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5.20.2013

Authors “Writing” Their Own Reviews



I’ve been silent on the topic of authors “writing” their own reviews for far too long. Partly because I’ve been tracking the activities of certain architects of hate and identifying the tactics they were using to simultaneously trash my public image while promoting themselves. What I found were networks of authors, which included many of these same unethical competitors, who were:

a) Writing their own reviews and other commentary

b) Having friends and family write their reviews and other commentary

c) Swapping reviews and other praise like bubble gum with other authors

or d) All of the above.

Digging deeper, I found authors who were buying reviews in bulk either from paid review sites or through enticements/promises of possible remuneration to readers and others. Not to mention, the countless authors and publishers who were paying marketers to get reviews for their books, either through direct solicitations or indirectly through promotional activities designed to garner reviews.

The worst of these employ companies like SoulKool. Soulkool for those who don’t know is one of the pioneers of underground Internet promotion—and one of many similar companies that helped make some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Soulkool and the related “Sons of Soulkool” are where authors and publishers look to make Harry Potters, Twilights and Percy Jacksons.

Sometimes though stealth marketing isn’t so stealth. Like when certain companies use their book fairs and related programs in schools as promotional rocket ships. Not only that, while there, they offer free books and other perks to teachers in exchange for favors, like say getting 20 students to write reviews of certain popular books online. Multiply that one example across all the schools in North America and you start to see the enormity of the problem. Disguise such bias as a literacy program and no one dares say a thing about it.

When these authors and publishers put enough of these unfair/unethical review and commentary practices together, it’s how an author whose first book was published yesterday can appear to be a rock star on Day 1. And let me tell you, there are plenty of Day 1 rock stars out there.

In the real world, very few readers will write a review of a book they read (without some incentive). How few? Generally, only about 1/10th of 1% to about 5/10ths of 1% of readers will write a review of a book they read. Or put another way, a book 50000 people have read will likely garner at the most 200 reader reviews ever.

I've been writing for 30 years, and have over 150 books to my credit. My own books have very few reader reviews relative to the 7.5 million people who have read them (and not including those reviews due to certain tactics of unethical competitors). And that's because in the real world, it's a rare reader who writes a review of any book.

27 comments:

  1. I have to admit that I rarely post a review of books I've read. I tend to do so only when asked specifically if I will. Interestingly enough, the authors who ask me have no idea what I am going to say.

    I have a problem with paid reviews. As a reader, I rely to a certain extent on what reviewers have to say about their reading experience. Since the advent of (or rather proliferation of) paid reviews I've taken to reading none of the 5 star reviews and more of the 3 on down to 1 star. They tend to be more honest. And the average person writing their unsolicited review tends to not dole out perfect scores. Of course, I could be wrong :)

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    1. The article is not about scores or ratings. But if it were, the typical reader who loves a book does in fact leave 5 stars just as the typical reader who hates a book leaves 1 star. It's how:

      * The Harry Potter books have 40,000 5 star ratings on Amazon and less than 5,000 of any other rating.

      * The Percy Jackson books (both current series) have 9,000 5 star ratings on Amazon and less than 1,000 of any other rating.

      * The Hunger Games books have 35,000 4-5 star ratings on Amazon and less than 4,000 of any other rating

      That said, you’re a writer. Writers and reviewers are probably more sensitive to the issue of 5 star / 1 star than anyone else. But the vast majority of people who love a book give 5 stars without a thought, just as the vast majority who hate a book give 1 star.

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    2. I realize these "big name" books get reviewed like that. I have noted that most of the 5-star reviewers I read on the Harry Potter books were under the age of 20. Not all of them, but a good percentage. No, I was mostly referring to self-published ebooks. Maybe it's the demographic that reads those books, but it is really easy to tell which reviews are "family generated" and which are honest, independent reviews.

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  2. Wow, lots of response to my Facebook account about this one. Some responses:

    Kelly: I am very curious, if all of these solicited reviews are courted, they must not be amazon verified purchases. Would that not make them suspect right off the bat to readers and to Amazon? I thought Amazon does not give them full weight. I realize the public would not know the difference.

    Robert Stanek: Verified purchases on Amazon are rather meaningless. Pro marketers and others buy most of the books they review to get that stamp of approval, just as some hateful people buy a book, review it, and then return it.

    Dawn: I'm not going to say I've never left a 5-star review, because I have; but to me that means "perfect" and rarely is there a perfect book I can honestly say, however, that I rarely read the 5-star reviews -- especially since the debacle that is known as John Locke..... If a writer is going to solicit reviews, he or she needs to do so blindly and accept the bad ones as well as the good -- he/she should NOT be dictating the review.

    Robert Stanek: Regarding solicited reviews, I think there's a fine line. Authors want their book to have reviews and they may solicit a few. But at some point repeated solicitations to get reviews becomes unethical.

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  3. More interesting responses on Facebook...

    Stella: You haven't mentioned a new awful fake review feature in your blog, at least I don't think you did, since Amazon started deleting fake 5* reviews in a big way many of us have been hit by 1* and 2* reviews which I suspect come from the same sources as the fake 5*, alternative service you see! But don't think that 4* reviews aren't genuine, a lot of readers give them if they are 'real' reviews because they would only give a 5* to, say, Shakespeare, and my books aren't Shakespeare! Stella

    Robert Stanek: Unfortunately, Amazon can be quite idiotic. They'll leave up fake reviews and hateful commentary but remove actual reader reviews and commentary because of bogus complaints. They'll let spiteful people use many accounts to flood good books with fake 1 and 2 star reviews. They'll let a few puppet accounts stalk and harass countless readers, by ranting on their reviews, following them around the discussion forums, trying to friend them to get their contact information, and more. That happens at Amazon because it’s center stage for books in the online world and these unethical parties absolutely want to dominate the book scene at Amazon—just as they try to do the same elsewhere.

    The only way to unplug from that is to have no reviews at Amazon. That way puppets can’t be used to harass, intimidate and stalk your readers.

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  4. Great write up Robert. Far more damaging than a questionable 5-star review is the incessant attacks from the trolls on Amazon and goodreads who use 1-star reviews as weapons against indies. These trolls who would presume to be reviewers are nothing more than cyber bullies. They all say all self-published books are crap and then would presume to review indie books only giving 1-star reviews. One has to wonder if there may not be some corporate sponsorship of this view, from the big 6 who blame the indies for all their problems.

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    1. Rick, You are absolutely right on the money about incessant attacks from trolls being far more damaging, and not just to the authors they attack but to the entire publishing industry. It's a disgrace that's destroying the industry.

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    2. There will always be haters, but the trolling is horrific and, as you correctly state, a disgrace. I've been a victim of it myself. I will ask a reader for a review if they contact me to tell me they enjoyed my book, but I have no input into what they write, nor do I reward them in any way. A lot of readers don't think to write a review b/c they don't realize the value to the author and other readers.

      As a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, I receive pre-pub copies in exchange for an honest review (good or bad) and do it because I love to read. I review most of the books I read, even when it's not for NYJB.

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    3. The trolling out there is horrific and it is an industry-wide disgrace, especially when real readers can't write reviews because of it or when real reader reviews get removed because of it.

      As far as when a reader contacts you personally/directly and tells you they enjoyed your book, I don't think there's anything wrong with saying it'd be terrific if they shared their thoughts on the book with others.

      I *do* think it's wrong though for authors to constantly solicit reviews. Some authors have nothing but bought, traded, swapped and/or solicited reviews -- and that is very wrong.

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  5. Handing out free books in exchange for honest reviews is a long standing practice in the publishing industry. One that helps authors promote their work and reach readers.

    I realize that giving books to children or classrooms can be seen as pushing the market in a certain direction, but only if those reviews are good. If a boxful of books are handed out in a classroom, and every student writes a one-star review, it is going to move the book in a direction, just not the one the publisher intended.

    Unless a publisher is paying for reviews, requiring positive reviews in exchange for books or creating false/fake identity reviews, I don't see an issue.

