A guest post from Stephen Theaker
For most people, it comes as a shock to hear that any author would pay for a fake review. It is such a clear betrayal of the relationship between the writer and the reader, and it seems so pointless! Perhaps you can trick someone into buying your book, but it’s much harder to trick them into liking it, and when they realise how ropey it is they’ll be unlikely to give you a second chance.
However, this Red Nose Day, 24 March 2017, it’s okay to pay for fake internet reviews. We at Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are forgetting our scruples, taking your filthy backhanders, and giving rave internet reviews to books we have never read. If you want us to review your book, or any book you choose, click here to visit our JustGiving Red Nose Day page. The money goes straight to Comic Relief without ever passing through our grubby hands.
This idea was inspired by all the dodgy reviews I’ve encountered over the last decade or two. They come in many varieties. Some, perhaps the most benign, come from the author’s friends and family, and I suspect that the 2002 reviews of my second self-published novel – one saying it had “truly altered the course of humanity”, the other describing “the comedy of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett multiplied by the story-telling of Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien” – might possibly fall into this category.
The website Authonomy positively encouraged boosterism among its participants, as they voted each other up onto the editor’s desk for potential publication, and unfortunately some writers carried that attitude over to Amazon and Goodreads, where they gave each other glowing reviews, while giving every impression, of course, that they were complete strangers who had just happened to have read each other’s books.
One author used a pseudonym to cheerfully recommend their own book on Amazon whenever the opportunity presented itself, only coming unstuck when they used the same pseudonym to post a real review that they shared publicly. Another wrote Amazon reviews of their own book, and then wrote a magazine article about it. When I interviewed them years later they were a bit annoyed that people were still bringing it up. “I was very inexperienced,” they said. “Suffice to say I would never do a stunt like that now.” Not all authors regret it so much, or even stop when they are caught out.
Although those reviewers weren’t being honest with their readers, in that they concealed their relationship to the authors, at least they were writing reviews of books they had probably read. They were mere hobbyists of literary deception, trying to game a system that presumably they thought was rigged against them. It’s irritating when you notice it, but it’s unlikely to have a major effect, especially in an age where we can all read the Kindle preview of a book before deciding whether to buy it or not.
A bigger problem is the industrial production of fake reviews in large numbers. About five years ago I was on Fiverr, looking at the comments received by a vendor who offered a book reviewing service. They offered to review books on their blog and “all book sites”. One author mentioned their pen name when thanking the “reviewer” for a job well done. Being the kind of irritant that I am, I brought this up in a comment on the Amazon review in question. That led to the author emailing me as follows:
“I did not pay for a good review. I paid for an honest review on a blog spot. You did not see the private comment page. However, that isn’t the reason I am writing. After I received terrible comments on [book title] I rewrote and reedited it. It is very hard to be an author. Every bad comment and review is like a knife through the heart. And the truth is, that I don’t have a strong educational background. But I know that I have a great deal to say, so I write. ... But it seems as if I have collected an entire group of haters who want nothing but to see me fail.”
I replied to say:
“Sorry, but regardless of how you feel about your book, paying people to review it on Amazon is wrong. It is against Amazon’s rules, and what’s more it is utterly unethical. I’m afraid you’ll continue to attract ‘haters’ as long as you get up to such shenanigans!”
I think their remarkably honest reply explains a lot about why some authors do this kind of thing:
“I was devastated by the reviews on [Book title] and did not know what to do in order to get people interested in reading the new edition. Let me just backtrack for a minute. I worked on that book for five years. I researched and wrote and researched and wrote. Many times I came home from working nights and stayed up just to work on the book. Then I paid an editor who screwed me. He knew I knew nothing about grammar and he took my money and told me the book was in great shape. It took me over six months to save the money to pay him. Then the book went live and got terrible reviews. Mostly on grammar, but a few on content as well. I was distraught. I rewrote the content and was blessed to find a good editor. I need help. I made a mistake.”
The author in question repeatedly said things to me like “I paid for an HONEST review”, as if that mattered or made sense. Did they really think five dollars would be enough to pay anyone for the time it would take to read their book and write a review of it? Whether they are still paying for reviews or not I can’t say, but the book currently has 683 five-star reviews on Amazon.com.
The “reviewer” replied to me too. They wanted it to be very clear that they weren’t paid to review the book on Amazon, oh no! They were paid to review it on their own blog, and the Amazon review was a bonus! The reviewer seemed to think I had disparaged how much work they were doing, rather than addressing the point that being paid by the author to review a book is wrong in the first place. They also explained how it was that they could read an 800pp book in two hours, and commiserated with me over the fact that no publisher or author had ever paid me for my reviews.
They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. Other authors may not even realise that they have paid for such reviews to be manufactured on their behalf. An author friend of mine paid a not inconsiderable sum to a book promotion company, the unexpected result being that hundreds of obviously fake reviews appeared on Goodreads over the course of a few days. The profile photographs of the “reviewers” looked like they had been grabbed from dating sites, and many of the profiles were locked. A quiet email to Goodreads got many of those accounts deleted, but not all. And before they were deleted, I saw just how many other books they had reviewed.
I wish authors wouldn’t do this kind of thing, but save my real anger for the people who take advantage of the desperation you can see in the quotes above. The so-called editor. The so-called reviewer. It makes me ill to see those fake reviews sitting there, fraudulently persuading good people to part with their hard-earned money. And yet...
I’m fortunate to live in a country where there’s a safety net of sorts. If I lost my job, we could probably get by for a while. But if the only way I could feed my family was to write fake reviews, wouldn’t I do it? Could I write enough of them in a day to make a living? I can certainly admire the craft of a well-written fake review. Being able to write a review of something you haven’t read is a literary skill like any other; it’s just not one you want to see in action.
Luckily, I don’t need to do it to support my children, but I had the idea of doing it for a day to help other children, to some small extent, in the UK and abroad, via Comic Relief. And so, on Red Nose Day, we’ll do just that on the Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction blog. We will raise money for Comic Relief by casting aside our scruples, our principles, the very core of our being, giving your book (or any book you choose) a glowing review – without reading it! – if you donate five pounds, dollars or euros to Comic Relief.
To hit the target of raising £100 I’ll have to write twenty fake internet reviews in one day. It’s going to be a challenge. One writer who made up lots of their music journalism gave advice on how to do it. Make it look convincing. It’s good mental exercise. If they hadn’t been to the show or listened to the album, the review would always be nice. I’ll try to bear those things in mind. (And by the way, their fake reviews appeared in a magazine I worshipped as a teenager. I spent the money from my paper round on the albums and shows praised in those pretend reviews.)
If you are an indie author or a small press publisher, this is a great way to publicise your projects and support a good cause. For just £50 you could have our blog devoted to your books for half the day. There’s no better value way to spend your publicity budget. And they will be clearly flagged as our joke Red Nose reviews, so don’t worry about anyone thinking you have done anything shady!
Click here to donate and book your slot.
And keep an eye out for those fake reviews that are not so charitably minded!