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.

Matt Johnson on ‘Getting noticed’, the seedy side of social media

As an indie author, getting noticed amongst the huge pool of talent that exists in the social media world is an incredible challenge. If there were an easy way, we would all be doing it.

Only yesterday, I read a tweet from a fellow independent author asking to people to do an ‘exchange review’ with him. What he was offering was a ‘quid pro quo’, ‘you scratch my back…’ type arrangement.  I’ve had a few similar requests myself, normally by DM, and I always decline. It was the first time I had seen an author being so public about courting such a favour.

I was so tempted to contact him and tell him not to get into that ball-game, but then decided that it was, really, none of my business. If he wants to, that’s up to him, but it’s not an avenue I would ever go down.

My personal feeling is that any means to secure reviews other than through genuine readers is fraught with danger. Sure, you may get a few lovely things said about your book, but it’s not genuine feedback is it? It’s not going to give you any idea as to whether your writing actually appeals to book readers and, surely, that is the purpose of a review.

Some authors argue that reviews are a way of getting noticed, an aid to securing that elusive book deal.  I guess that the argument is that publishing editors, on seeing a large number of excellent reviews on a book will then be tempted to take a look at it. That assumes, of course, that editors don’t know how the review system can be manipulated, that they don’t hear that companies are selling 5* reviews and that authors do review exchanges to boost their ratings. The truth is, of course, that they do, and they look at reviews with a very sceptical eye.

What happens after the initial rush of 5* reviews? What happens when genuine reviewers start posting what they think of your work? You can be very sure that if they feel they have been conned that they will say so. So, if your bought or exchange reviews create a false impression of the standard of your work, then you’d best be prepared for the backlash.

The same applies to followers on twitter and ‘likes’ on facebook. I have a healthy ‘followship, not outstanding, but each and every one of my followers is a genuine person, I think! I tend to followback and also follow readers to see what books they are talking about. It also enables me to talk to readers, secure feedback and see if my own work is heading in the right direction.

Like many, I have had my share of unwanted messages offering me opportunities to buy new followers. I can understand why a struggling author might be tempted, it can create an artificial appearance of status which may encourage genuine twitter users to take an interest in you. I was looking at the followship of a well-known author recently who is one of the top in my chosen genre. I saw that most of his original followers were ‘bots’, so he too had fallen for the offer.  Given that this same author has a name for creating fake profiles to promote his own work and attack others, I had to ask myself, is he right? Is this vanity, or is it good marketing? Not an easy question to answer. Books are a business after all.

Sometimes, I look at the twitter pages of fellow authors, newly established indies like me, who have yet to break into mainstream. I see that some of them have tens of thousands of followers and I ask myself, how? How is it that someone with that large a fanbase has not been snapped up by an agent and publisher?

Just yesterday I received this unsolicited email…

Hello xxxx

I am called  Harry. I also specialise in  Facebook and Twitter management helping to generate more customers  and also give your Twitter page  the wow factor.

 Our daily newsletter consists  of nearly  500,000 people whom have all completed a lifestyle survey , so we have a ideal  indication of what interests our customers . When someone submits an order through us unlike most of our competitors, We then submit your link through our newsletter  and in turn people then like your page. We do not use robots or fake likes.

 Prices from :-

£50 for 2,000 Facebook Likes

£50 for 6,000 Instagram followers

£45 for 7,000 Twitter followers

£50 for 30,000 YouTube Views

If a new visitor  logs on to your Facebook page  and can see that you have 7000 likes compared to your competition with just 350 likes, they tend to side with you even without considering price differences, as they are added  with confidence. This will also increase your position  through Facebook and start to drive organic  traffic through your page and through google.

We always have special offers, currently we have buy 20,000 Facebook likes for £170 get 5,000 Free Twitter followers Samples are available for serious buyers.

Many Thanks,


Well, Harry. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the answer is a very definite, no.

It did answer my question, though.

