On Buying Reviews

Joseph D'Agnese just passed on this recent New York Times article about a (now-defunct) service called GettingBookReviews.com which is exactly what it sounds like.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

It's a long article, but definitely worth checking out. One major self-published author is mentioned for using the service, an author who I wasn't at all surprised to see named (hint: it's John Locke).

“My first marketing goal was to get five five-star reviews,” he [Locke] writes. “That’s it. But you know what? It took me almost two months!” In the first nine months of his publishing career, he sold only a few thousand e-books. Then, in December 2010, he suddenly caught on and sold 15,000 e-books.

One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”

What's interesting about the timing of this article was just last night I was on Amazon and came across the self-published book Alice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar, which sold over 60,000 copies earlier this year. It also racked up almost 300 reader reviews. I forget where I heard it from, but apparently a good portion of those reviews are suspected as being fake. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but the book's sequel that came out in March? Only 16 reviews. Quite a large difference there, wouldn't you say?

Customer reviews are definitely helpful, not just for writers but for everything. At the same time, you always have to be suspicious of online reviews. This is why I believe the very best form of promotion is word of mouth. A reader is more likely to check out a book one of their friends recommends to them than a book with over 100 five-star reviews on Amazon. That's just the way it is. Reviews sell, but they also make consumers hesitant. Hell, every time I see a self-published book with over 100 reader reviews, I'm hesitant. Are there a lot of readers out there? Yes. Are the majority of those readers apt to leave reviews? No. I've sold over 12,000 copies of The Calling on Kindle, both in the US and the UK. And how many reader reviews does the book currently have? In the US, 20. In the UK, 5.

Mr. Rutherford’s insight was that reviews had lost their traditional function. They were no longer there to evaluate the book or even to describe it but simply to vouch for its credibility, the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls. A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.

“I was creating reviews that pointed out the positive things, not the negative things,” Mr. Rutherford said. “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”

In essence, they were blurbs, the little puffs on the backs of books in the old days, when all books were physical objects and sold in stores. No one took blurbs very seriously, but books looked naked without them.

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

The system is enough to make you a little skeptical, which is where Mr. Rutherford finds himself. He is now suspicious of all online reviews — of books or anything else. “When there are 20 positive and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,” he said. “I’m jaded.”

Yes, Mr. Rutherford, I think we're all jaded by this point. I know I am.