This Week’s Amazon Scandal in Publishing–October 15, 2015

Things have been generally quiet on the publishing front, except for one particularly interesting article. The Memo has run a feature about the state of the publishing industry, with a focus on the latest and greatest in Amazon scandals.

I saw what I suspect to be the triggering article earlier this week. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the URL for it, so I’m not linking to it. In a nutshell, it was a discussion of how someone printed a book with blank pages and turned it into a bestseller using certain marketing tactics.

The Memo’s feature discusses how Amazon scandals are hurting the industry–and may trigger a resurgence of print publication.

In classic The Memo styling, the article uses a lot of catchy phrasing to make the scandal sound more, well, scandalous.

I’m going to do some disclaimers up front: I am a self-published author. Real Me is SFWA qualified (and a member in good standing.) I use Amazon predominantly as my platform; it’s the easiest market to connect with readers. That innately means I’m biased in favor of Amazon…or am I? You’re about to find out.

Let’s begin with the opener of this article:

As Amazon is rocked by reports of phoney authors and fake reviewsThe Memo asks Bookseller editor Philip Jones about the uncertain future of publishing.

Amazon is rocked by reports of phoney authors and fake reviewers each and every day. This is nothing new. This wasn’t new last year, it wasn’t new the year before that, and it certainly wasn’t new in the years before that. For as long as Amazon has been around, people have been trying to game the system.

Absolutely nothing new here. There’s a reason many readers won’t trust 1* or 5* reviews; this is the reason why.

I am going to probably shoot myself in the foot here, but here goes: I don’t cheat. I hate cheating. I do things the hard way. I look for reviewers–honest ones. I want those honest reviews, because I want people to know what they’re getting with my titles. It absolutely infuriates me when people buy 5* reviews.

It is cheating, pure and simple. But here’s the issue: Reviewers are given books for free to review honestly. If you remove Amazon’s ability to allow non-verified reviews, you’ll hurt all authors, not just self-published ones. Traditional publishers use reviewers in the exact same way self-publishing authors do.

I’ve talked about how to use reviews to purchase books before–and the things to be wary of when making selections.

Before you let the tone of the article whip you into a frenzy, remember this: this is nothing new at all. It’s a scourge across all of publishing, not just amazon. It happens on goodreads, too.

I’m going to highlight one question and answer from the article and encourage you to read the rest of it on your own.

Why is it important that people are able to continue to buy ebooks online?

PJ: Sampling e-books is a fantastic way of discovering new books and checking the authenticity of reviews.

Online book buyers also have the opportunity, ratified in European law, to return books they don’t like, and more readers should use that.

We’re book lovers. The legitimate authors among us (which is most of us, honestly) adore books. We love creating new worlds, transporting our readers there, and otherwise promoting literacy. But, here’s the thing: most authors, myself included, are terrible marketers. We really are. That’s why the marketers who are just interested in making money are able to do these money grabs.

Visibility is king when it comes to books. Marketers take advantage of that, get in front of readers, and get seriously terrible books in the limelight–or books filled with blank pages and a funny title.

It isn’t the publishing industry’s responsibility to serve as gatekeepers. We, as readers, have a responsibility to call out the cheats, ostracize them, and continue the hunt for good books–or at least genuine, interesting books. Once again, this plays into what I’ve said before on the blog about a person’s preferences for books. It’s totally okay to love a bad book, especially if it entertains you.

What’s not okay is the prevalence of cheaters. It’s very difficult to know when someone is cheating and when they aren’t cheating. I’m going to make a list of cheating strategies I know of… and a list of ways legitimate authors search for reviews and help boosting their sales.

cheating methods

  • Buying Guaranteed Good Reviews
  • Making Sock Accounts (One author creating loads of amazon accounts and reviewing their own book.)
  • Plagiarism and Intellectual Property Theft. (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?)
  • Fake/Empty Books
  • Family Members being used as either sock accounts or for guaranteed 5* reviews. (Yes, it’s cheating. It’s even in Amazon’s TOS.)

legitimate strategies

  • Advertisement purchasing (on major websites)
  • Coordinated Book Tours (with reviews.) (Tour Group coordinators are paid to match reviewers with authors; reviewers aren’t paid to review the book.)
  • Approaching fans with ARCs of the books in exchange for honest reviews.
  • Giveaways
  • ARCs (Advanced reviewer copies) on places like NetGalley. (NetGalley is paid to hook authors/publishers with reviewers.
  • Newsletter/Email advertisements.

This is a very small list of the various cheats and legitimate strategies out there. There are a lot more on both sides of the fence.

I want to draw your attention to book tours, though. Book tours are one of the most common tools an author uses to drum up attention for their books. While there are many legitimate tour groups, there are an equal number–or greater–of cheating groups. The only way to know if the tour group you’re using cheats is to look over the blogs they use, find books they’ve promoted, and check the reviews. There are sites that vouch for the tour groups, too.

I use tour groups frequently–and I only use those vetted as legitimate. Now, it’s worth noting that tour groups will try to avoid leaving 1* or 2* reviews. Why? They’re helping an author get exposure. But, these tour groups also ask their reviewers don’t review at all–or get the author’s blessing to post a really low-rated review.

3* are welcome, as critical reviews are prized by the sane authors out there. They hurt, but they’re important. 3* can be damning–and they can be a blessing, too.

To get back on subject, however, this week’s Amazon scandal is nothing new… and I really doubt print books are ever going to die. Too many people love them. However, e-books are here to stay, like it or not.

SnakeHeadGlyphReaders love reading. I love reading. E-books put books more affordably into the hands of readers. Self-published authors fill a very important gap in the industry: affordable, good books. Sure, finding the good authors can be difficult, but they’re out there.

No matter what, keep supporting your favorite authors. They need you. Leave honest reviews, leave them often, and don’t be afraid of hurting an author’s feelings. You are the solution to the problem of cheaters. The real readers, the true lovers of books out there–you are the ones who hold the reins.

While readers sure could use the help of the industry as a whole–and that means traditional and self-published authors and producers of books–the publishing industry as a whole can’t exist with you, the readers.

So, how can you help?
  1. Buy books. Return them if you’ve been scammed out of legitimate material. (You have 14 days to return e-books on Amazon.)
  2. Review the books you buy and read. Be honest–even if you’re reviewing a friend’s book or a favorite author’s. Be honest, be honest, be honest. Please, be honest.
  3. Share the book with others. Word of mouth is the best advertising platform ever. Love a book? Share it around. Don’t let shit books by marketers win. Your recommendation is worth more than a marketer’s ploy.
  4. Cry wolf. You see a shit book with a strong marketing ploy? Call out that wolf and let other readers know about it. Preventing people from falling prey to sleazy tactics helps everyone.
  5. See 1, rinse and repeat.

To conclude, I’d like to discuss returning books. If you’re returning a book because it’s that bad, leave a review to inform other readers about it. Explain why you returned the book.

Authors do not get feedback on why books are returned on Amazon.

This hurts everyone–especially the authors. You leaving a negative review and the reason you returned a book is invaluable. From my personal experiences, returned books are almost always some jackass pirating the book. I’ll see a return hit in amazon, and sure enough, within 12 hours, the title returned is being pirated on a new pirate site.

Come on, people. If you’re going to steal my stuff, at least give me the royalties from the book being stolen. But no, they buy, download, rip the book, and return it. It’s very frustrating. So, if you’re returning a book… do the author a favor.

Tell them why, because Amazon isn’t–no one is… and if you’re net savvy and know how to use google, it’s very easy to tell when a return has turned into a pirated novel.

Thanks for reading, book lovers. You’re the reason we write.

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