Et tu, Catfish? Writing with Integrity

catfish books are rampant on fish-216132_640Recently I’ve learned about a new (to me) term: catfishing. It means someone pretending to be what they are not. In terms of selling books on the Internet, this basically boils down to someone posing as an expert in a given field, then writing short, pithy eBooks using information easily and freely accessible on the Internet (think Wikipedia) and then passing it off as a definitive guide on Amazon.

The Washington Post recently ran a very thorough article on the phenomenon. The upshot is that (1) this is nothing new; there have always been people gaming every system ever devised and (2) most of these catfishers operate at least nominally within Amazon’s guidelines with the exception of paid reviews, the thing that Amazon is really cracking down on lately.

Legal or not, transparent or not, I still have to wonder who does this. Who lies awake at night, figuring out how to create a fake book with little effort in order to fleece naïve readers? What twelve-year-old says, When I grow up, I’m going to write innocuous crap and dupe people out of their hard-earned money? Who says, on their deathbed, man I’m so glad I regurgitated all that inane material so I could fleece hundreds of people out of a few dollars each?

There’s a story of a wasted life in there somewhere, but I’m not touching it.

The sad part to all this, beyond the pure fraud, is that “writers” like this make it even tougher on us indies. Those of us who write because we can’t not write, because we have stories that are taking over our brains that won’t let loose until we write them down; those of us who craft our stories carefully, lovingly, artistically; those of us who offer up our creations only hoping for kindred souls to appreciate them; those of us who believe in the fair exchange of a few dollars for several hours of thoughtful entertainment — we have to compete with these guys? Be lumped in with these guys? Be judged with these guys?

The indie road is not an easy one. Those of us who tread its cobbled surface do so because we love and believe in the process, and because we believe in the satisfaction and validation it offers. But the path to independence begins by pinning on a badge that says, We must do our job twice as well as the trads in order to be thought half as good. It’s the old Ginger Rogers syndrome: While Fred Astaire (trad publishing) waltzes around the dance floor to the acclaim of all, Ginger does everything he does only backward and wearing high heels. So it is for indies. We must work hard to ensure that our books are as good as they can possibly be: well-written, well-edited, beautifully packaged, and carefully promoted. Because of the not-going-away-fast-enough stigma of being indie, we have to adhere to a higher standard.

And then these catfish people come along and put out their slap-dash eBooks and we’re fighting the battle over quality all over again.

So how does a discerning reader know if they’re getting an essential, well-researched book as opposed to a catfish whiz-bang? It can be tough to tease that out.

  • Check the frequency of book releases. The WP article noted one “author” who released a new book approximately every five days over the past year. Every five days. I won’t say that’s impossible, but unless a writer is ambidextrous and doubled-brained, that’s pretty suspicious.
  • Check out the reviews. If every single review on a book is 5-stars, beware. These catfishers often report anything less than a 5-star review as spam and have it removed, another way to game the system that wouldn’t have occurred to me. Now, I’m not particularly happy about the infrequent 1- and 2-star reviews a few of my books have gotten, but in light of this, I am thrilled that my books show diversity in their reviews. Amazing how those less-than-stellar reviews actually lend credence to the books, showing the public that I do not employ sock puppets or paid reviewers to pad the ratings. Likewise, check to see how many reviews were posted in what time frame. If several reviews were all posted within a very short span of time, like ten in one day, proceed with caution.
  • Check out the reviewers. If you look at all the reviews for a given reviewer, you may see hundreds of reviews given in a very short period of time, perhaps as many as ten a day. Again, like the author who writes one book every five days, the frequency here is suspicious. I doubt even speed-readers can read that fast.

Beyond that, trust your gut. Books like these will often scream their hype at you with the greatest hyperbole. As with any product, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It’s unfortunate that we must all shop with a cynical eye, but the fact is that fakes, scammers, and catfish are not going away anytime soon. We just have to be vigilant before we plunk down our hard-earned money. And we indies have to be vigilant about keeping our standards up. But that’s not too difficult for us. We can dance backwards in high heels.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

22 thoughts on “Et tu, Catfish? Writing with Integrity”

  1. I’ve only read the first few sentences, but “posing as an expert,” already has me feeling guilty. I’m not sure whether I can read further. :/

    1. Your track record of thoughtful, considered and helpful comment speaks for you Big Al. We know your stuff is worth reading and your opinions are sound. You ain’t no catfish. 🙂

  2. I didn’t realize it was called catfishing but I have heard a fair bit about it lately. It is sad. What I’ve learned is that many who do this, do not use their own name (probably obvious 🙂 ) but they use several names for each different genre or nonfiction category they write in. I’m assuming because then it’s harder to track who they are. Dieting and exercise seem to be two of the big areas that these catfishers (?) use because they are so popular and sell well.
    Thank you for sharing this. Back to being Ginger Rogers 🙂

    1. Yes, Glenna, I think it’s sad anytime anyone deliberately tries to hoodwink readers. I’m guessing whatever the trends of the day/week/month are, those are the topics that will be exploited the most.
      Keep dancing!

