Recently 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.