To Pay or Not to Pay


Reviews. The bane of every writer’s life. We love the good reviews and we are crushed by the bad. After all, our books are our babies and no one likes being told their baby is ugly. So we watch and wait, holding our breath, until the reviews start rolling in on each new release. We weigh whether we should pay to have professional reviewers and bloggers review our book. We have heard the calls from the hucksters, all telling us that for a low investment of some of our hard earned money, they guarantee a certain amount of stellar reviews. We ask our friends, family and friends to post their reviews.  And we wait, wondering why folks say what they do in reviews and praying those bad reviews are outweighed by the good.

Authors gaming the review system is nothing new. In fact I should correct that last statement to say that publishing professionals gaming the review system is nothing new. There have been paid reviews probably as long as there has been publishing. The focus, over the last few years, has been not on the paid reviews from magazine — and bloggers — but on those paid reviews that show up as ordinary customer reviews on sites like Amazon.

Back in April, Amazon took steps to bring a halt to fake reviews. At that time, the target of its legal team was the site with the oh-so-original name In that suit, Amazon alleged that the owner of the site was being paid for reviews of products that had never been read or used. In other words, pay the defendant a certain amount of money and he would give you a glowing review, whether your product deserved it or not. As a result, most of the sites like the one referenced earlier have shut down. But that didn’t end the problem.

In a new move to stop fake reviews, Amazon filed suit against more than 1,000 people it alleges have been offering to write fake reviews. These people are part of the Fivver community. From what I understand, Fivver is a site where you can post your services, whatever they might be, for the grand sum of five dollars. Amazon, concerned about what these Fivvers might actually be offering, had its own employees/agents contact members of the Fivver community. Not everyone they contacted offered fake reviews but a number did. It is alleged that, among other things, some of them said the caller could write the review they wanted posted, email it to the Fivver member and that member would post it to Amazon using their own Amazon account. No need to read the book. Then there was the one who said to mail an empty box or mailing envelope to give the appearance that they had mailed the book to be “reviewed” to the “reviewer”. Others allegedly said they would not read the book even if sent to them but they would give it a great review. Fast forward to this month and yet another lawsuit filed.

As you can imagine, there are some folks out there who are seeing evil in this, not from the part of the paid reviewers but on Amazon’s part. After all, if they are going after the paid reviewers, what are they going to do to the poor author who paid for those reviews? What if the author didn’t know their agent or publisher or mother/brother/uncle/friend paid for the reviews to help them?

I can’t speak for Amazon but I have a feeling what we will see happening is that a number of reviews will simply drop off the site. These reviews will either be directly tied to the sites Amazon has suspicions about or will have key phrases that are oft repeated across other reviews. It is easy enough to code a data crawler to find such similarities. It is basically the same sort of tool that schools use to determine if a paper contains any plagiarized parts.

Amazon might go one step further. Right now, if you look at Amazon customer reviews, you will see some from verified purchasers and then those that aren’t. A verified purchaser is someone who actually purchased the item from Amazon. The only problem with this is it doesn’t reflect those who borrowed a book or short story under the Kindle Unlimited program. This may be the point where Amazon needs to add that as one of the descriptors. I know a number of authors, and readers alike, who have been asking Amazon to do just that. At least that way, people who look at reviews before buying something would have an idea if the reviewer actually put down money on the book in question.

There is always the possibility that Amazon will require you to have purchased an item from them before you are allowed to review it. I’ll admit to being torn about this option. That would keep reviewers like Shiny Book Review from posting reviews on all sales sites. It would kick out reviewers who receive free copies of books unless Amazon has them register as reviewers. This is a path I’m not sure I want to see them go down.

Right now, Amazon gives more weight to reviews written by verified purchasers. As they should. I know that when I look at reviews, I tend to pay more attention to those written by people who have “verified purchaser” listed under their names. I know they might have left a review without actually reading the book but the likelihood is less than it is for those reviewers without the VP notation.

The bottom line, however, is simple. Paid reviews are a way of gaming the system. Amazon — and other sites like it — can make it harder to find folks to do them, but where there is a will, there’s a way. Someone will find a new way around the system. But, as a reader, I put more weight on those reviews written by folks I know bought the book and this is why I want to see Amazon note those who borrowed it under the KU program. They, too, pay for what they read even though it is a subscription fee and not a per book fee. If I’m getting a royalty for it, they’ve paid for it in my opinion.

Amazon is not the big bad in this case. It is actually protecting its customers and the writers who use it as a sales platform. For that, I thank them.



  1. When I write a review on Amazon I usually note that my wife bought it. Might not be a verified purchase but we all know that it is not uncommon for the wife to do the buying

  2. I’ve done reviews on Amazon for books that I purchased elsewhere and often mention that.

    1. Back when there was that big flap about the wibbly-wobbly Star Wars novel (which, sadly, was not also timey-wimey), I went to Amazon and looked through the five-star reviews. Those who looked like they honestly enjoyed the book, I did nothing about. And all those with a “Verified Purchase” after them, or who mentioned getting the book from somewhere other than Amazon, I didn’t touch. But all those that looked like they came straight to Amazon from the author’s blog or Twitter feed, and hadn’t read the book (there were plenty of clues to that), I voted as “Not helpful”.

      1. John Wright once made the case that every character who is known by a title starting with ‘The’ is in fact a Timelord. This would seem like it could include The Jedi Exile.

        1. The Nameless One from the (excellent) Planescape: Torment game would certainly be a good candidate, considering how often he literally comes back from death.

  3. I agree. If Amazon can weed out the fake reviews (and they have some pretty darn good software engineers), it protects the reviewing system.

    I usually try the Look Inside feature; then, if I’ve decided to try the book, I look at a few of the negative reviews, scanning for the kinds of things I don’t like in a book – and questioning the judgment of the reviewers at the same time: you have to consider the source.

    I do look for notes in the review such as, ‘I received a free copy in return for my honest opinion.’

    Now I’ll have to look for, ‘My wife bought this.’

  4. The problem that I see with counting KU borrows as verified purchasers is that the KU program is a fairly low flat fee, so that all the paid reviewers have to do is pay that fee, then borrow the book (but never read it) and post their review. Of course, they could always put their prices up enough to actually buy the e-book as well to get their reviews up as verified purchasers.

  5. I buy Baen’s entire e-book yearly output through Webscriptions. Not going to stop doing that just so my reviews read verified purchaser.
    I did agonize for quite a while before submitting a favorable review on Euclid’s Prince, not because I didn’t love the book, and I did buy a copy from Amazon so was verified, but because I did a beta read for Dan when he was working on it. Wound up giving it a very abbreviated review.
    And I’ll have to go through the whole process again with Through Fire I suppose.
    Best to remind ourselves that this is still early days with a new technology and business model, so the occasional bump or glitch is inevitable. It will all get sorted out, too much money involved for it not to.

  6. The way I heard it, some of these paid reviewers have even found ways to game the “Verified Purchaser” system… (They asked the seller to provide them a coupon for a zero-cost purchase). So even this is not sufficient.

  7. Do you know if you buy the book, write a review and then return the book, you still get the ‘verified purchaser’ on the review?
    Amazon really needs to fix that!

    And remember that million dollar indy author on Amazon who admitted that he bought 300 reviews? Yeah, Amazon never did anything to him, I don’t even think they took down the bogus reviews!

    I’ll be surprised if Amazon actually does anything to the people behind this, or the ones who bought the services. I suspect, more likely, they’ll use the data they gather to try and fend off bogus reviews in the future.

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