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    1. It is a fine line. There's a difference between giving away a few books to people who might review them, and doing that once or twice, and repeatedly or continually soliciting reviews. With the teacher example, it absolutely is a problem as certain companies do this nation-wide month after month year after year in thousands of schools. Those thousands of reviews they get children to write absolutely move the industry in whatever direction they want it to move.

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  6. More interesting responses on Facebook...

    Mark: Wow...what ever happened to the concept of integrity? ;(

    Robert Stanek: People with actual integrity tend to get stoned to death.

    Mark: Many people in today's world seem to want everything for nothing. Gone are the days when folks earned what they worked hard for. Not only do I write, but I also taught myself how to digitally format, so that I would understand how the process worked. Just saying... I am sorry, Robert, that you were the victim of others trying to lessen you to make themselves feel better. I guess there, unfortunately, isn't much knew about that...

    Robert Stanek: Thank you, Mark. You are right, nothing new about people trying to lessen someone to make themselves feel better. It is unfortunately how way too many people in the industry operate.

    Kerry: interesting read. the ease of self-publishing has drastically altered the landscape. it seems to me that a lot of people view it as the newest get rich quick scheme as opposed to actually being passionate and talented and caring about telling a great story. it's way too easy to lock yourself in a basement with a case a beer for the weekend and publish a book of short story first drafts for $.99 on monday, and then you can buy reviews and twitter followers and release a pure shit product. People will do this with ZERO other publication credits. I've seen this more than once. And upon reading a book like this it seems that not only did they not have an edit, they've never even read a book of fiction before. It's mind boggling. I'm hoping it will even out as amazon, good reads, readers, writers and other continued to adapt. oh and that just reminded me there's also this little gem... the cleverly disguised 5 star review as a 1 one star.

    Robert Stanek: I've seen increasing use of the disguised 5 star as 1 star review. It's becoming an increasing problem. When it happens a few times, it could be an honest mistake, especially if a young reader. When the tactic is used repeatedly, however, it's pretty clear someone is using this to try to even out their ratings and make them seem legit.

    Mark: It's difficult to self-publish. You can see the substandard offerings. The work has to be the best you can make it or why bother?
    i've been writing for quite some time, but only now began taking it as seriously as I should.

    Robert Stanek: Truly... At some point, after writing, editing and polish, you have to put your work out there and let go of it. If it's the best you can do for that moment you publish it, that's what matters. And then when you publish it, you can go on to the next and do the same.

    Kerry: This was a good convo and you had a great post Robert.

    Mark: The blog was powerful. Continued success with your work, Rob. I know I'm a newbie, but believe me when I tell you, I feel VERY passionate about writing and the work I offer. Your thoughtful, introspective words are inspirational and enlightening. Keep on keeping on...it's what we must do to make ourselves the best we can possibly be. Not only as writers...but as HUMAN BEINGS.

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  7. More interesting responses on Facebook:

    Dianne: Actually, you have to market somehow if you want your book to be seen. I'm not promoting the review thing, personally I'm not all that keen on reviews because of what you have to do to get them. But I don't think there is anything wrong with trading ARCs with fellow authors and writing reviews. Not all authors I know give five stars. Sometimes they can be pretty darn hard on you. And school libraries need help choosing books so organizations like the SCBWI are perfectly legitimate in their recommendations, even if the author does need to join to get on their list. So what? They're doing the hard work for you, making the contacts. And people want referrals. They want to know what's good. Librarians can't possibly read all those books to decide. It's like anything else in this world. Your product needs to be seen and you need to find the most effective way to show it, and use your integrity as a vessel, but get it out there.

    Robert Stanek: I think there's a fine line. Writing a review of a fellow author's book a few times is not the same as repeatedly or constantly soliciting reviews or repeatedly and constantly swapping reviews. Yet some authors are out there soliciting reviews and swapping reviews all the time. Some have dozens of reviews on their books that are all traded, swapped, bought, and/or solicited--and that is wrong. Regarding SCBWI, the article isn't about professional organizations or professional publications that review books, though there are many inherent unethical biases and practices at work in/at some of those as well.

