SPP 019 – Buying Reviews and Other Scammy Bullshit We Hate

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I (Johnny) started this show off with two shocking announcements.

Shocking announcements!

After our discussion last time with Joanna Penn, I admitted to being intrigued by the promising nature of the erotica genre and to having downloaded and read 50 Shades of Alice in Wonderland during a brief family getaway at the beach last weekend. Sean asked if I decided to write erotica, if I’d talk about it on the show and I dodged the question. Dave offered his visage for potential hot and sweaty cover photos. Or at least sweaty.

I further admitted to eating during the taping because I hadn’t eaten lunch: sunflower seeds and beef jerky. Dave asked me to talk at more length about my eating habits.

An update on our Better Off Undead podcast guerrilla (not gorilla) marketing plan

A few episodes ago, we talked about reaching our potential readers via a new zombie podcast called Better Off Undead, and now, after releasing just four episodes, I gave an update on how well that’s going.

Short version: It’s going great, and is actually growing faster than SPP grew at the time. Our episode on fast vs. slow zombies was particularly huge, netting almost 1300 downloads so far, which is a number it takes an average SPP episode a month or so to hit. So yeah, it’s going well, and after only a month of recording.

Oh, and if you’re into horror or the supernatural (or just enjoy three guys who can’t stop laughing and making fun of each other while pretending to talk about horror or the supernatural) be sure to subscribe to Better Off Undead.

Buying reviews is for scammy douchebags

This all began for us when Dave passed around a link to an article about a guy who was selling reviews to self-published authors. The basic gist is that for a fee, the guy would say that your book was awesome — and he’d say it more times if you paid more, of course. The hammer was that self-publishing success story John Locke used this guy’s services… which in our minds kind of invalidates a lot of what John said was his route to success.

There’s a ton to this, but a few of the bullet points are:

    • There’s a fine line between buying reviews and quid pro quo reviews and the kind of natural, organic reviews that result from solid relationships built with fans… but like obscenity, we all know the bullshit stuff when we see it.
    • It’s tempting to lose faith in the system of reviews on the internet and on Amazon in particular, but we believe that it’s in Amazon’s best interests to develop algorithm changes that will weed out bogus stuff… and so they probably will, in time.
    • The worst thing about this is that it’s tempting to feel like we’re all suckers for NOT cheating, because it’s like trying to swim with ankle weights while all of the bullshitters are making big and seemingly easy gains. But don’t be tempted; it’s ultimately not worth it and not as valuable in the long-term as building a real business and readership based on quality. Fodder for this discussion: Tommy Walker’s article on the truth about online manipulation and the follow-up.
    • ALL kinds of “gaming the system” strategies are short-term games that sacrifice long-term success. The stuff we talk about in this episode is no exception. Your best strategy if you’re serious about being a real author with a solid, loyal fan base is to be honest and not try to cheat by buying reviews.

Questions! Questions!

We had a few minutes at the end to catch up on some of the questions people have sent us. (We love questions! Call us to submit yours.)

  • Steve asked about which fonts to use. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much to say on the topic. Dave likes Georgia, though.
  • Christy asked if writing fiction was our full-time job, and if so, when we made the switch. I am DEFINITELY not a full-time-income fiction writer, but Sean and Dave are essentially there, though Sean says they leapt before they were truly ready, which was ballsy.
  • Christina asked about picking titles for fiction. We basically were totally unhelpful and said, “Pick something interesting and don’t overcomplicate it.” Bonus Marge Simpson impressions from all three of us.

And that was it. Enjoy, folks!

To view the video version of this episode, go to: Self Publishing Podcast #19 – Buying Reviews and Other Scammy Bullshit We Hate

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  1. Hey Guys. Great stuff as always.

    It is a bit of a read, but I would be curious to know what you guys think about this:
    As well as the follow up:

    You can read through the two threads for the details, but in short it is a self publishing strategy that seems to focus a lot on marketing(publishing to a category with poor rankings so it is easy to reach the top, good cover, good amazon page, link between all your works to drive business) and lots of content (I think the guy put out 80 titles in something like 8 months, or 1 every 3 days), which inevitably won’t be as polished as it could be because of the rate they are being put out.