Latest reviews

Only a very select band of writers/authors make a good living from their work. For most authors it is appreciation and feedback that makes the effort worthwhile.
When people I have never met or previously heard of post reviews like this it gives a writer a great feeling and the motivation to keep on doing it!
Most Recent Customer Reviews from Amazon/Goodreads
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
I read the paperback and found it thoroughly absorbing and hard to put down. The plot and characters drew me in and kept me wanting to know what happens next…
Published 4 days ago by Bri
5.0 out of 5 stars Wicked…
There are novels about the SAS and there are novels about the police, & there are novels about the Secret Service, but this is the first novel I have read that skilfully combines…
Published 13 days ago by R. Edwards
5.0 out of 5 stars Wicked Game a bloody wicked Book
This book is superb. Right up my street as i read a lot of michael connelly, james patterson and lee childs books. This book had me hooked and i cant wait for more from the author.Read more
Published 15 days ago by Chris
5.0 out of 5 stars Wicked Read
A great first book from Matt Johnson fast paced from beginning to end. Looking forward to his next book out this summer. I think Matt will soon be up there with the big boys .
Published 18 days ago by ALAN G BUMFORD
4.0 out of 5 stars Wicked Book
Really enjoyed this. Got to know the characters well and the pace quickened as the book went on. Descriptive, excellent dialogue and a gripping ending!
Published 19 days ago by Julie marshall
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
I’ve read a lot of chris Ryan’s books and heard on the grape vine that this was just a good as his, well I have to agree!
Published 26 days ago by Shaunw86
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read.
Another well written book giving an insight to ex SAS soldiers possible employment when leaving the service and how their training gives them confidence.
Published 27 days ago by Mr. J. Thomas
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting thriller.
A very exciting thriller,brilliant twists to keep you reading. Couldn’t put it down until I had finished the book. Can’t wait for the next one.
Published 1 month ago by maxine farr
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
A brilliant debut novel from Matt Johnson. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want it to end. A gripping story from start to finish.I’m so looking forward to his next book.
Published 1 month ago by Jill P

Buying positive reviews

Extracts from a blog I recently found when researching this practice. Is there anything than cannot be bought?

Authors Behaving Badly: The Seedy Underbelly of Reviewing

Up until a few months ago, I didn’t realise there was a seedy underbelly to publishing. But all of a sudden, I can’t seem to look anywhere without turning up odd or unpleasant behaviour from authors, publishers, or other members of the writing community.

Book reviews for sale

Apparently a certain individual used to work for a marketing department where he would write press releases and contact review sites to organise book reviews. One day he realised it was a lot of hard work, and there were more books than reviewers. So he created, a site where authors could pay $99 for him to review their book — positive review guaranteed!

For the value-savvy author, there were package deals: $499 would get you 20 different, positive online reviews. A mere $999 would guarantee you 50 individually hand-crafted 5-star reviews posted on the web.

He was soon raking in $28,000 per month.

Per Month!!

A bit of simple maths will tell you that $28K works out to somewhere between  28 and 280 books every month. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to read 280 books a month. I don’t even have time to read 28 books a month. Especially not if I have to read 28 books then write 1400 individually hand-crafted reviews. So he outsourced. One of the freelance reviewers quoted in the article admits that she never actually read the books she was reviewing. She just googled them online, skimmed through a couple of pages, then wrote 5-star reviews. (She does say that she wishes she’d been able to read some of the books though, so it’s okay.)

When I read this story, I have to admit that I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised that authors were buying good reviews on blogs, GoodReads, Amazon, etc. (In fact, the only thing that really surprised me was how lucrative fake-reviewing could be!) But just because I wasn’t surprised doesn’t mean I was happy about it.

It got me thinking about a few things, though.

