Here’s the background: Indie e-publishing phenom John Locke, famous for being the first indie writer to sell a million ebooks on Amazon.com, has been outed in the New York Times for having bought a large number, if not most, of the positive reviews that propelled his success:
If this were just a scandale that concerned John Locke alone, I wouldn’t care about it, and I doubt if very many other people in the indie e-publishing scene would, either. But the problem is that it casts indie ebooks in general, along with their writers, in a bad light.
You only have to scroll through the comments to the New York Times article to find a lot of people piling on, saying that incidents such as this demonstrate that indie ebooks are crap, that authors have to pay people to say nice things about, and that’s why they don’t buy them. But not just there; Salon.com chimed in with a painfully accurate assessment:
“…employing a service that dishonest and cynical demonstrates a bizarre contempt for the reader. It casts the writer as a producer of widgets and the reader as a sucker who probably won’t complain if the product doesn’t live up to the hype, because hey, at least it was cheap. Books, in this scenario, become flea market trash…”
And how’s the Twitterverse discussing the matter? Here’s a couple of typical comments:
John Locke paid for positive reviews, according to NY Times article. Now, my question is: How many other authors pay?
John Locke, self publishing success, paid for over 300 reviews. I have no doubts many huge self pubs use this service.
So there you have it. Locke promoted his indie books by paying a scummy “review” mill for its services, in order to gain a commercial advantage over honest writers who didn’t pay for such fraudulent reviews. But worse, with that having come to light, readers are naturally wondering about the positive reviews for every indie writer’s ebooks. Can they be trusted? Or, cynically, how much did the writer pay for them?
And of course, Locke knew that this was dishonest behavior on his part. That’s why he left the whole arrangement of paying for fraudulent positive reviews out of his how-I-did-it book on how he became the first indie writer to sell a million copies on Amazon. If he didn’t know that there was something wrong with paying for those bogus reviews, and that people would look down on him for having done so, then why did he conceal it?
Bizarrely, some people have already attempted to come to Locke’s defense in this matter by insisting that the bogus paid-for reviews had nothing to do with his ebooks’ success, but that it was actually due to the whole “loyalty transfer” concept that Locke touts in his how-I-did-it book. That’s the bit where he wrote such a compelling blog post — on how much he loves both his mom and Joe Paterno — that people read it, decided he was such a wonderful guy for saying such nice things about Mom and JoePa, and immediately went over to Amazon.com and bought a million copies of his ebooks.
Even getting over the weirdness of Locke being perhaps the last person in the US to publicly express admiration for Joe Paterno — the blog post is still available here on Locke’s website — this whole “loyalty transfer” concept has been pretty well debunked. How likely is it that any significant percentage of a million ebook sales resulted from a blog posting that only generated 43 comments on the website? And a lot of those comments are just spam that Locke hasn’t bothered to scrape off. Here’s a couple:
I have recently installed aluminium windows and doorways in my completely new houses. It is definitely the best path to take, not only do they look nice but because I live in a high crime region I feel safe. They are the best for stability. My family unit love the new installment.
And from somebody who signs himself “Cheep Viagra Pills”:
Hi there, I found your website by way of Google at the same time as searching for a comparable matter, your web site came up, it looks great. I’ve bookmarked to favourites|added to bookmarks.
Yeah, I just bet those guys, after commenting on Locke’s admiration for Joe Paterno, hurried on over to Amazon.com to buy some of his Donovan Creed thriller novels.
In actuality, the only evidence in support of Locke’s “loyalty transfer” concept is the number of ebooks he sold. Naturally, he’s going to say that it was “loyalty transfer” that did it, and not the huge number of fraudulent positive reviews that he purchased, which he concealed from readers of his how-I-did-it book.
But that’s beside the real point. What’s actually important is the damage caused to honest indie ebook writers by Locke and other writers purchasing fraudulent reviews. There’s a battle going on right now, to demonstrate that indie ebooks are as good and even better than traditionally published print books. The battle is being won by indie writers self-publishing compelling, well-written ebooks which garner genuine positive — and unpaid — reviews from actual readers and not desperate shills recruited from Craigslist. As the comments to the New York Times article indicate, it’s going to be a long battle. We don’t need dishonest writers, willing to do anything to promote their books, raising doubts in readers’ minds about the reliability of the reviews they see on Amazon about our ebooks.
Amazon.com is, of course, a for-profit business. Amazon needs to protect the perceived integrity of the review system by which its customers decide to purchase an ebook or any other product. It would be in the interests of Amazon as well as indie ebook authors for it to come down hard on writers who make the unfortunate decision to purchase fraudulent reviews. There’s already a lot of suspicion about the validity of reviews on Amazon; it doesn’t need more fuel to be thrown on that fire by one of its big indie e-publishing success stories being outed in the New York Times, and everywhere else that picks up the story, for fraudulent paid-for reviews.
I’m personally not given to witch hunts — I wouldn’t initiate a petition addressed to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, urging him to yank the ebooks of John Locke or other dishonest writers and to permanently close their Kindle Direct Publishing accounts, and I probably wouldn’t sign such a petition if somebody else came up with one. But at the same time, I wouldn’t shed many tears if Amazon.com did take such actions. These are adults who hired the service that provided the fraudulent reviews, and they knew what they were doing.