    It seems like there is a lot of good information here, and it seems to be working if the guy pulls in as much money as he says he does. BUT (and there always is a but) It seems like on the surface there is 0 connection with readers/fans.

    I would love to know what you guys think. As I compare it to what you guys do, it is almost like Sean and Dave are a combination of Johnny’s (current) style, and throwaway_writer(the guy from the posts). Where it seems like you guys are taking the best from both worlds. Interesting.

    • I actually read that late last year (I’m pretty sure that’s when it was) when it first posted. It’s an interesting model, and did influence some of the stuff I was thinking at the time. Ultimately, a lot of what he’s doing is short term, and Amazon is going to clear their house even more aggressively than Google.

      I think volume is key to really blowing up and living off your back catalogue, BUT if you can’t maintain quality or build relationships with your readers, then even a 1K day is ultimately temporary.

  2. I do a lot of reviews, but only for things I rate 4 or 5 stars. I believe in social karma so I don’t like to leave bad reviews. I review on Amazon.com and .co.uk & Goodreads for books, so I am pissed off about this in general. I do give away free books and ask people to leave a review if they like it. I once paid for a Kirkus Review for my first non-fiction book – but it was an expensive mistake. I wouldn’t do that again! But never for my fiction.

    On the Amazon reviews, all they have to do is change the algorithm to weight based on the checkbox which says “Amazon verified purchase”. This goes on if you have bought the book from the account you’re reviewing from. This would basically solve the problem – perhaps that’s already happening…

    • This isn’t directed solely at Joanna, but the three amigos as well since they mentioned they do something similar (except for Dave of course, since he hates everything.)

      I know when you say you only rate things 4 or 5, that you mean you only rate the good stuff and ignore the bad. Do you think it is somewhat dishonest to only give 4 or 5 star reviews?

      I think your reasoning in only leaving good reviews is seeded in the fact that as a writer, you would want the same done for you. Sort of like a professional courtesy . But view it as a consumer. Lets use this as an example: Lets say you see a book that has ten 4 or 5 star reviews. (For the sake of the example lets just assume these were all done by actual readers.) Does that mean this book is batting close to 100%? That anyone who formulated an opinion on it enjoyed it? Or were there twenty other people out there who really thought the book deserved a 2 or a 3 star, but didn’t leave it because they were trying to be nice?

      As a consumer wouldn’t you want those people’s reviews to be in there? I certainly would.

      Now of course there is a whole other side to this that I have ignored. Above I focused on the reading community. Time to get selfish. We aren’t just readers. We are also the producers of content. And like I said above, leaving only 4 or 5 star reviews is that professional courtesy that is performed in hopes I guess that it is done back to you. Do any of you think that it is dangerous to have a name you use to publish attached to a less than stellar review? Is there a fear out there that there will be some sort of backlash? (Even if you review was truthful and respectful) Seems like it is definitely something to consider.

      • I don’t think it’s dishonest to review only things you like. Reviews take time and why should I waste my time writing reviews for things I don’t like? As I said in the show, this isn’t equivalent to protecting people from faulty products, which I’d be more inclined to do as a service to warn others.

        Books are a different beast. What I hate, others may love, and I don’t feel a need to piss on other people’s parades. Opinions are subjective, and I don’t wanna hit someone with one or two stars just because their book isn’t my cup of tea. For instance, I LOVE Clive Barker, and yet I see people hitting some of his MASTERPIECES with one stars. Everyone has an opinion, and I don’t rate mine above others when it comes to things like personal taste.

        I wouldn’t avoid rating books negatively in hopes that an author will return the favor. I barely read any other indie authors (a time issue) and I don’t know how many read us. The only book reviews I’ve done in the past year are for David Gaughran and Catherine Ryan Howard, (incidentally, the only books I think I finished reading) because I liked their books and wanted to support their work. I don’t expect them to read or review our books in return. Hell, I doubt either one of them even reads the stuff we write, I dunno. And that’s 100% cool with me.

