Publishing's Drug Problem

Publishing has its own performance-enhancing drug scandal. In astory , self-publishing phenom John Locke (not the philosopher, nor thecharacter) admitted to buying Amazon reviews.
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Last week, Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles over doping allegations. Baseball has had its fair share of drug problems, most recently involving the MVP of the All-Star Game Melky Cabrera (who could still win the batting title, which would be a huge black eye for Major League Baseball).

And now publishing has its own performance-enhancing drug scandal.

In a New York Times story titled The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, self-publishing phenom John Locke (not the philosopher, nor the Lost character) admitted to buying Amazon reviews.

One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in "How I Sold One Million E-Books." That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford [owner of an outfit called "GettingBookReviews"] to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service's best customers...

In a phone interview from his office in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Locke confirmed the transaction... Many of the 300 reviews he bought through GettingBookReviews were highly favorable, although it's impossible to say whether this was because the reviewers genuinely liked the books...

In addition to buying reviews, Locke also paid the reviewers to download his .99 ebooks so that the reviews showed up on Amazon as "verified purchases." Buying reviews of ebooks that include downloads is a well-known way to "juice" an ebook's sales rank and attract new readers. (In fact, it's something I wrote about earlier this year in an anonymous essay for Dear Author.) The higher a book's sales ranks, the better chances it has of being noticed by Amazon's internal recommendations engine. In Locke's case, his bought-and-paid-for reviews resulted in a huge sales bump, according to the Times:

In the first nine months of his publishing career, he sold only a few thousand e-books. Then, in December 2010 [after trading money for reviews], he suddenly caught on and sold 15,000 e-books.

Visibility is one of the most difficult parts of the self-publishing equation. No matter how great your book is, it is fighting against a tidal wave of cheap ebooks on Amazon. If you can get your book into the top 100 (or even the top 10 of a subgenre bestseller list) on Amazon, it has a good chance of staying there. If you can pay enough people to buy your .99 ebook and review it positively, and crack one of Amazon's bestseller lists, readers are going to check it out. Especially at a low price point like .99. Customers are suckers for the fallacy that the cream rises to the top.

At that point, real reviews will probably start to trickle in. If the book is genuinely worthwhile, those reviews may even be positive, and the book will stay afloat. If you're lucky, Amazon's algorithms will pick it up and start recommending it to other customers. Congrats: you've got a bestseller on your hands.

In June 2011, John Locke became the first self-published author to be inducted into the Kindle "million sales" club for selling one million ebooks. Simon and Schuster even signed him to a print publishing deal. Now Locke's accomplishments, like those of doping athletes, are tainted. While he didn't buy all one million of those sales, can anyone deny that the reviews and sales he did buy paved the way for his "success"?

"Cheaters are prospering," Dear Author's Jane Litte tweeted on Sunday. "These, and other activities, are the PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] of publishing." In the old print publishing world, it was difficult to pull off a scam like this. But in the age of ebooks, I fear we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gaming the system. Welcome to publishing's own drug era: where every review and every bestseller list is suspect. Get your asterisks ready.

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