Cheating The Reader by Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson came to me with his outrage on the topic of reviews. I asked him to climb on his soapbox and write down his rant. He did and the following is what he gave me.


Back in the traditional days of publishing, many writers viewed self-publishing as the option of last resort. To an extent, self-published authors were unfairly regarded as second-rate because they couldn’t find an agent or sell their book to a big publisher. They were ridiculed as “vanity” authors.

We don’t hear much of that anymore. Self-publishing is finally earning the respect it deserves. High-profile indie author successes are climbing the best seller charts. Their commercial success is changing perceptions about self-publishing one reader at a time.

I looked at the ‘thriller’ best-seller lists this week, to try and pick up some ideas. Three authors were indies. Incredible, you might think? Well done to them.

But, on checking the details of the books, something didn’t look kosher. Huge (and I mean huge) numbers of 5* reviews, fantastic sales but all three had a very significant number of critical reviews.

“If your book is poorly-conceived or poorly-edited, readers will reject it,” I have always been told. Most of the critical reviews mention things like a poor plot, weak characters, bad editing and poor writing. The 5* reviews say the opposite.

Most of the ‘how to’ advice tells us that ninety percent of your book’s success will be determined by its quality. The other ten percent is distribution, marketing and luck. We are told that if we remember nothing else we should remember that the very most important marketing you can do is to write a great book that markets itself on the wings of reader.

“Pretty good” isn’t good enough if you want to spark word of mouth.

And yet, here we are seeing, what appear to be poorly written books in the top ten best-selling list.

How can this be?

All three indie books I looked at had many hundreds of 5* reviews and less, but a rather high number, of very critical reviews. They had many more reviews than any of the well-known authors like Lee Child, Patterson and Baldacci, and I mean a lot more!

I looked at the 5* and 4* reviews and, in particular, some of the reviews from Amazon ‘top’ reviewers. What I noticed was that many of these reviewers write quite comprehensive reviews upwards of two or three times a day, and almost exclusively on indie written novels, from a wide range of genres.

Such an incredible appetite for reading amazes me, and such eclectic taste as well?

A lot of the great reviews were also very similar and rather more than one might expect to see from a reader. They read more like you would expect to see from a critic. Could it be that they are paid for? I might add that it did seem that almost every book these people review earns 5*, with a few 4* reviews here and there.

The critical reviews seemed to follow a common theme, with many readers reporting disappointment and a sense of having been tricked by the 5* reviews. Many were written in a way that seeks to warn others away from making the same mistake.

I then took a look at the author’s twitter pages. No clues here, all were pretty ordinary, but they did seem to have a lot of followers. So, I used a programme to look at their followers. In one case, with an author who’s first novel has over 1000 5* reviews, I found that the vast majority of his followers were either bots (automated/not actually people) or fellow indie authors. Very few were readers.

Like many of you, I have read the stories of how it is possible to buy 5* reviews, indeed I have had several tweets and emails offering them for sale. I have been offered facebook likes and followers, and twitter followers (thousands) if I would just pay for the privilege. I’ve always ignored these, as I imagine most indie authors do.

If you buy twitter followers, does it give an impression of success, and how many people are going to check to see if the followers are actually bots?

I’ve also ignored the large number of indie authors who have contacted me asking me to do a 5* review ‘exchange’. I post for them, they post for me. No, thanks.

Smashwords, and its founder Mark Coker, tell me that they have over eighty thousand independent authors registered with them. No doubt, the vast majority of these authors share the morale high ground and will not enter into dishonest practices.

But, if that’s an indication of how many indie authors there are in the World, it doesn’t take too many of them to be involved in review exchanges to see that you could quickly build up a false picture as to the quality of a book.

Not all, it seems, are playing the game fairly. And it seems to work. I now have no doubt that indie author books are appearing in the best-seller lists which have entered those lists thanks to the author knowing how to influence the retailer algorithms or, in old-school terms, to cheat.

Cheating gives all us indies a bad name. All those buyers that are taken in by the wonderful (purchased) reviews will feel let down and their trust in the review system will lessen. In line with this, they will feel less likely to trust that the work of indie authors is worth reading. You can’t con people too many times before they start to react.

These authors are generating sales, making money and laughing all the way to the bank. It won’t last, they are not building a readership as the people who buy their work will not return to buy again. But in the mean time, all us indies get a bad name.

Damn them.

Thank you, Matt.

Matt Johnson is the author of Wicked Game

Luckily, you are not the only one who has this view. There’s more on this subject written by  NYTIMES.COM

20 thoughts on “Cheating The Reader by Matt Johnson

  1. hi Lucy just to put my two cents in my free book has 10 reviews on amazon and even with less then perfect editing which a few of the five star reviews mention (not one paid or asked for) of course if I could afford it I would get pro editing rather then pay someone for review.
    you know the mindset my work speaks for itself
    right now 12 in lit humor and 30 in short stories
    if their getting it by lies they will soon not have anyone buying anymore

    • Hi Dab, you’re right, but it’s a shame that it now goes towards the direction that all reviews are seen as unreliable, while real reviewers/readers truly want to share their reading experience

  2. I’ve seen all those enticing come-ons for reviews and so far have stayed away from them. The reviews I’ve had are all “good,” but there are not that many. Good article, or rather, I should say, Blog.

