Book community scandal: paid and fake reviews

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Well, it’s Wildcard Tuesday and as reluctant as I am to take up this topic, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a mystery community blogger NOT to report on the scandal du jour (or de semaine, or du mois, probably.)

The subject is paid and fake Amazon reviews, and the internet is burning up with outraged posts, petitions, and condemnations against several authors:

– Stephen Leather and Roger Ellory and Sam Millar for creating sockpuppet accounts to praise their own books and trash those of competitors.

– John Locke for paying for at least 300 Amazon reviews and then – what I personally find even more reprehensible – writing a book on “How I Sold a Million E Books in Five Months” and charging $8.99 for it, while OMMITTING the fact that he paid for at least 300 Amazon reviews, which surely had a great deal to do with his sales success. 

I’ve linked to some main articles below so you can catch up.

Go read here and here and here and here, and then if you feel like discussing, meet me back here.

There is a lot of sadness and discomfort mixed with my own outrage.

I like Roger Ellory very much as a person and I actually agree with his own reviews of his books, they’re some of the best crime fiction I’ve read in recent years.  Why he thought that he had to pump up his already stellar reputation by creating fake reviews and trashing other fine authors like Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham is beyond me.

Except that it’s not.

I have done many stupid, regrettable things in my life, and paid dearly for those things, too. Usually when I have been completely out of my mind with – something – grief over a dying parent, grief over the loss of a loved one or a loved project, fear over my financial situation, fear over just about anything.

As completely unchristian as I am I can’t help thinking of that little verse about “she who is without sin” and “casting the first stone.”

It’s very easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of  – well, anything, really, but publishing is what we’re talking about – and do stupid things we wouldn’t ordinarily condone or be caught dead doing ourselves.

When we can see other authors blatantly gaming the system: racking up success after success by faking reviews, publishing fan fiction that skirts or crosses the line of plagiarism which turns into a series of multimillion dollar bestsellers and a major movie deal, hiring other authors to write books for you and slapping your name on them while grossly underpaying the authors who actually WROTE the books – there’s a huge temptation to jump on one of those bandwagons because, hey, everyone’s doing it.  And while I’m able to flatly say that the above practices are wrong – what about tagging parties?  What about asking friends to bury one-star reviews by clicking “unhelpful” on Amazon?  Is that gaming the system?  Is it wrong?

BUT – even as I am remembering that I’m fully capable of doing stupid and condemnable things myself, I do very strongly believe that we authors have to police ourselves as a community.  We need to talk, to debate, to develop standards and be able to say when required: This is wrong, this is duplicitous, this is unacceptable.

Whether that will stop the behavior, I have no idea.

But I also believe authors are for the most part an empathetic and moral lot.  I really do believe that.  I hope that all of these authors who have been caught out and are being held up as examples will take all this furor and censure to heart, self-correct, make appropriate amends to anyone who has been wronged, and go on to use their influence to do better. Much better.

And I would hope that friends of authors who are drifting toward moral gray areas would be the first ones to speak up and say – WTF – what are you thinking?  Stop that shit NOW before you do somethiing you’ll regret for the rest of your life.. 

I SERIOUSLY hope that my author friends would step up and say it to me.

I hope we ALL will. Because we need to remember how easy it is to get caught up in the desperation of trying to make a living at this very tenuous profession and how easy it is to fall into behavior that serves no one.  We ALL need a little help from our friends.

So, ‘Rati, I have a lot of questions today. Were you aware of the blazing heat suddenly surrounding this issue of paid and fake reviews?  Are you feeling outrage about any of this behavior, and if so, or if not, what are you feeling? Do you believe that given all the success ladled on cheaters, you have to cheat to remain in the game?  Or do you believe in karma?  Or do you believe that a belief in karma is the modern opiate of the masses?

And here’s another question – who should be policing reviews and author behavior, if anyone?


55 thoughts on “Book community scandal: paid and fake reviews

  1. Phillip Thomas Duck

    It's sort of like the steroid epidemic in baseball. The pressure to attain the levels of success of others, knowing in your heart that they didn't get to their current level with sweat equity, but instead some bit of nefarious business, can be tempting. But everyone is doing it, you say. Well, first of all, everyone isn't. And the walk down that crooked path is good… Until you're caught. So, in the end, as my mother always said, "think it, don't do it."

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Phillip, your mother is brilliant! For sure.

    The steroids analogy is a good one, but I find that a little more excusable since young athletes are almost always pushed into that behavior when they're way too young to be making life-threatening choices like that themselves. I think we should be prosecuting parents and coaches who push those drugs on kids.

