Monday, May 2, 2016

Amazon Sues Reviewers (again) - And How Can You Get Honest Reviews?

Yep, again. According to the Seattle Times, Amazon has once again filed suit against numerous companies offering to sell fake reviews. You know the drill: these guys will write whatever you want, for a price. They'll post as many phony 5-star reviews on your book as you can afford. Or, they'll 1-star your competition right out of publishing. Here's what the article says:

"The lawsuit, filed Friday in King County Superior Court, pointed the mallet at Chris Embry, allegedly the New York-based operator of a website dubbed amazonverifiedreviews.com, which Amazon says promises to help sellers peddle their wares through falsified reviews, at least some of which it outsourced to a hacking website.

"Also named in the lawsuit is Jane John-Nwanko, a Californian who Amazon says stands behind paidbookreviews.org, a site that offers to purchase an author’s book and “post positive comments” about it on Amazon. Amazon also sued five other people it couldn’t identify, but who ran sites with names such as amazonreviewsstar.com, buyamazonreviews.info and reviewconnections.com."

According to the article, Amazon has sued over 1,000 people for this in the last year. Unfortunately, tackling these websites is like chopping heads off a hydra. You have to find alternative methods. Amazon can keep going after them -and they will, no doubt- but in order to nip this in the bud, they'll have to hit where it really hurts. This means not just suing the services, but also the clients: 

"In addition to damages, Amazon is requesting from the defendants information that would help the company identify the party that paid for the reviews and the people who created them. Such data have allowed the company to ostracize unscrupulous sellers and review writers, Amazon said."

 I predicted this a long time ago. These lawsuits aren't about playing whack-a-mole with these websites, they're about discovery; about rooting out unethical sellers and writers and banning them. Ouch. Anybody who publishes through KDP knows that Amazon is the bread and butter of Indie publishing, and without it, most writers would be lucky to earn coffee money in any given month. Losing Amazon as a distributor is painful, but getting sued by them? Imagine what it could be like for writers who bought these fake reviews. They could have their books pulled, their accounts banned, and on top of it, they might get sued! Yikes.

Back in December 2010 when I first started self-pubbing, I was unaware that anything like this existed. To be honest, I'm not sure it did. I am sure that some forward-thinking writers and coders were already manipulating the system, but it took a while for the rest of us to realize how important those reviews were. It became obvious all too soon. Several writers were busted for posting fake reviews, and strangely enough, they almost seemed proud, as if gaming the system and cheating Amazon and its customers just meant they were really smart businessmen.

Here's the thing about being dishonest: It's not clever. It's easy to lie. It doesn't take much intelligence at all. Liars never realize this until their lies start catching up with them. Only then do they realize that they're not all that smart; certainly not smart enough to get out of the messes they've created.

Obviously, posting or buying fake reviews is bad, but are there other options? At one point, on his blog A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, Joe Konrath was promoting a review service called Book Rooster -or something similar. That name might be wrong... it's been a few years and I can no longer locate the service. (Not to be confused with eBookBooster.com, an ad service that advertises on his blog now.) What was different about Rooster was that instead of selling fake reviews, it was essentially a distributor. You paid them to give your book out to readers who wanted free books and were committed to writing reviews. Personally, I felt this was an honest and legitimate service. After all, the rules were clear: You could get bad reviews. That is what it comes down to right? If you're paying someone for a five star review, it's unethical and against Amazon's rules. If you're paying a service to distribute your product to honest reviewers... well, that's not only honest, it's basically the same thing Amazon does through its Vine program, and traditional publishers have been doing with professional reviewers for at least a century. It's also worth noting these distribution sites have never been mentioned in one of Amazon's lawsuits. So it seems at least, that Amazon feels the same way.

Unfortunately, for honest authors, there really are no shortcuts to getting reviews. You could try a site like Book Rooster or Bookplex -if its still around and if you can afford it- but you do run the risk that at some point, Amazon may change their minds on this policy. And you've heard all the other advice: Contact Amazon reviewers and book bloggers asking for a review, ask for reviews at the end of your books (and provide a link to the Amazon page), and give your book away for free (at least temporarily) to bump up the number of downloads and -hopefully- reviews. And get people to sign up for your newsletter!

Blah blah blah. You know all that, you're probably already doing it, and results are inconsistent at best. So what else can you do?

One thing that does seem to work quite well, and I don't really know why or how, is to hire a publicist. These companies specialize in Author P.R., and they know how to get not just reviews, but also visibility. In most of the Indie success stories I've seen in the last few years -and by success, I mean huuuuge success- I've learned that the authors had paid a P.R. firm. Unfortunately, these services are beyond affordable for most of us (as in several thousand dollars at the low end), and I wouldn't even begin to know how to vet a business like this. And if you do choose one, they will probably want you to do things like radio interviews and public appearances. Are you up for that? I'm not sure I am. But if you happen to be an outgoing and highly articulate extrovert, this may be your ticket to the big time. Unfortunately, I can't really offer advice here because I've never tried it, and I don't personally known anyone who has.

In the end, other than the obvious advice already given, your best bet is just to be patient. If you have a good book (which you should!), promote it. Get it into the hands of as many readers as possible. Even if that means giving it away. After all, if you're a writer, your career will not be built on one book. It just won't. Try signing up for KDP and doing giveaways. Buy ads promoting the free dates so people know. Or, at least lower the price to $0.99 temporarily. In the end you must get your book into people's hands. If nobody knows who you are, how will they know about your books?

Well, that's about the extent of my knowledge and experience, for what it's worth. Maybe I'll do a post in the near future about how I plan and coordinate promotions. Hint: It requires a calendar! If you have any advice or experience with book promotion and review gathering, I'd love to hear your stories, especially regarding publicists and P.R. firms.


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