The price of a good review


Please don't try this at home.

Can't view the page without an account.

Could you please paraphrase it?

Same here. You're allowed to copy/paste small portions with attribution legally, I'm not sure what the forum rules say about it though.

Sorry. That's strange. It works for me and I don't have an account.

From the article (David Streitfield, New York Times, August 26, 2012):

"In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50."

The response was overwhelming and he soon realized he could not write all the reviews himself. So:

" How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.

Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee, Mr. Rutherford said. As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

His sweet house of cards came tumbling down when a dissatisfied customer (her book sounds like it was so dire it might have been impossible to find anything positive to say about it) started badmouthing him all over the web. This brought unwelcome attention and outrage to his service. Google refused his ads and Amazon deleted some of his reviews.

Now he runs a service where he blogs or tweets about a book for $99.

Oof. You hear about all sorts of shady stuff going on with reviews and critiques, but that's pretty extreme.

I can understand the hunger and the appeal of getting attention for your work, but this is the sort of thing that really makes it hard to find the good work.

There's a British author that came up on AbsoluteWrite a few months back with a similar story. He singlehandedly signed up for nearly a thousand accounts over the course of a year and gave his book (which had apparently only sold a few dozen copies) hundreds of five star reviews, most of which had spelling and grammar mistakes in common.

You'd think that time would be better spent practicing writing and proofreading.

Then again, maybe those people who do that kind of thing (pay for reviews or write their own) just assume they're gods gift to writing and that they don't need it.

A surprising number of people do feel that way. Thing is, every time I've encountered someone who believes their talent is golden, they invariably suck worse than a leper with no lips.

I think self-doubt, especially in the early stages of a writing career is essential to producing anything of quality.

I think that's because the same people with the ability to assess their own work are the people who can realize their stuff sucks (and our work always sucks when we're starting out). The people who lack the ability can be that much more confident.

The sad fact is, though, that so many good writers give up before they make progress, because they just don't overcome that hump where they're surpassing the 'I'm terrible' stage and actually producing something they can show to other people.

What amazes me is there are people who will pay $99 - $999 for reviews. Would it really be worth it in terms of return on investment? Apparently a lot of people thought so.

One of Rutherford's satisfied customers was John Locke who went on to sell one million e-books. To his credit, he specified that he did not require the 300 reviews he bought from the service to be positive, but most of them were.

Well, reviews can cause an increase in traffic to websites... especially if they are negative.

There is one crooked business model out there on the web where a business will treat its customers so very badly that they become furious and start posting all over the web at how angry they are. This passionate burst of genuine emotion tells Google's algorithms that there is something exciting going on at the website. Pretty soon the business is ranking high in search -- so that they are the first place anyone finds in looking for a certain product.

Now, ebooks are not websites. (For one thing, if Amazon gets enough complaints, they'll yank the book.) However, any kind of review will register on an algorithm as "interesting enough to cause the customer to DO something."

As for John Locke.... He may have paid for reviews, but he also did a whole lot of other manipulative marketing tricks. IMHO, he was doing it to sell his "how to sell a million ebooks" book -- and therefore spending any amount of money to push his sales just a little higher (even if they weren't enough to pay off the direct investment) was likely worth it. He had to get to a million to sell the marketing book.


Reviewers whose opinions are sought and valued in the traditonal world are paid and paid well for their reviews. The fact that the payment doesn't come direct form the author's purse does not mean that those reviewers are not subject to influence. Those who own publishing houses own media outlets, etc. Money simply goes around corners in the real world.

I recently spoke to an editor offering paid-for reviews. He was being abused by some writers for selling biased reviews, and when he protested that the authors would only get a review as good as their book, other authors pointed out they were not going to pay for a review which might be bad or unhelpful. Until any reviewer gains enough credibility in this arena to attract the attention of a wide range of readers to their reviews, no reviewer with impartial reviews will be worth paying.

It is not impossible for paid reviews to be impartial, and while the whole success or failure of a DIY book hangs on reviews, there will always be unscrupulous ways of getting those five star markers placed against a title. Whether they are paid for or begged or traded or faked, they build up into what appears to be a successful strategy.

There are some other links I gathered today for another blog.

There are others.

Fiona said "What amazes me is there are people who will pay $99 - $999 for reviews. Would it really be worth it in terms of return on investment?" Once there are names who attract the attention of many many readers to their reviews, it will become the same as the question of cover art and editing. A couple of years ago it was debated whether a successful novel needed either. Now there is no question that most DIY authors pay the price for a professional finish and hope to recoup. Most never will.

Well, this is a depressing thread!

One thing about the "makes us all look bad" chorus is how many people outside the indie author-blogosphere are actually aware of this?

Most people - even the avid readers - aren't reading author blogs or the NYT. This is probably not even a blip of their radar.

So while I'm appalled at Locke for gaming the system I can't get all flustered by the idea that his dishonesty worsens the self-published stigma for the rest of us because I can't get all worked up about the self-published stigma.

Our biggest problem is invisibility not distrust.


Shutsumon is right.

We're hyper aware of some things. It only made the NYT because so many people in publishing are hostile and paranoid right now, that they jump on things like this. (And the NYT is a part of the NY publishing industry.)

In the end, all it does is dilute the usefulness of consumer reviews. And that has been happening for a very long time. Lets face it, authors are late to the party on the concept of buying reviews. Corporations have been doing it for a while, as have spammers and fly-by-night crooks. And aside from purchased reviews, we have all the people flogging for high volumes of "honest" reviews. Even though that is ethical, by seeking an unnatural level of reviewing, the natural reviews are diluted.

