Going on a Witch Hunt

A friend called my attention to this post at a site called Amazon Alert: Your Guide to Unethical Authors. I read the article which largely focuses on a specific author who they allege to have purchased a large number of ‘fake’ reviews. The post ends with a list of authors who they claim have each purchased in excess of 500 fake reviews using the site fiverr.com. As I scanned the list I saw a bunch of names that meant nothing to me (I’m constantly amazed at how many indie authors are out there) along with a few I did know, a couple that should be recognizable to most of you.

But none of this is surprising or new. In the first (and thus far biggest) scandal over “fake reviews” a little over a year ago, the Fiverr site was one that got mentioned time and again as one source for getting these reviews. And there is no doubt in my mind that authors are using this site to get paid reviews. I was able to easily find authors who had done so and identify accounts on Amazon that were being used to post the reviews.

You can ask whether it matters or if anyone is hurt by this. Joe Konrath (one of the authors singled out in the most recent post) responded to the uproar over last year’s scandal saying the answer was no. Konrath also claimed that he had not and would not engage in this activity, not because he found it objectionable, but because he didn’t see the point.

Although I’m not in agreement with Konrath, he does make some good points. The most pertinent is that a witch hunt, which is what he thought that situation had become, isn’t about changing practices, but about shaming or smearing others. This more recent post also feels like a witch hunt. Unlike the situation Konrath was talking about where I believe there is credible evidence that the authors being smeared engaged in the practices they were accused of, the claims made here aren’t so clear cut. In fact, I have serious doubts about the credibility of the site and the accusations made. And like the Salem Witch Trials in colonial America, those accused have little recourse to defend themselves.

I just deleted around a thousand words that was just the start of my explanation of why these accusations shouldn’t be believed. But I decided that continuing was a waste of time, both yours and mine. By the time this gets posted at IU it will be old news. More information and rebuttals will be out there. And you’ll have already heard about it. If you haven’t, Ed Robertson, an indie author who has become adept at analyzing available data from Amazon and figuring out what it all means, explains why this shouldn’t be believed in much the same way I was going to. You’ll note that Ed references a different website than I did. This is because the person or people behind this have multiple websites with content that is largely duplicated from site to site) You can read denials from several of the authors mentioned on this thread at KBoards. And everyone who hasn’t already should read Hugh Howey’s take on another KBoards thread he called “My Declaration of Integrity.”

In my opinion the bigger question is what we can and should learn from this and other similar happenings. I see two big lessons. Both of these, most of us already know, but a reminder is good. I’ll address this from the standpoint of indie authors, but parts of these lessons are universal.

The first lesson is that there are potential readers who will make a decision not to read your book for reasons having nothing to do with the book. There might be nothing wrong with your action, maybe a politically charged comment on your facebook page, but some readers will react. One of the positives of being an indie author, that their readers tend to get to know them better as well as them getting to know their readers due to interaction on social media has a downside, too. How much of yourself to show has a tradeoff (other potential readers might decide to read your book based on your political opinions). But there are some things that have very little or no upside. Arguing with readers and reviewers is one. Engaging in anything that is ethically questionable is another. I think buying fake reviews is one of these. Swapping reviews with other authors may or may not be, depending on the specifics, but will be perceived as unethical by many readers.

The second lesson is that the more successful and well known you are, the more people there will be who will try to drag you down. All of the authors listed in this most recent post have had some success, a few of them extreme success. These are also the kind of names that are going to get attention for the people behind this latest witch hunt. Finding irrefutable and verifiable evidence that some authors are buying fake reviews is easy. Those I found aren’t selling any books. Maybe that old saying is true. Success is the best revenge.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

34 thoughts on “Going on a Witch Hunt”

  1. Thank goodness I’m so unsuccessful no one’s trying to drag me down, and I’m making so little money that I wouldn’t dream of using my hard-earned dollars to pay anyone for a review. Whew! Never thought I’d be so happy to be virtually anonymous and struggling away to write books in my little corner of the world.

