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Paid Reviews are the Next Great Promotional Tool for Self-Published Authors

5146175109_b7b1c6717b_bIf you’re a self-published author who is still struggling to get noticed, now might be the time to swallow the rest of your pride, jettison your code of ethics, and start buying reviews. (Hey, everyone is doing it.) The NYTimes interviewed the owner of a paid book review service yesterday, and business was good.

Todd Rutherford is the owner of a now defunct web site called For a low price of $99 Todd promised to review your book. If you needed a chorus of reviews, Todd could arrange 20 reviews for $499 or 50 reviews for $999. The reviews would be posted on Amazon, B&N, or other ebookstores by the reviewers and would look for all intents and purposes like a real review.

And business really was good. The NYTimes article says that he earned $28,000 a month. Customers included authors who have since made it into the best seller lists, the most notable of which was John Locke. You probably know him as the first self-published author to sell a million Kindle ebooks. He got his start by buying reviews.

Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford.  “I’m ready to roll.”


He also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.

Locke ended up buying 300 reviews from that service, and god only knows how many he bought elsewhere. And from what I can tell, the reviews he bought probably weren’t written by someone who even read the ebook. Heck, they not have even been all that well researched. Here’s how one of Rutherford’s reviewers described her work process:

For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.

“There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said. “But I had to produce 70 pieces of content a week to pay my bills.”

But at least the service promised a 5 star review and the option of editing that review before acceptance, even though they were only paying "reviewers" $10 per review. That really moves it beyond the pale, doesn’t it?

This service was dishonest and deceptive but still effective, so I have to say that I’m glad when I read the reason Rutherford shut it down. One author (or several authors) didn’t like his service and responded by posting negative reviews on various consumer protection sites (here, here).

Once Rutherford’s service was exposed to the light of day, it was dead. The writing blogs took up the torch of shaming him into shutting down (here), and then Amazon took down some of his reviews and Google cancelled his Adwords account (so he couldn’t buy advertising).

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this it’s that I have always been right to trust negative reviews. Paid reviewers are far more likely to give a book 4 or 5 stars and only say nice things.  I would not expect to see as many negative reviews from a paid service (otherwise they might piss off a customer).

Rich Adin posted a few weeks back that perhaps uneducated  reviewers were a serious problem because we did not know whether they had read and understand the book. Perhaps Rutherford could add that to his next review service?

As for me, I’m sticking with Rebecca Allen. Negative reviews are currently more reliable than positive reviews due to the simple fact that the reviewer feels strongly about the book. When that emotion is cogently conveyed in the review it can give you valuable insight into whether you want to read a book.

via NYTimes & elsewhere

image by mikeymckay

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Scott_T August 26, 2012 um 1:54 pm

Its about the same thing that’s made IMDB useless. If you want the real reviews go to the last page and start reading backwards. Seems like all the fake ones show up on day one.

E-book and Publishing Industry News (Aug 25-27th, 2012) | @ebookmakr blog August 26, 2012 um 2:01 pm

[…] The Digital Reader on a NYTimes book-marketing story: “Paid Reviews are the Next Great Promotional Tool for Self-Published Authors“ […]

carmen webster buxton August 26, 2012 um 2:23 pm

I could not believe it when I read that article! But I shouldn’t be surprised. Self publishing is a true industry these days, and like any new industry, various products spring into being to make money from it. I expect we will get our own SIC code soon.

I thought it was interesting that what shut him down was the combination of Google interpreting his site as fraudulent and thus not accepting his ads and Amazon taking down his reviews. Amazon has been very reluctant to muck with the "anyone can post a review" formula. and ads are Google’s very considerable bread and butter.

Michael Anderson August 26, 2012 um 4:19 pm

I know you are right with the position of most often trusting negative reviews – particularly for books – but that sort of makes me sad; I make sure to go back and positively review stuff I love as well, and it is unfortunate that because of scum like this it ends up lost and useless in many cases.

