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Sunday, 18 October 2015

Fake Reviews and Gaming the System

I don’t know how many of you noticed recent articles in The Sunday Times on how to game Amazon’s book review system to fake a bestseller. Link to article. Apparently the newspaper hired a ghostwriter to write a fake book about bonsai trees, and then hired reviewers to push it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller charts.

This article certainly generated a lot of interest, and although it wasn’t stated directly, the reference to self-publishing eg “An undercover investigation by this newspaper into the robustness of Amazon’s safeguards with regard to self-published books was mounted . . .” made the inference that it is only self-publishers who employ these unsavoury tactics.

However, one of the biggest scandals in the past few years involved a bestselling author published by one of the big six publishers. Check out the article Sock Puppetry and Fake Reviews: Publish and be Damned published in 2004 by The Guardian. Link to article. The article also mentions other traditionally published authors, and I am sure there must have been many more who were never found out.

Looking at the issue of fake reviews, it seems to me that The Sunday Times deliberately sought out reviewers who promised five star reviews for a fee. I don’t see any reference to reviewers who promise to supply ‘honest reviews’. So, by selecting their reviewers in this manner, they have also cast aspersions on the many reviewers who supply reviews with or without a fee. If the fee is the criteria used for pinpointing a fake review then that will make every review you see in the newspapers and magazines, fake. I used to review for the Scots Magazine and I was always paid for these reviews. It never affected my ability to review honestly.

No doubt there are dishonest people in the book world, as there is in any other area of production, whether that be books, cowboy tradesmen, theatre tickets, you name it, there will always be people who want to make easy money. But to draw generalisations against a whole industry of self-published books is unfair. To also suggest Amazon are culpable, despite what any of us think of Amazon, is also unfair. You just have to read this article on Marketing Land to realise Amazon are aware of the problem and are doing something about it. The article is titled Amazon Sues 1,114 Fiverr Users for Offering too Write Fake Product Reviews. Link to the article. Another thing Amazon has been doing for a long time is to remove reviews they deem to be fake, although unfortunately they don’t always get this right, and many genuine reviews have been removed in the process.

Amazon bestselling chart comparisons

There is another issue with this article. Most people who read it will be unfamiliar with Amazon’s bestselling ranks. They will assume that this fake book became Amazon’s number one bestseller. Not so. It was a free book and came top of the Gardening and Horticulture bestselling chart, a very small chart in relation to the number of books Amazon sells. If you search for the category All Books on the Amazon website, it throws up 1,137,731 books – that’s right, over a million books. The bestseller list the fake book topped Free Garden and Horticulture only has 1,325 books. Now, I’m not a mathematician, but even I can see that the percentage of fake books sold would have been extremely small. If my books were competing with this number of books, I’d be top of the bestseller list for evermore. But there is much more competition in my field.

In any case, what makes a bestseller? Michael N Marcus in his article Opinion: Why Amazon Bestsellers Don’t Impress my Dog puts forward several suggestions. Link to article. According to him any book can achieve bestseller status, although that is often more to do with a strong marketing push than good writing. If your book is a niche book, like the fake book above, it is easy to become a bestseller because the competition is less. But a bestselling book may only be a bestseller for a week while the marketing push is on, but that is sufficient for the label to apply for evermore. Offering free copies may also push a book up the charts, there are loads of ways to achieve bestselling status. Read the article it will give you food for thought.

As for me, I don’t believe in gimmicks, nor do I offer free books as a ploy to push them up the charts. My marketing and promotion is sporadic at best. But as long as my sales are steady and people enjoy reading my books, I won’t ask for anything more. And I won’t lose sleep wondering how I can climb up the charts to prove I’m a bestseller.

Chris Longmuir


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Feather Stone said...

This is an eye opener for me - fakes reviews? It amazes me how one's morals can be so easily corrupted, mostly for the sake of ego and social status. Okay, yes, and money. I've received feedback from readers that they don't trust book reviews as much as recommendations from friends. What a relief. People, in general, are smart and often can spot lies and liars. For those who post fake reviews, you may sway some of the readers some of the time. It takes only once for a reader to be totally disappointed in a book you highly recommended. Like all liars, there'll come the day your reputation as an author and/or book reviewer, and human being, will go on the skids. Good riddance.

Chris Longmuir said...

I don't think the people who game the system by providing fake reviews are overly worried about their reputation. If you read the sock puppet article or even the Sunday Times one you will realise that most of these are posted under names as fake as the reviews. Likewise, most of the authors I know would never dream of buying fake reviews, but as I said in the article, there are always a few people who think by gaming the system they will acquire fame and fortune. I regret to say I believe they are sadly deluded.

Mary Smith said...

I've been following this story, Chris and I think it's worth pointing out that it is not only about fake book reviews. I know that's what concerns us as authors but Amazon is trying to stop the fake reviews on all products they sell from electronic gadgetry to garden chairs.

Chris Longmuir said...

That's interesting. I suppose being authors we are more focused on what's happening with book reviews. But these people who try to game the system give all reviews a bad name, and it makes people suspicious of all five star reviews.

Alejandra said...

Great article with excellent idea! Thank you for such a valuable article on such a interesting topic. I really appreciate for this great information