        1. Thanks, Melissa and BigAl. There are some advantages to being on the extreme outer edge of writing success! 🙂

  2. Good points, Al, although I do feel that the “ethical” side of this issue needs to put in a wider context. This Indie behaviour is only a logical extension of what the Trads have always done. Mainstream published authors will supply glowing quotes for the books of authors who happen to share the same literary agency or who are published by the same imprint – why shouldn’t Indie authors do the same? Regarding reviews, it’s not unknown for publishers to take reviewers out for an agreeable lunch to make sure their forthcoming review will say nice things in the newspaper. In this respect, Indies are following where Trads led the way.
    One more thing regarding the “ethics” of buying reviews: when the reviews were bought, the people supplying them didn’t have any ethical problem with taking the author’s money. Now, they go public claiming some sort of moral high ground in “exposing” behaviour from which they profited. I think that’s incredibly hypocritical and completely undermines any arguments they make.

    1. Chris, some good points and interesting thoughts here. I hope my response does them justice. I’ll go a bit out of order in my responses. I mostly tried to stay away from the ethics of this in my post, but can’t continue doing so and give you an adequate response. Obviously most of this is my opinion.

      “…when the reviews were bought, the people supplying them didn’t have any ethical problem with taking the author’s money.”

      If there is no ethical issue with doing this for an author (which I’ll come back to) then there isn’t for the reviewer either. From what I can tell there is no evidence that those who are making the allegations are the reviewers. The person making the allegations claims to have worked for fiverr.com facilitating putting reviewers and authors together for the site in question. I don’t believe him or her , nor do I believe the authors named actually bought the reviews as claimed. I tried to find any evidence that such a position or function of facilitating even exists. It might, but if it does, I could find no sign of it. But *if* he or she really did perform this function then I agree they need to look at their own ethics, if he or she believes the authors (and I’d assume the reviewers too) were doing something of questionable ethics, then the same would apply to him or her. However, two wrongs don’t make a right.

      As for your “trad/mainstream authors do it too” contention, no they don’t.There are differences that I think are material. I’ll start by saying that, IMO, an author reviewing a book, in and of itself, as a problem, If they’re acting in the role of a reader or reviewer. In fact I have a few authors who review on my site. It is the swapping of reviews, which takes the review out of the realm of acting as a reviewer or reader, that becomes problematic to me. If this is swapping blurbs with each other to use in your marketing or book description on the various book sites, that is the same as what trad authors have done in the past and continue to do. I’ve seen indie authors who have done that. I don’t object and have never seen anyone who has. In that situation everyone understands what is going on. It is writing a review and posting it to Amazon or wherever that is a swap that becomes a concern. By their nature these are going to be misleading because they’re presented as ‘reader’ reviews and, as I said above, the act of swapping takes them out of that realm, IMO. I don’t see it as unethical *unless* there is an understanding, either explicit or implied, that the review will be a positive one.

      1. Fair comment, although it is a fine line which I think strays into those familiar issues of sock-puppets and anonymity on the internet. We all live by our own ethics, and with such a completely saturated fiction market as we have now, stronger ethics are likely to be more a hindrance than a help *sigh*

    2. I totally agree with you Chris. And it may all come down to the people crying foul are the trad published authors, agents and editors because they are losing out on sales to indie authors. People are always jealous of another’s success…it will never end.

      1. There may be people in that group crying foul, Jacqueline, although I’m sure not all of them are. I’ve seen complaints from readers as well.

        1. I’ve been following this as much as I can and trying to understand it all. The one thing Ed Robertson said in his post stood out: Who is the person behind the websites? He/She doesn’t show their face, we don’t know who it is so we have no way of knowing if this is all true or not. It can’t be that he/she is trying to drive traffic to their own writing (if an author) by doing this since we don’t know who it is. I still believe though that it all comes down to being jealous over other’s successes; it will always happen and no matter how much a successful person says it isn’t true, there will be others who will believe it, readers and authors alike. Great post, Al.

  3. Big Al, if you want to write a long post about how I hired aliens to write my books, and that I’m not their authors, in addition to the fact that those aliens are also writing reviews using accounts of snatched bodies, you’re very welcome.

    It will only do good in terms of publicity.

  4. I’m rather hoping someone sues the tail off the author of that post. Defamation and libel have penalties, and the Internet should not protect such behavior.

    That said, they’re leaving out the biggest “offenders” in terms of paid ads, which are several of the major publishers… Folks need to understand that this behavior (paying for reviews) is normal in the publishing business. Ironically, my strong feeling based on evidence I have seen is that any given indie book is much less likely to have paid reviews than a trad pub book by a major publisher.

    Indies do a darned good job remaining ethical in this situation, even though we work in an industry where paid reviews are considered standard practice.

