Fake Ebook Reviews: Worse Than Plagiarism?

For an ebook to be successful, it needs to get good customer reviews.  I now have half a dozen reviews of Senator on Amazon, all of them five stars.  Yay!  But three of them are from people I know.  Should I feel guilty about that?  Maybe.  But those people really liked the book!  I think.  (Of my other three ebooks, two have only one review on Amazon, and Pontiff has none.  C’mon, guys!)

Asking your friends for reviews is at most a venial sin, I think.  But faking reviews gets us into a bad place.  I suppose I always understood that some reviews might be fake, but a couple of recent articles suggest that this is actually a pretty pervasive problem.

This Times article describes a service that, for a while, provided authors with favorable reviews in bulk, for a price. The article quotes a data mining expert as estimating that . . .

. . . about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

The service that the article describes was run by a guy named Todd Rutherford, and for a while he was wildly successful.  And he made authors successful as well.

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

The second article, in Forbes, is titled “Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core.” It focuses on an author with the odd name of Stephen Leather, who has “admitted to creating accounts on Amazon under assumed names in order to leave positive reviews of his own work. He also does the same on Twitter and other forums.” He says:

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

The article notes that there’s also a phenomenon of malicious negative reviews.  I noticed that with Matthew Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High.  As I understand it, Yglesias offended the right-wing Breitbart crowd about something or other, and in return they carpet-bombed him with one-star reviews, with the result that the book’s average rating is a little over two stars.

What’s to be done about it?  The Forbes article points out that Amazon is complicit in the problem, which makes it harder to solve:

Unfortunately, there is also no motivation for Amazon, or other online booksellers, to clean up their own acts. Amazon exists to sell stuff. They will only begin to care about this if it starts to threaten sales, despite the fact that they could, if they wanted to, make it much harder for people to fake reviews.

And authors like Stephen Leather are unlikely to be harmed by the furor, even if they admit (or brag about) what they’ve done.  Average readers aren’t going to have any idea he’s gaming the system.  (I read the first chapter of one of Leather’s novels.  It seems like a standard-issue military thriller, with something of a comma deficiency.  It’s the sort of thing you’ll probably like, if you like that sort of thing. I also went to his web site; he seems fond of wearing leather jackets and striking a serious pose.)

All this leaves me feeling a bit like a moderately good baseball player in the 1980s who didn’t take steroids.  I’m not interested in gaming the system or doing anything unethical, but it’s annoying when you see other writers are becoming successful by doing so.  Where’s the World Anti-Doping Agency when you need it?

The solution, of course, is for all of you to read my books, love them, and write great reviews out of the goodness of your heart.  That will make me forget all about Stephen Leather.