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.
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