1000 Fake Reviewers: What does publishing’s underbelly say about us?

Self-employed in publishing

Once again the practice of faking bad reviews has made the headlines, but this time Amazon is the good guy. The online book retailer has announced that it will sue 1,114 ‘fake reviewers’ in a lawsuit filed in Seattle, Washington. The reviewers, dubbed “John Does” as Amazon does not yet know their real names, have been selling their services on the internet out-sourcing site fivrr.com, promising five-star reviews for as little as $5 (about £3.24).

The importance of the online book review

There are some schools of thought nowadays which claim that the ‘review’ is dead. In the online world, however, they’re more important than ever: on Amazon in particular, reviews are now stripped down to their bare star-rating and used as data to rank a book and dictate its visibility on the site. As such, self-published authors and traditional authors alike have been known to purchase fake reviews to boost their book’s status and enhance sales. Fake reviews have become so popular there is even a WikiHow on how to spot them!

Purchasing fake reviews puts you on very dodgy legal ground, however, as it constitutes deceptive advertising and can be prosecuted.

Buying reviews and buying opinions

There isn’t anything wrong with buying reviews per se. Amazon even has its own review proliferation service, the Amazon Vine Program, though which publishers can give away copies of their books to a select group of Amazon’s most trusted reviewers, in exchange for a review from them.

There’s a big difference to buying reviews and buying opinions, and it’s important to note the difference. With situations like Amazon Vine, no money is changing hands and the reviewers are free to offer their honest opinions, whether they like the book or not. What makes it legal is this honesty policy, which explicitly stated within the program’s documentation.

We saw a similar issue back in 2012, when successful self-publisher John Locke revealed that he would often launch one of his book’s with $1000-worth of paid-for reviews. What made this legal was that he didn’t care whether the reviews were good or bad, he just wanted them out there: “If someone doesn’t like my book they should feel free to say so.”

The issue with the fake reviewers Amazon is prosecuting is that individuals are being paid to give positive feedback on products, whether or not that is what they believe. It is very likely they won’t have even read the book.

Where the buck stops

The question is where the buck stops: is it with these fake reviewers, or are the people who have been employing them just as culpable? For Amazon, both parties are equally responsible. They’re not just after the fake reviewers – they want the clients’ details too.

“While small in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon’s brand,” Amazon’s complaint detailed. “Amazon is bringing this action to protect its customers from this misconduct, by stopping defendants and uprooting the ecosystem in which they participate.”

An endemic problem?

A similar call for to stop fake book reviews was made only a few months ago as part of the Ethical Author Code, the fact that it has come up again so soon seems to indicate it might be more of an endemic problem than previously considered. The faking of book reviews has many causes, beyond a need to skew the data, and its effects include actively disassociating publishers and authors from their intended audience. In this light, the revelation of the fake reviewers’ client databases may well be a fascinating comment about the state of our industry.

The question is: even though everyone knows it’s bad practice to fake reviews, when so much of a book’s online presence and sales capacity is determined by them, is it something we’ve all, secretly, begun to do?

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  1. Excellent article. I don’t think this is so much publishing’s shame (though heaven knows traditional publishers cut a few corners) as it is a blight to some self published authors and book publicists. Many authors simply can’t or won’t pay for an experienced book PR pro to help them. They are often misinformed and overwhelmed and that makes them resort to nonsense like this. On the flip side, there are some (not many thank goodness) lazy book publicists out there asking friends and relatives to post reviews to Amazon, Goodreads, etc. for the books they are working on, even though they have never read the book. In some cases they are writing the reviews for them!

    I’m not suggesting that authors and their publicists shouldn’t consider employing some level of legitimate paid advertising as part of book promotion, in fact I urge it. But this is not the way forward. I also take a dim view of paid reviews in publishing trade media (Kirkus, PW). I don’t care how “unbiased” they claim to be. Where reviews are concerned, as soon as money passes hands objectivity is compromised in my opinion.

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed the article. I completely agree that paid advertising is a good and fine thing to be engaged in – though I do think we have to be careful about sinking our money into really valuable sources of advertising which do help grow the readership. Interesting idea that paid reviews are inherently biased, there’s a lot of truth in that too. I do still wonder how endemic the problem of fake reviews is however – though perhaps that’s my inner pessimist talking!

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