Hardcore Three Percent fans may remember some of my issues and troubles with the hack writer, John Locke (in comparison to the talented philosopher John Locke and the John Locke who featured prominently on Lost), who is the author of hundreds1 of Donovan Creed mystery novels, which feature midgets, pseudo-thriller plot-lines, and misogyny.
Last summer, I wrote a long piece for Publishing Perspectives with the inflammatory title “Why Selling Ebooks at 99 cents Destroys Minds.” I don’t actually think a 99 cent price tag is making the world a dumber place (American culture already has this locked down and doesn’t really need much help), but I think the surplus of self-published books by authors who rely on cheap pricing to attract readers clogs up the marketplace and puts an undue focus on ebooks as “cheap entertainment” instead of a more worthwhile (and valued) investment of time and attention and money.
If you’re interested in hearing more about all this, check out this podcast. The main point of this post isn’t to rehash that old argument, but to gloat over the egg on John Locke’s face as a result of this New York Times article about self-published authors who paid for favorable reviews.
Let me make one other prefatory remark to expose my anti-John Locke bias. If you click on that Publishing Perspectives article above, you’ll see that there are 103 comments—the vast majority of which are from John Locketards2 telling me that I “suck,” that I’m an “elitist,” that I’m an “idiot,” a “bad publisher,” an “ignoramus,” a “cretin,” and generally a “bad person.” This hurt my feelings. :( Which is why this NY Times article made me so jolly yesterday . . .
Just to summarize: This uber-capitalist Jason Rutherford, founded a company by which self-published authors could buy positive 5-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, which helps boost sales to the masses who care about things like that.
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. [. . .]
Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.
But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.
Of course, the vast majority of the reviewers who wrote these “enthusiastically ecstatic” reviews never read the books in question, because why? It’s all one big scam anyway . . .
Mr. Rutherford’s busiest reviewer was Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, a freelancer who had just returned to the United States from a stint in South Africa. She had recently married a former professional wrestler, and the newlyweds had run out of money and were living in a hotel in Las Vegas when she saw the job posting.
Ms. Walters-Bearden had the energy of youth and an upbeat attitude. “A lot of the books were trying to prove creationism,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know where I stand, but they make a solid case.”
For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.
“There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said. “But I had to produce 70 pieces of content a week to pay my bills.”
Of course, when this article came out over the weekend, Twitter exploded with writers, reviewers, and all other book people appalled by this process, which devalues the review process, customer ratings, and basically everything. Personally, I figured everyone already assumed this was happening—WE LIVE IN AMERICA THE LAND OF SCAMMING OPPORTUNITY!
I was half-bored reading the article—c’mon, shock me! give me some outrage!—but then found the John Locke part and starting giggling like a fricking schoolgirl:
John Locke started as a door-to-door insurance salesman, was successful enough to buy his own insurance company, and then became a real estate investor. In 2009, he turned to writing fiction. By the middle of 2011, his nine novels, most of them suspense tales starring a former C.I.A. agent, Donovan Creed, had sold more than a million e-books through Amazon, making him the first self-published author to achieve that distinction.
Mr. Locke, now 61, has also published a nonfiction book, “How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.” One reason for his success was that he priced his novels at 99 cents, which encouraged readers to take a chance on someone they didn’t know. Another was his willingness to try to capture readers one at a time through blogging, Twitter posts and personalized e-mail, an approach that was effective but labor-intensive.
“My first marketing goal was to get five five-star reviews,” he 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.”
Of course he didn’t mention it! How embarrassing that you’d have to pay to get fake five-star reviews! But that’s not even the worst part. I think this little caveat is the most offensive and ridiculous detail in the whole article:
[Locke] also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.
Oh, John Locke, you tricky little man! So not only did you pay for positive reviews, but you paid for people to buy your books! That’s both dishonest, and a bit desperate seeming. Granted, you’re still a millionaire, and I’m sitting in a library trying to convince freshman to take translation classes, but well, I have my dignity. And when the Locketards invade the comments section below to tell me how much of an asshole I am, I’lll just smile and wonder how much you might have paid them for their allegiance.
1 This figure is exaggerated to approximate John Locke’s view of himself.
2 My term for fans of his drivel.
In this week’s podcast, we talk about the future of book reviewing, focusing on a few central questions: who reads book reviews? (A: definitely not my students), what is the function of the book review in today’s world?, is there a website/app that would be the ideal book review platform? We also digress into sports talk (as we do), with Tom explaining how he just found out about the new MLB playoff setup while I predict the winners of the Champions League quarterfinals. (A: Chelsea, Bayern Munchen, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.)Read More...
NPR is going all nationalist and public and polling their listeners on what they’d like to hear in terms of book reviews and book coverage:
What makes a book review worth reading? What type of books should NPR cover more? What do we write about too much? Who are you people, and what do you want?