  3. Excellent post. I agree fully. My books have very few reviews but each and every one is the genuine article. But life is full of those who can’t achieve so they settle for cheating. I’d never dream of paying for a 5* review – what a feeling of empty triumph it must be.

      • I learned not to trust stars and rating systems when I was a kid, being disappointed by videogames–gamers, remember how Kingdom Hearts II and Final Fantasy X-2 both got near perfect scores? Hah!
        So my book review blog focuses on the sample and whether or not I finish a book as criteria.
        I only look for stars when buying kitchen appliances and sex toys.

      • Too bad only that when we want to leave a review on a site like Amazon we have to attach a number of stars to the review. On my site I explain how I rate when I rate with stars, but the reviews on my site do not have stars as such, let the words speak for themselves rather than the amount of stars. I’ve seen too many 5-star reviews on books on Amazon to trust them on there even though I know that I will only give a 5-star rating when a book grabbed me in a way that I want to run out and force whomever I encounter first to read that book too.

      • Yeah, I don’t even leave reviews on websites, mostly for that reason. Apparently, you don’t even have to buy the book on Amazon to review it.

  4. Great post, Lucy — what is a woman/man writer without integrity? To me, not worth the label. Not a good idea for an indie to sell her soul for a mess of pottage. As for me, I write in a genre that has a small market — eastern philosophical fiction — and i am happy with a few good readers who provide me with authentic reviews. In the long run, all we have is our self-esteem. My POV anyway.

  5. This is a really interesting article. From my point of view as a reader, when I am looking for a book I tend to ask friends for recommendations or sometimes I have been lucky enough to meet the author personally. I never look for a book to read on Amazon, but I will use that site to ‘look inside the book’ which does help me to get a feel for the book and the writing style of the author. Once I have done that I will read a few reviews, but I think they carry far less weight these days. I prefer to use sites like Goodreads which I think has more honest reviews and I will always post the reviews I write to that site.

    For all the indie books with fake reviews there are still many terrific books with good authentic reviews which, if it wasn’t for the opportunities to self publish, would probably not have seen the light of day. And that would also be a shame for us readers. I read almost exclusively indie books and have discovered some wonderful reads lately.

    So although what you are saying about the reviews and cheating the best seller lists is probably, to a certain extent, inevitable let’s hope it is balanced by the number of excellent books that authors like you are writing and marketing authentically. I also think that with time more readers will become aware of the practices you mention and will be much more savvy in the way they choose their next read.

    Thank you for your ‘rant’ and for enlightening us readers.

  6. I don’t buy a book based on its glowing 5 star reviews. If an author tweets out, “Buy my book” I look at the 1 and 2 star reviews first and depending on what those reviewers say helps me decide if I want to read it or not.

  7. I completely agree about the paid reviews giving the rest a bad name. I look specifically at critical reviews first to see what they say about the level of editing in the book.

    I think Amazon passively encourages the practice of false reviews by their system of automatically filtering the list by “Most Helpful” reviews. The reader has to actively filter the list by “most recent,” etc. From the little knowledge I have gained about the dark-alley practice of paid reviews, many times the bought package includes voting up other 5-star reviews. In other words, they not only give a 5-star review, but promote other 5-stars to make sure they show up high in the list of auto-filtered “most helpful.”

    I’ve been seeking reviewers for a short story I self-published. I have passed over several reviewers because although not paid, they state they will only post 4- or 5-star reviews. Less than that, they send a private e-mail to the author. I don’t agree with that practice either. If I ask you to review my story, I expect an honest review. If you think it’s crap, then by all means warn the next potential reader. I’ll try to learn what I did wrong in the writing and improve.

    • I used to have a hard time publishing low rated reviews, until I realised that I shouldn’t be hard on myself and that if the author asks for a review he/she will get one and they will just have to see that if it turns out I leave a low rating it isn’t about them, but about how I perceived the book.
      So however sorry I feel for the author if I need to leave a low rating, I will post it these days. Personally, as an author I do not even read, or even check for reviews but I know there are a lot of authors who track their work for reviews and feel personally hurt, or even attacked when a reviewer doesn’t love their work and expresses that in a review.

  8. (“…me I try to chat with the author either on the forum itself, or on their blog then, or I wait till others are talking about someone and then try to chat them too…” mentioned the goblin, quickly adding “…well I tend to avoid an author who is alive but who forgoes any online presence almost as much as I avoid those authors who are only their books upon writer’s forums…”, but by now the goblin guessed that most humans reading this comment understood how “online” meant a two way street here, indeed the days of readersheep were fast disappearing in his view, smiling “…well now, if you buy a book without first probing the author, haven’t you only got yourself to blame if that book then falls short of your expectations…”, “…well it’s just as well you never write books goblin isn’t it…” intervened the slot at this point, continuing “…I mean goblin that normal people don’t read this far even do they…”, to which the goblin’s mind fell back to the line [i]nobody reads my posts but it’s always somebody who replies[/i])

  9. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

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