  3. Graeme K Talboys

    We all self-publicise. These days it is a necessity. But there is a line between standing up in plain view and saying: 'I wrote this I think you should give it a try', or asking your friends, if they liked the book (and a real friend will tell you if they didn't), to put in a good word; and hiding behind false identities or paying for off the peg reviews. Even worse than puffing your own work anonymously is using false identities to trash your 'competitors'. If you see it as competition, you have a lot to learn and it probably explains all the other behaviour. What I don't understand about it all is why waste time on all this when you could be writing? And if you can afford to pay for so many fake reviews, your writing must be doing well enough that you don't actually need fake reviews.

  4. Jim Winter

    I read Locke's book on ebook marketing and wondered how in the hell such an awful writer managed to sell 1 book, let alone millions. I also read SF writer Michael Hicks' book, who tried to be as polite as possible when dismissing Locke's assertions. Here's the difference. Hicks says up front he got lucky, that he sold almost nothing in the beginning, then was making three figures, then finally took off when he could afford to spend a little on raising his profile. Naturally, I was not surprised to learn that Locke basically cheated. He's a horrible writer getting far more attention than he deserves.

  5. David Corbett

    Lee Child, Denise MIna, Val McDermid, Stuart Neville, Mark Billingham, Laura Lippmann, Michael Connelly, Gordon Harries and a host of other writers — including Martyn Waites and me — have signed a letter condemning this practice and promising never to use it ourselves. If you'd like to add your name to this letter, you can so so here:

  6. Sarah W

    It doesn't surprise me that an author would feel tempted to start the reviews going, fill in a few empty stars, maybe correct by example a review that completely missed the point. But it's disappointing that these writers gave in – and for what, exactly?

    Maybe it's because I'm still unpublished and have no sales figures to worry over – or maybe I'm just naïve — but success 'earned' this way isn't success the way I measure it. Faked or store-bought reviews won't make me a better writer — they won't encourage me to write more, point out shortcomings I didn't know I had, or make me mad enough to want to prove 'em wrong.

    I'm not knocking reaching readers or making money, but this fakery is short-con, flash-in-the-pan stuff. And I'm not sure I'd give these authors' second books much of a chance. Certainly, I won't trust their written reviews.

    Don't know if that's karmic backlash or not, but the concept of karma never hurt anyone (pun probably intended) and sometimes it keeps me from gritting my teeth too hard.

    As for regulating author behavior, seems like the writing community + social networking is starting to do a pretty good job of ferreting out this kind of stuff. Which, come to think, seems a bit karmic…

  7. Alexandra sokoloff

    Graeme, I think the scary thing that some of us have realized is that those one star sabotage reviews do demonstrably affect.sales. So anyone with a beef can get revenge pretty easily. I think it's not just the author community but Amazon itself that needs to crack down.

  8. David Corbett


    I have to admit, on first reading of your post I felt a little rankled. I think this practice is so loathsome, so small-minded, so craven, so utterly chickenshit — and it has damaged good friends of mine whose writing I admire — that my sense of civility and compassion pretty much got pitched overboard.

    On second reading of your post, I calmed down, and I think you exhibit considerable even-handedness that I admit I lack at the moment.

    This practice isn't just deplorable. It's disgusting. There's a smallness of spirit to it that makes my skin crawl. It's Dickensian in its meagerness — I picture Uriah Heep sitting up until 3 AM writing poison reviews of the people who've wounded his poor, put-upon, gaseously inflated sense of his own talent.

    It's part of the Internet's dark side, the anonymity that turns free speech into a sewer, and one more expression of what happens when we let commercial considerations outweigh artistic ones.

    Lofty bullshit? Sue me.

    I appreciate your attempt to strike a more understanding tone. But how will we as writers police this kind of thing? By being as full-throated and uncompromising in our condemnation as possible, never using such practices ourselves, and icing out those who do.

    RJ Ellory, Sam MIllar, John Locke (if that's his real name, I'll puke) and the rest of the sock puppet brigade used to belong to a community. Now they're outcasts.

    As they should be.

    Can I understand their behavior? I've defended murderers. I can understand just about anything.

    Would I do this sort of thing myself? I don't even pay enough attention to my reviews on amazon to bother, which explains a lot about my career, I suppose.

    But I don't want to be the sniveling pisspot who wakes up one morning and finds that my fellow writers have gone to the Daily Telegraph with the pikes and torches and boiling pitch.

    In the end, we all have to live with who we are. That includes what we write.

