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

Guest Blogger – Melissa Bowersock on Vanity Publishing

Vanity Publishing

For those who don’t know, vanity publishing is the catch-all term used to describe the pay-to-publish industry.

In traditional publishing, a publisher reads an author’s book, likes it and if they think it will sell, then offers the author an advance on expected sales. They then publish and market the book. Over the last decade or so, advances have gotten smaller and smaller (unless you’re Stephen King or J. K. Rowling), but the fact remains that with traditional publishing, an author never pays up front for this service. Obviously, the publisher does not do that work for free; with their cut of royalties, they hope to meet the cost of the process and then, with luck, make some profit. You can tell by this arrangement that selling the book is in their (and the author’s) best interests.

Not so vanity publishing. With this sort of arrangement, the author pays the publisher up front for all the costs associated with publishing. This can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some of these processes are bare-bones: taking the book and formatting it, slapping a cookie-cutter cover on it and loading it onto Amazon. Other agreements can include all sorts of “expert” services that the novice writer might feel compelled to spring for: editing, custom cover design, extra promotional or marketing packages. Too often these extras are more a reflection of the newbie author’s lack of confidence than of the state of the book, and they can run into many more hundreds or thousands of dollars.

But the kicker with vanity publishing is not even that it can cost so much; it’s that once the author pays up front, the publisher has absolutely no incentive to sell the book whatsoever.



Why should they? They’ve gotten their money. Oh, sure, their contract will have a royalty clause in it and they will definitely get their share of any books sold, but guess what? The book’s sales will likely be very low. The promotional and marketing plans may start and end with an online store on the company’s website, but who shops on Books-R-Us? Or they may spam the hell out of their Twitter followers and the author’s friends if the company has been glib enough to wheedle a list of friends from the writer. But taking the pains to promote a book to possible readers of that same genre? Not gonna happen.

But if vanity publishing is the same as pay-to-publish, we have to recognize one twist to this. PublishAmerica. This company proudly says it doesn’t want your money—and it doesn’t. Yet. They will take a book and publish it for no upfront cost whatsoever (unless you want to spring for some of their “expert” services). The kicker here is two-fold. They price the book three times higher than it should be, and they market almost exclusively to … the author. Yes, you read that right. Beyond their online store and an Amazon presence, their marketing plan is very simple: offer the author a “discount” on their own books (now only twice as much as they should be), and offer it repeatedly and often. Any author who signs with them can plan on getting bi-weekly and tri-weekly e-mails touting these “sales” because who will pay $24.95 for a 200-page book?

not going to happen

So, what’s an author to do?

There are three ways you can go.

  • Traditional publishing. This means researching publishers for a good fit and sending off query letters or getting an agent who will do that for you. This includes both big publishing houses and small presses.
  • Vanity publishing. This means paying, often through the nose, for an uninspired version of your dream only to have it disrespected because of the publisher’s reputation.
  • Self-publish. This means doing all the work yourself (or hiring it out), but creating the exact book that you imagine. You can do this for as little as about $10 if you’re savvy on the computer.

Whichever way you go, do your homework. Research. Check the online forums on LinkedIn and Goodreads. Mine the nuggets of information in the archives of IndiesUnlimited. Check Predators and Editors. There are a zillion options out there, some very good but some very bad. Arm yourself with as much information as you can and find the best fit for you and your book.

After all, it’s your dream. Don’t waste it on scammers.

hifive selfie

Melissa Bowersock

Author of Queen’s Gold

How’s Your Gas Mileage? How To Be a Hybrid Author by Melissa Bowersock

It used to be that there was one path an author could follow to publication: find an agent, pitch your manuscript to a traditional publishing house, sign a contract, and get published. Pretty straight-forward, much like buying a car. You narrowed down your choices by style of car, color and options, you bought the thing, and drove it off the lot.

Easy, huh?

Not anymore. Now we’ve got a zillion options for powering a car: regular gas, diesel, electric, hybrid, flex fuel. Having these options is a two-edged sword: we have lots to choose from, but the decision-making process gets a bit tougher because we need to research all the options to know which one is the best fit.

Publishing is much the same. That one avenue to publication has turned into a superhighway complete with onramps, off-ramps, overpasses, bypasses and cloverleafs. It’s sometimes hard to know which is the right way to go.

I got into the game back in the 1980s when that one clear path was the only way to go. Through an agent, I sold my first two books to a NY house and was *ta da* traditionally published. All well and good, although the experience was not quite the joyful satisfaction I had dreamed about. The publisher changed the titles of both books, chose the cover designs, and the only editing process consisted of asking me to either add or delete x number of pages in order to make the page count. But, true to their word, the books were published, they appeared in book stores, grocery stores and drug stores and I made a little money.

making money

Enter the 90s, and the rules started to change. The traditional big houses got more and more gunshy; they were less inclined to gamble on a new, or little-known name. The good news was that the entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well, and small presses were springing up like weeds to take up the slack. Or rather, they were making tracks in the weeds, carving out their own dirt roads to the promised land. Suddenly there were a few more options for authors, although some of those dirt roads were bumpy and some took longer and more convoluted paths to get where the author wanted to go.