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  8. Reviews are important. And respected review outlets got that way by exercising integrity. I sent a copy of my novel Karmafornia to Publishers Weekly's reviewer. Four months later, the review appeared in their quarterly PW Select section (reviews of self-published work). The review was good without gushing, but I am proud of it because they pull no punches. If they publish a review of your work, they charge you $149, no matter what the review says - you have no "if it's negative don't print it" opt-out. But PW is read by booksellers and librarians. Being included was a great thrill for me, since they only publish 60 or so reviews of self-pubbed work every quarter.

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    1. That's excellent that it worked out for you.

      To other authors, though I say know what you're buying. I understand that getting a review from a professional source can be thrilling but I suggest caution to authors who are considering such.

      Publisher's Weekly charges $149 for Select and $199 for Select Plus. You get a book listing in PW Select and a chance to get reviewed as well. Currently, they say about 25% of books submitted get reviewed in Publisher's Weekly Select. The review is in PW Select and not in PW itself.

      Kirkus charges authors $425 ($575 for express service) but guarantees a review of some sort from Kirkus Indie (previously this was called Kirkus Discoveries). Again, the review comes from Kirkus Indie, which isn't even a printed resource anymore. Instead, you download your review when it's done. Although there is a chance the book review might be picked up in Kirkus Reviews--the traditional publication--this is a small chance.

      And there are other publications that do the same and/or provide similar services.

      But is it really a privilege of any sort? While some of these guarantee a review, how much merit does such have when you are paying for a guaranteed review of any sort?

      Professional publications, journals, newsletters, and newspapers don't charge anything for reviews -- but there is no guarantee of any review whatsoever. When you submit, books are selected based on merit (with a bias toward traditional publishers, their imprints and authors).

      Publisher's Weekly doesn't charge authors or publishers a nickel for the tradional submission process. Kirkus doesn't charge authors or publishers anything for submissions using the taditional process either.

      The normal submission process works like this:

      1) A publisher or author submits their book for possible review.

      2) The publication staff decide which of the received submissions they will review and they review them. The rest of the submissions don't get reviewed.

      My own books have been reviewed and featured in many professional publications, including Publisher's Weekly, and inclusion held great significance because the books were selected based on merit.

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    2. Traditional publishers might not pay for individual reviews directly, but you have to ask how much advertising they are buying from the publications. An indie author can't generally afford such advertising which might be why the publications have a bias towards giving 'free reviews' to traditional publishers but wanting payment from indie authors. (These organisations have to pay their staff and bills somehow.)
      Last week there was a review of Khaled Hosseini's latest novel 'And The Mountains Echoed' in the New York Times. I'm sure it was not paid for. But in the last few days there has also been a full back-page color ad in the New York Times for the book - I can't imagine what that cost. But it does make you wonder - is the free review really free?

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    3. An interesting thought about whether a free review in a professional publication is really free. I'd like to think a good portion are truly free. Neither I nor my fiction publishers have ever advertised in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Parenting Magazine, VOYA, Children's Writer, The Children's Book Shelf, the Florida Times or the Journal of Electronic Defense, yet all have reviewed or featured my books -- and the reviews and features meant the world to me.

      And yet your point has merit. There is strong bias out there for traditional publishers and their books and authors. When one of the big publishers sends over (or more likely walks over) a book for review consideration, I'm fairly certain the book gets rapid attention and goes straight to the top of the review inbox.

      BTW, for the NYT book section, it looks like it cost about $22,220 for one run at list price for an ad that fills either the left side or right side of the page. Technically, in print advertising, that's a 1/2 page ad as it doesn't spread across both the left side and the right side of the page.

      That said, hardly anyone pays list price, especially with multiple runs and a likely big discount based on past advertising, meaning the ad was probably about half that cost. So 3 runs at $11,000 (or so) and that would cost about $33,000.

