Cheating the reader – by Matt Johnson

Back in the traditional days of publishing, many writers viewed self-publishing as the option of last resort. To an extent, self-published authors were unfairly regarded as second-rate because they couldn’t find an agent or sell their book to a big publisher. They were ridiculed as “vanity” authors.

We don’t hear much of that anymore. Self-publishing is finally earning the respect it deserves. High-profile indie author successes are climbing the best seller charts. Their commercial success is changing perceptions about self-publishing one reader at a time.

I looked at the best-seller lists this week, to try and pick up some ideas. Three authors I noticed, were indies. Incredible, you might think? Well done to them.

But, on checking the details of the books, something didn’t look kosher. Huge (and I mean huge) numbers of 5* reviews, fantastic sales but all three had a very significant number of critical reviews.

“If your book is poorly-conceived or poorly-edited, readers will reject it,” I have always been told. Most of the critical reviews mention things like a poor plot, weak characters, bad editing and poor writing. The 5* reviews say the opposite.

Most of the ‘how to’ advice tells us that ninety percent of your book’s success will be determined by its quality. The other ten percent is distribution, marketing and luck. We are told that if we remember nothing else we should remember that the very most important marketing you can do is to write a great book that markets itself on the wings of reader.

“Pretty good” isn’t good enough if you want to spark word of mouth.

And yet, here we are seeing, what appear to be poorly written books in the top ten best-selling list.

How can this be?

All three indie books I looked at had many hundreds of 5* reviews and less, but a rather high number, of very critical reviews. They had many more reviews than any of the well-known authors like Lee Child, Patterson and Baldacci, and I mean a lot more!

I looked at the 5* and 4* reviews and, in particular, some of the reviews from ‘top’ reviewers. What I noticed was that many of these reviewers write quite comprehensive reviews upwards of two or three times a day, and almost exclusively on indie written novels, from a wide range of genres.

Such an incredible appetite for reading amazes me, and such eclectic taste as well?

A lot of the great reviews were also very similar and rather more than one might expect to see from a reader. They read more like you would expect to see from a critic. Could it be that they are paid for? I might add that it did seem that almost every book these people review earns 5*, with a few 4* reviews here and there.

The critical reviews seemed to follow a common theme, with many readers reporting disappointment and a sense of having been tricked by the 5* reviews. Many were written in a way that seeks to warn others away from making the same mistake.

I then took a look at the author’s twitter pages. No clues here, all were pretty ordinary, but they did seem to have a lot of followers. So, I used a programme to look at their followers. In one case, with an author who’s first novel has over 1000 5* reviews, I found that the vast majority of his followers were either bots (automated/not actually people) or fellow indie authors. Very few were readers.

Like many of you, I have read the stories of how it is possible to buy 5* reviews, indeed I have had several tweets and emails offering them for sale. I have been offered facebook likes and followers, and twitter followers (thousands) if I would just pay for the privilege. I’ve always ignored these, as I imagine most indie authors do.

If you buy twitter followers, does it give an impression of success, and how many people are going to check to see if the followers are actually bots?

I’ve also ignored the large number of indie authors who have contacted me asking me to do a 5* review ‘exchange’. I post for them, they post for me. No, thanks.

Smashwords, and its founder Mark Coker, tell me that they have over eighty thousand independent authors registered with them. No doubt, the vast majority of these authors share the morale high ground and will not enter into dishonest practices.

But, if that’s an indication of how many indie authors there are in the World, it doesn’t take too many of them to be involved in review exchanges to see that you could quickly build up a false picture as to the quality of a book.

Not all, it seems, are playing the game fairly. And it seems to work. I now have no doubt that indie author books are appearing in the best-seller lists which have entered those lists thanks to the author knowing how to influence the retailer algorithms or, in old-school terms, to cheat.

Cheating gives all us indies a bad name. All those buyers that are taken in by the wonderful (purchased) reviews will feel let down and their trust in the review system will lessen. In line with this, they will feel less likely to trust that the work of indie authors is worth reading. You can’t con people too many times before they start to react.

These authors are generating sales, making money and laughing all the way to the bank. It won’t last, they are not building a readership as the people who buy their work will not return to buy again. But in the mean time, all us indies get a bad name.

Damn them.

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