  9. Alexandra sokoloff

    Sure, David, I could have phrased it all exactly the same way you did and with just as much outrage, but when I sat down to write last.night I remembered that I can't police anyone else if I'm not policing myself first. I say come together as a community with indignation, certainly,. But not RIGHTEOUS indignation.

  10. Alexandra sokoloff

    Thanks for the link, Gordon, and I hope everyone here will not only read the blog but buy one of Stuarts books today in a show of support. Believe me, you won't be sorry… He's a wonderful, quirky writer

  11. Alexandra sokoloff

    Thanks for the link, Gordon, and I hope everyone here will not only read the blog,, but also buy one of a few of Stuarts books in support today. You won't be sorry.. He's a wonderful, quirky writer.

  12. Martyn Waites

    Well . . . I feel like I've said enough on this already having been if not in the thick of it then certainly at one remove from it due to my close friendship with a lot of the writers and agents directly involved and consequently making my mouth go, of course. And both Linda and I signed the letter.

    So my take is probably the same as everyone else's. Bigging up your own work – I can understand. We all have to self-promote. And if we won't do it, often no one else will. Taking out false names in order to praise yourself as a genius – that just makes you look vain, shallow, laughable and ultimately pathetic. But deliberately trying to destroy another writer's career pseudonymously – no. Never. David said it perfectly – do that and you're an outcast of the community.

    So let's try and look beyond this. Sean Chercover – who's a lovely bloke and a great writer – summed it up succinctly: We're a great community. Let's not let the actions of a few sociopaths destroy that.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I knew this would be the topic of discussion here on Murderati this week. I, too, was shocked when I read about Roger's actions this weekend. And, thank you David for the link to that letter – I added my name to it as well.
    There's absolutely no reason why an author as talented as Roger should feel he needs to "stack the cards" in his favor by producing fake reviews. It's beyond me that he felt it necessary to criticize the works of other wonderful authors – his peers.
    Maybe it's because I spent time as a screenwriter in the film industry, but I feel that we, as writers, cannot influence public opinion through our own marketing efforts. We can raise awareness of our work and gain a wider audience, but we cannot create a perspective about our work that doesn't exist through the work itself. My approach has always been to do my best and then get the work out there. Whatever comes, comes. My work will either have an impact or it won't. And sometimes that impact might take a long time to occur.
    I'm very happy to say that I've never written a fake review of my own work. And I've never told anyone I know what to write on an Amazon review. My friends can trash my work if they want to. Fortunately, I've been blessed with wonderful friends who have, on their own, written wonderful reviews, and I've made new friends from people I didn't know who read my work and felt compelled to leave wonderful reviews. I also had some terrible, terrible reviews on the short story prequel that I wrote for Boulevard – something I wrote between publishing Boulevard and Beat. Most people pretty much hated the short story. I took my lumps and never felt compelled to pen a fake review supporting it. Ultimately, I took the story off my website and stopped offering it for free on Amazon. You win some and you lose some. You can't appeal to everyone.
    I'm glad this has become a topic of discussion – this "sock-puppet" stuff. I never knew there was a name for it until now. I hope we, as a community, can police ourselves. We're a better lot than that. I truly believe we're a family – the best there is. We're in this together.

  14. Alexandra sokoloff

    Thanks for the link, Gordon, and I hope everyone here will not only read the blog,, but also buy one of a few of Stuarts books in support today. You won't be sorry.. He's a wonderful, quirky writer.

  15. David Corbett

    Gordon Harries wanted to post this, but was having problems with Squarespace. I'm posting it for him:

    When we drafted the letter to the Telegraph we were very, very aware that we weren't the ethics police. We were keenly aware that we have no real power to speak to. That's why the letter is a statement of solidarity among writers, a pledge to not partake in these virtueless practices and a request for readers to not accept this behavior.

  16. David Corbett

    I'm not righteous, Alex, I'm loyal — a virtue of mine you singled out once upon a time on this blog. Friends of mine have been damaged by these losers. I am not even-handed in my defense of my friends. I'll go to the wall for them. If you want to call me names for that, I can live with it.

  17. Allison Davis

    Is that where "stuff a sock in it" came from? Ok, in all seriousness, the solution is exactly what happened: transparency. They want to praise themselves, we should expose it to the extent we know about it, and let the public judge from there. How we expose it, well this came to light, and one would hope that other attempts would also get exposed. On Twitter, some accounts were suspended because the competitors figured out that if they reported spam often enough they could get a writer kicked off of Twitter. Ah, you give someone a new tool and they figure out how to turn it into a weapon. Part of what we do as crime writers is get into the mind of the bad guy…not unlike here. You can't cheat and have it work. Karma will bite you on the ass. Or you will be exposed nakedly the fool that you are. The rest of us, well, good writing wins out, right?

