of many self-published authors who has purchased reviews from a guy named Todd Rutherford, whose company*, would write reviews for you if you paid for them. Most of the authors who purchased reviews from Rutherford requested positive reviews. (* — I am choosing not to link to Mr. Rutherford’s website.)

The Internet’s commerce function runs on reviews. Many customers read the reviews for everything from books to sneakers to cars before making purchases. Amazon,, Goodreads, even non-book sites like Angie’s List are based on providing feedback from other customers to potential customers. If the potential customers can’t trust the authenticity of those reviews, the system falls apart.

In Rutherford’s case, when Google found out about his business, they shut down his ads. Amazon has removed most of his reviews. According to the Times, he now sells RVs for a living. It’s a minor setback, though. If Rutherford found another way to sell his services, he’s not going to tell a newspaper. He’d just get shut down again.

As for Locke, he didn’t care what the reviews said, and that’s wise, as long as most of them are positive. Let’s say most of the books you see have anywhere from five to a couple dozen reviews. Suddenly, there’s a book with fifty or eighty or a hundred reviews–and the majority of them are positive. Just the sheer volume of traffic will entice you to consider the purchase.

On its surface, the act of purchasing a positive review is ethically problematic. But there are thousands of self-published books out there. Let’s say yours are good. (Mr. Locke’s are good. You don’t sell a million copies if you write garbage.) If you can generate dozens of reviews by writing a check–especially if you know your work is good–the temptation would be very strong to do so. And in Mr. Locke’s case, he was buying volume, not content. He didn’t specify what the reviews would say.

It’s the same concept as banning Pete Rose for betting on his team’s games. Anything that erodes the integrity of the system will ultimately cause the system to fail.

Would you pay for a review? For a positive review? For a lot of reviews?

  1. August 27, 2012 8:43 am

    No way! It’s a form of cheating and it’s unethical. Loche can say he didn’t care what the review said, but then why did he have to pay for it? And, further, why in the world would he pay for anything less than favorable? It’s one think to pay a marketing agency to promote your book for you but to pay for a review, nah, that’s just cheesy.

    And I have to disagree that garbage doesn’t sell. What sells is what resonates with a Reader. And then, garbage, as defined by the literary world might might be considered as fabulous by the public. 50 shades, for example?

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      August 27, 2012 12:40 pm

      He would pay for less than favorable because when one book has 120 reviews and the other has six, you’ll assume there’s something to the 120-review book or all those people wouldn’t have reviewed it.

  2. August 27, 2012 10:40 am

    Does bribing family and friends count? Seriously, I give little credence to indie book reviews these days. Though I didn’t realize people paid for them (naïve little me), I know there’s a lot of “I’ll write a nice review for you if you write one for me” going around. So it’s already impossible to know which reviews, if any, are the genuine opinion of an objective reader. Still, I don’t think we need to muddy the waters further with paid reviews—unless they’re going to be listed under the heading “Paid Advertisement” where they belong!

  3. August 27, 2012 11:53 am

    Thanks for this Chris. I think it’s horrible. Just as horrible as publishers paying for that big Barnes & Noble display so that the prominently displayed books in a bookstore no longer reflected the predilections and meanderings of the booksellers but rather who had the most money. My 2 cents.

  4. Chris Hamilton permalink
    August 27, 2012 12:38 pm

    This is sort of like juicing–using perform-enhancing drugs–in sports. Ethically, it’s cheating. And it’s incredibly easy for me to opine on how Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds shouldn’t have done what they did. But I’m not a Major League Baseball player. And I’m not trying to compete with other players who are juicing. I don’t have to be concerned about cheating to keep my job.

    And I’m not competing with guys like John Locke to get my work noticed on Amazon–not yet, anyway. I’m not defending what Locke or Todd Rutherford did, but I am saying I can understand the thought process that would lead a writer down that path. You put all kinds of work into your baby and then it’s butt gets kicked by 50 Shades of Gray and other inferior work. It could be an attractive temptation.

    I would hope that I wouldn’t succumb to the temptation. But I can’t say for absolute certainty that under the right circumstances, I wouldn’t.

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