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  9. I think that reviews that are just star reviews without commentary are useless and suspect. If you give a seminar, or appear with a book table, I think that you have a right to simply have something at the end of the book that says "If you enjoyed this book please leave a review here http://xxxxxxx.
    Having a contest of some kind (names and email info in a jar)and giving out free copies is an idea as well). I joined Goodreads and had trouble with them from day one...They automatically added a title to my book list that I had not written...a title that had a few similar words. They corrected it, but I was constantly being reminded that they are 'librarians'. I have yet to find the purpose of Goodreads...but I'm new at it.Amazon seems to require written reviews and i respect that.This blogfeed is the most interesting truthful one that I've found, and I'm going to follow it. Thanks William for getting it going and thanks for contributors for information.

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    1. Thanks for the comments! I'm not entirely sure there's any difference between a rating-only system, a rating with review system or system that allows any combination thereof.

      Amazon has the most broken review and commentary system on the planet while at the same time having one of the strictest. The more Amazon tries to restrict their system, the more broken it becomes. It's like thinking DRM (encryption) is going to stop piracy. DRM doesn't stop piracy, those that want to figure out ways around the DRM.

      Requiring a purchase to write reviews and comments, doesn't stop anyone from anything and least of all the marketers. Marketers and others simply make purchases on the accounts they want to use. Amazon's "verified purchase" stamp doesn't help either. Marketers and others simply buy the product to get the "verified purchase" stamp.

      Maybe a more honest system is one that de-emphasizes the content of reviews and allows you to quickly glance at the review headlines in aggregate, along with ratings. Or maybe there is no way to have an actual honest system?

      Of course, these problems aren't exclusive to publishing. We live in a world where reality tv winners often are largely selected based on votes and the producers of the shows are stupid enough to sometimes televise the organized efforts of friends and family to get as many votes in as they can for their 'idol' or whatever. If we elected presidents like that the world would go to hell in a handcart.

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  10. More interesting responses from Facebook:

    Kevin: I have to agree with all of these comments - this is why I don't bother reading reviews any more. There should be a sense of pride in a finished product that bears your name, surely? I've my first novella coming out next month. It took me about six weeks to write it, but since then I've been collaborated with my artist, and my beta readers, getting feedback on the cover and the blurb from people I'm lucky enough to know who are actually in the industry, as well as drafting and re-drafting over and over, because I'm an anally-retentive freak!

    Now - with all that effort put into it, of course I want the book to do well when it comes out next month. I'm going to send out hard copies to magazines for review, e-copies to bloggers and so on, but that's it. I wouldn't dream of paying for a review. Why not go the whole hog and set up your own awards ceremony, to give yourself the 'Best Newcomer Award' or something?

    Robert Stanek: There actually are 'awards programs' like that and more than a few author-related sites that have 'awards' that don't come from a recognized authority from Indie Reader to Team Time With Marce to Kindle Book Review -- and the number of these is growing all the time.

    I've seen numerous authors list such "awards" prominently in their bios, on their book pages, and on their books -- even when the actual awards are largely given among members of a particular group or site to each other. Now, that is loosely how some professional organizations work their awards programs, but these professional organizations typically have membership in the many hundreds or thousands.

    There are award mills out there too that host annual contest / book festivals as well like Beach Book Festival, Readers Favorites Awards, Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Moms Choice Awards, Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, and on and on where you too can be a winner in one of 60, 100 or 150 categories if you too send in your registration fee of $75, $100 and up. Got 10 entries not a problem just send in your entry fee for each book. That said, award mills are nothing new. They've been around since the earliest days of publishing. Some even mature into fairly legitimate awards programs, like say the Writer's Digest awards contests.

    There also are authors holding writing contests with friends and then giving each other awards that they then list in the bios, books, etc. However, this is not much different than many of the countless blogging awards. Some of which are given out like candy from one or a few bloggers to other bloggers.

    My thought is if you're going to list awards, you should source them or at the least qualify them so readers can determine their significance. Many of my books have won awards from readers groups and professional organizations alike. I used to list awards from readers groups years ago, but I always qualified them whenever I did. The first writing award I won was the George Washington Honor medal, a writing award from the Freedom Foundation (1991). Awards I've won from readers groups, I always listed as being from a reader group. If an award is from a professional organization, I try to state that as well. I encourage others to qualify as well.

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  11. More interesting responses from Facebook:

    Glenn: Wish there was a magic trick to get some honest reviews...