Xyzzy August 27, 2012 um 3:49 am

I’m glad that the guy shut his operation down, but it’s absolutely true — the reviews that are the least trustworthy are the overly-positive ones, regardless of whether the topic involved is books, movies or restaurants. I’ve found that it’s also wise to be wary of anything with only 3-5 star reviews and no critical statements; it’s a bad sign that the creator/owner is having the site delete anything negative, and possibly moving beyond that to harass or threaten the reviewer (speaking from experience back before I stopped using my real name).

I have to admit that I rarely get around to reviewing anything that isn’t awful enough to horrify me. I often consider it when I really enjoy something, but so many of the books I read have hundreds of existing reviews that it seems pointless.

Peter August 27, 2012 um 1:31 pm

What I find better than either negative OR positive reviews is non-anonymous reviews. For books and other types of entertainment, at least.

When it comes to entertainment, everything is subjective. So if I can find someone who reviews lots of works and more or less shares my tastes, then that helps me find something I might like. Why should I care whether some random person liked or hated the book?

The only exception would be obvious scams- like an ebook that turns out to be 3 pages or is titled Henry Potter. An anonymous reviewer can point that out.

Eric Welch August 27, 2012 um 1:48 pm

The site where you find reviews is also important. I write a fair number of reviews (135 books read and reviewed last year) and my reviews have a tendency to be rather long, but I post them almost exclusively on Goodreads where I have a circle of friends whose opinions I trust. There are lots of really good reader blogs out there written by people who love books and reading. The mainstream press has similar problems. If you read the NYTimes Book Review as religiously as I, you will notice a distinct coterie of reviewers who have a tendency to scratch each other’s backs. On the other hand, my reviews tend to be positive because I don’t read or review books I don’t like. I have a strong review ethic that I got from my father whose opinion was sought by many in his field. I remember my mother was concerned that he had given a rather negative review to a friend’s book. She said that the friend might reciprocate and negatively review my dad’s book, to which my father replied, "I can’t give it a good review because it’s a bad book." That being said, there are plenty of places to get thoughtful reviews from people whose judgment you trust.

Lilian Darcy August 27, 2012 um 11:02 pm

When it comes to trusting reviews, I don’t think choosing between "positive" or "negative" is the way to go. I like your use of the word "thoughtful", Eric. The reviews I trust – and the reviews of my own work that I appreciate – are the thoughtful ones, whether they’re positive or negative.

Becki August 27, 2012 um 3:48 pm

There are legitimate sites that offer reviews for self-published authors. The cheapest I’ve found so far is $75, up to $400-some for Kirkus Reviews. These sites don’t promise positive reviews, and state that all reviews are posted regardless whether they are positive or negative. So, if I wanted to promote my husband’s self-published book, I could pay one of these sites to do that. As we don’t have the funds to pay for reviews, though, we’ll have to stick with asking readers to post their own thoughts.

the rodent August 27, 2012 um 4:15 pm

Sheesh. I knew things were bad out there, but… Wow. Can someone hand me a barf bag, please? Soon we’ll have completely automatic writers that spew beautifully formatted genre content that is sucked up by reviewers who haven’t read the books, merely to fill out the pages of the review sites, which of course, are used to rank books, so people will know what to buy if they want to keep up with the Jones’s reading robotic servant and keep the economy rolling along. Then we humans can all go back to sleep and forget "literature"…

I’d rather have one actual human read one of my titles, and send me a nice one-liner when they finish. Oh, wait… I’m not trying to make a living at the craft. 🙂

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[…] The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, describes what Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader is calling The Next Great Promotional Tool for Self-Published Authors. Writes Hoffelder: If you’re a self-published author who is still struggling to get noticed, now […]

Rob October 16, 2012 um 4:22 pm

I had one of my books reviewed by HQ Book Reviews ). Fair prices, good communication and I thought the review was fair and accurate. They actually have employed reviewers that read your book and give an unbiased review.

Nancy September 17, 2013 um 3:14 pm

I have used Pacific Book Review and found them to be very professional and the prices are very affordable for the amount of marketing they do for your book. The Ultimate package is great because they do a professionally written press release and distribution, author interview, author spotlight, review and other goodies. they also own Hollywood Book Reviews and I always will get my second review from them.

Pacific Book Review:

Hollywood Book Reviews:

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