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RJ Ellory’s Fake Amazon Reviews

September 6, 2012

Disclaimer: The views presented in this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of FWA, its leadership or members, or its business partners. 

This blog is a marketing vehicle for the Florida Writers Association and its conference. Its goal is to provide high-quality content that makes you, the reader, more likely to become an FWA member and to attend our conference. In other words, it exists to serve you–and if you remember that FWA provided that service, we’re good with that.

That’s why there’s a bit of a quandary this week. One of the headliners of this year’s conference, RJ Ellory was accused of–and admitted to–writing fake reviews for himself and other authors on Amazon. His fake reviews were five-star. The other authors’ were one-star.

In response, Ellory said, “The recent reviews – both positive and negative – that have been posted on my amazon accounts are my responsibility and my responsibility alone. I wholeheartedly regret the lapse of judgment that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way and I would like to apologize to my readers and the writing community.” (Quote from The Telegraph [UK])

Quite simply, Mr. Ellory did something duplicitous, he got caught, and he came clean and apologized. The Conference’s executive committee is attempting to reach Mr. Ellory. This blog post is not about what FWA will decide to do as time goes on.

We’ve stated previously that for customer reviews to work, they must have the highest level of integrity about them. And while a few fake reviews might not seem like a big deal, the following issues have already arisen around this entire problem:

  • The veracity of online reviews is being questioned. According to a New York Times blog post, at least one estimate places the percentage of fake online reviews at as high as 33.3%–one third.
  • According to a post to Mr. Ellory’s Facebook page, at least one legitimate reviewer of his books is now facing scrutiny as people are doubting whether he is who he says he is.

  • Groups such as ours are faced with a difficult dilemma. Even without the fake reviews, Ellory is an acclaimed crime writer. He didn’t cheat to get the awards he’s won and his sales probably haven’t been budged by the faked reviews. Certainly there are enough real fans that he doesn’t need to worry about faking reviews.
  • Writers who got one of Ellory’s one-star reviews have been wronged. People make buying decisions based on reader reviews. And when a review is persuasive and well-stated–something a writer does for a living–it carries disproportionate weight.
  • The community of writers has been disrupted. There is a disturbance in the force. Some of the people wronged by Ellory’s reviews have friends in the community. If someone did something to harm a friend’s career, how forgiving would you be? How long would it take you to get over it?

In a sense, Ellory is Jose Canseco, one of the first baseball players caught using steroids. The one-third number for faked reviews seems high. So did Canseco’s accusations about the number of baseball players using performance-enhancing drugs.

In a post on Murderati, Alexandra Sokoloff says, “I like Roger Ellory very much as a person and I actually agree with his own reviews of his books, they’re some of the best crime fiction I’ve read in recent years…I have done many stupid, regrettable things in my life, and paid dearly for those things, too.” Ellory will certainly pay some price for these sins. He has wronged at least two of his colleagues. If an established writer were to do this to someone just starting out, it could be devastating.

John Locke’s improbable rise to success becomes much more probable when he’s gaming the system by purchasing reviews. And, as referenced in a recent post, there will be shadows of doubts for others, just as Jeff Bagwell is paying the price for Canseco’s and Barry Bonds’ sins in baseball. The next time someone comes out of nowhere to a chorus of stellar Amazon reviews or overnight success, that person will be guilty by association.

RJ Ellory has a unique opportunity here, however. He did something stupid and he got caught. He admitted it. What he’s done in no way invalidates his skills as a writer. It doesn’t eliminate his willingness to assist the Florida Writers Foundation in its quest to combat illiteracy. It doesn’t eliminate his desire to help writers become authors by being at our conference later this fall. It’s all part of the same package.

RJ Ellory is unlikely to be the last author swept up in this scandal, but he could become one of the most important voices. His apology is an important first step. The question is what comes next. Some sort of recompense to the authors he maligned would be a good first step. Beyond that, only time has the answers.

  1. September 6, 2012 7:53 am

    Well, there’s bound to be a crime story in all this mess, right?

  2. September 6, 2012 8:02 am

    I do hope that FWA does not withdraw his invitation to be at the conference. If he is willing to share what motivated him to go to such (regrettable) extremes and gives a strong caution to authors to NOT allow their vision for their book’s success to turn into a obsession that leads to bad choices which have the power to kill their career rather than help it, I think his attendance would be well worth it.

  3. September 6, 2012 9:13 am

    Well, just b/c an author is a dipsh*t, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to tell us at the conference vis-a-vis his writing. But please: “a momentarily lapse in judgement?” How long, exactly, is “a moment?” Is it as long as it takes to write his fifth ugly one-star on some other author’s book? I don’t have to personally like every author out there whose books I like. I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy having lunch with Ernest Hemingway for example. (My father knew him and said he was a jerk.) But I absolutely think Ellory should come to the conference. He’s successful, and he can share what he knows which is the main thing. Just count me out for lunch with him! 🙂

  4. John Gardner permalink
    September 6, 2012 9:51 am

    Really? That’s how you want to play this, he’s a good author so we forgive him? The baseball players you mention were trying to give themselves an edge. His actions are more akin to the figure skater (Tonya Harding, first woman to complete a triple axel in competition, two time Skate America champion) who had her competitors legs broken (Nancy Kerrigan).