  1. Just about everyone I’ve come into contact with today has roundly condemned the practice of buying positive reviews. And yet this site took orders for 4500 reviews. How is it that those authors aren’t jumping up and down and defending the practice? Or is it one of those things that’s only ethically wrong when people find out about it?
  2. Authors and publishers routinely send free copies (ARCs) of books to book bloggers and reviewers. That’s standard practice. So why exactly is so controversial? Is it (a) Because it involves the exchange of cold hard cash? (b) Because the service guarantees positive (and often gushing) reviews? Or (c) Because the reviewers don’t necessarily read the books?
  3. If the answer to the previous question is (b) or (c), that opens up a whole lot of other questions/concerns. For example, where do we stand on self-published authors reviewing each other’s books as a sort of quid pro quomarketing strategy? If one Indie Author provides a positive review of a friend’s book in exchange for the friend doing the same for hers (with or without reading the novel herself), how is that ethically different to Rutherford’s  services?
  4. Following on from that, what about smaller quid pro quo exchanges such as Facebook likes? Or Twitter follows? No, they’re not directly linked to book sales (although neither are reviews), but we all know that we’re more inclined to hit the LIKE or FOLLOW button if several thousand people have done so before us than if we’re the first one.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of paying people to write reviews of my books. However, I can’t categorically say I’ll never feel differently. I can imagine sitting at my computer, proudly looking at my book on while my eyes flick back and forth between the “Buy this book” button and the “Be the first to review this book” link. After refreshing the page several hundred times in the first hour, I may be more than happy to pay someone to write that first review. For my own sanity, if nothing else.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of requesting someone write a positive review. I am comfortable asking my friends and family not to write a review panning my book. Seriously, folks, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of someone writing a review of my book if they haven’t read it. I’m not writing so people can pat me on the back, I’m writing because I have stories I want people to read. And writing a review without reading the words I’ve laboured over devalues my work.

Joel Friedlander also has a great post on this topic, explaining how paying for reviews cheapens the review process for both authors and readers.

As a reader… Well, as a reader I instinctively distrust any review that has nothing negative to say about a book. I’m more likely to be influenced by a well-crafted 3 or 4 star review, detailing what the reviewer liked and didn’t like about the story, characters, writing, etc than I am by a gushingly enthusiastic 5 star review. So perhaps this controversy, such as it is, doesn’t affect me overmuch at all.

Writers: Have you ever paid for a review? Would you ever consider doing so?  

Readers: Does this change the way you think about the reviews you read online?

Publishing on Kindle

Building Your Book For Kindle

Topics covered in this FREE e-book:

  • Before You Write
  • Building the Front Matter of Your Book
  • Building Your Table of Contents
  • Preparing a Cover
  • Finishing Your Book
  • Uploading and Checking the Quality of Your Book
  • Just Before Publishing Your Book
  • Making Changes After Publishing Your Book

Definitely worth the one-click to download; and did I mention it’s free?

I started with kindle and found it quite straightforward to upload. Begged a favour for the cover and waited. Nothing…
Then I started reading about marketing. Once I had a facebook account, a twitter page and this blog things started slowly. If there is one thing I am learning it is to be patient. If the book is a good read then word will spread, but it will not happen quickly. Twitter seems to be the best medium, my facebook has been blocked twice after sending out ‘friend’ requests. Twitter offers the new author the chance to simply invite people to look at your work. If they like what they see, they might buy, and if the like what they read a few will be moved to review it. It’s the reviews, in my opinion, that sell the book.
I had an early reviewer that loved the story but heavily criticised the format and typo errors. He was right. I pulled the book and had it properly proofed. It was worth it. BUT… the criticism is till there from the reviewer, albeit he was kind enough to put a qualifying postscript to say the book is now proof-read.
In the mean time I keep plugging away, doing some marketing every day, and some writing, with a few days away from it completely.
This week I sat down with a professional from the world of marketing who had read the book and liked it. She helped me draw up a structured plan to promote the book. It will involve an hour or so every day but having seen the plan I like it very much. It targets and records the right people, invites their interest and hopes to catch their eye. A bit like fishing really, which doesn’t bode too well for me, I was the world’s worst fisherman!
According to Amazon stats, over 12K people have downloaded the book. So, I now have a reasonable readership. Three publishers, here in Wales, are looking at the manuscript, so something might be in the pipeline. I’ve read the journals though, and I know the chances of being picked up by a publisher are small, especially during this recession.
For me… back to the tweets