Thousands of self-published authors release new ebooks every single month and most get lost in the shuffle. In 2011, Google announced that it had over 110 million books currently indexed, which makes the process of finding new authors tremendously difficult. Some indie authors have been trying to solve this problem by engaging in the process of buying ebook reviews and creating an air of distrust in their chosen vocation.
If an ebook does not have many ratings or reviews, it tends to not generate sales in the major ebook stores. The more reviews and verified purchases a book has, the more it gets pushed up the rankings and tends to garner more sales. This has prompted a number of companies to meet the unscrupulous needs of authors to get noticed and has created a firestorm of epic proportions.
A report by Gartner Research points out a very disturbing trend in the ebook industry: fake or paid reviews. Many companies are actively creating duplicate user accounts and posting reviews on a book in an effort to gain more sales. In other cases, self-published authors like Stephen Leather pay people to leave positive reviews or leave fake reviews themselves. The new report states that if this problem is not be curtailed, by 2014 15% of all ebook reviews will be fake.
Todd Rutherford ran a website called GettingBookReviews.com that reviewed books for $99.99 a pop or arranged 20 reviews for $499 or 50 reviews for $999. He would post them on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other self-publishing websites to help authors get noticed. It certainly helped indie darling John Locke, who ordered 300 reviews and went on to sell over one million ebooks on Amazon. Before this website was shut down, it was generating $28,000 a month from authors looking for a competitive advantage.
Quite a number of self-published authors take the easy way out by paying for reviews. Jennifer Mattern recently mentioned, “Paying for reviews is stupid from a marketing perspective. As an author, the only feedback you should care about is honest feedback. And you’ll never know if you’re getting honest feedback when you pay for that feedback. Even if you don’t insist on a positive review, not all reviewers going to tell you what they really think. They’re too afraid of how you’ll react or they’re afraid others won’t pay them for the same. There are ethical paid reviewers out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. And you can’t improve your product or your marketing strategy based on a bunch of bullshit.”
Authors are also turning to established companies to write reviews on their ebooks for them: PW Select, San Francisco Book Review, ForeWord’s Clarion Reviews, and Kirkus Discoveries are some examples. Each of these companies charge a few hundred dollars for each review and help self-publishers use them as marketing material. My main gripe is: If you are paying for a review, is is genuine? It certainly sounds great to your average reader to have known companies trumpeting your latest book offering.
Amazon has been trying to fight back by taking down reviews that they deem suspicious, but that’s not enough. Self-published authors continue to abuse the entire concept of a legitimate review system by trading them with fellow authors, buying them from other websites or giving free books away in exchange for a review. eBook reviews can no longer be trusted, you may see a book with 1,000 purchases and think to yourself “this ebook must be popular.” In most cases, this book was purchased, because the author paid them to buy it and then review it. The blame falls squarely on self-publishers’ shoulders; they found a loophole in the ranking system and abuse it at every opportunity.
One of the companies trying to change this paradigm is iDreambooks. It recently signed a deal with the Sony Reader Store to be its review system of choice to replace GoodReads. The company has adopted a Rotten Tomatoes-style ranking system where you have to have five approved reviews from outside sites (not Amazon reviews, for example) to be included in their ranking. Basically, to have your review stick, you have to have reviewed other books in the past and go through a manual review process. “A lot has been written recently about the difficulty of finding an authentic and trustworthy rating system for books,” said Rahul Simha, one of iDreamBooks’ founders, in a press release. “Like the movie reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, iDreamBooks’ ratings system can’t be gamed. It’s a great tool and we’ve tried to create something similar and useful.” I desperately hope this catches on and we can once again trust ebook reviews, without having to scrutinize them for a hidden agenda.
Artificially inflating ebook rankings is not only done by indie authors, but can be abused by ebook imprints too. For example, I just started Kozmonautix Inc, a small ebook only imprint. There are thousands like me and I am nothing special. I managed to sign a few authors and have deep enough pockets that I can pay $10,000 for 500 5 star reviews and 1,000 digital downloads. A new book with tons of ratings and lots of downloads would sure push it through the rankings fairly fast and should get a few legitimate purchases. The new authors that signed up with my imprint are over the moon! They just had 1,000 digital downloads in their first day and should be telling their other author buddies about this. Having an established track record of success should give me access to better authors and more bargaining power. Soon, authors are banging down my door, thinking I have some magic key of success. I can then be more selective and actually ensure that quality books are pushed artificially through the sales charts.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times.