  18. Mette

    I read about RJ Ellory others and while I can't say that it is shocking to think that someone would do something like that, it is still a sad day in terms of ethics and common decency.

    When you think of paparrazzi or newspapers putting wire taps on phones to get ahead, of all of the underhanded misinformation and lies being spread in political advertising today, "doctor recommended" products, the Wall Street 1%ers who toppled the economy or something as common as the people who cut ahead in line at the grocery store or in traffic, it shows there are people for whom greed is the number one motivator in all sectors and it sadly almost normalizes this type of behavior. It creates a world where we cannot trust what we are told, what we read and what we see and so we learn to take things with a grain of salt.

    The truly despicable part of all of this is the sabotage of his fellow authors. He bumped up his own reviews – it stinks, it is immoral and it shouldn't be done, but at least he wasn't actively hurting anyone. By giving out the bad, one star reviews to the others, he acted maliciously. It is the lowest, scummiest thing a person can do because he betrayed a trust and he is going to have to live with that knowledge, but the sad thing is that a person who is capable of something like that probably won't care. At best, the community can shame him into stepping back into the moral black and his book sales may go down as the public condemns him. It happened with Chris Brown after he beat Rihanna. Public outrage did it's thing. But the public has a short memory and in the case of Chris Brown, he made his comeback, is a Grammy winner, and is as successful as ever. So for Mr. Ellory and his like, it seems all he has to do is wait it out for a little while and maybe even be more devious next time. Though hopefully, this will instead teach him and others a lesson.

    That letter many of you have signed is a such a wonderful idea because it shows the public that there are people who can be trusted, who are true in their work. The letter expresses so well how things should be everywhere. That we should all be able to trust that we will be met with honesty and integrity.

  19. David Corbett

    I'm not righteous, Alex, I'm loyal — a virtue you singled out as one of my best traits on this very blog. Some of my good friends have been damaged by these losers, and I'm not even-handed in my defense of my friends. I'll go to the wall for them. That too is community.

  20. Denise D. Young

    When I first heard about these stories, I wished I was The Flash so I could run out to the Grand Canyon and scream my lungs out (if anyone out there watches Big Bang Theory, hopefully you'll get the Sheldon Cooper reference there). I get that this is a hard business. The industry is highly competitive and we all want to stand out. It's easy to get lost in the numbers–Klout scores, sales rankings, reviews, etc. Writers have to work hard to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, etc. Most of us don't have a guarantee of a steady paycheck from our work; we rely on royalties.

    But it's wrong for us to out-and-out lie to our readers. Writing a review of our own book to boost sales is lying. Paying for reviews violates an assumption that what people are reading is an honest and accurate review of a book. There are also ethical gray areas, and as a community of writers, we are responsible for establishing the best practices, ideals, and code of conduct that govern our industry. (The Public Relations Society of America, for example, has a code of ethics that members agree to follow .) It's true that no one is perfect, but there's no excuse for deceiving people who put their trust in us. Thanks for starting a good conversation about this subject within the writing community.

  21. KDJames

    I don't understand the idea that other writers are competition. I really don't. That just doesn't even make sense and I suspect there must be some strange dark forces at work in a person's mind to compel them to attack other writers, anonymously or not. I can't find an excuse for something I find contemptible, nor do I want to. But neither can I judge actions I don't understand.

    That aside and on the other issues of self-promotion, Alex, I'm with you on the limiting of "righteous" anger. But maybe not for the same reason, or not solely that.

    There's so much pressure to commit acts of online marketing — it's simply not true that *all* you have to do is write a damn good book, or more of them would be bestsellers — it's not difficult to see how a writer could step across a line. But where do we draw that line? I think Barry Eisler does a good job of pointing out some of the gray areas in his recent post. Should I provide a link, or do you all know where to find him?

    [Here: ]

    What I find interesting, and maybe revealing, is the absolute stunned outrage over some of this nonsense. The deceptive efforts to get positive attention are sad and pathetic, and the recent offerings of near-plagiarism are scornworthy at best, but it's hard for me to adopt the same over-the-top self-righteous anger that others apparently feel.

    Is the outrage because writers did this? Or that when caught they don't appear to be particularly contrite? Or is it because it seems to have been effective? Would everyone be so up in arms if these writers hadn't sold a crap ton of books and made gobs of money?

