Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Putting John Locke's 300 paid reviews in perspective

Over the weekend the NY Times reported that mega-successful self-published author John Locke (over a million ebooks sold on Amazon) bought 300 reviews from a review mill run by Todd Rutherford who churned out 5-star reviews for money ($999 for 50 reviews). According to the article, Locke instructed Rutherford “If someone doesn’t like my book they should feel free to say so.” but this was an outfit that paid their freelancers full-price only for 5-star reviews, and pumped their fake reviews out as fast as they could (one of Rutherford's freelancers claimed in the NY Times piece that she spent no more than 15 minutes with any one book), so the odds are pretty high that Locke got only 5-star reviews from Rutherford and freelancers who spent little time looking at his books.

Why is this so significant, other than grossly misleading potential book buyers? Because Amazon's algorithms select books to promote through direct mail based on the number of reviews a book gets and their average rating. Locke further hid this by having Rutherford and his freelancers buy his ebooks directly from Amazon (as opposed to distributing them freely) so that the reviews would show up from verified customers, and also so the sales would help trigger Amazon's algorithms.

The article also has Locke stating: “My first marketing goal was to get five five-star reviews. that’s it. But you know what? It took me almost two months!” After he bought those 300 fake reviews, things changed quickly for him as Amazon quickly sold 15,000 ebooks, which kept Amazon's algorithms triggering all the way to over a million sales.

To put those 300 fake reviews in perspective, especially coming to a little known author in such a short time, I've had 10 books traditionally published, the first, Fast Lane, showing up on Amazon in 2004. I've also put out additionally as ebooks 3 collections of short fiction, two original novellas and two original novels. Since 2004, the total number of reviews these books have gotten on Amazon: 204. number of 5-star: 156.

This is why so many authors are so angry seeing that NY Times piece. 1000s of us have tried to act with integrity, and build up our readerships honestly, and seeing how Locke so successfully gamed Amazon with this deceptive and dishonest act is like a slap in the face. Make it an uppercut to the jaw.


Vincent Zandri, Noir Author said...

Great...Nails it right on...Locke is still selling, but I swear, this whole thing combined with Leather's bullshit has sent a shockwave throughout the industry...I really believe now is the beginning of the end for those crappy indies who must rely on gaming in order to succeed. It had to happen sometime and now things will revert to only the best writers being at the top...

Diane Farr said...

I am shocked, dismayed, angry and envious. Where can I buy my 900 reviews now that the cat is out of the bag? Oh well.

Amazon must be mulling over this problem. They have definitely made some moves toward making "legit" reviews more visible ("Amazon Vine Voice," etc.).

Diane Farr

Mike Dennis said...

I always knew there was some sort of black op going on with these writers. So many of them (Locke not included, though) achieved staggering sales and claim to have done virtually no promotion. When I asked them how they did it with no promotional effort -- and I asked quite a few of them -- their answer was always eerily the same: "Just lucky, I guess."

Then they would turn around and admonish me with the old chestnut, "Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint." This after they had sold 40,000 books in their first sixty days.

Now I know what they were all doing.

bappa said...

I always knew there was some sort of black op going on with these writers. So many of them (Locke not included, though) achieved staggering sales and claim to have done virtually no promotion

bappa said...

wow so nice i like him

Yezall Strongheart said...

There are more horror stories all over the net of unscrupulous writers buying reviews. We are all disgusted and appalled, those of us that wait, hoping for an honest review.

I'm doing a blog on this on Friday myself. I don't know how Amazon can sit back and turn a blind eye.

I have had friends who's review was removed because they were told "author's can't review other author's books" What?

Anonymous said...

Are you certain the Amazon algorithm works like this or is this just speculation on your part?

Dave Zeltserman said...

A very high degree of certainty, but no documentation or sources I can point to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up.

I'm not sure you're wrong. I was hoping you had your own statistical formula which you were basing your opinion on.

The fact that Locke bought his own ebooks is potentially more troubling to me than his fake reviews.

In the article I read he admits to buying 300 reviews & 300 copies of his own ebook to go along with those reviews.

What is he *not* admitting?

One thing is certain. He overpaid for these 300 reviews. As has been stated elsewhere there are other sites that offer 2 or 3 reviews for $5.

There are sites in India that offer to work by the hour. Cheap. How many reviews per hour could they churn out?

I actually think John's fiction book was good or he wouldn't have racked up 2 million in sales. He helped himself along but that's a LOT of eBooks.

My gut feeling is this all came to a head for NYT because a few very bad ebooks made it onto there list.

They were so poorly written in every phase of execution it was embarrassing.

The reviews were the red flag that a scam was in the works because--aside from the overwhelming amount of them & the overwhelming ratio of 5 star reviews--their wording didn't make sense.

They mostly said 'I laughed out' or 'the characters were great' & other nonspecific things like that but they also made a point of saying how 'well written' the book was when clearly it was poorly written & did not seem to have been edited. (Though the particular book I'm thinking of listed two editors)

Any literate person had to question the facts.

Someone did analysis showing that legitimate bestsellers get their fair share of 1 star reviews & these books hardly had any.

On top of that a good number of the few 1 & 2 star reviews it did get went out of their way to say the book was 'well written'.

If you look at typical bestsellers that are by common consensus 'well written' it is seldom anyone mentions it. It is taken for granted.

Books like 'Twilight' or 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' which by common consensus are not considered well written are prone to having that pointed out by reviewers even when the review is a 5 Star review.