Because, let's face it, an awful lot of consumer reviews these days are really low quality, and not at all helpful to the reader.

And in that sense, it does do harm to indies in that it makes us all a little more invisible -- because as the review system fills with junk, it makes the readers ignore them all the more.

On the other hand, it's emphasized to me how valuable a review on Amazon can be to a small/indie author.

Something to think about - a way to support an author you like far beyond the value of the book you bought.

Also, I suspect 4 star reviews will have more credibility than 5 stars because very few books are really "perfect" or exceptional. But many are good and worth reading.

I have to admit....

I'm highly skeptical of whether Amazon reviews are actually that useful. At least in and of themselves.

It's really super easy to sucker authors into paying for clandestine services like that, because there is no proof as to whether it works or not. So just because services make money at it doesn't mean it actually does anything. And just because a lot of authors are touting it doesn't mean it works.

Here's the thing:

1.) On Google, it's all about "findability" and numbers of reviews out on the internet can make a difference in sheer numbers, because the text itself creates buzz -- however, Google is always adjusting the algorithm to take the wind out of false buzz. The main value of reviews out on the internet is that people who are NOT looking for the reviews might accidentally stumble across them -- like a blog, or a legit website. But a review on a spammy website (which sells reviews) won't help with that.

Even on a site like Goodreads or Shelfari... people don't see the reviews unless they look for the book first, or they see a review by a friend. It's the friend doing a legit review which helps, not the volume of spam reviews.

2.) But on Amazon, the reviews don't have a direct effect on "findability" -- people don't see the good review by accident and then follow a link to the book. They have to find the book before the see the reviews. At best, as on Goodreads, they may have favorite reviewers and they may follow the reviewer's name to other book.

Ah, but reviews help the Algorithm, right? Those well reviewed books will appear in recommendations lists and be boosted by the relevancy algorithm in any genre/subject search... right?

Not exactly.

I've had a few interactions with Amazon engineers. Amazon does not like to give specifics (so that people won't game the system) but here's some things I know:

1.) Also boughts and best-selling are pretty straight forward, and are not affected by things like tags, "like" or reviews. They are occasionally tweaked and weighted for things like price: basically when publishers/writers come up with a new practice to boost sales -- like lowering the price or free giveaways -- they study how the customers react, and whether it affects the level of satisfaction. They also know how many of the free books have actually been read. After the study period, they adjust the algorithm to take percentage of satisfaction into consideration when adding up the sales. So it might take 8 or 12 or 20 sales of a 99 cent novel to equal one sale of a full priced book.

So they do use reviews as a part of the measure of 'satisfaction' but not of the individual book -- it's used to measure whole classes of books. It's like a control group.

2.) With the other algorithms -- like recommendations and relevance -- what they are measuring is not the book so much as the reader and the reviewer. So when you review a book, that goes on record as a part of your behavior pattern -- and they are matching your buying/reviewing pattern to that of other users. The goal is not to recommend the best books, but rather to match each book with the customer who will most love it. Even if there is only one person in the world who will love that book, they want to match that one person with that one book.

And to do that with little books and niche books, and books by unknowns... they need ACCURATE customer behavior. It's not just that they reviewers have to be honest, it's that the algorithm will do a better job if the reviewer came across the book as a part of their natural pattern of discovery. So, even though a professional review can do you some good, it doesn't help you with the algorithm, because legit book reviewers will review everything and have different purchase patterns than other customers. It's nothing to worry about, it's just that it doesn't help the algorithm.

3.) Here is where those cheat services can give you a temporary boost (and why people like John Locke might be willing to pay outrageous amounts for them): high volume of general "activity" can trigger some short term "what's hot" algorithms.

True story:

I once ran afoul of a Queen Bee on a particular romance forum. This QB was very anti-writer. I don't write romance, so I was there as a reader, not a writer... but I do have this weird little melodrama which has a kind of romancy element to it. In the course of the minor flame war, I mentioned this fact -- almost exactly as I phrased it in the previous sentence. I didn't mention the book by name. Did not otherwise mention that I was a writer. Nobody commented on it. The flame war soon quieted down, and we all went about our business.

A week later I got a personal email from someone in Amazon's promotions department, congratulating me for writing the top indie book of the week! He gave me a phone number to call if I was interested in further cross-promotion. I stared at that email. I blinked. They listed the melodrama as the "Top Indie Book."

That book hadn't sold a single copy in two months. I went and checked my sales stats, and, yep, it was still sitting at zero sales for the current month. I called the number and asked him how a book with no sales could be a Top book.

He checked the book's stats, and there had been an unusual bump in activity on the book's page. The queen bee and all her minions and all the onlookers had run over to look at my book. Some may have sampled. Because it was real, natural interest, the pattern of hits and sample ratios reflected that and the algorithm said: "hot topic!" And it boosted me up in the "what's hot" lists for a while.

That sort of cluster happens all the time, but it doesn't last unless the interest lasts. So someone like John Locke, who wants temporary buzz so he can sell his book on how to sell a million ebooks, will find it worth the money to pay for it, even if he doesn't recoup that money in actual sales.

But for the rest of us: the really valuable thing is not the number of reviews on Amazon, or even how good or bad they are, but the content of the review itself (is it credible?) and even more important, whether real people with real friends and followers will put their reputation on the line and gush about your book to their friends -- in real life, on their blogs, on Facebook. And that happens slowly.

And you have no control over that. None, Zero, Nada. Other than writing a book worth talking about. And then writing more books worth talking about.

And maybe serializing a couple of them so people can stumble across them on the web.

(I am serializing the sequel to that melodrama starting in October. It'll be interesting to see what happens.)