        I don’t mind if people review us negatively within the context of what we’re writing. But if someone says, “I don’t like horror books” or “I don’t like books with cursing” and then go on to slam us with negative stars, THAT is kinda fucked up.

        I would NEVER do that to someone. It’s akin to this: “Yeah, I hate romance books and this was too romantic. One Star!”

        Having said all that, there are a few books on writing on Amazon that I would give negative reviews to because they DO give harmful advice, but a) other people have already pointed it out and don’t need MY two cents and b) I don’t want these authors, who have no problem generating fake reviews, hitting us with a bunch of negative reviews in retaliation and c) I don’t want other authors thinking we dinged them because we might someday write a book on writing or something.

        As a writer you should NOT EVER negatively review something which you compete with. That’s not just common sense, but I believe it’s stated in Amazon’s review policy. So if I hated another post-apocalyptic book, I’d certainly not write a bad review of it. It’s wrong on so many levels. And since we might someday write a book on writing, (no plans at the moment, but we may want to in the future) it wouldn’t be fair to target other writers’ books with negative reviews.

        I’d rather celebrate the successes of writers I like than get into wars with ones I don’t care for. It’s not worth my time, and ultimately serves nobody.

        However, my primary reason for not leaving more reviews is that I don’t have time to read a lot. I have a HUGE backlog of books waiting for me, but writing an episode or short story per week, plus all the other stuff we do, leaves very little time for leisure activities. And when I do have some, I tend NOT to want to READ even more stuff. Seriously, my eyes start to glaze over at some point, just staring at words all day.

        So when I do read something, it’s generally going to be something I will probably like, if not love. I’ve gotten pretty good at sussing out the stuff I’ll like from that which I won’t.

        Sometimes, I’ll leave reviews for video games which I felt might need some more attention, as they were largely ignored, because I want to see the developers do well enough to continue with what they’re doing, and maybe turn people on to a missed gem.

        • What Dave said 🙂

          No really, I often don’t finish things that don’t suit me, so I won’t review them anyway. And I agree on the taste thing – for example, I really don’t like some of the terribly depressing literary fiction but sometimes I read it anyway in order to keep up with the lit news… but I’m not going to give it 1 star 🙂

          Plus I’m just a happy camper, kumbaya, like Sean, and so I’m not going to summon negative energy to write bad reviews.

          • I 100% agree with what Dave says (and what you agree with Joanna) regarding taste. I’m curious though, are taste and quality of writing intrinsically linked? Can you point out poor writing without stomping on someones tastes?

    • @Adam — Yes, you can point out poor writing mechanics without stomping on taste. But I also think someone with mediocre writing mechanics can still tell a decent to good story. And sometimes people with perfect writing, tell woefully boring stories that do nothing for me.

      But I’m not a literary snob who demands perfect grammar in my stories. I’ll leave that to people smarter than me. In short, I like what I like, and that’s it. And I hope to write stuff that other people will like, too.

  3. Yes, that Christy.
    For the record, I have kind of a high pitched voice and have been asked if my mommy was home on the phone before. That’s why I’ll be getting someone else to do my adio books. (And I got a huge laugh from the ET thing, lol..)

    I agreed with what you had to say about reviews. I often read the bad reviews first as I find them to be more honest then the glowing ones. Even if the book is amazing, and lots of people gave glowing reviews about the prose being life changing and beautifully written… it’s the bad review that tells me whats wrong with it. If the worst they have to say is there are some typos then I might read it anyway.

    On the same vien, I wrote a 1really star review once. I was being completely honest. The book (traditionally published) was full of grammatical errors, and took “foreshadowing” to extremes. I got 57 people saying how unhelpful my review was, so I pulled it.

    I think it is a diservice to our fellow readers/consumers/fans if we don’t encourage both good and bad reviews. After all, if everyone is afraid to give bad reviews then you’re going to have all these products/books with nothing but 4 and 5 star reviews, and nothing to warn them about the trouble you’re getting into (like daves dead battery).