Time after time readers love the books but concede that they are *not* well written.

I actually believe that several of the eBooks that reached the NYT list did so by priming the pump with purchases made by the authors themselves or their proxies.

It was only when the list threatened to become a total farce with these preliterate scribblings that NYT put the word out that something was up.

Of course all of this is pure speculation on my part. I have no proof.


Dave Zeltserman said...

I strongly suspect that Amazon generated the vast majority of Locke's sales. I've seen this often with writers I know--once Amazon's promotion machine takes hold of their books, it generates 10s of 1000s of sales. The biggest myth out there is that these sales happen due to word of mouth. It happens, but very rarely. I also suspect Locke is a special case. Early on Amazon was clearly trying to promote kindles to authors trying to break into publishing--and I also suspect that was a good chunk of their sales. I'd be willing to bet that they wanted an indie success story to help nurture the dreams of other struggling writers, and once Locke's books started selling due to Amazon's algorithms triggering, he probably seemed the perfect posterboy for them, and probably got pushed harder by Amazon then.

It's funny that you would mention reviews commenting how well written a novel is. Just today I wrote a review for Tony Black's novella, 'R.I.P. Robbie Silva' where I made a point of writing about how well-written this is. Tony is a professional writer with books published by the UK branch of Random House, and the writing in this novella sings, and is just a thing of beauty and needed to be pointed out, especially compared to many indie books I've seen.

I don't want to go too off track with this, and I certainly don't want to piss off indie authors, but I'm going to talk honestly here. It took me 10 years to sell my first novel, and many professional writers I know followed a similar track. Along the way I worked hard on improving my craft, and I also learned from my rejections. And I also learned a tremendous amount once I started selling books and began working with editors. The system Amazon has in place is all about taking shortcuts and for new writers to game their way to the top as opposed to improving their craft and writing worthwhile books. And you lose so much also from bypassing the submission/rejection/acceptance process. While it's helped some new writers make some money, I think in general this has been disastrous for serious writers who want to write worthwhile books.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Well, if you are thoroughly critiquing a piece of literary fiction taking note of its excellent style is just part of a well thought-out review.

The 'reviews' I'm talking about were in the nature of 'I really, really liked it' 'the sex scenes were hot' 'her boyfriend made me want to scream' or whatever and then 'and it was very well written'. Just that bluntly.

Not any particularly intelligent discussion of the author's craft.

Think of Stephan King, people love his books. He writes great stories. He follows the basic rules of grammar and punctuation but I doubt that many of his fans bother saying his books are well written.

The books I'm referring to are full of typos, poor grammar, and logistically improbable/impossible situations that could have been fixed with a little thought--just poorly executed writing through and through.

You may be completely correct about everything you say concerning Amazon. I'm not playing apologist for them in any way. In fact, I would place the blame on them more than Locke or any other author if their algorithm(s) gets gamed.

But what do you mean when you say Amazon 'generated' sales?

They can't make someone buy a book they don't want. Or can they?

Dave Zeltserman said...

I know exactly what you mean by those clearly fake reviews. It's very easy to spot them on Amazon. Locke was hardly the only one doing this--just the most successful, although he probably bought far more reviews than anyone else.

It has shocked me over the last 2 years at how powerful Amazon's promotional machine is, and how they can generate a flood of sales for any book they want.

Jim in Missoula said...


Thanks for this post and your Killzone post. Hopefully, all those "readers" out there will pick up on this discussion. I kinda doubt it. I for one can't imagine just punching the [BUY ME] button based solely on the okie-dokie of a bunch of strangers. This goes for books or big-screen TVs or Netflix flix. And most of the time the big-ticket movie reviewers are out to lunch, too. And Big Box Office is no reliable barometer either. Nor are trailers - many of which are better than the actual movie. Guess I'm saying that it's just hard to tell.

What I do when I find something I like is to tell everyone I can that I like it and - sometimes - why I like it. Right after that, I buy as many as I can, 'cause I know the product will get yanked off the shelf. Or some wizard will decide to change it.

Samples. Samples. Samples. Those first few chapters SHOULD be designed to hook you. That's the writers first, last and best chance t seal the deal. "Come on inside. Take a little peek. Everybody's a winner."

The thing about Goodreads that I like is discovering so many books. I cruise the Amazon lists, too. And yes, tons of 'em are really crappy. However, look how many crappy movies get produced, too. And they aren't doing this for peanuts. So I don't think all these "wannabies" cranking out books is going to be the end of the book/story world. Traditional/legacy publishers are getting their lunch handed to them. So what? Adapt or die. Like anyone, they attempt to do what they think is best for them. Me too. As we all should.

It's still a free country, folks. There's nothing better than going out into the street and screaming your take on things for everyone to hear. This is what's happening in the book/story world. It's what has always been going on in this realm: a discourse on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Oh, my.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

This garbage also hurts legitimate reviewers like myself.

Dereck Cram said...

I just found out about this due to my own sleuthing! Amazon has done nothing about this in 2 years! Very disheartening.

--I want to point out that what the people above mean in regards to is that, because it is a digital algorithmic process, your book starts out at the bottom of a 3+million (and climbing) list. Unless you generate sales or promotion from the outside, your book may never get reviews because the only way for the book to "show up" would be through searching by title or author. Right from the start you will be dropped to the bottom of Amazon's ocean because the older books that already have a high probability of "showing up" take precedence. Quality doesn't matter--just opinion and proof of purchase. That is the problem with Amazon's sales model for books.