    Doug: If the children are being asked to write the reviews, shouldn't THEY be getting the books? If, as a student, I discovered what I was being required to read and then produce valuable content on was not determined by what the book had to offer educationally so much as what the author offered the teacher, it would definitely affect my relationship with that teacher, and not in a good way.

    James: You're quite right, and I agree with you that it is shameful. I just have no idea how to deal with it. For the most part I just put my head down and try to do my level best and keep my integrity. I don't know how well I'm doing as a writer at this, but I know I've never written a review I didn't believe in and I've never asked for a favorable review. Back when I could afford to hand out the occasional book, the understanding was that there was no quid pro quo, that all I wanted, if they wrote a review, was their honest opinion. Looking at someone else's situation only leads to a degree of depression.

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  12. I've written reviews since I joined Goodreads, but these are generally for popular books.
    As a self-published author, I'm finding that even good to excellent reviews from unbiased sources such as a well-known and highly respected blog reviewer, and an author personally unknown to me, are not enough to attract more that a token amount of sales.
    There are just so many titles out there.

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  13. Since joining Goodreads, I've written a number of reviews for popular books.
    As a self-published author, I've found that even good to excellent reviews from unbiased sources such as a very well-respected blog reviewer, and an author unknown to me, were not enough to attract more than a token amount of sales.
    With so many titles on the market, it's become extremely difficult for an unknown writer to get established.

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  14. I agree that buying reviews is bad, but I think the process is becoming less common now that it's been talked about more and big sites like Amazon are promising to ban authors who do it. That being said, I'm sure there are still some people flying under the radar and getting big firms to buy reviews.

    While the practice is bad, I don't think that buying reviews can propel a bad book to fame and success. People genuinely have to like the book for it to do well. Books are a word of mouth proposition. The back jacket, the reviews are helpful, but the most consistent thing that gets people to buy books is real recommendations from friends. People also look at bestseller lists, and if a book is selling well, they assume it's pretty decent and may buy it. Practices that artificially move books up the list concern me more than faked reviews.

    I'll agree with you on one last thing about reviews--it's hard to get your average fan to write a review. And when they do write a review, it's usually either 5 star or 1 star. It was so good they had to rave, or it was so bad they had to get the complaints out of their system. Eventually, a few people who've read the book and find it just average will chime in to go, "it wasn't that great" or "it wasn't that bad" and you start getting a mix. But, a book with just a few reviews tends to have them at either end of the spectrum.

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    1. Would it surprise you to learn that the number of bought reviews has at least doubled and possibly tripled in the past few months? Because it has. The number of bought, swapped, traded and heavily solicited reviews is in fact skyrocketing as authors try to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

      As far as bought reviews not propelling books and authors to fame? Many of Amazon's biggest kindle stars seem to have bought their way to the table with reviews that are largely bought, swapped, traded, and/or heavily solicited. All of these have had their books on national bestseller lists.

      Beyond the obvious examples, last year when Amazon was publicly lauding a particular kindle bestseller he was on social media telling readers 'review my books at Amazon for a chance to win a kindle' 'review my books at Amazon for a chance to win cash prizes' 'the more reviews I get at Amazon, the more prizes you win'. This wasn't a once or twice contest, this was most of the year -- and there's no way Amazon didn't know about it.

      Fair system?

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  15. Thank you for the very insightful and eye-opening blog, Robert! Wow...some of the ways that people will go to "cut in line" so to speak for recognition and sales. Such as paying for reviews, and the consistent swapping reviews among fellow authors/readers, etc... As far as buying one's way to the top, I really feel that this is a pretty low way to go. Those that are struggling, hoping to just get their book or books out there for others to enjoy are easily buried beneath the pile of inflating book review buyers. A fine line indeed when it comes to the whole marketing of one's own passion. Well, for me, the bottom line is just to stay true to yourself and never abandon one's passion to write stories that others may find enjoyment in. Thanks Robert. - JB

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  16. I shall hold my few reviews by actual readers as I would a cherished rose! Thanks for the great research and insights. May all your future reviews be authentic!

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