    This isn’t exactly completely honest either. Not everyone is going to like your book. Maybe we don’t have to deal with rejection from editors and publishers as self publishers, but it’s absurd to think no one will ever say bad things about our writing.

    (Ps. Please forgive typos, typing this on my phone was not easy.)

    • We don’t discourage bad reviews of our own stuff. We’ve always told people to leave an honest review, whatever it is. My only gripe with reviews of OUR stuff is when people hit us with one stars for things that should be expected in our book – like bad language and scary scenes.

      But even then, I don’t say anything to the reviewers.

      But just because I don’t mind bad reviews, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna start leaving them myself.

      I don’t think I owe anything to readers to tell them what books I DON’T like. Nobody cares what I don’t like. I’m just a guy who writes books, but it doesn’t make me an expert. And I don’t read nearly enough to have a qualified opinion on something beyond whether I like it or not.

      We’re not big league like Stephen King or anything, but we do have a bit of popularity, and I’d never use that to turn people off of someone else’s book. I’d be pretty upset if Stephen King took the time to rip our book apart piece by piece and turn readers off to us so early in our careers.

      Plus, there’s the whole thing above about not going after people in the same genres. It’s just bad form.

      As for having too many 5 star reviews, and such, it’s not a problem in my opinion. It’s a given that the early reviewers will be people who like your work. If you can get a lot of those people to leave reviews, and they like the books, they’re gonna leave 4 or 5 star reviews. But as a book rises in popularity, it will encounter more negative reviews — some will be legitimate, people who didn’t like it, or people who heard about it because it was popular, but it wasn’t for them. And that’s par for the course. And then there’s the haters who hate something JUST to be contrary, and hate on something that other people like.

      Look at any book on the Top 20 list for more than a few months. Very few have universal love. Even the series Wool, which did have that kind of love for quite a while, started to get dinged a bit more when it became super popular. You’ll always find people who don’t like something, or haters wanting something to hate to make themselves feel superior.

      Not sure what the point of my rambling was, but maybe that clears up my stance on reviews?

      • I honestly didn’t realize it could be considered bad form to review books in your own genre. I tend to read books in the genre I write in, and love giving feedback, especially for self published authors, if I like it. But I can see the point in not giving bad reviews in my genre.

        • I don’t know if I totally agree with the guys on this one. I think that as long as your only reviews aren’t negative and in your genre, I think it’s okay. You just don’t want lack of balance, IMO.

          • I agree with Johnny. I see nothing wrong with leaving an honest review within your genre. If I left reviews, they would all be in my genre, since that’s the crap I read!

        • This is straight from Amazon, as far as what’s NOT allowed in reviews. I believe the “directly competing” product could be deem applicable to books in the same genres, competing on the same lists. However, I’m not Amazon, nor a lawyer. I tend to abide by the strictest possible terms in cases like this, though.

          What’s not allowed
          Amazon is pleased to provide this forum for you to share your opinions on products. While we appreciate your time and comments, we limit customer participation to one review per product and reserve the right to remove reviews that include any of the following:

          Objectionable material:
          • Obscene or distasteful content
          • Profanity or spiteful remarks
          • Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct

          Promotional content:
          • Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
          • Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
          • Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package
          • Solicitations for helpful votes

  4. Thank you for answering my question on the podcast, I will try the 20 minute timer trick and see how it goes.

    In response to Dave’s comment above about how writers should never negatively review other books in their genre, I understand that he doesn’t want to intentionally bash the competition in order to boost his own sales.

    However, I started a YA fantasy review blog in order to build a platform since those are the types of books I am writing and want to attract those types of readers. I worried at first about what I would do if I genuinely did not like a book because I am a very honest person and have a hard time not finishing a book once I start reading it no matter how bad it is. Also, my schedule only allows me to read an average of one book a week so if I decided not to review it I would be down a post for the week. So basically I decided to just tell it like it is but in a nice way and also mentioning the matter of taste thing. So far I have never written a one star or five star review.

