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Amazon review scam: Extortion or bad taste?

Okay, this one’s a little strange, and probably reveals something or other about human nature. If somebody out there would like to explain to me exactly what it reveals, I’ll be interested. FWIW it took me a while to decide what to do here. Days, even…though in my defense I was thinking about other stuff during most of that time. You know: Christmas and all.

Let me start off by saying I have a lot of sympathy for beginning indie authors: I’m one myself. Plus, I generally like schmoozing and related business practices, within what I consider to be reasonable limits. It’s led to some great real estate deals up in Alaska…I’ve both given and received some fairly deep discounts just out of friendship. And I’ve saved a lot of money on car repairs this way. (Seriously: you should do this too. It makes a huge difference if you bring your mechanic an occasional six-pack, or just hang out and talk from time to time. Though you may have to really like people to pull it off.)

But…there are, or ought to be, limits. For example: some authors exchange positive reviews in the hope that it will improve sales. If the reviews are legitimate expressions of opinion, I have no problem with this. But so far I haven’t done it myself, and I doubt it really works, and IMHO that sort of thing isn’t too hard to spot anyway. Plus, Amazon has been cracking down on this practice lately, deleting reviews left & right–legitimate or not; Amazon worships the great god Algorithm and doesn’t care about collateral damage. (None of my own reviews have been affected, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen–others have what seem to be legitimate complaints.)

I originally intended to link to various phases of this deleted-Amazon-reviews mess, but I’m tired of it and don’t want to bother. Lots of other people have said lots of stuff, okay?

Here’s what happened to me:

  • An author offered to “friend” me on Facebook. I went along with it, even though I generally prefer to keep that sort of thing away from my personal account (I do have an author page, though it’s basically a passive receiver of blog posts). We conversed, a bit. Not much.
  • One day I made a moderately snarky comment about spelling/punctuation. Yeah, I’m that guy.
  • The author responded with some humor, we got into a friendly discussion, and…




All right, this bugged me a little. Beyond the “exceptable” bit and odd comma placement, I mean–I have been forced to accept that fingers create odd fingerfehlers, though I wish mine at least would just cut it out.

Had the author actually read my book? I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t even sure which one he or she was talking about. I decided to wait and see what came next.

Meanwhile I had bought a copy of the author’s book. I was very interested in the subject matter for personal reasons, and if I actually liked the thing, well…what the heck. (This morning I finally took a look and decided I couldn’t have reviewed it even if we hadn’t headed into the Twilight Zone…that grammar/spelling/punctuation thing again, plus pacing. And I don’t like posting bad reviews, especially if I sort-of know the author. But others may well enjoy the book; its subject matter is fascinating.)

Then this happened:




Excuse me, but wtf? I guess it’s good my writing has great imitation. I mean, what if it didn’t? What would that mean to my budding career? Possibly downloads would all be scrambled!

Seriously, this reads like email spam. Does the author have a sideline in composing it? How does that work? Is there money in it? Can I get some?

Anyway. There was no “Amazon Verified Purchase” label, and the review (of which I’ve kept a screenshot) recycles stuff others have said. There’s one bit of extra info, but it’s revealed in the free sample. Plus, I could obviously identify the book at this point and there had been no Amazon US sales of that title on that day. So, well, hmm.

I suspect the great god Algorithm will catch up with this author sooner or later, and even if I’m wrong he or she will probably get the sales/readers he or she deserves in the long run.

But I noticed: this author has a fairly high number of reviews (for a beginning indie with one book) and they nearly all give five stars.

I really don’t know what the proper response is. Are newbie authors cowed into participating by the implied threat of review-withdrawal? I could go through the author’s reviews, one by one, and try to identify/contact the reviewer. I could name the author here. I could contact Amazon.

I don’t know if non-writers will immediately grasp just how strong this pseudo-threat can seem. For a lot of people…well, they’ve invested years of time, and a lot of self-image, in their books. They really, really want readers to give them a chance–but that’s not actually within the writers’ control. But…what if it could be? What if reviews could be managed? Wouldn’t people suddenly realize their previous mistake of inattention, and provide all sorts of warm-fuzzies? It’s a powerful lure.

In the end, though? I think this post is probably enough of a response. I can’t police everybody else’s business practices, and I don’t think I should even try. Plus, again: I doubt this sort of thing will really boost sales over the long haul.

Still. It bugs me.


Published inJerksPublishing


  1. Terry Tyler

    This is horrendous! What sort of idiot is this person? I’ve come across people asking me if I want to do a read/review swap; I always decline because, to be truthful, I get lots of reviews anyway, but actually to try to drag you into the false review thing? What a pathetic w**ker!!! You can guarantee anyone who does has written one of those books that, before Kindle, would have gone in an agents’ ‘No WAY!’ pile, anyway…. Incidentally, I don’t add random authors to my personal FB page, either. I have a different name and a different photo, but still I get the requests. I don’t think a lot of them realise that Facebook isn’t actually FOR book promotion, apart from the actual author etc pages. I certainly don’t want to see a load of advertisements for books every time I go on there to look up some old friends/check out my brothers’ holiday photos….