      1. People come up with all sorts of excuses for using aliases, but none of them hold water with me. If someone isn’t prepared to stand up and be seen, they don’t deserve to be heard, or read. That’s just wearing a literary burka and it shames all honest writers.

        1. The only honest reason I can see for using a pen name is when someone writes for different genres and doesn’t want their readers to get confused about what type of book they’re getting. That makes sense to me. But doing it to hide the truth? Thumbs down.

          1. That can wsork against itself because even if you are an established author in one genre you effectively have to start as a newbie in the new one. If you write in multiple genres under your own name, people get to see how versatile you are and already know the quality of your writing. There is no problem in keeping separate title lists, so I believe people should be open about their identity. If you must use an alternative it should at the very least appear in the book’s catalogue page as your own name writing as****.

  3. Eye-opening post, Melissa. And you’re right: Indies are held to a higher standard. We have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. Therefore, the existence of these “phony writers” is disturbing.

    1. Every tide brings in its flotsam and dumps it on the beach. the only saving grace is that it remains there, rotting until it dries up and blows away in the wind. The quality stuff remains in the water, afloat and still thereto be appreciated by the discerning fisherman or reader.

  4. Never heard of catfishing before, but I know I’ve seen just this sort of thing going on. Now I’m trying to figure out how they can get away with having less-than-5-star reviews removed by reporting them as spam. Seems like Amazon or someone would at least look at the review before removing it. smdh

      1. I only ever take passing notice of the number of starts a review of my books attracts. I’m more interested in the comments people offer.
        When someone takes the trouble to think a little about what I’ve written, how it is structured, how I’ve portrayed the people, how easy it is to understand, whether it is compelling reading and things like that, and then takes the trouble to write this down and share it, I feel that is a worthwhile review. After all, it gives me vital feedback that helps me do a better job next time. It’s a point of contact with my audience that I can relate to. Stars are beyond my reach, but readers aren’t, and they are the ones I want to get through to and inspire.
        By the way, I always thought Ginger was a far better dancer than Fred. It was just that he was so hyped up by all the marketing men, and had his hair so neatly slicked down, that he got all the attention. He would have been no more than a stomper without Ginger. 🙂

  5. Great Article, Cat Fishing or Gaming the Amazon System has been around a long time and not just in the indie community. From what I have observed, here are a few things I look for or think about before I buy? We all need to follow the old maxim “Buyer Beware” and “Buy with Open Eyes”.
    Before I Buy I ask Myself:
    1) Are the reviews truthful real customer reviews which are normally short no more than 2 or 3 sentences long or are they long winded book descriptions perfectly written as if an advertisement.
    2) Who is this Author? And What are they doing? Is the author using what I call “Come On” books with promises of great knowledge and or rewards so they can “Funnel” you to buy their more expensive books or other seemingly more helpful advanced advice books, or course or webinar.If so don’t waste your money or storage space on your kindle.
    3) Are they pumping out 1 book a month of under 100 pages each; the worse offenders are 10 to 50 page free or $0.99.
    4) Check the book length before you buy, does it make sense for the subject matter?
    5) Use the Amazon Look Inside before you buy. Is it filled with platitudes and reviews and long winded generalizations, and encouraging promises,instead of subject matter or even any of the first chapter?
    6) If after downloading it, instead of flowing text on the book pages there is only 1 or 2 high level wishful thinking bullets per page and lots of white space. Return it and get your money back.
    7) Google the topic and Check it out on Wikipedia before you buy.
    8) Remember, If you pay for it on Amazon, you can return it, and get your money back, and give a reason why. Even if you have to send amazon support an e-mail why you are returning it.
    9) Free books cannot be returned on amazon, but you can give them a 1 star review and point out how general the book is and to check the topic out on wikipedia before they buy it. And if you’re really ticked off send Amazon an e-mail because amazon is trying to stop these gamers.

    I hope this helps some of you,

    1. Joe, all excellent additions to the list of things to watch for. Thanks much. Sometimes it’s hard to pick out the catfishers, but a hefty list of red flags should give readers an idea of what to look for (and what to back away from). The more “hits” they see from our combined list, the more skeptical they should be. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  6. I used to love high heels! Great post, Melissa. I’d heard/read the term ‘catfish’ before but never knew what it actually meant so thanks for that too. 🙂

  7. I always like to look at things like other books published, the book’s reviews and its ranking before buying. I also like to go check out the author’s website to see what kind of info I can find. But, you have to be careful anytime someone self-brands as an expert.

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