    I'm not condoning what is clearly bad behaviour, it's at the wrong end of that sliding scale and I can't imagine sinking that low, but I think there's an element of financial (albeit not professional) envy going on here that I haven't seen anyone else address. And I think, as long as we're trying to be all self-policing and self-aware in our judgment here, it's worth acknowledging.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry guys, I'm having trouble posting today. Trying again, somewhere else. Gordon, thanks for the link. I hope everyone here not only clicks through to read the blog, but buys one or a few of Stuart MacBride's books in support. You won't be sorry, he's a wonderful, quirky dark writer.

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry guys, I'm having trouble posting today. Trying again, somewhere else. Gordon, thanks for the link. I hope everyone here not only clicks through to read the blog, but buys one or a few of Stuart MacBride's books in support. You won't be sorry, he's a wonderful, quirky dark writer.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry guys, I'm having trouble posting today. Trying again, somewhere else. Gordon, thanks for the link. I hope everyone here not only clicks through to read the blog, but buys one or a few of Stuart MacBride's books in support. You won't be sorry, he's a wonderful, quirky dark writer.

  25. Lisa Alber

    Every industry has its special brand of smoke and mirrors publicity and marketing ploys, right? Outsiders (for us, the average reader) don't see it. So I'm resigned that the author biz is catching up. Sad, but true.

    The thing is–any person or entity trying to sell something is a cheater. All those late night infomercials? All the pharmaceutical companies touting their latest miracles? Real estate agents, Hollywood, you name it? So what we're seeing within our writing community is a microcosm of the bigger sleazy picture in the name of the all mighty dollar.

    HOWever, this feels more scandalous because it's about books and writing–it's art (or if not art at least a creative endeavor) and somehow those within any creative art should be above such things.

    I wasn't too surprised about Locke buying reviews. Every industry has that in one way or another.

    I was peeved about Ellory posting fake good reviews. That's bad form, but it doesn't hurt anyone else.

    I was shocked that Ellory would malign his felllow writers. I don't care about the "we all do stupid things at times" thought…Posting fake good reviews is a stupid thing, but purposely hurting others is something altogether different. That's borderline sociopathic.

    Unfortunately, in answer to your question–

    Do you believe that given all the success ladled on cheaters, you have to cheat to remain in the game?

    –I do believe we have to cheat a little, even if it's only, like you say, asking our friends to click "unhelpful" on our behalves. Your question got me thinking about Lance and the doping scandal. We all know that the majority of cyclists dope to keep the playing level even.

    To what extent do we need to keep our playing levels even? Ideally, a fabulous novel is all we'd need…but…consumers respond to smoke and mirrors, quality be damned.

    (WOW, cynical today, Lisa?)

    Karma? Hmmm…Nah. It's an opiate I often partake in, but <meh> who knows?

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, for me, coming from screenwriting adds another layer of excruciating to an already excruciating situation. Screenwriters are much more apt to sabotage, steal, and trash each other's work than authors are – the ruthlessly competitive nature of the business has made cage fighting part of the ethos. I don't ever want to see that happening with authors, but it's because of what I've seen with screenwriters that I don't want to just shun bad behavior. I agree completely with the petition, will sign as soon as I get to a more stable computer situation. But I think it's also more complicated than that.

  27. David Corbett


    Thanks for the link to Barry's post. He makes a number of well-reasoned points — none more so than about the nexus between anger and righteousness, and the need to reflect before one pops off. He's right, and I've taken that to heart.

    However, if you'd read any of these pseudonymous negative reviews, and if you knew the people they trashed, savaged, and mocked, I think your outrage might be closer to redlining as well.

    And it's been going on for four years, and the mea culpas couldn't be more tepid.

    So yeah, I'm righteously pissed, and maybe I should cool my jets. But when someone I care about gets treated this shabbily by cowards, I don't stop to reflect. My Irish gets the better of my inner Buddha.

  28. KDJames

    David, you're right that this doesn't hit home for me on as personal a level as it does for you (no, I haven't read the reviews and don't care to, nor do I know the writers involved), and I'm not suggesting you or anyone else shouldn't express whatever degree of anger you feel. I'm angry too. And I do think the negativity is an issue on a whole different level than the deceptive self-aggrandizement. I feel betrayed that anyone calling himself a writer would do such a thing.

    I think it's precisely because I'm a bit removed from it that I hesitate to become outraged. Or at least to express it publicly. I don't know even one side of the story, let alone however many other sides there might or might not be. Somehow I doubt we ever will.