    I do believe in karma as Joanna mentioned but I also would not want people to waste their time reading a lesser quality book when there are so many out there to choose from and time is so precious. So basically I hope that I am not shooting myself in the foot in the end but it would drive me crazy to follow a book review blog that only posted 4 and 5 star reviews (where is the fun in that?)

    I was a film critic for a Southern CA newspaper for four years and I learned that it is much easier to bash a film you hate than build one up that you love, and I am finding that is translating into my book reviews also (although I am giving constructive criticism rather than bashing now since there is a chance the author could actually read it).

    But no I would never leave fake or negative reviews purely for the sake of cutting my competition down, I just figure since I have to read books in my genre to grow as a writer and need to build a platform that blogging book reviews is a way to streamline the process. When I eventually do publish my novels I imagine this could create problems and I may have to take the reviews down, but for now that’s what I’m trying.

    For the record the only books I have reviewed so far were traditionally published. I do want to support self-published authors so I won’t want to post less than three star reviews for them since they can be so much more damaging. So for self-published books my rule is that I won’t read it unless it has been recommended to me or I know the author.

    • I think that’s a great rule!

  5. This is in response to Steve’s question about what font to use with Kindle and other self-publishing venues. Most publishing services such as iUniverse, which I used for my books, specify what font to use when submitting a manuscript. Otherwise, I use Times New Roman because that’s recommended as standard manuscript format by the powers that be. I hope this helps.

    Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of
    We Shall Overcome
    How to Build a Better Mousetrap:
    Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

  6. I really liked John Locke’s short ebook about self-publishing succes, boy, I probably read that thing over 4-5 times by now.

    But since I now know the scam of him having bought 300+ reviews pretty much slams that usefulness of his guide to the ground. It’s all about building rapport with your audience, and connecting with them both via your writing and social media, and then it turns out the majority of his positive feedback is all fake.

    It’s true what they say – it takes forever to build a reputation, and less than a day to completely destroy it. I won’t trust any of Locke’s advice from now on, and he really did shoot himself in the food with this one.

    I know it’s hard to get reviews, and I believe in creative marketing, but doing shady stuff like this will always ALWAYS bite you in the butt, sooner or later.

  7. Omfg, I absolutely love listening to your podcasts. Yours is actually the first one I’ve ever wanted to come back to (but I’ve not listened to many so it’s not that special 😉 ) and I had to figure that all out… but now your on my igoogle page and I’ve been listening to the recent episodes, and lofl, I love it. Love it love it love it. You guys are hilarious. It’s like hanging out with my friends. Only you are talking about self-publishing stuff, which most of my friends could do, if they’d only leave the partying behind. Ahh, I suppose they did leave the partying behind a long time ago… but anyway… I love listening to the show. Thank you for showing up so unabashedly shamelessly real.
    Love + Light

    • I really really love this comment. That is all. 🙂

      • Me too. 🙂

  8. With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright
    infringement? My blog has a lot of unique content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any ways to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d definitely
    appreciate it.

    • If people are stealing your content, they suck not you. Worry about making more content, not policing what you’ve already done. I think that’s much smarter. 🙂

  9. This was so much fun on the re-listen. The information about selecting good titles for fiction and non at the end was awesome. The advice about not being too clever is great. I see too many titles on Amazon that simply don’t make sense, and not in a way that I’m intrigued and want to read more.

    Sean came up with the name “Fifty Shades of the Matrix” at the end, and I immediately thought of The Future of Sex.

    I’m sure how I feel about buying reviews. To me a commercial is a bought review. Product placement in TV and Movies are bought reviews. And I’ve noticed in Amazon reviews/comments lately that many 5-star reviews are accused of being from friends/family anyway.

    So if people assume the first few 5-star reviews are in some way fake or biased, why not go with it? Like Johnny said, if no else if playing by those rules, why should we?

    While my ethics radar may not blib on this, I do worry about Amazon’s terms and conditions. Buying reviews is against the rules, technically. And I’d risk getting kicked off the site and losing all my books. And over what? One stupid review? Maybe its not worth the risk.

    • Buying reviews is just such short term thinking. Ethics or not, it’s definitely a tactic and a light year from strategy.



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