    One has to question is he sorry, or sorry he got caught. This is no momentary lapse the behavior was repeated. Is he the only one? Probably not. Do I want to learn anything from him, I’ll answer that with a question, “Do you really want to learn anything from Mein Kampf”? and yes I’ve read it.

    The answer for me is a resounding NO!

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 6, 2012 1:25 pm

      I didn’t say “He’s a good author, so forgive him.”

      I laid out the aftereffects of what he did. I think the costs are pretty starkly presented–specifically for others. How would you like to be the Amazon reviewer taking crap because he’s accused of being a sock puppet? How would you like to be the next EL James/Stephenie Meyer and be immediately suspected of cheating, absent any evidence? I wouldn’t. And if I were to him a literary home run and get crap for it, I might feel compelled to personally thank him for the crap.

      As to your question about whether he’s sorry, or just sorry he got caught, I just wrote almost that exact question in an e-mail to a friend of mine. And that’s the whole point. If he’s really sorry, and if he does something about it, then there’s room for a measure of redemption.

      If. A pretty big two-letter word.

      I won’t be running out to buy any of his books, that’s for certain.

      • John Gardner permalink
        September 6, 2012 2:53 pm

        Your analogy was to compare him to arguably good baseball players, who even without the performance enhancing drugs would have skills far beyond your average player. Hence inferring a level of competency to him. Something he may well have, I’ve not read his work.
        If no one thought he was a good writer he wouldn’t be at the conference.

        ” It doesn’t eliminate his desire to help writers become authors by being at our conference later this fall”

        Was it a desire to help fellow writers that drove him to give one star reviews?

        You did state the blog was not about whether he should be uninvited or not, but in your reply you speak of those who will suffer because of this incident.

        “This blog is a marketing vehicle for the Florida Writers Association and its conference. Its goal is to provide high-quality content that makes you, the reader, more likely to become an FWA member and to attend our conference. In other words, it exists to serve you–and if you remember that FWA provided that service, we’re good with that.”

        Actually this statement followed by what seemed to be a justification of his attendance, my only reason for replying.

        I am an FWA member, and when you represent the organization you in part represent me.

        There are myriad reasons to attend the conference and RJ Ellory’s presence or absence should not influence that.

        Redemption is a dicey game at best.

        I’ve said all I have to say on the matter, the initial article with it’s preamble struck a nerve.

      • Chris Hamilton permalink
        September 6, 2012 3:16 pm

        Your question about the one-star reviews is more than fair, John. I suspect someone may ask him that question during the conference.

  5. September 6, 2012 1:53 pm

    If he had just given himself praise, I would be more forgiving. He would just be an egotistical jerk then. But giving other authors bad reviews – there is no way that is forgivable. That was no lapse of judgement. That was deliberate and mean-spirited. I don’t care how many awards he’s won – he won’t get one red cent from me.

  6. Jeff Cochran permalink
    September 6, 2012 4:00 pm

    I’m registered and paid for the RJ Ellory day and don’t regret that. I would be interested in hearing first hand about this, and I’m interested in how it affected/skewed his sales. And whether the admission has had any effect on sales as well (He should have an ida of that by the conference date).

    I will say that, although his experience is valuable, I will have trouble with his “expertise” on methods he uses. There’s a piece of me that will wonder what else he may be falsifying or have falsified in the past. I’m also open to suggestions on a work of his to read before the presentation. Since I can’t actually trust the reviews to help me…

    • September 6, 2012 7:39 pm

      One of his books I enjoyed the most was “A Quiet Vendetta” which was amazingly well done for a Brit who set the book in the United States.

  7. September 6, 2012 9:32 pm

    I do not much care abut the fake FIVE STAR reviews because the New York Times reviews for big time publishers and authors are fake, too. However, the fake One STAR reviews are evil, and the disproportional affect they have on new or self published authors is devestating. I hope he gets sued.

    I mix some politics into my writing, so if frosts me when I see phony ONE STAR reviews made for petty partisan reasons. People read and believe those fake ONE STAR reviews. And, when the fake reviews are made under several fake identities, the affect can crush a new author.

    I assume he did the ONE STAR reviews to harm the competition?

    He should be banned from Florida.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 6, 2012 9:42 pm

      We could let him go to the crappy parts. Maybe Pinellas Park. (Just kidding.)

  8. September 7, 2012 10:24 am

    Make him stay at Motel Six. Leave the light on.

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