    But I do know none of us is without flaw or fault in some aspect of our character. Condemning a man's actions is different from condemning the man. And I've seen it happen too many times on the internet that a mob forms and deliberately, with gleeful righteous outrage, sets out to destroy a person far beyond the scope of their transgression. In this case, particularly, the annihilation of one writer for the crime of attempting to destroy another is too much hypocrisy for me to accept with a clear conscience.

    I'm NOT saying you or anyone else here is trying to do that, or even suggesting it. But I've seen it happen with less provocation than the comments here. We can't stop others from behaving badly. We can only resolve to comport ourselves differently.

    You're a good and loyal friend. I've been known to defend my friends just as vehemently, even if it usually takes the form of protecting them from their own self-directed negativity. Sigh.

  29. JD Rhoades

    Alex! You spoke French! /Gomez Addams

    I've long been a staunch proponent of the idea that if you're going to trash somebody, you should have the balls to do it under your own name. All that said, I think it's overstating the case that a bad sock puppet review is going to "destroy" an author's career any more than any one bad review could. It's just sad and pathetic. Also, the short term gain to this sort of thing is far outweighed by the long term damage to the credibility of online reviews, which let's face it, have enough credibility issues as it is.

  30. David Corbett


    I thought this was particularly insightful: "the annihilation of one writer for the crime of attempting to destroy another is too much hypocrisy for me to accept with a clear conscience."

    That struck home, and I've taken it to heart.

    But I'm not trying to ruin RJ Ellory, and as angry as others are, I don't think writers like Lee Child, Denise Mina, MIchael Connelly etc are out to ruin anyone either.

    This isn't the unruly mob (Barry Eisler) or pack of masturbators (Jake Konrath) it's being made out to be. (Speaking of over-reacting.) I think Ellory and Sam Millar have done an excellent job of destroying themselves.

    What's happening now, to use a phrase employed by one of the commenters on Barry's site, is "a teachable moment." This is the first stage of what may or may not be a shift in how the profession views and uses the internet. The situation is very much in flux, and may either lead to some sort of galvanizing consensus or peter out into nothing but a pointless gesture. I don't know. But my position was simple: My friends were attacked in a cowardly fashion and I was asked to stand with them. I did so gladly, immediately, and without reservation.

    Jake Konrath compares me to someone jerking off in the shower. That's his right. I'll lose exactly no sleep over that.

  31. David Corbett

    Dusty: Good to see hear from you, and well said, especially this:

    "Also, the short term gain to this sort of thing is far outweighed by the long term damage to the credibility of online reviews, which let's face it, have enough credibility issues as it is."

    Beyond the personal element, for me this is the big issue. How poisoned does the well have to be before readers just decide: Know what, I'd rather do something else then get sucked into this hellhole? Books aren't widgets. They're supposed to mean something in the most fundamental sense. When they just become one more part of the overall con job, the game's over. Big Brother wins.

  32. KDJames

    David, I don't think other writers are out to ruin anyone either, and certainly not the ones you mentioned. Didn't mean to imply that. At all. But I think we're a bit naive if we think it's only writers who are reading this blog or other comments made elsewhere on the internet. I assume the writers mentioned have fans who are not writers (or themselves) and who might see the outrage as a call to action.

    JD, I agree. It has become grating to see "credibility" and "online reviews" in the same sentence. Why should anyone even bother anymore if they're so meaningless.

    Ach, I'm becoming too cynical, discussing this. Going to go write something amazing as an antidote.

  33. Nicole

    Hi. I am a new book reviewer. I started about a year or so ago for various websites. And the problem I have had is about the honesty in the review. How honest do I be as a new reviewer who would like to be where you are having someone review my book and give me that review? So I asked a trusted source and the source was like you want to start out as you mean to go on. Be honest. This way, people will trust you with what you say. Even the others that I ask whose opinion I trust said the same thing. Be honest in your reviews. Let them know why the review they are getting is a low review. But I also know for all of those that I have worked on which is not that many, they request that if you have to give a review of a 2 or lower to please let them know and they will hold off on your review until such time as someone else will review it. AS for getting paid for your book review a group that I now write sometimes offers payment in cash. Most times though its gift cards or other things along with a free copy of the book. Personally for me, I don't mind getting paid for the book review. I recently asked someone in facebook about it. And what he said paraphrased is that you don't really pay for a book review but he did say that what I thought of asking for wasn't that bad. I am not sure which is better. I read every book that I get and even if I am unable to give a good review, I do tell them why. I also per the I guess law let the reader know that I am not receiving compensation if I am not, and that I did not pay for the book if I did not. This is a disclosure I understand that is required. I guess people can get in trouble otherwise. So hopefully, the practice that people are discussing and the practice that they are doing the book review mill won't continue. And people will actually be employed by say a newspaper, write for a blog that employs them or is requested by the author. I really got some new information from this article.