    It’s unfortunate that reviews like the ones from this idiot get left on Amazon, when genuine ones from authors who’ve read another author’s book because they wanted to read it, are removed. Yes, I’ve had some removed – and yes, this subject has been done to death and back again, so I will say no more!

    • On the semi-bright side, the author removed his/her review of my book after this post came out. Which lowered my book’s average rating, but not by a lot…and that review (obviously) didn’t have a lot to tell potential readers anyway.

  2. Hi David–Thanks for weighing in on my review blogpost today. You had some good ideas I hadn’t thought of. Your story about the review extortion is even more outrageous than the one I’d heard (you weren’t actually the author I had in mind when I wrote it–that was a chick lit writer friend)

    This one with the Ukranian spam syntax is way weirder than hers. Obviously you did the right thing. The whole review thing is such a mess. I think Joanne Harris may have the best idea–delete them all. And then abolish the “top reviewer” contests. And only let non-anon, verified purchasers post reviews.

    • Well, settling this sort of question is what markets are for. If I were in Amazon’s shoes I’d try to provide the best source of reviews I could…but I might also show competing reviews, and let customers tell me which they prefer (either explicitly or via my analysis of their buying decisions). In fact I might try separating reviews submitted by authors and show separate ratings…sort of like the common practice for movies.

      Anyway, companies come and go. And Amazon’s not quite the ebook monolith they once were. I don’t think it matters too much what they do–somebody or other will solve the problems to readers’ satisfaction. Maybe Amazon, maybe some other retailer, maybe dedicated review sites. Most likely new ideas will surface that we’re not even considering yet.

      It’ll be fun to watch it all play out, whatever happens.

  3. […] Heywood Young at Caveat Lector shares an experience he had with a fellow author in his post, “Amazon review scam: Extortion or bad taste?“. I do recommend you read about David’s experience, ’cause I guarantee half of […]

  4. Heather

    Is this author still on Amazon? Oh please, please, please, can you email me his location? I would LOVE to look at this.

    [Digression: Did I tell you about the high scoring ‘fake review’ reviewer on Amazon? I encountered other reviewers that have even started a ‘club’ about this person. Yeesh. And Amazon’s been informed of their practices and they’ve been doing it..

    for years!

    But back to your reviewer…]

    I must admit, this is a new version of exchanging reviews that I’ve never heard of.

    More on this some other time. This cracks me up, really. People so desperate to be popular, doing shit like this.

    I told you about Hugh Howey’s idea about getting reviews, didn’t I? And I like it because ANYone can do this–to me, it’s a great way to ‘connect’ to your readers. You don’t have to be an editor of some frippin’ magazine or something. And to me, it, again, feeds the idea of having your READER help you.

    What he suggested was paying a person 10 dollars (no more, no less and you must pay no matter what goes on–see it as marketing, is my view. Spend 50 bucks, ten bucks on five people, and followthrough) to read your book until they stop and give feedback. This would be used for books still in the startup phase or just ready to hit higher gear in a to-be-published realm. The reader gives the writer ‘whatever’ feedback they want or can.

    Sure, someone will bastard it. But you keep on top of those kinds of people and a writer ends up with a lot more feedback then he might, normally, get.

    I read on Amazon how so many writers WANTED reviews. I don’t mind doing feedback, but I think it’d be a cool sideline if I could get paid ten dollars to feedback to people.

    But I went to places like BookBlog and immediately encounter the old guard giving reasons why it shouldn’t be done.



    • David

      I’ve begun to believe that reviews matter very little, if at all. Yes, the person who contacted me is still on Amazon. With 24 reviews, very near a 5.0 average, and the single worst “Bestseller” ranking I’ve ever noticed on a book.

      I think having a bunch of reviews is probably somewhat helpful in a “social proof” sort of way. Past the first 10 or so, I doubt they matter to most readers/buyers. I doubt the average ranking matters a whole lot either. Unless you want to advertise on a site that requires a certain number of good reviews, anyway.

      Covers matter (I’m redoing all of mine except for the “Weekly Challenge” stories, because they suck). Blurbs matter. To a lesser extent, the free sample matters. What really matters, I think, is author reputation. And I don’t think there’s a quick way to game the system to build that. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of work.

      Which is encouraging to me: I can work. And I can put in the time, for as long as it takes, because I’m already doing what I most want to do. All else is vanity.