    1. I’d love to see that Kevin, at least if there was any chance of winning. The costs involved to do so might be a bit much, but also might be worth it. One of the authors on the list is married to a judge. Maybe the spouse will suggest that as well.

  5. I’ll direct my comment at the blog that “outed” these writers. I don’t believe it.

    Coming from a background of journalism, I can tell you one thing: nobody likes anonymous sources. They may have questionable motives and may not be telling the truth. So, if you go to your editor and say, I have an anonymous source, your editor is going to want to know how you know that person, what their motives are, if they can be trusted. Are their documents to back it up? Where did the documents come from? Are there any on-record sources we can use to corroborate this? And then your editor will probably tell you, “no, you can’t quote from the anonymous source because nobody likes anonymous sources. But, put in all the document info and see if you can’t get someone to talk to you on the record.”

    If the information is so crucial that the anonymous source is the only way to put it in, they’re going to grill you extensively about the source. And if they don’t think you–the reporter–are a good judge of character and have sufficiently answered the questions, then it’s a no-go. If they do think you’re a good judge of character, and other questions are answered, you’re going to be sent back to your source to get some proof other than your source’s word.

    This person who created this website, IMO, is a liar. There is no proof. You worked for Fiverr? Then, explain to us how the scam works. Show us the credit card receipt from one of the authors. Show us the email exchange about the reviews. Show us the paper trail! There’s always a paper trail. But, there’s none. And that’s exactly how much attention this guy should get: none.

    As to buying reviews, I don’t think it’s the same to traditional pubs schmoozing with reviewers. Though, it’s probably cheaper and easier, which is why people do it. Sending an elaborate press kit, making follow up calls, getting huge lists of potential reviewers, take time, effort and money (If you’re mailing hardcopy books and swag). But, those efforts are hit-and-miss: the person may like the swag and the book and leaving a glowing review; or the person may love the swag, hate the book and leave a horrible review. Paying for a review is a business transaction that’s based on money exchanges with the expectation of a positive review. And that’s not right (well, at least it’s not right if you don’t disclose it).

    1. That’s it exactly, RJ. While they describe themselves as “journalists” on the site, if they are, it is of the yellow variety.

  6. Great post, Al. Writer Beware had a post on their Facebook page a week or so ago about all this, and one of the authors on the list chimed in and posted a response she’d received from the Fiverr legal department, which denied an association with the website, the poster, or the practice of allowing people to post reviews through their site. It’s here (if my link will post), down on the left side, posted September 23. https://www.facebook.com/WriterBeware

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melinda. I believe that’s true except for the last one which I suspect (depending on the exact verbiage used) is playing games with semantics. No one posts reviews through their site, I agree. What the site does is provides a way for a provider of a service (in this instance someone willing to write a review) and someone looking to buy that service (an author, in our example). Other than being a go-between to bring the parties together and a conduit for the money (taking whatever their cut is) they also provide a means to report on how the deal went. But they’re hands off in the specifics of the deal and executing the service.

      1. I agree, Al. I just went to make sure I got their wording right, and what they actually said was: “We do not promote reviews and never had employees promote reviews for us….” which is also playing games with semantics.

  7. “Success is the best revenge.” I hope I live long enough to see that. Guess i better get back to my writing.

    As for witch hunts – I do think that the more we do to pull others down the more we hurt our own reputations. In the end it will boomerang back at you.

    1. I agree, Yvonne. While I don’t believe their is some greater power seeing that these things even out, I do believe in bad karma.

  8. A good and thoughtful post, Al, and I’m not sure I have much to add to the discussion. I agree that jealousy is probably the motive behind this attack, and I agree that no credence should be paid to the anonymous poster. In the aftermath of the original post, I read somewhere (I really should start linking to these things at the time I see ’em…) that Fiverr was contacted via e-mail and claimed the person in question had never worked there, and that they had never taken money from the authors named in the post. Whether anybody at Fiverr actually said that, I dunno. But at that point, I wrote the whole mess off.

    I will say that I agree with Ed Robertson’s post on the ratings of books in series. Typically, the ratings for the first book will be lower, because only readers who liked the first book will continue on to the next one.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. I’ll add (although I think I already said it above) that those authors whose books I’ve read who were on the list are among the best indie books I’ve read. That they would have better average rankings than most is easily explained to my satisfaction by that.

  9. A well informed post, Al; and coming a little late to the party as I have, I think almost everything that could be said has been said. The only thing I would add is in regard to authors swapping reviews: if two reputable authors, with integrity, swap reviews with an agreement to do nothing other than give an honest review; as long as they read the book and write the review from a reader’s POV, I see no foul.

