Biu Ling, a data-mining expert at the New York Times, estimates one in three book reviews is a fake.

More than a year ago, the New York Times reported on the best book reviews money can buy.

Further investigations into how authors buy their way onto bestselling book lists resulted in the Wall Street Journal publishing a news report earlier this year on how the author of Leapfrogging, Soren Kaplan, hired a marketing firm, Results Source, to generate pre-publicity buzz by distributing thousands of advance review copies. While Kaplan’s publisher, Berrett Koehler, had advised him against doing so, the marketing efforts landed him a coveted #3 spot on the Wall Street Journal hardcover business book list. When the news reports surfaced, Kaplan had more than his Amazon sales ranking at stake: his integrity was on the line. To Kaplan’s credit, he took responsibility for trying to game the system and explained how such astroturfing practices and a corrupt system based on payola fails the readers, the author, and the publisher.

No surprise that a year later and the problem gets worse. This scourge grows with book reviews on Amazon and GoodReads posted by sock monkeys and trolls. Book reviews are easy to buy online. Fiverr is one site where reviews can easily be purchased for $5 a piece. After two years of undercover investigations, Fiverr issued a report of 50 authors who have purchased reviews on Fiverr.

So what is a fake review? This is how Fiverr defines it:

  • Any review written by an author’s friends, relatives or acquaintances, especially reviews requested by the authors themselves to push up their ratings.
  • Any review written by the author using fake names or puppet accounts, especially when the author has many such accounts.
  • Any review bought and paid for, especially those from less-than-reputable or questionable companies.
  • Any review swapped or traded between authors.
  • Any review bought by promising readers free kindles or paying readers any other kickbacks.

Paid reviews are epidemic. The problem is not only with publishing. Yelp. CitySearch. GoogleLocal.

Astroturfing – laying fake grassroots excitement to build buzz before launch or release of a new product – are bad for everyone. It is also illegal. These fake review practices resulted in charges of false advertising and deceptive business practices and in Monday’s news, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced 19 companies will pay $350,000 in penalties.

Legitimate book reviews are not customer satisfaction reports. Work with your publisher to identify newspapers and magazines with appropriate book review editors for your work. Your integrity as a professional requires it as much as your authority as an author.

8 thoughts on “One in three book reviews is a fake

    • Hi Patti,
      There are many readers, authors, and publishers who share our concern about fake reviews. Fiverr has been around for quite some time and this involves much more than one person who is blowing the whistle. Anonymous can say what no one else can say and expect to keep their position in publishing. There are some traditional commercial publishers and many self-published authors with deep pockets who encourage online practices that have simply gotten out of hand. GoodReads on September 20th posted an important note regarding reviews

  1. Thanks, Jill. I’m so not trying to stir things up. I am saddened by the names listed and what this means for all authors. My reporter nose is very dusty, but when the Amazon Alert says “opinion” and “journalist” I get suspicious. Usually when undercover, you don’t reveal anything until you reveal all; evidence and identity… They are cross-pollinating with Fiverr, so I just don’t know.
    I really want to hit all their share buttons, but then again…
    I’ll go check out the link you gave me. Maybe that will help me decide. I did go to WSJ and NYT.
    I don’t mean to be a pest.

    • Hi Patti, my news nose has smelled this one coming for awhile. I don’t use Fiverr but know about them. Only one in 50 authors listed in the Fuverr’s report has a contract with a traditional publisher, Amanda Hocking with St. Martin’s Griffin. She’s a Young Adult author who self-published until 2012. I think much more investigation into these swarmy practices is warranted. I think the Fiverr Report on Fake Reviews deserves followup and further inquiry. Let us know if you find out anything further. I appreciate the importance of checking your sources, especially online. It’s a disturbing trend many have observed across all sectors of the consumer market. Thanks for being a pest. Facts matter.

      • Thanks for validating my attempt to pass along factual information.
        There is a funny “quote” that goes around FB, that has Abraham Lincoln saying something to the order of, “Don’t believe everything you read online.” I would add Fox “News” to that, myself.
        Another interesting thing about the book review issue, is that the person generating the “Amazon Alert” says they worked for Amazon, and the person generating “Fiverr Report” says they worked at Fiverr. Hmmm. My hunch is that they are the same person or of the same group.
        I think that they are doing important work. I WANT these sleazy authors revealed, but in a verifiable way, and irrefutable way.
        The same thing is happening all across social media and it stinks.
        I may write something up about it as a blog post, that I send out to all my social media outlets. Would you consider editing it for me? If not, no problem.
        Thank you,

        • Hi Patti, there’s an old saying no one puts on their status updates: two heads are better than one. I’m thrilled you are digging into this matter, too. Would be glad to review any report you put together. I posted this yesterday to bring more light to the astroturfing practices and to recommend client authors not pursue such attempts to ‘game’ the system.

  2. Paying for a book review at Amazon or anywhere is obvious, but for me the lines get fuzzy when a friend (distant or close, FB or the woman next door who loves what you write) writes a review. Do you consider these reviews fakes?

    • Elaine, that’s a great question and I’m sure you’re not the only one who wonders. If your friends, neighbors, or someone who knows you reads your book and wants to leave a review on GoodReads or Amazon, that’s wonderful. Unsolicited reviews are always delightful to receive. It is when an author solicits positive reviews in an orchestrated campaign to ‘game the system’ that gets into the grey area.

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