  5. We are now following each other on Twitter so I clicked on your blog and came across this post. As a newly published author (not self published, but an indy publisher) I have run into this phenomenon myself. At first, I went along with a couple of my fellow newbies. Turns out they didn’t return the “favor” with any review, good or bad. So, after buying and reviewing two not so great books I stopped doing it. I have noticed though that my friends review me very favorably even though I tell everyone to please, please, review me honestly. I really do want the honest feedback. No dice. I think they’re afraid I don’t mean it. So, I guess the best reviews are those given by strangers…hopefully they will buy, read, and review. Honestly. I think reviews are overrated anyway. I never paid attention to them until I got published.

    • David

      I’m not sure reviews mean much either. I like getting them, but I don’t care about them when I buy fiction. For physical stuff, like a tent for camping, I definitely do care. But eight reviews are as convincing as 800.

      I think it’s all about people, in the end. Well, and book covers. And good writing. So whatever success we have, we likely deserve it. If we want more we probably have to keep working. {8’>

  6. Also following you on Twitter!

    I have an issue with book reviews on Amazon. For the most part, I will ignore reviews that don’t also have the little “Amazon verified purchase” thing, even though I don’t always get my books from Amazon. I’ve recently read a few novels that were seriously awful – we’re talking third grade command over the language, if that – and they’ve gotten tons and tons of five star ratings.

    Unfortunately, what I see happening is that some writers get huge internet followings and those fans will give the book high marks whether they were good or not. It’s very misleading to readers and one of the reasons that I primarily go either by the book description or the preview that I can either read online or download to my kindle before I buy.

    I do, however, honestly review every book I’ve read. Even promotional copies, in my opinion, don’t guarantee an author a good reviews.

    • David

      Nothing should guarantee a good review! Or at least I don’t want it to.

      I do post reviews sometimes, but I now use a friend’s account for them (he doesn’t ever post himself). I don’t want to get involved in whatever mutual-reviewing societies may exist, or even create the impression that I’m involved. Also, I’d like the option to post my true opinion without exposing myself to backlash. I guess what I’m getting at is this: if I’m posting a review, it’s honest…but it’s unlikely to be shown as an “Amazon Verified Purchase.” And I expect others will have equally good reasons to obscure themselves.

      Not sure I agree with you about the authors with huge internet followings. I suspect the writers did something to get their followers. So the book is probably of some value to those people. Though, yeah, if it’s just a bunch of people posting good reviews of a book they haven’t read that’s not very useful to anybody. However, in that case I’ll be very curious about the mind-control methods involved! Er–not that I would use them myself. Much.

  7. Kirkus reviews are so “respected”. You buy them. My sweet little Maisie had one review. They took it down. I complained. They put it back. It’s gone again. Still the little whore sells. I get TOO upset by negative reviews but can coast forever on a nice one. What did we do before this system? Book jackets in stores, the Sunday paper Book Section (gone in most papers) and word of mouth — this the most important and no sock puppet system or review trading system will ever match it for results. When given a copy and asked to review, sometimes I do, sometimes not. But I am too emotional to “hurt someone’s feelings. So, as a reviewer, I suck.

    • David

      I kinda like bad reviews. I really want a horrible 3-page rant about exactly why my stuff sucks someday, from somebody who really means it. So far I’m unimpressed by what I’ve gotten, though.

      Er. Not that that’s intended as an invitation! {8’>

      But yeah, I suck too, for the same reason. However: I figure a bunch of 5* reviews & almost nothing else generally means the author’s got less-than-clever friends, and that sends the same message as a bunch of bad reviews to a lot of readers. So I don’t feel a need to do anything–also it’s none of my business really, unless I was fooled somehow. But in that case why didn’t I check out the sample? ‘Cause I do that.

      OTOH I’ll sometimes sneak in a review under another name if I see something really good that I think is being mistreated by reviewers. Did that yesterday under my own name, actually, but for nonfiction.

  8. The reviewing debate is one that I think will go on and on. There are authors who pay for reviews and think it’s a fair deal, and then there are others (like me) who would always feel a little bit sad that my work had good reviews because I asked for them and greased the wheels with cash. Like it was tainted in some way.

    As for an authority like Kirkus, it is accepted as genuine because it has been around so long and built up a good reputation. Plus, they read the book and offer a professional opnion. I haven’t paid for this (Wish I had a spare lump of cash to do so!) but it seems reasonable.

    Prior to a book launch, sending out free books to ARC reviewers who have shown interest (i.e. through librarything/goodreads/blogs) can be a good way to get genuine reviews. There is no payment except the actual book, which if it is an eBook is nothing anyway, and the review is from a person that has a genuine love of books and impartiality as there is no actual relationship at stake. To only allow Amazon verified Purchase reviews would put a stop to this and it would hurt a fairly genuine practice of indie authors.

    I still think that having reviews makes a difference (I know I notice a sales peak when I get a new review) and they do matter. But having a few 1 star and 2 star reviews actually gives you a bit of credibility. I too, am not inviting them BTW 🙂

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