    1. I agree, TD. But also understand why readers who detect that has happened might give those reviews less credence. It has nothing to do with that particular set of reviews, but everything to do with an awareness of others. But to be fair, the vast majority of potential readers aren’t going to be aware, nor detect that has happened. As with many questions of ethics, the majority of the time whether you make the ethical decision or one that isn’t, you’ll be the only one who knows.

  10. Thanks for this post, Al. I can honestly say (indecisive me) that I’m not certain what I think. Reviewers who receive free books in return for an honest review or authors who write reviews are putting their own reputations on the line when they write a review. As a reader, I can check them out – see what other books they’ve liked or not, check their own writing. But with the standard Amazon reviews: “loved it!” by Mabel in Omaha…a reader has to ‘trust’ the review is written by an everyday reader who was motivated to tell others what they thought.

    If readers begin to question all casual reviews because they feel they’ve been purchased, they will only rely on professional reviews from known sources. This gives a huge advantage to traditionally published books and lessens the opportunity for self published authors. So ultimately, purchased reviews harm indies.

    As for the ‘witch hunt’ aspect of the blog, as I said in a comment above, the blog writer should absolutely have the courage of his/her convictions and step forward. Otherwise, this is simply gossip of the most horrid kind.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jo-Anne.

      You make a good point. I think it depends on the particular reader. From conversations I’ve been involved in and feedback I’ve received, different readers use (or don’t use) reviews in different ways. Some don’t use them at all while others vet the reviews and reviewers extensively before believing in a review. It’s those people in the middle who are most impacted by questionable reviews. If they start to question the validity of reviews they’ll either start vetting those they read more or stop using reviews to make their decision.

      1. You rightly say, in the final paragraph of your opening post, that the really successful authors are the targets of the fake review trolls. And I’m please Helen has not been a victim. But it can happen to any writer as I found out.

        Amazon allowed a [NAME REDACTED] to change his name to my pen-name and give a one star review of one of my titles. Amazon say that is perfectly within their guidelines. After three weeks, I am still trying to get Amazon to stop him using my pen-name. He used his real name for the first 45 reviews. Choosing mine, was no coincidence. Amazon also allowed him to copy parts of my profile on to his profile.

        On another issue, I saw several reviews written for an author who is an IU member. He/she may not have paid for them but they were fake nonetheless. The usual tell-tale signs. Different reviewer names but the same writing style, use of the same words, written on same dates, and whee the reviewer talks more about the author rather than the book. .

        1. Matt, I’ve had a few one-star reviews, but I’ve assumed they’re from folks who have, mysteriously :-), hated my books. I had two one-star reviews of Moonlight Mayhem from folks who weren’t able to download the book onto their Kindles. I tried in vain to get Amazon to delete those two reviews, as they’re clearly against their guidelines.

  11. Yes. It’s a problem with Amazon. When you said, “no one’s trying to drag me down,” I took that to mean you had not been targeted. My point was that small and big authors can be victims. The more established authors can counter with reviews from their fans, it is more difficult for us. Like you, I will certainly not stoop to paying for reviews.

    On my second point I was trying to say that it is unethical for an author to “arrange” for reviews of his books to be posted by one individual posing as several reviewers. The signs were as obvious to me as they must have been to Amazon. But maybe readers don’t dig in that deep; they just look at the average review rating and number of reviews.

    Readers are not being well served by authors who do this nor by Amazon who allow it. Authors are not being well served by Amazon period. To allow a reviewer to change his name to an author’s pen name and kill any future sales is absolutely ridiculous..

    1. But it really isn’t your pen name. It’s “Matt Owens”. Your pen name is “Matt Owens Rhees.”

      Who cares if he changed his name? People do it all the time, especially on the internet. Given the predilection for Asians taking western names over the years, and the fact that he gave you a mediocre review, I would never have assumed it was you. Why would you want to kill your own sales?

      He’s apparently passionate about people getting things right (or at least right in his view) about Thailand in their books. Other than that, he’s pretty average as Amazon reviewers go.

      However, your activities commenting on a number of that person’s reviews really do not look good on you. An author should NEVER comment on a review, other than to say thanks, or perhaps acknowledge some constructive criticism.

      I honestly think you need to sit back and take a deep breath before pursuing this any further.

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