Breaking into new genres my original publisher had no interest in, I hooked up with a few of those small presses. One contracted with me to do only an e-book of my satire of romance novels. Another picked up a contemporary romance and did both a paperback and a Kindle version.

Then I learned about CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing company, in the mid-2000s and decided to give it a go. The first time through the process had a steep learning curve. Formatting the book to the finished size with chapter headings, page numbers, and headers, creating the cover, uploading the files and then proofing the final product were all huge steps, and I did quite a dance around my mistakes before I broke through to the finish line. But in the end, I did it—I self-published my first book. And it looked good.


Next challenge was converting the book for Kindle. Again, there was a learning curve, but after the formatting experience I’d already been through, it wasn’t that difficult. Now I was an e-book publisher, as well. Reading through several of the writers’ forums online, I heard about Smashwords, an independent e-book publisher that would provide digital formats for all the other e-readers out there beside Kindle. More learning curves, but I followed their extensive guidelines, plowed through it and converted most of my books for all readers. I had all the options covered.

And that’s the best part about being a hybrid author. When you buy a car, you’re pretty much stuck with that engine system, be it gas, diesel, electric or some combination thereof. But as authors, we have a plethora of choices to choose from—one, two, or all of the above. We can keep going the traditional route or we can branch off into any of multiple directions dependent on how much time, effort and money we are comfortable putting into it. If we have multiple books, we can publish each in a separate manner. If we have only one book, we can still divide the print and digital versions into separate processes. The opportunities and the combinations are unlimited, and many authors are mixing and matching as their wants and needs dictate.

What’s the best way for you to go? Do your homework, research the options and choose the path that fits. Don’t limit yourself to old school thinking; find the option that gets the best mileage for your work, and kick that engine into overdrive!

Guest Blogger Day – Adele Symonds on Editing

Adele Symonds – Editor with a vision

I do not profess to be an expert at writing novels as I do not have one to my name. I do feel qualified as a reader to know whether a book has what it takes to hold an audiences interest, and keep them turning those pages.

A great plot with believable characters who can be identified with by the target audience. Or all key aspects of writing a winning novel, but no matter how good these are with poor editing the book will be more likely to fail.

This is when I decided to step in and offer editing services to indie authors who were trying to break into the market with some excellent books which just weren’t hitting the mark.

Don’t you give her that look, author! She is right you know?

my book

Editing is an area which many new authors cannot afford to pay and they will edit their books heart out. I do not believe it is possible for any author to edit their own work and catch every error as our brains are made in such a way that we read what we know should be there rather than what is.

I keep my editing prices as low as possible to facilitate the indie authors being able to pay for this valuable service and I am setting up a fund which will help those authors who are in even more difficult financial positions.

I work on an hourly basis with an individual contract made with each author, but provision is made within the contract for the author to donate to the fund if they wish to do so. This money will then in future be used to be an agreed number of my hours service for an author who cannot afford the full price for their whole book. My hope is that over time, as authors I have helped earn more money, I will be able to help more authors and so on and so forth.

My aim is to facilitate the work of indiependent authors to produce the best work they can.

Adele can be contacted for editorial services through mail 

I would like to thank Adele for sharing her thoughts on editing and funds. What do you do when your budget doesn’t allow for a professional editor?

Guest Blogger Day – Kristen Stone on How to Self-Publish


by Kristen Stone

 is it right

Bit of a long title but it makes the point of this post. Two years ago I had a book which I wanted to put out as an ebook but had no idea how to do it. Ebooks were new to me. A great idea, but an undiscovered country as far as I was concerned.

Then I heard about Smashwords. Wonderful. They would convert my book and put it out on lists that would be picked up on the sales catalogues of major bookstores. Great. My book and about half a million others.

Then I heard about Amazon KDP. They wanted exclusivity to join their Select scheme but it seemed to offer great promotion opportunities for my book and about half a million others.

Recently I have been following a debate about whether authors should use a specialist service which guarantees correct formatting and distribution to outlets that are not covered by Kindle or Smashwords or, more recently, draft2digital. The only drawback to this company is that the author has to pay up-front for the work before they release my book to compete with the half a million others.

I do strongly believe that a book should be at least proof read before release. No one spots their own mistakes unless they are very dedicated and careful. But as an Indie author with no ‘real’ job, personally I can’t afford to pay anyone to do anything. My feeling is that companies that charge ‘up-front’ fees have little or no incentive to make your book a success. They have had your money. Companies like Smashwords, Kindle and d2d only make money when you do. Admittedly they are taking the cut of half a million books while the authors might only be selling in tens or hundreds (I wish).

I think my main point is the vastness of the ebook industry now that anyone can put out a book. The reader will decide whether a book is formatted well enough to buy another. I have a total of five different readers at my finger tips and I have seen for myself that the same file will look different on each one.

No one can guarantee any book will be a success so with that in mind I will continue to work with d2d.

Catch me at

What are your thoughts on this matter? Which venue has your preference or do you use them all? Share your experiences with us and help your fellow authors decide which company to run with.