As editors of the Arts section, my colleagues and I tend to think we know the answers to questions like these. But honestly, we’re just guessing, based on a combination of our preconceptions and stuff our spouses, moms and friends tell us (referred to in the news business as “gut instinct”).
So, as we start on a year-long project to expand and improve NPR’s books coverage, we thought we’d look past our own navels and invite some participation from you, our book-loving audience.
Take the online survey, and remember—every time you encourage NPR to review our books, a kitten gets its wings.
Critical Mass — the official blog of the National Book Critics Circle — always has great (though depressing) coverage about the decline of book reviews in America. And yesterday, they ran a piece by Mark Athitakis (Arts Editor at the Washington City Paper) on book reviewing in alt-weeklies that’s very cogent and interesting.
As he points out at the start, alt-weeklies are facing a lot of the same circulation and money issues that daily papers are. And the alt-weeklies — which I still think of as a steady outlet for reviews of non-mainstream books — are cutting back in books coverage as well. But the door still remains “slightly ajar” for a book critic to get into these papers, and his article has a number of recommendations to critics on how to enter said door.
The recommendation that I find most interesting is this one:
3. Zig When Everybody Else Is Zagging. Given the thinning of book-review sections at daily newspapers, alt-weeklies have a great opportunity to pick up the slack. (Alas and thank goodness, my local daily, the Washington Post, remains a bright light when it comes to book coverage.) Look at your local daily and see what they’re not doing.
Let me guess: Not a lot of coverage of books from local presses, especially ones from university presses that could easily have wider appeal. Probably few independent presses. Not much on books in translation. Or on graphic novels. And not a lot of fun: No imaginative roundups, no visual thinking, no attempts at literary treatments of the current news, no attempts at humor that go beyond being sagely droll.
And yet freelancers occasionally seem baffled, even offended, that I have no interest in running a review of a much publicized book. A straightforward 1,000-word review of Netherland, even a nicely turned one, is never going to appear in City Paper. I assume my readers don’t need another one of those.
Right on. This kind of diversity is exactly what we need more of. From a customer’s point of view, it seems like the book industry (which is actually bigger than ever) is collapsing in on itself, with only a dozen books at any point in time being read, discussed on NPR, reviewed widely, and displayed at bookstores. It’s my belief that we naturally want to resist this sort of narrowing, but that book trade economics make this difficult. Alt-weeklies are historically one of the places that help expand awareness about books and culture, and hopefully, even in this age of consolidation and shady buy-outs, they’ll continue to wave this flag.
This took place a few days ago, but The House of Mirth has a fantastic write up (complete with video!) of the CJR panel on the state of book reviews that took place last week.
Sounds like a lively panel—like this exchange between Carlin Romano (on the populist side) and Steve Wasserman (on the intellectual criticism side):
Now it was Wasserman’s turn. “When I hear the word elitism,” he said, “I reach for my revolver.” Romano: “That’s quite a role model.” Wasserman: “Well, I only reach for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Sifton: “That’s what Dr. Goebbels did, too.” We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis. All in fun, you might say, but Wasserman kept up his attack, accusing Romano of reverse snobbery. What he was prescribing was “criticism as baby talk.” And Osnos, too, was guilty of a category error. “Criticism is not a species of selling,” Wasserman scolded him. “It’s something entirely other.”
On a related note, the National Book Critics Circle event “The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century” also took place last week. Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading wasn’t able to attend, but pulled out a couple interesting points from Literary Saloon’s coverage.
Specifically, Scott was upset about Wasserman’s desire for the old days “when you could tell you were dealing with a crank from the appearance of the letters and even the envelopes from the disgruntled readers, and he actually said that one of the things that disturbed him about the Internet is how presentation no longer separates the cranks from the serious.” Which I agree is rubbish.
For anyone in the New York area, the National Book Critics Circle will be hosting a week-long symposium on the Future of Book Reviewing.
Officially entitled “The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century,” panel discussions will take place at Housing Works on Thursday, September 13th and Friday the 14th, with a Sunday event taking place at the Brooklyn Book Fair.
(I’m not sure Thursday through Sunday constitutes a week . . . possible there are more events that aren’t listed here.)
Some of the participants include Barbara Hoffert (Library Journal), Brigid Hughes (A Public Space), Jeffrey Lependorf (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses), Scott McLemee (Insiderhighered.com), John Freeman (NBCC president), Erica Wagner (Times (UK)), Jennifer Szalai (Harper’s), Steve Wasserman (Truthdig.com), and Dwight Garner (New York Times Book Review), Eric Banks (Bookforum), David Kipen (NEA), among others.
For anyone interested in book reviewing, this should be a great set of events.
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .