Reviews for Sale

Self-published writers proliferate, thanks to the Internet, but they face one big problem: How do you attract readers’ interest without a big publisher’s name recognition and marketing budget? David Streitfeld’s The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy examines the simplest though least ethical solution.

Nobody expects online reviews to be a fountain of truth, but the sheer scale of the deceit is surprising. Data mining expert Bing Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. The enterprising Todd Rutherford made a solid $28,000 per month selling fake reviews. Among his customers was novelist John Locke who promptly experienced a sales miracle:

In the first nine months of his publishing career, he sold only a few thousand e-books. Then, in December 2010, he suddenly caught on and sold 15,000 e-books.

Locke actually wrote a how-to book about his success… which curiously failed to mention that he had hired Rutherford’s services in October 2010. Looking at how such marketing “reviews” are written, the only surprising thing is their profitability:

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.

Amusingly, reviews for genuine classics tend to be worse than for unknown self-published books. Roland Hughes, another self-published writer, has a theory about this: “Reviews for the established classics tend to come from actual readers.” Caveat emptor indeed.

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