  34. Alexandra Sokoloff

    "Condemning a man's actions is different from condemning the man."

    KD, I agree. I'm not in any way saying that these actions weren't and aren't reprehensible. But I don't think it's compassionate OR practical to respond with – So we shun you forever.

    I can tell you, that never worked in the Writers Guild (screenwriters union).

    The petition is a positive action – authors pledging not to engage in false reviews ourselves. Well, good, but most of us never would have, anyway. Instead of STARTING with telling these guys: We shun you forever – how about starting with something like – Hey guys, you fucked up royally. What are you doing to do to make it right?

    Maybe none of these people care about what they did, only about being caught. I can't personally make that call. (And I certainly can't make the call about whether or not any of them are sociopaths.) I'd like to see what they might do to make up for all of it.

    At least that gives half a chance of redemptive action. Yeah, I want to believe in redemption, but also, I'm really looking for some way for some practical good to come out of it. Because authors aren't the only ones engaging in vituperative and sabotaging behavior. Maybe the only way to get some hold over that is to pressure Amazon and other entities to ban anonymous reviews.

    Just ideas. Because David's right, we're at a crossroads, and there are decisions to be made.

  35. Gordon Harries

    Can I just mention that no one involved in the writing of this letter constructed it to be a character or career assassination of anykind? The examples used were very recent and very public and not to name those responsible (which was a big decision, trust me.) would have rendered the document toothless from the first paragraph on down.

    All of the writers who signed love writers, there’s no great joy in being attacked by one of your own or feeling like you have to stand against one of your own. Which is why the focus of the statement was on the central issue at play: that the ‘system’ as it currently stands invites this kind of fraudulent behaviour.

    The statement was also never intended as a call to arms, which is why it ends on a call to solidarity. I believe that the reputation that the crime fiction community enjoys as one of the most generous on the internet is warranted and wanted to remind people of that.

    Speaking purely for myself, of course.

  36. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gordon, I'm trying to catch up on this discussion (and having a hellish time posting today), and I hope you're not interpreting my previous comment as being critical of the petition AT ALL. I'm saying yes, that is a great action to start with, full stop.

    And then I was responding to the calling for shunning – which I don't agree with as a FIRST action, not just because I don't agree but because I know from experience it is NOT PRACTICAL.

  37. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, it's kind of hard to explain but you're allowed to "tag" your book on Amazon with up to 15 descriptive words or phrases (scroll down toward the bottom of any book pages to see the tags) and those tags put the books on lists that are one of Amazon's helpful tools to steer buyers toward books. The more tags, the higher up on those lists a book will be. So groups of authors get together, virtually, to tag each other's books and push the book higher in ranking on those tag lists. Does that make sense?

  38. David Corbett

    One more kudo for KD: I loved this:

    Going to go write something amazing as an antidote.

    Good for you! I'm beginning to think of this as The Day No One Wrote Squat. God knows my output today was laughable.

    Alex: Thanks again for bringing this up. Obviously, it's a hot topic. But I think you and Dusty put your fingers on the way we need to look at it going into the future. The web has provided an incredible opportunity for writers. If we gum that up, we've only got ourselves to blame. Honesty matters. Trust matters. It's part of the bond we build with our readers. Whatever damages that trust hurts all of us.

    There's not going to be any quick or easy fix. Every solution comes with its own unique problems.

    But I do think that identifying and denouncing not just the practice but those who engaged in it has its value. What else do we have? There's no court to prosecute this, no rules of procedure, no damages, no redress. Roger's had his chance to make good on this. He issued a "lapse of judgment" apology many find wanting. Millar has been silent. Should that be enough?

    If some of those attacking Ellory and Millar go overboard, they should be called on it — including me. I've learned a lot today listening to you and KD. But if anything should discourage this practice, it's what's happening to those two right now. God, I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

    Of course, that's not the only reason I wouldn't do what they did. But that's a longer discussion and I've already spent far too much time on this today.

  39. KDJames

    Gordon, now I feel the need to clarify: none of my comments were directed at you or the petition or anyone who was involved in crafting it. If they were, I would have just come right out and said so. I'm not known for tact. I have great respect and affection for the writers in this community. And their generosity. And wisdom. I apologize if my comments indicated otherwise.

    But your voices are not the only ones being heard in various corners of the internet and some of what I'm hearing is disturbing and unfortunate. Sometimes it's best to ignore that kind of thing, and maybe this is one of those instances, but sometimes it's better to address it. Murderati has always been a safe place for respectful discussion and dissenting opinion and uncomfortable topics. I hope it will remain so.

    I too hope something positive can be gained from this discussion, even though I'm disheartened that there's even a need to have it. I think one immediate and lasting result is that a handful of writers have taken what is already a lonely profession and, by their bad behaviour, made it inexpressibly lonelier for themselves.

  40. Dave Zeltserman


    Thanks for this well-written and thoughtful blog post. Excellent job.

    I think what strikes a nerve so much in these recent incidents is that as Amazon becomes the biggest player for us, it's discouraging to see that they seem to encourage and reward tactics like paying for reviews. If Amazon would come out with a statement regarding this stuff, and promise to work towards shutting down this type of gaming and create a fairer playing ground, I think a lot of this angst we're feeling would go away..

    Regarding Sam Millar, according to this BBC article, he states he hasn't engaged in this sock puppetry behavior, and unless I see evidence otherwise I'm going with innocent until proven guilty.

    Barry Eisler also has an interesting blog post where, among other things he wrestles with the ethical nature of blurbing. Blurbing books without reading, or at best, skimming, is a long held tradition in our field. I'm sure most of us chuckled when we read the quote from the late Robert B. Parker when he'd be ask whether he'd read a book for a blurb and he'd reply "one or the other". But when you think about it, is it really any less dishonest than buying reviews from a review mill or the sock puppetry nonsense? These fake blurbs intentionally mislead readers and they game the system in that they help influence bookstores to carry books and reviewers decisions on whether to review a book. While I think the recent statement to condemn sock puppetry stuff and paid reviews is a good step in the right direction, it was an easy step, and something more worthwhile would be taking a hard look at common practices and admitting that some of them are every bit as unethical as what we're condemning. If we're going to expect indie authors to act more ethically then we should set a better example as opposed to simply putting out these easy and statements while ignoring long practiced but still questionable behavior.

  41. Pari Noskin

    I believe in karma, Alex.
    I also believe that stupidity is always exposed, or exposes itself, in the end.

    My attitude toward other writers is that — as many others have said — we're all in this together. That said, I don't admire people who feel compelled to bring others down for their own gain.

    I also don't believe in the old PR adage that any PR is good PR. It's simply not true. Once people stop trusting you and your word, you're just another schill.

  42. Gordon Harries

    Guys, it’s pretty late here and the comments system here has been giving me grief all day, so I’m going to post this comment and get whilst the getting’s good..

    Alex/KD: No, I didn’t think that you mean meant me/wished to cause offence. I just wanted to state a few things about the letter (from my perspective) about the way our actions are being perceived –by some—on-line and possibly here. It was just a bit of housekeeping.

    Hope that’s okay.

    And with that, I’m off to bed. See you all back here tomorrow for David’s piece, which I’m informed will be silly. A bit of levity couldn’t hurt right now, could it?

  43. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Dave – I agree, I hope Amazon will do something.

    I'm not so sure I agree with what you're saying about fake blurbs, though. Oh, I completely agree that it's wrong and shouldn't be done, but most of the authors I know well READ the books they blurb. Which doesn't seem a huge stretch – authors are avid readers as well as writers. Since my own experience is MOSTLY that authors won't blurb a book they haven't read, and personally I don't do it, I don't know how widespread the practice really is. But yes, it should be pointed out that it's not ethical.

  44. Julie


    I'm sorry to read that some authors need to resort to these tactics to sell their books. As a mystery reader, I try to overlook the reviews but sometimes you can't help but notice the four and five star reviews. And I have read books with five star ratings and have been sorely disappointed. When that happens, I won't spend money on that author again.

    But what I find even more revolting is that some of these authors critiqued other writers and gave them terrible reviews. Another very successful writer comes to mind. He/she made nasty comments about another's books. Why? This author makes millions and doesn't need to share negative comments.

    Personally, I feel that what one dishes out will be returned. Karma may be slow in arriving but may leave an indelible mark.

  45. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Julie, I was born and raised in California, so obviously I believe in karma! But I do wonder sometimes if it's just like the notion of hell – wishful thinking for people who want to believe there's such a thing as comeuppance.

    Sometimes there really doesn't seem to be.

  46. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Julie, I was born and raised in California so obviously I believe in karma! But I do wonder sometimes if it's just like the notion of hell – wishful thinking for people who want to believe there's such a thing as comeuppance.

    Sometimes there really doesn't seem to be.

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